Story By: BRANT JAMES / INDYCAR – INDIANAPOLIS, IN – Ed Carpenter made news this offseason by deciding to field a car for Danica Patrick in what is slated to be her racing farewell in the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. He made more news on Sunday for fielding the car for the pole winner of the 102nd running.
This one, he got to drive.
The Indianapolis resident and blood-invested Verizon IndyCar Series driver/owner blitzed the Fast Nine Shootout at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to win his third pole for open-wheel racing’s grandest spectacle. Carpenter is just the 10th driver to collect three or more Indy 500 poles in the century-plus history of the illustrious race.
Carpenter, who races the ovals portion of the schedule in his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, covered the 2.5-mile speedway with a four-lap average of 229.618 mph to claim the Verizon P1 Award. He unseated runner-up Simon Pagenaud (228.761), who had claimed the pole provisionally in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet just before Carpenter. Will Power, in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet (228.607), completed the front row.
Pagenaud and Power’s teammate and defending series champion, Josef Newgarden, qualified fourth, followed by Sebastien Bourdais (an Indy 500-best fifth), Ed Carpenter Racing drivers Spencer Pigot and Patrick, Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon.
“That first lap blew my mind,” Carpenter said of a 230.088-mph trip around the oval, noting that this pole might be his most important because of the characteristics of the new universal aerodynamic body kit being utilized by all teams this season.
“I figured we could run a 229 based on last night,” Carpenter added, referring to the 228.692-mph four-lap run that had him second in first-day qualifying on Saturday. “My run last night wasn’t very good. The car wasn’t nearly as good as we have been. I knew we had more left, but I wasn’t expecting a 230. The whole ECR team, especially the guys on the (No.) 20 car, they put so much love into this car.”
Of his poles at IMS, he added, “this one, believe it or not, came the easiest.”
It also came with great fanfare from sun-drenched crowd, as well as Pigot and Patrick, who surrounded Carpenter on pit road after it became apparent that Castroneves – the final qualifier after Carpenter – would not approach their boss’ effort.
Patrick marveled at Carpenter’s ability to qualify “on the pole by a mile and racing in the race” and having “been really good at managing both” that aspect of his career with team ownership.
“How about Ed?” she pondered. “That’s awesome. He deserves it. He works really hard, and they pushed hard in practice to get ready to sit on the pole.”
Carpenter has been speedy throughout the weekend, but his performance was more indicative of the quality of his race car, Power said.
“You get a 5-mph gust of wind and … it makes a big difference,” Power said. “I saw that with Helio. You look at the data, his speed (Saturday) was all from a gust of wind on the back of the straight, or just a tower wind. That’s not what made Ed fast. He had a very good car and did a great job.”
Now Carpenter, who has a career-best finish of fifth at Indianapolis in 2008, has a race to run.
“We certainly have a car that’s fast enough to run up front,” said Carpenter, who finished 10th and 27th, respectively, after winning the pole in 2013 and 2014, “and the way it’s been driving all week, I feel like we have a good enough handling car on long runs to be in a good position to be a factor if we can go out and execute on a sound strategy.”
Carpenter’s run capped a fluid day of movement throughout the field that began with setting starting spots 10 through 33.
James Davison, who crashed in practice on Friday and posted the 33rd-best qualifying speed (224.798) on Saturday during bump day, leaped to 19th on Sunday, improving his Foyt with Byrd/Hollinger/Belardi No. 33 Jonathan Byrd’s 502 East Chevrolet to 226.255 mph.
Dale Coyne Racing rookie Zachary Claman De Melo, a road course specialist pressed into duty in the No. 19 Paysafe Honda for the Indianapolis 500 when Pietro Fittipaldi was injured in a World Endurance Challenge crash at Belgium, improved from 26th on Saturday to 13th in final qualifying. Fastest rookie honors, however, went to AJ Foyt Racing’s Matheus “Matt” Leist, who qualified 11th (227.571 mph) just behind teammate and 2013 Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan.
Defending race winner Takuma Sato improved from 29th to 16th at for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, but positions were volatile in both directions on Sunday. Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, winner of the 2016 Indianapolis 500, plummeted in an adventurous four laps that saw numerous close encounters with the retaining wall. Tenth best on Saturday (227.561), just 0.049 of a second from qualifying for the Fast Nine Shootout, Rossi posted an average of 224.935 mph on Sunday to slump to a 32nd place, relegated to a last-row starting slot.
Rossi said he was unsure what went wrong, but noted, “You just don’t have a fall-off in performance like that.
“We thought we were fighting for a position on Row 4. Now we’re on the last row,” he said.
Carpenter on the pole, Pigot with a career-best start in any Verizon IndyCar Series race and Patrick snug near the front in what is scheduled to be her final professional race made for a satisfying day for the driver/owner. Carpenter noted that his employees in the team’s Indianapolis shop simplified his duties this month so he could focus on driving the car.
“They put up a sign at the beginning of May that said, ‘You’re not the boss anymore,’” he said with a grin.
Carpenter seemed very much in charge on Sunday.