Column By: JEFF OLSON / INDYCAR – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – In a sense, the most frightening four laps of Alexander Rossi’s career could be seen as a blessing.
For one, he kept an ill-handling car off the wall during a wild four-lap session Sunday that sent him from a possible 10th-place starting position to the back row for the start of the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Also, the problem didn’t happen Saturday, when it could have cost him a spot in the race.
Calling it a “fundamental” malfunction, Rossi – who nearly made it into the fast nine Saturday – recorded a four-lap average of 224.935 mph Sunday in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda that sent him back to the 32nd starting position in the 33-car field for the May 27 race.
“It was probably the most terrifying four laps I’ve ever done,” Rossi said. “It was everything. I just got out of the car, so it’s impossible to diagnose exactly what happened. From about halfway through Lap 1, it was about just bringing the car back. Thank God we weren’t under threat to not be in the race, so it didn’t really matter.”
Rossi’s troubles assisted A.J. Foyt Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist, who secured the 10th- and 11th-place starting positions, respectively. Kanaan, who had the 11th-fastest average during Saturday’s bump day qualifying session, compared his flawless run Sunday to his pole-winning effort in 2005.
“We nailed everything,” Kanaan said of his No. 14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet. “That was what we had to do yesterday, but we didn’t, and not because it was our fault. We predicted it. I knew exactly what to do with my tools in the car.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Rossi was relieved just to bring the Andretti Autosport car back to the pits. On Saturday, Rossi narrowly missed bumping Danica Patrick from the fast nine, missing by just 0.0997 of a second over four laps. On Sunday, he missed the wall by inches on more than one occasion.
“Honestly, it takes a whole hell of a lot of pressure off,” Rossi said. “I can’t go backward. We know we have a fast race car. We didn’t obviously qualify there on performance after having missed the fast nine by a couple of hundredths yesterday. We’ll work tomorrow in the final race-running practice and fine-tune what we have and hopefully pass a lot of cars.”
The third-to-last driver to make an attempt during Sunday’s Group 1 qualifying session, which determined the 10th through 33rd positions, Leist clocked a four-lap average of 227.571 mph in the No. 4 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet. Afterward, Leist credited Foyt, the four-time Indy 500 winner, and Kanaan, who won the race in 2013, for their advice.
“They were like, ‘Kid, you’ve just got to stay relaxed,’” said Leist, a 19-year-old rookie from Brazil. “‘You’ve just got to finish qualifying. … This is our advice to you.’ That’s what I did. I just brought the car home, and now we are racing next week.”
Kanaan, 43, came out next and topped his teammate’s average, then praised Leist’s effort and approach.
“I remember when I was 19,” Kanaan said. “I was really dumb. I wasn’t that smart. I don’t think I would be doing as good as he is right now. He’s a very smart kid. He listens a lot. He knows what he wants. I’m proud of him. I’m really proud of him. We have a future now with this team.
“I’m not at the beginning of my career, so A.J. can have some continuity once I decide not to do this anymore. It makes me really proud.”
Next up was Rossi, who struggled almost from the start of his warmup lap. By his second timed lap, it became clear he was in trouble.
“I knew that we were going to be toward the back,” Rossi said. “That’s the way things go sometimes. Like I said, thankfully it didn’t happen yesterday.”
For Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner, winning from the back isn’t impossible, but it will be far trickier than starting in the fourth row. No one has won the Indy 500 from farther back than the 28th starting position.
Rossi said he’ll rely on teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will start 12th and 14th, respectively, as well as team owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta and racing legend Mario Andretti, for advice.
“I will have the best view in the world,” Rossi joked. “I don’t really have a mindset or a strategy. I have a lot of (teammates and advisors) who have a lot of races here, sometimes starting in the front and sometimes starting in the back. I’m talking with Ryan and Marco and Bryan and Michael and Mario – it just goes on and on. At the end of the day, certainly I won’t be winning anything on Lap 1. It will just be about picking up on other people’s mistakes. Fortunately, we have a fast race car.”
Ed Carpenter won the pole position with a four-lap average of 229.618 mph. Simon Pagenaud will start second, with Will Power third.