By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
INDIANAPOLIS – James Hinchcliffe soared to the top of the pylon in one of the most dramatic Indy 500 qualifying sessions in recent memory, solidifying himself into the Fast Nine Shootout with a chance to win the pole on Sunday for the 100th Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2016.
Hinchcliffe’s first qualifying attempt wasn’t fast enough to advance, but in the final 30 minutes of the session the Canadian went out again and put down an electrifying four lap average of 230.946 mph in his No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.
The remarkable run is just another step in Hinchcliffe’s phenomenal comeback since his horrific accident at Indy last May.
“All the credit to the guys on the Arrow Electronics car; that thing is a rocket ship,” Hinchcliffe said. “We even dialed the engine back on that last lap. Not being cocky, but we knew we were pretty safe in the fast nine. That’s the goal today.
“Being fastest doesn’t really mean anything or pay anything, but it’s certainly a nice cherry on top. I can’t thank the boys enough. What a difference a year makes. It validates all the effort the guys have put in. These cars started getting put together back in February. They put so much effort into the cars for the month of May.”
With less than 10 minutes remaining in the day, Marco Andretti went out for his third attempt and knocked out Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Prepared for it, the 2014 Indy 500 champion went back out for his third attempt and dropped a session-best first lap of 231.315 mph. Pushing Andretti out of the Fast Nine and nearly taking the top spot from Hinchcliffe.
Just seconds before the final gun went off to expire the session, Mikhail Aleshin paced the 2.5-mile oval for the final run of the day. The Russian had been sliding around all afternoon, but managed to put together a 230.209 four lap average together to end up seventh on the grid and pushed rookie Alexander Rossi out of the Fast Nine.
Surprisingly, no one from Chip Ganassi Racing advanced. Scott Dixon managed a team-best 13th on the timesheets, while both Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimble struggled to find speed.
Rookie Max Chilton was the only driver to not attempt a lap after wrecking his primary car in pre-qualifying practice.
Pippa Mann was the only driver that ran into trouble on the day. Upon entering Turn 2 on her first qualifying attempt, her Dale Coyne Racing Honda suffered a rear endfence failure, sending Mann into the wall and ending the 32-year-old’s day.
“The rear end, unfortunately, just took off on me there into Turn 2,” Mann said. “We don’t know why. Going to go back, look at the data, put some new suspension pieces on it, new front wing and rear wing on it — hopefully there’s nothing worse than that — go again.”
Aside from the usual suspects, other notables that jumped into the Fast Nine include Townsend Bell, Josef Newgarden and Carlos Munoz.
The pace all week has been exceptional from Bell and Munoz, and neither disappointed as they helped advance a third of the Fast Nine.
The biggest surprise on the day may have come from Graham Rahal, whose No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda failed to find the pace to match anyone near the top 10 in and ended up marred mid-pack in 21st.
Image: Chris Jones/INDYCAR