It had been looking as though pole position for this year's Indianapolis 500 would be a matter of which of the five Andretti Autosport drivers would do the honours.
After dominating a week of practice at the 2.5-mile speedway, it could easily have been Marco Andretti, EJ Viso, reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, EJ Viso - or even the new boy Carlos Munoz, who has been blitzing the pace all week ever since passing his Rookie Orientation Program just a week ago.
Sure enough, when the gun was fired to mark the end of qualifying on Saturday - Pole Day - all five drivers had finished in the top nine, meaning that they would take part in the 90-minute Fast 9 shootout that locked down the starting positions of the front three rows of the grid for next Sunday's race - including, most significantly of all, who would be this year's pole winner.
The only real competition left at this stage was from Team Penske, with Will Power and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves both through; and just like their Andretti counterparts they too had their own 'super rookie' in two, with AJ Allmendinger proving to be in spectacular form in his first appearance in Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an open-wheel car rather than the NASCAR Sprint Cup tank he's used to bringing to the July Brickyard 400 event.
In the no-mans land between these two arrayed armies was the one-man band of owner-driver Ed Carpenter. Just by sheers numbers alone the odds were against him by eight-to-one, but in reality they were much higher since his small outfit was competing against two of the current giants of the series. All he could really hope for was to hang in there, get a good spot on the third row, and take it from there.
Except that's not what Carpenter had in mind. He rather fancied the top seat at the table - and went out and snatched it with a four-lap average of 228.762mph, the fastest since Sam Hornish Jr. won pole for Penske in 2006 with a speed of 228.985 mph. No one could match that, not even the current Penske crop. The pole - and the invaluable $100,000 cheque that came with it - were Carpenter's
"I knew we had a shot at it, but the field is so tight and Chevy brought such a great engine, and I wouldn't have been surprised if we were outside the top ten, too," he said after clinching pole. "It's an honour to win this pole because it is a really competitive field.
"This is a good start. I want to make sure we keep the team focused. I hope this is part one of a really magical month, and we're here for race day," he continued. "This is awesome, and it's bigger than our wins and it's huge for the team, huge for Fuzzy's Vodka. It's definitely a landmark day, but I don't want to get overly focused on this because we have a lot of work to do yet."
Alongside Carpenter for the start of next Sunday's race will be Munoz, who is bidding to match the achievement of fellow Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya who won the race in 200. Like Munoz, Montoya had started that race as a rookie and from second spot, so there's plenty of history there for the 21-year-old to draw inspiration from as he prepares for the biggest day of his racing career to date.
"Right now I don't have too many words to describe how happy I am, just a rookie to be in the front row, just a dream," he said. "I was like crossing my fingers that it rained that we can stay in the front row!
"I was happy with the car in the first qualifying, but we did a couple of changes and it worked out. We were really fast," he added. "Front row is perfect for the race. I have my teammate just on the side of me, I have great people around me with a lot of experience. It's a 500-mile race, and I'm in the middle of the field."
Despite his rookie status in IndyCar, Munoz has raced here last year in the Firestone Indy Lights series in which he is still a regular competitor - he'll race in the Freedom 100 race this week before the Indy 500.
"Last year my first race, I did second place," he said. "It's going to be tough doing 600 miles in one weekend, but I think we have perfect cars in both Indy Lights and IndyCar, so I'm going to be hopefully in the front row in both categories."
With Carpenter on one side, Munoz has his team mate Marco Andretti on the other who was just basking on what the squad had achieved as a whole this year.
"Definitely pleased," he said. "Extremely proud of my team. Five out of the top nine is just an incredible achievement. That has to be some kind of a record. I don't think there's been five cars on one team let alone in the top nine. Chevrolet, what a statement. I'm definitely proud of them."
All nine of the cars that had made it through to the Fast 9 shootout - and onto the front three rows of the grid - were Chevrolet-powered, leaving Alex Tagliani as the highest Honda runner down in 11th place on the provisional grid after Pole Day.
"I'm very pleased with Honda, all the work they've done with us and the other teams to try to bring the fight to Chevy," insisted Tagliani, who was on pole here in 2011. "I'm very pleased with where we are now. Hopefully we have even a better race car."
