Scott Sharp admits that he has never been more pleased to qualify 20th for the Indianapolis 500 than he was on Sunday afternoon, as making the field alleviates a potential headache for the Tequila Patron driver and his Highcroft/Panther alliance.

After withdrawing his first qualifying run, then being bumped from the field by AJ Foyt IV, Sharp made one final attempt to secure his 14th Indianapolis 500 start, leaving the line with 23 seconds remaining in the day. After his two previous runs had come up short, the Panther Racing crew made further changes - taking even more downforce out of the car - and the inaugural Indy Racing League co-champion held his nerve to record a four lap average of 222.162mph to qualify 20th and push EJ Viso from the field.

With only six minutes remaining, however, Sharp had been sat aboard the #16 Patr?n/Muscle Milk entry with four cars ahead of him in the qualifying line, causing the veteran to begin running through the extensive logistics he would have to plan if he was to fly back and forth from his American Le Mans Series duties in Salt Lake City next weekend should a third crack at qualifying be required on Saturday.

However, after Ryan Hunter-Reay's attempt fell short, Alex Tagliani's effort was waved off and two cars pulled out of line, allowing Sharp to hit the track with seconds remaining.

"I've never been more happier to be 20th!" he admitted some ten minutes later, "I've had some runs here in the past, but to end the day like we did was certainly very emotional and rewarding for everybody.

"We've had a few things go wrong, which led to our crash the other day, but I can't say enough about the Panther guys who did an amazing job in turning the car around and getting us back on track. Today, we were chasing speed - we kept pulling wing out the car, but still couldn't find the time we needed - and, at the last bit, I really thought we were done.

"At the end of the day, we laid the wing down some more and pulled up in the tech line, but I saw four guys in front of me, looked at my watch and said to myself 'it's over'. I have to say a big thank-you to the League because, all of a sudden, I was at the front of line. I saw them do it yesterday - if you weren't fast enough on track or weren't going to make a run, they'd pull you straight off - and, once I pulled out onto the track, my mind was probably the clearest its ever been - I just had to hold it down, hit my marks and see what we ended up with."

Although he admits that it will be difficult losing track time with his ALMS commitments, Sharp hopes to be able to run some more before he leaves Indy. His Panther team has a first-week engine lease deal with Honda, but there are some miles left on the engine, and Sharp hopes that something can be worked out to enable him to test between Utah and Indianapolis.

"It was certainly a challenging task we are facing here to come and race against the guys, who are driving these things all the time - especially considering we are not able to run much of the second week or any of the second weekend because I'll be back in the Patr?n Highcroft Racing Acura in the American Le Mans Series race in Salt Lake City," he noted, "I'm just delighted we were able to get it done."

Sharp owed a great deal to the Panther team for even having a car capable of making the field, after seriously damaging it during practice on Friday.

"The guys did an all-nighter [Friday night] and, last night, we left here around ten o'clock," team manager Chris Mower revealed, "The tub had to go to a local carbon shop, Aerodine, to be repaired, and more or less the whole right-hand side has been replaced, along with the gearbox."

Sharp's joy was in contrast to the disappointment felt by those bumped from the day two field, or yet to be even able to post a qualifying run. Sharp bumped EJ Viso from the field, and the Venezuelan will have to try again next weekend.

"There was a lot of drama going on, and things obviously didn't end up as we all wanted, but we knew that being in the 21st, 22nd position is a very vulnerable position and anything could happen," Viso admitted, "It happened just in the last minute, and that's the sad thing because we didn't have time to go back out and defend ourselves."

John Andretti was also bumped from the top 22 during the day, but was unable to post a reply having spun and smacked the turn one wall late in the afternoon practice, giving NHLR's Graham Rahal a fright in the process. Unlike Dreyer & Reinbold's Mike Conway, the veteran was checked and released from the Clarian infield medical centre, and cleared to drive, but was bumped from Sunday's field while his car was being repaired.

"We've been fighting the balance on the car, making changes," Andretti explained, "We were loose the time before, and I guess that was my out lap and probably got a little bit hot for the balance of the car and just lost the back end. I had a little bit of an oops this morning, too, and managed to save it, but that one jumped too far on me too quickly. I feel fine. The car took a hard beating, and that's frustrating. The team will work on it. They'll get it back together, and we'll be back on next week."

With Sarah Fisher and Davey Hamilton snaring the final two places in the field after Sunday, some familiar names have it all to do this coming weekend, before 'bumping' can begin in earnest on Sunday. Milka Duno was in the field after morning qualifying, but opted not to return to the track once she had been elbowed out of the 22, while neither Ryan Hunter-Reay or Alex Tagliani posted times good enough to make the provisional field.

"Of course I'm very disappointed - the whole team is," RH-R commented, "Both of Vision's #21 and #20 engineers are working together, and there have been some improvements that way, but we don't know what's going on. We have similar settings, but there's a mile-and-a-half-an-hour speed difference. We'll look at the data over again and try to understand more over the next three days, but we need an answer."


Join the conversation - Add your comment

Please login or register to add your comment