INDIANAPOLIS — Ed Carpenter is going to pace the fastest field in Indianapolis 500 history to the starting line on Sunday, and he knew he had secured that honor when he hit the final straightaway in qualifying yesterday.
Unlike most of the other eight competitors in the first-ever one-shot competition of the fastest nine provisional qualifiers from the day before, Carpenter didn’t slow on that final lap. The last driver on the track was just fast enough on his four-lap run to stay ahead of James Hinchcliffe and become the 11th driver to win two straight Indy 500 poles.
“Coming down the front stretch, you could just really kind of enjoy it, knowing we were going to be on the pole for the second year,” Carpenter, 33, said after his 231.067 mph run.
Carpenter, the stepson of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Tony George, has built a race team almost from scratch in the past several years.
As the owner, Carpenter opted this year to step out of his car on road courses, where he had struggled, and put Mike Conway in the seat. The move yielding a win for the team and Conway at Long Beach in April.
Yesterday, Carpenter proved for the second straight year that he is the king of speed at the speedway.
On Sunday, he will lead a 33-car field whose cumulative qualifying speed average of 229.382 mph erased the record of 228.648 set in 2002.
Carpenter said it was a group effort that put him on the pole.
“The team did a phenomenal job,” he said. “Like I said earlier joking around, I’m always paranoid about how we’re going to be coming in here. … I’m just really blessed to have a lot of great people behind me on the team. … All their hard work and dedication are what make weekends like this possible.”
It was teamwork, and Carpenter’s willingness to keep his foot on it when other drivers lifted, if only slightly, yesterday. It’s the reason he beat Hinchcliffe, who was just eight days removed from suffering a concussion in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the speedway’s road course when debris from another car struck his helmet.
In the interview room on Saturday, Hinchcliffe held up the placard bearing his name and said, “I couldn’t tell you this a week ago.”
But with sub E.J. Viso shaking down Hinchcliffe’s Honda-powered car for the Andretti Autosport team last week, and with input from the other four drivers on the team — including Indy rookie Kurt Busch of NASCAR — Hinchcliffe said he had a missile to ride once he was cleared to drive late Thursday. Then he came within 0.1536 of a second over four laps of taking the pole.
“It’s not a great feeling to be so close again,” said Hinchcliffe, who qualified ninth last year. “But honestly, Ed and the whole Carpenter team have done such a great job. We knew they were the guys to beat, and we honestly came into today kind of thinking we were racing for second because we didn’t think we had anything for ’em.
“Those first few laps we did, but unfortunately, we were hanging on a little too tight and had to give a little bit up there at the end.”
As for the rest of the field, the difference from the fastest qualifier to the slowest, 1996 race winner Buddy Lazier (227.920), is a mere 3.147 mph.
New Albany’s Graham Rahal, part of the group that contested the 10th through 33rd spots earlier yesterday, will start his seventh Indy 500 from 20th.
The field includes seven rookies, none more celebrated than Busch, who will start 12th and attempt to become the fourth driver to compete in the daily double: the Indy 500 and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Coca-Cola 600 hours later at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Busch just missed being part of the fast nine yesterday: He wound up 10th on Saturday but couldn’t better his speed later that day because he had to leave in midafternoon to compete in the Sprint Cup All-Star race at Charlotte. (He finished 11th).
Busch said after his qualifying run yesterday that the commute on Saturday provided a warmup for what he faces on Sunday.
“I had so much fun, so much of a different element that I’ve never been exposed to,” Busch said. “I’ll never be able to
duplicate a day like that in a race car probably ever again, other than (this Sunday), competing in ‘the greatest spectacle in racing,’ the 500, and then finishing off with the Coke 600.”