Roger Penske wasn't able to dominate qualifying for the 2012 Indianapolis 500 after all, despite getting all three of his cars into the final fast nine pole shootout session on Saturday afternoon.
But he will be happy enough to have pole position thanks to Ryan Briscoe's best lap speed of 226.484mph in the final 90 minute pole shootout for the top nine. It was a slender 0.013mph faster than that of Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe, who himself had to hold off a late-session charge from his team mate Ryan Hunter-Reay to keep hold of second place.
"This is unbelievable," said Briscoe. "Those four laps were so good and so consistent. It was lap 4 that won me the pole today; that was the setup I had on it.
"Everyone at Team Penske has worked so hard. Chevrolet, man, they gave us the horsepower. I'm really proud of them and [sponsors] IZOD. Getting a pole at Indy, this is huge."
His boss, Roger Penske, was pretty pleased too: "It is all about our people, the team, and certainly Ryan needed this one. He's done a great job for us. Today he stretched himself."
One of the most thrilling moments of the entire day was when James Hinchcliffe went out and put in a warm-up lap
topping 227mph before his first pole shootout run. When it fell short by just 0.013mph (0.0023s) - the smallest margin between pole and second place in the history of the race - there was a massive groan of sympathy from the grandstands, as fans showed just how much they'd taken to the likeable Canadian in his first Indy 500 at the wheel of the GoDaddy.com car made famous by Danica Patrick.
"The smallest of margins," agreed Hinchcliffe. "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.
"Qualifying at Indy is the most terrifying 10 miles of your life," he admitted. "You're holding your breath the whole time. You don't blink. You're just nervous for the entire run. Your foot shakes on the throttle pedal trying to keep it down. But it was a great run for us, and the car was awesome from the word 'go.' We knew we were going to be close."
"It so much fun having a fast race car at IMS, I'm definitely taking it in," said Hunter-Reay, who last year failed to make qualify for the grid at all and ended up with the team having to buy out a seat at AJ Foyt Racing to get him into the race. "I've felt the lows here, and I'm certainly taking it in and absorbing the temporary high of being on the front row. Next week is what counts, and I think we have a race car capable of doing two better next week."
Marco Andretti had been unable to find the scintillating form that had seen him go to the top of the timesheets the previous day and had to settle for fourth place behind his team mates instead.
"I guess you're never really happy. You can be happy with a car one day and roll off the next day and lose a mile an hour. We'll go back to the drawing board and try to figure out how to get it back," he said. "I'm not sure where we lost that mile an hour. We have to check the boost or something. It just wasn't pulling the RPMs."
Marco will join the other two Penske cars on the second row for the start of the Indy 500, with Will Power having a trouble-free but relatively unspectacular run to fifth place ahead of the slightly frustrated and disappointed Helio Castroneves.
"It was probably one of the best runs we've had, I didn't expect to be that quick," insisted Power. "The Andretti guys are very fast."
"With this format, you've got to keep finding a little bit and working hopefully to put ourselves in a good position to battle for the front row," added Castroneves. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to be decided not on the second decimal, but the third one.
"This is probably the toughest one because you have a long day," he added. "I guess every time you have that kind of excitement, it's normal. It's tiring, but it's exciting, the same way. I love the entire month here ... I wish we had every race like this."
On a day that was a general triumph for Chevrolet, the only Honda-powered car to get through to the final pole shootout was Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's Josef Newgarden, and having done so he decided that discretion was the better part of valour. His only appearance in the fast nine was a comparatively gentle tour of 224.037mph (2:40.6879s) to fulfil his session obligations without risk before settling for seventh.
"We went out and did our run," he said of the faster earlier lap that had put him in the pole shootout. "It was a little hairy. I definitely wanted to abandon the run at some point, but you have to keep with it. That's how it is around this place in qualifying, and it's a little bit hairy some times."
The two KV Racing Technology drivers who had made it into the pole shootout - Tony Kanaan and EJ Viso - had much the same idea and put in merely installation laps, joining Newgarden on the third row for the start of the race. Kanaan was lucky to bounce back after having had his first qualifying run deleted for the #11 car being underweight.
"We get stronger when we have mistakes like this happening, and we get back together," said Kanaan. "If there is no drama for me, it is never fun. I guess I keep continuing with my legacy here of the drama!"
In getting into the top nine, Kanaan inadvertently had to bump his 'brother' Rubens Barrichello out of a pole shootout spot: "I'm going to make fun of him!" laughed Kanaan. "But, you know, I think he's pretty happy for his first '500' to be in the top ten. I think it's pretty good."
Barrichello ended the session as the first man on the outside in tenth place, which really is still an impressive showing considering that the former F1 driver had looked to be struggling for pace through much of the
"I'm proud, man; I'm proud!" enthused the Brazilian. "This has been a week of trying. The team made me very peaceful inside the car. It's paying off. The team prepared me very well for this, and I enjoy my time out here. I needed a little bit more time in the car for me to be able to actually go faster.
"It's been an awesome experience - I can't tell you how I was feeling just before I entered the car," he continued. "People at home, they might think, 'It's just four corners' - I'll tell you, those four corners are much more difficult than many of the other corners I've done in my whole life."
With few teams willing to gamble their hard-won times already on the timing charts, the final hour of the main qualifying session was focused on the battle to lock into the grid by finishing in the top 24 dominated the proceedings. Wade Cunningham, Sebastien Bourdais and Mike Conway were all bumped out as the end of the session neared.
