A simple 10-mile drive

Bob Margolis
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500 sounds simple enough. Just drive 10 miles as fast as you can.

However, those 10 miles are split into four 2½-mile segments. A driver needs to put together not one or two, but four near-perfect laps. Ten miles of smooth driving without any mistakes at speeds nearing 230 mph on each lap is what it takes to earn that pole winner's check.

But it's not that easy. In fact, Rick Mears, who won a record six poles here, calls it "nerve-wracking."

In recent years, perhaps no one knows the importance of having those four laps be near-perfect more than Danica Patrick, who in 2005 made a slight error during one of her laps that many believe cost her the pole.

The battle for the pole takes place here at Indy on Saturday, but only 18 drivers in 90 races have won the Memorial Day classic from the top starting spot. So what makes it so special?

First and foremost, it's bragging rights until race day. The pole winner is the big dog when it comes to who was the fastest and the smoothest driver when it counted.

And of course, there's the check upwards of $100,000.

With all that, the Indy 500 becomes two races: one for the pole and the other for the checkers – and the right for the winner to have his or her face put on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

In an effort to create even more drama on Pole Day, Indy Racing League officials decided three years ago to limit the number of positions open on each of the four days of qualifying. But because of bad weather the past two years, this year is expected to be the first that the new format will be utilized.

On Pole Day, only the first 11 spots will be decided, exactly one-third the field of 33. Eleven more spots will be set on Sunday, then the remaining 11 the following weekend, which ends with Bump Day.

This all gives teams a benchmark for which to aim during practice leading up to Pole Day. Heading into Saturday's six-hour long qualifying session, teams wanted to be among the top 11 on the speed charts after the first week of practice ‐ or, at the very least, the top 15.

But at the end of practice on Friday, several big names were sitting outside of the top 11, among them Michael Andretti and former winner Buddy Rice.

But topping the charts during practice doesn't guarantee speed during qualifying.

"You can't assume that if I'm going to be fast on Tuesday that I'm going to be fast on Saturday," said Mike Hull, managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing. His two drivers, Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon, have topped the speed charts every day this week.

"The race track, by nature, has a personality that continues to change all the way until six o'clock on Saturday," Hull added. "That's what you have to be very careful about."

Making an attempt at the pole is a process. First, a driver builds his or her confidence and comfort level during the week leading up to qualifying. Then when Pole Day arrives, teams hope the comfort level is good enough for the driver to get the most speed out of the car.

"If it's not, then you don't gamble just to win the pole," 2001 pole winner Scott Sharp said. "I've started from the front row, the middle and near the back for the 500 and it really doesn't matter where you started after lap five.

"What really matters is that you've got a comfortable car, you take care of it, don't make mistakes on pit road and (are) ready to challenge in the final 20 laps."

But what if a car falls short of expectations? Does the team make another attempt or settle for where it is?

It pretty much depends on the circumstances, says 14-time Indy 500-winning team owner Roger Penske.

"If you have one car that looks like it can be a pole contender and maybe they didn't execute once, then you might go out and throw (the time) away and try one more time," said Penske, who readily admits that he might have thrown away one good qualifying attempt too many in the past.

Penske adds that if the pole appears to be out of reach, a starting spot in the first three rows is what a team is looking for, as that's where the majority of past winners have come from.

Also to be taken into consideration, according to Hull, is tires. Hull points out that teams are limited to 30 sets of tires for the entire month of May, and each attempt to qualify burns new tires, leaving teams with fewer to use on race day.

Penske and Ganassi each have two cars to get into the show, but Andretti Green Racing is faced with trying to get five cars into the race on Pole Day.

By the end of practice on Friday, just three AGR drivers – Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti – had shown consistent enough practice speeds to have a fighting chance at making the top 11 on Pole Day.

"The majority of our race cars are close, so I'm pretty confident that we can (qualify all five) if we're smart about our runs," AGR team manager Kim Green said.

Green believes that the cars that get an opportunity to qualify early, when track and air temperatures are cooler, will have an upper hand. This is unlike years past, when teams preferred to qualify late in the day when shadows covered the long front straightaway and allowed for faster speeds.

The reason for the change? Indiana now observes daylight savings time.

"With daylight savings time coming to Indy, Happy Hour isn't very happy anymore," Green said.

Outside the 11

Winning the pole isn't a realistic goal for many teams, and just qualifying on Pole Day is no easy task.

For team owner Sam Schmidt, whose car is driven by 1996 Indy 500 winner Buddy Lazier, there's no pressure to start from the pole for the race.

"We've been working on race setup all week long," Schmidt said. "I think we need to get to 225 (mph) to have a hope for that (top 11) and if we don't then it's no big deal.

"We're going to go out and put down a qualifying lap and let it ride. If it puts us in the top 11, then great. If it doesn't, then we'll go back out again on Sunday and do it again."

Robbie Buhl, a former driver and now team owner with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, agrees.

"You'd like to lock into that top 11, but right now we're pretty happy with what we have as a race car package and you're only going to gain so much if you keep trimming it out (to gain speed)," said Buhl, whose team fields cars for 2004 winner Rice and Sarah Fisher.

"There's a trade-out where you say, 'Let's not be stupid and crash the car. Let's get comfortable in the car.' "

Ideally, a driver wants to start up near the front since the first few laps at Indy can be chaotic and filled with more than enough opportunities for disaster until the field begins to spread out. But as AGR's Green points out, the bottom line still is to give your driver a car in which he or she is comfortable on race day.

"It's such a long race (that) you're trying to keep yourself in the top group. … Then you can give yourself a chance at the end and that's all you can do," Green said.

As each car makes its qualifying attempt on Saturday, there will be plenty of nail biting and anxious moments as team managers have to make the decision whether to keep their qualifying speed on the board or start again from scratch with a new attempt.

It's a bit like playing "Deal or No Deal" with a race car – except with more drama.

Qualifying begins at noon ET on Saturday, with weather forecasts calling for temperatures at the start of qualifying to be around 70 degrees and no chance of rain.

First up will be former race winner and pole winner Rice.

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