Full times and results from the first day of Indy 500 qualifying
Ed Carpenter laid down an early marker in qualifying for the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, going to the top of the timing screens with his very first qualifying attempt on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday afternoon.
But that was only the start of the day's proceedings. Once all the drivers had been given their guaranteed initial qualifying run consisting of a warm-up lap followed by four times laps, the average of which would constitute their qualifying lap time for that attempt, the majority of drivers all made second and even third attempts during the rest of the day. Several drivers were able to move ahead of Carpenter, and it was only when the #20 returned to the fray and made its second qualifying run that Carpenter was able to reclaim the top spot - which he held to the finish of the day's qualifying.
"It's always fun being quickest at Indy," said Carpenter afterwards. "You get into these two days and you can't really think about the race or work on your race car. If you've got a fast car like the Fuzzy's guys, you try to do the best you can with it.
"It's stressful qualifying here and the less you have to do it the better," he added. "The field is very tight this year. There are so many good cars and drivers out there."
The first run through the qualifying order (drawn at random on Friday evening) started just after 11am local time and proceeded without incident or interruption with everyone bar Dreyer and Reinbold–Kingdom Racing's Sage Karam setting a time. At the end of this initial round of qualifying, Ed Carpenter was top of the timesheets with a four-lap average of 230.114mph, with Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay and Bryan Herta Autosport rookie Jack Hawksworth joining him in the first draft of the front row.
Also provisionally set to join them in Sunday's Fast 9 pole shootout were James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Carlos Munoz and Josef Newgarden whose lap speed of 229.471mph was only just ahead of tenth-placed driver Helio Castroneves' 229.456mph.
One of the new innovations for 2014 is that drivers can head back out for a new qualifying attempt during the remainder of the afternoon without first having to delete their exiting lap. That took away much of the gamble that in previous years had inclined drivers to stick on their existing lap once they had qualified for the starting grid, and the result was that almost immediately cars were queuing to head back out for a second attempt.
First back out on track was Simon Pagenaud, and he was quickly followed by Castroneves who immediately bumped Newgarden out of the provisional Fast 9 group as he leapt up to third on the speed charts with a new effort of 229.788mph. After that, Sage Karam finally completed his first qualifying run (and good one, too, slotting him into 18th place) which meant that all 33 entries had booked themselves a place on the starting grid for next week's race, with confirmation coming at the end of the day that the deadline for any last minute additions to the entry list had now passed.
After that it was a matter of trying to improve their times with an eye to making the Fast 9. In previous years, 'on the bubble' has referred to the last car qualified for the grid, but with that not an issue this year the term was transferred instead to the driver in ninth place and who risked being bumped out of the Fast 9 by the improving speeds; and with the new 'no risk' system of being able to make new attempts, it proved to be the busiest Indy 500 qualifying day ever - 71 qualifying attempts had been made, beating the previous high of 67 on Pole Day in 2010.
Just after 2pm Kurt Busch quickly improved to 229.960mph which put him in third place - and that would have to do, as he was hustled away to a waiting helicopter to get him to Charlotte Motor Speedway where he was due to race in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race - a journey that he later reported had taken just an hour and a half door-to-door. However his qualifying time turned out not to be quite enough, and 45 minutes before the end of the day's session a better time from Munoz pushed Busch out of the Fast 9.
"I'm going to get on the plane to Charlotte and forget everything I did today," said Busch as he headed out of IMS. "It's a new world, and the open cockpit racing is the first thing, and trusting the downforce is the next step, and then running by myself wide open was the next step, and then getting into traffic was another step.
"This morning was my first real time at [getting into qualifying trim] and I only have two runs that I've done four laps wide open with, so I missed out a little bit on that qualifying exhilerating speed and the challenge of it," he added. "But each day is a lesson, and it's great to be a student with 15 years of motorsport experience."
Through the afternoon, the top spot changed hands a number of times with Will Power displacing Carpenter from the head of the timing screens with his second attempt at 2.30pm just before a short rain delay for a passing shower which brought with it cooler, overcast conditions that helped boost the lap speeds that followed: Hinchcliffe went top with an effort of 230.407mph just before 4.30pm and Carlos Munoz soon bettered it with a lap at 230.460mph a quater of an hour later.
But finally, with a little over an hour of the session to go, things came full circle and the original leader (and 2013 pole winner) Ed Carpenter was back on top with his second effort of 230.661mph. Munoz held on to second spot just ahead of Castroneves' third run at 230.432mph, followed by Hinchcliffe and Power.
When the chequered flag ame out at the end of the day's activities, joining them in going through to the Fast 9 were Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and JR Hildebrand. Notably, the top nine consisted of five different teams, two of them small operations (Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) and no sign of one of the big 'power house teams, Chip Ganassi Racing whose best performance on Saturday came from Scott Dixon in 15th.
Andretti Autosport had got three of their cars in the top nine and Kurt Busch was the best of the rest in tenth ahead of the two men who had originally sat on the provisional front row alongside Ed Carpenter - Ryan Hunter-Reay and Jack Hawksworth, both of whom had improved their times on their second runs but ultimately not by enough to make it through to the Fast 9.
"I think we have a good chance for the pole," said Carpenter of his prospects for tomorrow's pole shootout trials. "It will come down on who gets it right on the day for the pole. It really comes down to being perfect for four laps."
While the top nine know they will start on the front three rows, no one in the field is yet locked in to a specific starting position on the grid. All that remains to be determined on Sunday - Pole Day - and if the first round of qualifying is anything to go by then it should be a fierce nail-biting battle and a sight to see.
Reporting from trackside by Lynne Huntting of PressSnoop.com
Full times and results from the first day of Indy 500 qualifying