INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais took a deep breath Friday.
After an early race-day exit last weekend and an engine change Thursday night, he moved into position to contend for the Indianapolis 500 pole.
The Dale Coyne Racing driver jumped to the top of the speed chart with some extra horsepower, posting the fastest lap of the week at 233.116 mph. Now the Frenchman and everyone else in Gasoline Alley must wait to see if the constantly changing leader board creates a wide-open pole shootout this weekend.
“It’s pretty exciting just to be in the mix, knowing that we seemingly have a chance to do well in qualifying,” Bourdais said. “Every other time I’ve been there, I’ve never been in contention to really be any kind of factor, and that’s just boring. When you’re in that position where you know there’s going to be something you can do to actually play at the front, then hopefully it happens, because it’s a heck of a lot more fun.”
The practice sessions haven’t provided much help sorting out what to expect in qualifying.
Many teams started the week in race trim, rather than using the quicker, lighter qualifying setups. The result: Five different drivers from five different teams found themselves in the No. 1 spot on the leaderboard.
And until drivers got the extra boost Friday, the fastest lap of the week came from Jay Howard – a 36-year-old driver, whose only career Indy start came in 2011. He went 226.774 on Thursday.
The weather hasn’t cooperated, either.
After dealing with high winds Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, rain washed out more than 2 1/2 hours of what was expected to be a busy final full day of practice before the first day of qualifying.
More rain is expected Friday night, which could leave drivers with little rubber on the track when qualifying begins Saturday. More rain is expected both days of qualifying, too.
The one constant, of course, is everybody expects Team Penske again to be in contention again.
IndyCar Grand Prix winner Will Power and three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves have alternated the first five pole wins this season and finished one-two in practice Tuesday.
“You put 33 drivers running to the limit, we’re talking about knife’s edge,” Castroneves said. “We’re going through four corners for four laps and absolutely doing everything you can to hang onto the last lap, or the last two laps.”
Penske’s other three drivers – two-time race winner Juan Pablo Montoya, defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden – each have started on Indy’s three-car front row in the past. Montoya was fifth Friday at 231.682, the fastest Chevrolet driver on the track.
Newgarden and Pagenaud each have one race win this season.
So the bigger question might be who poses the biggest threat to breaking up Penske’s monopoly?
Team owner Michael Andretti has six cars trying to make the field and his son, Marco, had the fastest car on opening day. Teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy winner, finished among the five fastest each of the four days he turned laps.
Two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso, another of Andretti’s drivers, posted his best lap of the week Friday, at 231.827. He wound up No. 4 on the speed chart on just his sixth day on the 2.5-mile oval.
“I think it’s very impressive, though it’s kind of what we expected,” said Takuma Sato, another of Andretti’s drivers who was third-fastest Friday at 231.969. “Obviously, Fernando is known as one of the best drivers in the world and having this much practice time and support from the team, we thought he would get it up to speed very quickly and he did.”
Owner-driver Ed Carpenter, a two-time Indy pole winner, was the fastest in Wednesday’s abbreviated practice. He finished just ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing star Scott Dixon, who won in 2008 from the pole.
With so much experience up front, so many polished contenders and so many potential changes, anything could happen at Indianapolis – and everybody knows it.
“It’s a tricky place,” Bourdais said. “When you get any sense of consistency through different conditions, sunny, shade, different track temps, humidity, wind, it always gives you confidence. You never know what’s going to come at you the next day.”
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