Third time proved to be the charm for IndyCar veteran Scott Sharp, as the 1996 series co-champion qualified for the Indianapolis 500 with a dramatic last-minute run that bumped EJ Viso out of the provisional second day grid of 22 cars.
Sharp, who withdrew his first run and was bumped out of the field by AJ Foyt IV with roughly ten minutes to go on Sunday, qualified 20th with a four-lap average of 222.162mph in the #16 Tequila Patrón Panther Racing entry, as positions 11-22 were added to Pole Day's top eleven.
"It's not supposed to be this tough," Sharp acknowledged, "With all my experience, I guess I figured I'd come back in and qualify pretty easily. I did pretty easily get up to speed and thought, I didn't know, we'd be a first or second row contender - I thought, if things really fell into place, we would be certainly a top ten car, no problem. Obviously, we had a few things go wrong that led to our crash the other day, but the team did an amazing recovery. Then Dan [Wheldon] had his crash, so it's been really tough, but they've rebounded and never missed a blink.
"We pulled out [of line], as it just seemed like we were really chasing a bit of speed - we got a fair amount of wing out of the car and still couldn't really get a lot of speed out of the car. We'd make a couple of runs in practice with no one in front of us with no tows and run a good enough speed to get into the field and then go do it for ourselves with no one in a qualifying run and couldn't get the number, so it was very strange."
With four minutes remaining, Viso, Hamilton and Fisher were in the qualifying line in front of Sharp, and could have stayed in line until time expired at 6pm, but the IRL reserved the right to request those drivers to move out of line if they were not planning an attempt. Competition president Brian Barnhart reminded the HVM, Kingdom and Fisher teams about the rule, and all three agreed to pull out of line to let Sharp make an attempt that started less than one minute before the gun was fired to end qualifying.
"I really thought we were done because, when I pulled up into the tech line [for the final time], I saw four guys in front of me, looked at my watch, saw it said six minutes to go and said 'that's it, it's over'," Sharp confirmed, "Then, all of a sudden, it was just 'boom, boom, boom' - guys aren't going to make a run, or weren't fast enough to take up a lot of track time, they got out of the way and, all of a sudden, it was fire it up and go."
Reigning Firestone Indy Lights champion Raphael Matos led the day's qualifiers with a four-lap average of 223.429mph in the #2 US Air Force Luczo Dragon car, becoming the first Chase Rookie of the Year candidate to guarantee his place for the 24 May event, while veterans Paul Tracy and Vitor Meira, and second-year IRL racer Justin Wilson, make up row five. Hideki Mutoh, Ed Carpenter and Dan Wheldon will line up one row behind, with Foyt, Sharp, Sarah Fisher and Davey Hamilton rounding out the day's qualifiers. The final eleven spots of the 33-car field will be set on Saturday [16 May], with Bump Day following on Sunday.
Three drivers were involved in incidents during the day, as Mike Conway, Alex Tagliani and John Andretti all encountered trouble in turn one. Tagliani and Andretti were uninjured, but British rookie Conway was admitted to Methodist Hospital with bruised lungs, but otherwise in good condition.
"I'm disappointed, but I guess that's just one of those deals," Tagliani noted after finding himself having to run again next weekend, "When you have an accident early in the morning, especially on a qualifying day, you don't have overnight to repair the car. The crew did just absolutely amazing, just thrashing to do everything they can to rebuild that car - just to get us out there in the fashion we did, making sure the car was solid, was actually really good professional work. Our second lap on the screen was 221, but it was too late. I needed to do that first lap out."