Simon Pagenaud edged Ed Carpenter for the pole position; Kyle Kaiser captured the hearts of underdogs everywhere; and Fernando Alonso got bumped out of the 103rd Indianapolis 500. Those were the major storylines of Sunday’s emotionally charged qualifying session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Pagenaud gave Roger Penske his 18th Indy pole with a 229.992 mph run – just a fraction faster than Carpenter’s average of 229.889 mph in his Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy. And his young driver Spencer Pigot gave ECR two-thirds of the front row with a run of 229.825 mph.
“It’s a very special time. It’s just amazing,” said Pagenaud, who is the first Frenchman to win the pole since Rene Thomas in 1919.
“Obviously, last week was amazing but this is even more special. Team Penske has been phenomenal, giving me the best equipment. I can’t thank them enough and my teammates for always pushing me. This is the biggest race in the world.”
Carpenter, a three-time pole-sitter here who revels in driving on the edge at IMS, came about as close to taking No.4 as one can get.
“To have Ed Carpenter Racing cars starting second, third and fourth I think just speaks volumes to the organization, and all our people, and effort that they put into building our cars, and the consistency of all the equipment is something I’m really personally proud of,” said the only owner/driver in the field.
“I know it’s a little bittersweet for us. I was able to pass some cars today, which is good and puts us in a good position for the start of the race. Spencer was doing a rain dance, I was wanting to run. I really wish one of us would have ended up on pole, but I’m still really happy to be 2, 3 and 4. I think it’s amazing, and Simon just put in a really excellent run with his car, so consistent. I couldn’t believe how consistent it was. So congrats to him.”
Pigot, who turned the fastest speed in Saturday’s preliminaries, came oh so close to repeating on Sunday.
“Starting front row in the Indy 500 is a real honor, and like Ed said, a testament to our team. I wouldn’t say I was doing the rain dance all day. I think as race car drivers we love driving Indy cars at the limit, and you definitely get a chance to do that here in qualifying. Any chance we get to put four laps of qualifying together here is exciting in the car.
“So, unfortunately, it was a little short, but like Ed said, great day for the team. We have a lot to look forward to and a lot to be confident about heading into next weekend.”
It was the closest split (0.103 of a second) for the front row in IMS history, as well as closest spread between pole and 33rd (less than three mph), but those facts were almost anti-climatic following the day’s Last Row shootout drama.
Alonso, whose McLaren team struggled on and off the track all week in its Indy debut, made a deal to run dampers from Andretti Autosport but only got a couple of hot laps in before rain halted the morning practice period. The two-time F1 world champion went out essentially cold turkey on the new setup and responded with a four-lap average of 227.353 mph after James Hinchcliffe posted a 227.543 mph four-lap average.
But when Sage Karam cranked out a 227.740 mph average, it left Alonso on the bubble with two drivers left.
Rookie Pato O’Ward gave Trevor Carlin’s back-up car a good ride but fell just shy with a 227.092 mph run; and then it was all down to Kyle Kaiser. Kaiser had gambled, choosing not to practice Sunday morning in his Juncos Racing Chevy. Yet with all the pressure of the world on his 23-year-old shoulders, the 2017 Indy Lights champ delivered like a veteran and ran 227.372mph.
That was 0.0019mph quicker than Alonso and gave the sponsor-less, small team based on Main St. in Speedway, Indiana, its most rewarding day ever.
“It was the most emotional 48 hours of my life, but I’m just so proud of this team,” said Kaiser.
For Alonso, but mostly for McLaren, failing to qualify was a humbling experience. But the 37-year-old Spaniard was classy in defeat.
“We were 31st on Saturday and 34th today; unfortunately, not fast enough either day,” said the driver who was so impressive in his 2017 Indy debut for Michael Andretti’s team. “It’s disappointing, because we were here to race.”
Asked if he would return to IMS, he replied: “It”s too soon to make that decision.”
Behind the front-row trio, Ed Jones, the third member of Ed Carpenter Racing who had been quick all week, locked down the Row 2 inside slot, followed by Colton Herta and Pagenaud’s Penske teammate, defending Indy champ Will Power.
Sebastian Bourdais gave Dale Coyne with Vasser-Sullivan Racing another good ride and will start seventh on May 26, while Josef Newgarden takes the green flag in eighth and 2016 Indy winner Alexander Rossi lines up ninth.