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 Patrón/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 Patrón 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."