Less happy were the Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Both former winners of the race, this year they face starting from row sixth in 16th and 17th positions respectively - not exactly where they wanted to be at this stage of the Indianapolis build-up. The third Ganassi driver Charlie Kimball is a row further back and will start from 19th.
"The car was sliding around a bit. It wasn't too bad to drive, it's just that we scrubbed a lot of speed - the first two laps were pretty decent, and then we played it a little bit safe," explained Dixon, who was the first man out on the track for qualifying on Saturday after the blind draw set the order.
"It's the first time I've ever gone first," he admitted. "I was a bit nervous. It was fun out there to get four laps put together for the #9."
At least all three cars are safely on the grid and don't have to run again on Bump Day Sunday if they don't want to, and can instead focus on using the practice periods available to the teams to start finessing their race set-ups. That's not the case for the ten drivers yet to make it onto the grid, with Sebastian Saavedra (Dragon), Graham Rahal and Michel Jourdain Jr. (Rahal Letterman Lanigan), Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann (Dale Coyne Racing), rookies Conor Daly (AJ Foyt Racing) and Tristan Vautier (Schmidt-Peterson Motorport), Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Harman Racing) and Buddy Lazier (Lazier Partners) all competing to get into the race.
And with Katherine Legge a late 34th entry in the proceedings in a third Schmidt car, someone is going to be left without a seat when the music stops at the end of Sunday's track time - and that means they'll be going home early.
"We're lacking a bit of speed," admitted Vautier, who'd been expected to finish Saturday safely in the top 24 given his Indy Lights experience. "I am very happy to get my first run for qualifying at the 500. It was great, but we will keep working to find more speed.
"Four laps of qualifying is different for me," he admitted. "It's long, and you have to give it everything you have. But it's also short, and you have to be very intense."
The Rahal team was certainly very disappointed to be where they were with their two drivers on Saturday.
"For us, we really expected a lot better than that," admitted Graham Rahal. "We didn't think that we had pole speed but certainly we thought we had top-nine, top-ten speed. To go two miles an hour slower, I don't really get that. So I'm pretty frustrated."
Buddy Lazier's position is more understandable - the team only got their newly-acquired car (it was Jean Alesi's chassis in 2012) out on track for the first time on Thursday and are still playing catch-up.
"I like being here," said the 1996 race winner. "The racetrack really tests you as a race driver. I look forward to that test and really enjoy it. When you are already behind the 8-ball [by] five or six days, and we were the only ones who started that late, I still enjoy it. It's just not as much fun as being on pace with everybody else and going through the process.
"I think given the fact that the car wasn't even together 48 or 60 hours ago, we had 50 laps of practice going today, I think it's going well," he insisted. "I have nothing but good things to say about my team. They have done a great job for me." He'll be hoping that the dream doesn't die prematurely for him and his fledgling team at the end of Sunday.
Contrasting with Lazier's experience is AJ Allmendinger's rookie exuberance belying his 31 years, who couldn't conceal his excitement about being part of the process he'd watched from afar ever since growing up as a child in California.
"Being here with Team Penske, I was so nervous before, and then after getting done, I let the emotions kind of take over," he said. "It's pretty special. It's Pole Day in Indy! This is what I have dreamed about for 15 or 20 years and to finally have the opportunity and have Roger Penske and Tim Cindric give me the opportunity.
"My teammates have helped me out so much, it's probably the most fun I have ever had with a group of guys," he added. "It is so special. Everybody has told me these are the hardest four laps - maybe one of the hardest days you will ever go through in your career – for getting everything out of the car."
Allmendinger's laps were good enough to put him into the Fast 9 with his team mates Power and Castroneves, and then he punched in a qualifying run that places him in the middle of the second row in fifth place next Sunday - ahead of both his more experienced colleagues. Despite his years of experience in NASCAR and the Champ Car World Series, Allmendinger was doing his wide-eyed best to look like he'd never been in a better place in his life.
"For me, I'm thrilled to be here. I'm thrilled to be here, I'm thrilled to be next to these guys. No, it's ... I really enjoyed this week and this [Fast 9] press conference is just the cherry on top," he said. "I was just happy to be in the top nine, and whatever we got from there."Full Pole Day qualifying timesFull Fast 9 Shootout times
Pictures from the qualifying and practice sessions