SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Qualifying at the front of the Indianapolis 500 has never been and never will be easy. It's a 10-mile, 16-turn sprint with today's speeds eclipsing 230 miles per hour. A driver's adrenaline pumps. The risk is real. One mistake in the two-plus minute time trial is enough to derail hundreds of hours of preparation.
Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ryan Briscoe rode that wave of nerves and what-ifs to win the pole for next Sunday's 96th Indianapolis 500 by the smallest margin in race history – 23 ten-thousandths of a second. If he and second-place starter James Hinchcliffe would have finished side-by-side to complete their runs, the gap would've been 9.186 inches.
After 10 miles.
"I told him he should duck his head coming down the straightaway," said Briscoe, laughing and implying the aerodynamic benefit would have helped. "I did."
But Briscoe wasn't laughing when Hinchcliffe set out on the 2.5-mile race course for his first qualifying attempt in the nine-driver, 90-minute shootout to close Saturday's steamy Pole Day. Hinchcliffe, driving the No. 27 Andretti Autosport machine wheeled last year by Danica Patrick, blistered the oval for a lap over 227 miles per hour – unofficially the fastest lap of this year's race preparations.
Briscoe, seated in his car ready to defend his first (and, as it turns out, only) attempt in the special session, could hardly stand it.
"I was shaking in there," Briscoe said.
But as Hinchcliffe continued his four lap high-speed tour around Indianapolis' four corners, his tires started to wear and the average speeds dropped. Four-tenths of one mile per hour on the second lap, two-tenths on the third and two more on the fourth. His lime green GoDaddy machine streaked in to the grandstand shadows and past the checkered flag while Briscoe watched, and eventually breathed a sigh of relief.
He had survived Hinchcliffe's challenge.
Two one-thousandths of a second. Three one-thousandths of one mile per hour. Nine inches. The closest in Indianapolis 500 history.
"Those numbers will haunt me for the rest of my life," Hinchcliffe said later in the media center, still jovial despite just missing the biggest accomplishment of his still-young racing career. "I've thought long and hard about how those ten miles unfolded and how 'that' could have been."
But it wasn't all terrible for Hinchcliffe as he makes his second career Indianapolis start.
"It's heartbreaking in a sense, you know, but at the end of the day we get to start on the front row of the Indy 500, and that's just the coolest thing ever," said Hinchcliffe.
Hinchcliffe wasn't the only driver to challenge Briscoe's impressive average speed – one he made using only his first of three attempts. There were 11 other shots at Briscoe's number by both teammates and other competitors alike in the session, including a much-anticipated retry by Hinchcliffe that failed to materialize in higher speed. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe's teammate, levied the best challenge with just seven minutes left before the 6 p.m. local deadline.
Hunter-Reay sped to a 226.240 mph average to place third and fill out the front row of next Sunday's race. The run was a clear difference from Hunter-Reay's struggles one year ago at the Brickyard, when handling gremlins throughout his Andretti Autosport team were never rectified by the close of qualifying. Both he and then-teammate Mike Conway missed the field, though Hunter-Reay joined the race after his team owner Michael Andretti brokered a deal with A.J. Foyt's team to swap drivers.
Beyond the front row, Saturday was a story of Chevrolet domination over expected contender Honda in this, the first year of engine competition in the 500 since 2006. Most notably down in performance were the teams owned by Chip Ganassi. Perennially pole and race favorites, Graham Rahal's No. 38 paced the team with a qualifying run that left him 12th. Charlie Kimball was 14th fastest while former winners Scott Dixon (15th) and Dario Franchitti (16th) trailed. Dixon had never started worse than 13th at Indianapolis, and Franchitti hasn't been so far back since as 17th in 2006.
Former Formula 1 driver Rubens Barrichello, scheduled to make his first-career oval start in next week's race, timed in with the 10th-best average speed of 224.264 mph a day after calling Indianapolis "the most difficult four corners in my life." His teammate, Tony Kanaan, was a participant in the nine-driver special session for the pole but never made an earnest attempt after aborting his run after the green flag. Kanaan will start eighth in the race despite having his first attempt of the day disqualified after his car was found to be carrying too little weight.
Three cars were caught up in incidents during qualifying runs Saturday. Indiana's Bryan Clauson destroyed his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing car in Turn 1; Oriol Servia wrecked exiting Turn 4; and Ed Carpenter hit the Turn 2 wall. All drivers walked away from their incidents and are cleared to attempt qualifying in Sunday's final day – though most of their teams face long nights to re-build either primary or backup cars.
Sunday's qualifications, though, won't feature quite the drama of last year's Bump Day as it appears only 33 driver and car combinations will vie for the open 33 starting spots. Only 24 of the cars were locked in Saturday with Wade Cunningham, Mike Conway and Sebastien Bourdais missing the guaranteed spots.
The only guarantee that mattered Saturday, though, was Briscoe's pole. The result marks the 17th pole for team owner Roger Penske. Sunday's race will mark the 40th anniversary of Penske's first win as an owner (1972, Mark Donahue) – a race he's won 15 times.
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