NDIANAPOLIS — Roger Penske’s strategy beat Michael Andretti’s team by inches Saturday — 9.168 inches to be exact.
In the closest pole duel in Indianapolis 500 history, Team Penske sent points leader Will Power onto the track with two minutes left in the Pole Day shootout — a shrewd move that prevented three Andretti drivers from taking one last shot at the pole and preserving the No. 1 starting spot for Ryan Briscoe
It was a remarkable finish on a wild afternoon.
Briscoe was the surprise winner with a four-lap average of 226.484 mph. He completed the 10-mile qualification run 0.0023 seconds quicker than James Hinchcliffe. The previous record was set in 1970 when Al Unser edged Johnny Rutherford by 0.01 seconds over the four-lap qualifying run.
“My name will go down forever for something that I won here at the Indy 500,” Briscoe said after claiming his first Indy pole after narrowly missing in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
This one will go straight into the record book.
How close was the battle on Indy’s historic 2.5-mile oval?
Everybody had an answer. When Hinchcliffe left the post-race news conference, Briscoe held his fingers about an inch apart and explained it was that close.
Hinchcliffe knew better.
“It’s a gust of wind, it’s a shadow over a part of the track,” Hinchcliffe said, before holding up his name card and explaining that was the distance. “I’m going to lose a little bit of sleep at how small the margin was to Ryan.”
Eventually a series spokesman came in and blurted out the actual distance right down to the thousandth of an inch.
Nobody knows how to play this game better than Penske and he proved it again Saturday.
The iconic racing owner has won five of the last seven poles at Indy and extended his own Indy record to 17 poles. Briscoe is the 11th driver to win a pole for The Captain, and it comes one week before Penske celebrates the 40th anniversary of his first career Indy win 1972. He’ll get a shot at win No. 12 here May 27.
As usual, Penske didn’t rely on conventional wisdom.
Penske’s three drivers — Briscoe, three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves and Power, the points leader — spent most of this week just trying to crack the top 10 of the speed charts.
Some around Gasoline Alley thought the only IndyCar team to win a pole or a race this season was sandbagging.
Maybe it was. When Castroneves arrived at the track Saturday morning, it didn’t take him long to top 227 mph in the early morning practice, and once qualifying began, it quickly became apparent this would be a two-team race between Penske’s drivers and the resurgent Andretti team.
Still, most thought the battle would be waged between Castroneves and Marco Andretti, Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay or some combination of the four.
It turned out to be Hinchcliffe who created the most tension for Briscoe, who started putting his gloves back on after Hinchcliffe ran a 227.009 warm-up lap.
When Hinchcliffe’s first qualifying attempt in the shootout ended just short, Briscoe pumped his fists and started trading high-fives with crew members. The scene played out about one hour later when the track was closed.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve been here and I’ve been in both those seats before and the next thing I know, Helio goes out and goes 1 mph quicker than everyone,” Briscoe said. “I’m just glad it’s my time.”
Penske made sure of it.
With only minutes left in qualifying, Power took one final shot at earning his first Indy pole. He wasn’t quick enough to claim it, he stayed on the track long enough to protect Briscoe.
“It’s just that sort of place,” Power said. “I think in 2010, Helio punched out a megatime, I think 28.0. Where did that time come from, you know?”
This time, Briscoe turned the tables on his teammate and the rest of the Indy field.
And it was Andretti’s team that made the big splash.
After last May’s debacle in which Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti nearly missed making the race, Mike Conway failed to qualify and Ryan Hunter-Reay only got back into the field by jumping into one of A.J. Foyt’s car, Andretti Autosport rebounded by taking three of the top four starting spots and putting the most pressure on Briscoe.
“There’s three Andretti’s in the top four, you tell me?” Hinchcliffe said when asked if Michael Andretti’s team is ready to make this championship a three-team race.
The replacement for Patrick in the Go Daddy car is starting second, the middle of Row 1 with a qualifying speed of 226.481. Hunter-Reay will start on the outside of Row 1 after going 226.240, and Andretti will start on the inside of Row 2 with a speed of 225.456. Power and Castroneves close out Row 2.
Rookie Josef Newgarden, from Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, was the slowest of the shootout qualifiers at 224.037 and will start seventh. He’s the highest qualifying rookie since Danica Patrick was fourth in 2005.
Tony Kanaan and E.J. Viso took the green flag, and then pulled into the pits before completing a full qualifying run during the shootout.
“I know we aren’t the quickest right now, but I really think we have the quickest car in the field,” said the first Tennessee native to qualify for the 500.
And after plenty of questions about whether the new compressor covers would give Honda engines an advantage over Chevrolet, Newgarden wound up as the only Honda in the first three rows.
Fisher’s other driver, rookie Bryan Clauson, crashed on his fourth qualifying lap and didn’t get another chance to qualify. He’s expected to take another shot Sunday when the final nine spots in the 33-car field are filled. Clauson drew the ninth spot in the qualifying line.
There were some notable absences from the front of the field, too.
Team owner Chip Ganassi has won four straight IndyCar championships, but failed to get any of his four cars into the shootout. In fact, none of the cars even made a second attempt Saturday.
“We’re not where we need to be to qualify for the pole,” two-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti said, about 30 minutes before the first qualifying segment ended. “My situation with the 50 car, we’re not even as quick as some of the other Honda runners. There’s a bit of head scratching going on. We’ve tried a lot of different things to make it.”
But the grand finale came down to Briscoe, the man once a target of Patrick’s ire, and Hinchcliffe, who was trying to join Alex Tagliani as the only Canadians to win Indy’s pole.
Briscoe won it — barely.
“If we had to go, I was ready to go,” said Briscoe, who was sitting in his car when qualifying ended. “I felt like we could have done the same again.”