For Cunningham, the changing conditions through the day caught the team out. "We were running a super-light downforce when it was cool [in morning practice], the car handled great - the balance was excellent," he said.
"We didn't compensate enough for the heat. We originally thought we would roll out tenth [in qualifying order] and we got bumped out of the tech line, so we got pushed to last. The conditions caught us, and we didn't have enough downforce."
For Bourdais it simply came down to not having enough running time this week because of the situation regarding the last-minute change of engine suppliers.
"There's not much we can do from there. There's a reason why everyone else has been running for a week, and we got three hours," he shrugged. "I think we've got to be pretty proud with the effort. It's been going about as well as it could. We'll go through the weekend the best we can and see what we can do after that."
Conway's exit was particularly galling, as he had previously had put in a flying lap that would have kept him safe only to lose it when the car failed technical inspection for being underweight much as Kanaan had done earlier in the day. Unlike Kanaan, however, Conway was unable to find sufficient speed for his subsequent runs as the day grew increasingly hot, sunny and breezy, which affected qualifying times.
"We were in the field with a good enough time, but it was taken away because the car was illegal, so that's pretty much why we're not there today," said Conway. "Luckily there aren't enough cars here to bump us out. We've got to go qualify again, do a time, and that's it. Focus on race stuff."
The surprise of the day was the poor showing of the Honda cars compared to the Chevrolet stable. Only one Honda-powered driver - Josef Newgarden - made it into the fast nine pole shootout stage, with two of the most highly-fancied Ganassi runners - Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti - opting to settle for 15th and 16th positions rather than risk deleting their times and gambling on a new run late in the day.
"It wasn't too bad," insisted Dixon. "The car was balanced pretty good; we got a little neutral in the corners. The way the configuration of the car is, it's pretty well stuck. The next step makes it slide. We're still struggling a little bit, but we're doing the best that we can."
"It's not been a very good qualifying day for us," said a less sanguine Franchitti. "It just shows that everybody can get it wrong sometimes. Today as a unit, myself and the rest of the Target guys, we're just off. We're not where we need to be to qualify for the pole. There's a bit of head-scratching going on."
The session saw three accidents during the main five-hour qualifying session the first being for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's rookie Bryan Clauson. The SFHR team now faces a race against time to get the spare car ready for Clauson to attempt to qualify on Sunday.
It's a tough deal," said Clauson's SFHR team mate Newgarden. "It can bite you really quick here. He's not put a foot wrong all month.
"It's a tough break for Bryan and a tough break for the team," he continued. "He's worked hard all week and done a really good job. He was quick, too. That's the shame of it. I think he would have been right behind me, and it's just one of those deals."
Oriol Servia also ended up spinning out of turn 4, making contact with the inside wall and also with the pit lane attenuator - the leading edge of the wall dividing the pit lane from the main track.
The biggest wreck was that of Ed Carpenter, who was trying to respond after being bumped out of the top 24 positions but ended up spinning into turn 2 and sliding along the wall propped up on the left side of the car, causing extensive damage to the #67. The owner-driver will be relieved that he has that second car in reserve after all and hadn't been tempted to sell it on to another team.
"I was trying to qualify for the Indy 500, so I wasn't going to lift. I'll do the same thing tomorrow to make this race. If I crash another car, then I crash another car," he said.
"This car has been really inconsistent today," he continued, talking about the accident that ended his day prematurely. "It was slow and inconsistent in my first qualifying run. It was loose and sliding around. We made some changes, and it was pushing in the practice before the second qualifying attempt. Then the thing got loose again."
Sebastian Saavedra blew an engine early in the day, but the team were able to swap out the affected Chevy unit and put him back out in time to make it into the all-important top 24 with the last run of the day in the main qualifying session.
"I want to thank the complete Andretti Autosport team who did an unbelievable job to change that engine," he said. "We kept calm, and they did an amazing job; all five teams putting together one car. It was beautiful to watch, and I'm so thankful."
"On the first attempt, we just had no power," he said, thankful to get a second chance later in the day. "We went out there [for the second attempt] without one practice lap. We were missing a few things, and it showed. It was 4 o'clock, and we needed to [go for it.] We had the car to be further up there."
Katherine Legge ran a few laps but never set a full qualifying time, while the Lotus-powered duo of Jean Alesi and Simona de Silvestro didn't come out to play at all on Saturday, deciding it was best to leave their own qualifying laps for Sunday instead.
"We had a very up-and-down day. This morning in practice, we were really getting somewhere, and I think we were relatively competitive," said Legge. "Then this afternoon, it got hotter and hotter, and the track got slicker and slicker. We went out to practice and had a bit of an issue with the car that we managed to iron out, and then went back out to qualify and a glitch meant that the green flag wasn't thrown, so I had to pit.
"We went back in line and [team owner Jay Penske] decided to pull the car from the field because it was probably safer to just put it in tomorrow with no pressure," she added.
For her part, de Silvestro said: "Not going out to qualify today makes sense, because we don't really have a chance to make it in the field today. So we'll focus on tomorrow and hope we make a good run."
Tomorrow's qualifying will see those cars that did not make it into the top 24 set new qualifying times in order to set the starting grid positions for the last three rows of the grid. If there were more than 33 cars qualifying, then Bump Day would also be a ferocious battle to make it into the race at all, but it seems unlikely that any last-minute cars or drivers will emerge and so this shouldn't be the case this year.
Full Pole Day qualifying times and positions