May 22, 2011
SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Admittedly, I've not seen it all at the Brickyard. I know that. In fact, I've been alive for less than a quarter of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 100-year history.
But that said, I still think I can say with pretty certain authority that this year's Bump Day – the entire qualifying weekend, for that matter – for the Indianapolis 500 sits among some of the most gut-wrenching and drama-filled in the legendary speedway's history.
[ Photos: See the emotion during Indy 500 qualifying]
Picture this: in the last hour or so alone Sunday, Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti were both in danger of missing the race.
In fact, with only a few minutes to go in qualifying, Andretti was bumped from the starting grid. Who bumped Andretti, the grandson and son of Indianapolis legends Mario and Michael? Alex Lloyd, a virtual nobody in the IndyCar world, who found speed no one expected during his final run.
Lloyd finished fourth a year ago at Indianapolis and Sunday he was the guy to send one of IndyCar's proudest teams reeling with his from-out-of-nowhere 223.957 mph four-lap average. Not only did it get Lloyd in next Sunday's show, but it knocked out Marco and put his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay on the bubble.
That meant, with literally one minute to go, Andretti rolled on to the storied 2.5-mile race course – as a smattering of fans who had survived two rain delays and one brutal thunderstorm – looked on. Andretti's target was Hunter-Reay. Four exceptional laps later (224.628mph average) put Andretti solidly in the field and his teammate and IndyCar series regular on the trailer home.
"I can't even process this right now. It's just devastating," said a bewildered, tearful Hunter-Reay as a tried to grasp the moment. "We struggled all month, or all week, to find speed, and it just wasn't there."
Hunter-Reay's team owner Michael Andretti was a mixed bag: Marco, his son, had qualified for the Indianapolis 500, while Hunter-Reay, his driver, had missed the field.
"As an owner, this [Indianapolis 500] is my worst ever," Michael Andretti said, himself a veteran of vast Indianapolis disappointment as a driver.
Still, Marco knew the importance.
"It was either going to be in the wall or in the show," he said. "It's a bummer that we were in this position, but I'm grateful to be in."
Adding insult to injury and likely to be left mostly out of the conversation is Mike Conway, another Andretti Autosport driver, failing to make the field of 33. With a win to his name already this season, Conway was fifth in IndyCar points and looking to make amends with a track that ended his 2010 season in the most brutal of manners. It was Conway who ended last year's 500 with a violent, flipping crash on the final lap that left the Brit with a broken leg and compressed vertebrae.
But before the bumping – where 30 drivers were vying for 24 spots in the 33-car field – there was the rain that would have put IndyCar's marketing machine in a tailspin.
Patrick, who had decent speed all week in practice, suddenly began having issues during Saturday's Pole Day and lost considerable speed. As a result, she was on the outside looking in to the mostly locked-in field.
Rain was in the forecast Sunday and IndyCar rules guarantee each non-qualified driver one shot in a random order. As qualifying started with rain clouds threatening, Patrick's team made an improper adjustment and the car failed qualifying technical inspection. Patrick, by default, had missed her guaranteed opportunity and was pushed to the back of the line.
Two drivers were able to qualify before the rain came. After the track dried, all but one driver was able to make a qualifying run. But as Patrick sat in her lime green No. 7, the rain started to fall again. On track before her was open wheel champion Paul Tracy, who failed to qualify last year. He impressively completed a fast run. He later said the rain drops were causing his 230-mph race car to skate through the corners.
Tracy would be the last qualifier before rain became heavy enough that IRL officials stopped time trials with Danica seated, strapped in and ready to go.
For the next few hours, there was a very real possibility that Patrick could miss the Indianapolis 500.
Keep in mind, the 500 was where "Danica" became a household name in 2005 when she became the first woman to ever lead the storied race. The 500 was where Patrick infamously marched up pit road after an incident with Ryan Briscoe knocked her from the race. The 500 is what made Danica Patrick.
But just as the media center was abuzz and the questions started to fly – would Danica buy her way into the 500 field? – the skies cleared for the second time. In what might be an unofficial record for track drying at Indianapolis, the 2.5-mile behemoth opened again just before 5 p.m. Just 1 hour, 31 minutes after her qualifying run was put on hold, Patrick finally took the course.
Four laps at 224.861 mph later, Patrick had sent in a no-doubter of her own by qualifying 26th. She became the fourth woman in the 2011 field, along with Simona De Silvestro, Pippa Mann and Ana Beatriz.
"That's Indy," Patrick said. "I've always said that this place is its own person. It reads you when you're nervous. It reads you when you're not confident. It reads you when you are. It throws a lot at you, but that's why this is the greatest racetrack in the world."
This weekend at Indianapolis went a long way to prove that. And more importantly, it may have proven that to a generation of fans jaded from open-wheel's 1995 split.
Is the Indianapolis 500 back? That's a question I know my authority can't answer. But I sure won't miss next Sunday's 500 miles in a bid to find out.Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports: