By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Never in the storied history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has a pole winner driven faster than Scott Dixon did during Sunday’s final day of qualifying to set the field for the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Rocketing around the 2.5-mile track at an average of 234.046 mph, Dixon was the final car to head out and make his qualifying run, crossing the finish line to eclipse Scott Brayton’s pole record from 1996 to score his fifth pole position for the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” as well as marking his second straight year to lead the field to green.
While Dixon holds the pole record, the overall track record still belongs to Arie Luyendyk, who set the single-lap and four-lap benchmark back in 1996 at 237.498 mph and 236.986 mph, respectively.
“I think it was huge, but not just for the 9-car,” Dixon said. “I think for Chip and his whole group. Huge credit to every single person on the team. That was definitely a feat.
“Five cars in the Fast 12; four in the Fast 6. Every team owner would dream of that situation, and I think without the hiccup that Jimmie had, it would have been all of us in there. Kudos to Chip and everybody on the team. Kudos to Honda and HPD.
“The amount of effort that goes into qualifying alone is kind of mind-boggling. I think even for us that are in the team and in this kind of community just how much goes into it is crazy. For the team to see that and for it to pay off is huge.
“I knew the pole was guaranteed for our team, but, of course, I wanted it over Alex, and I think Cannon, huge credit to him. After yesterday we did a couple of things that we shouldn’t have done, and the knock-on effect really affected us yesterday. I guess lucky with the weather, and that had us in that Fast 12 for us to continue on today. Big thank you to everybody on the team.
“Step one, but doesn’t guarantee you anything. Obviously, it’s a huge privilege to start on the pole, and congratulations to everybody on the PNC Bank No. 9 crew.”
Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Palou will start the race in second-place, with Rinus VeeKay rounding out the front row starters for next Sunday’s race. The monster run that Dixon put up, combined with those from Palou and VeeKay also made for the fastest front row in Indy 500 history at 233.643 mph.
From the time the day started, everything seemed to be going Dixon’s way, as the No. 9 Honda led the way in practice to start the day, following that up by setting the benchmark in the Fast 12 just ahead of VeeKay and Palou, which set the stage for the three to be the final drivers to make a run at the pole.
Palou knocked Ed Carpenter from the top of the board with his 233.499 mph average, with VeeKay falling just shy of Palou, leaving just Dixon as the final driver with a shot at taking home the pole. As they say, the rest is history.
“There was not a lot of nerves,” Palou said. “I knew he was going to get it. Everybody knew. He is the man here. It was like, okay. To be honest, Chip Ganassi Racing team had a great job having five cars in the Fast 12, four in the Fast 6.
“My car was really good. I think my best car was doing Fast 6, so I was super comfortable. I think I did everything I had. I kind of wish that Scott, knowing that he had already four pole laps here, he could have gave me one, but he doesn’t share much. We’ll try and get it next year.”
“Very proud to be in the front row again,” VeeKay added. “Haven’t qualified worse than fourth in my three qualifying attempts at the 500, so very proud of that, especially at my age.
“I think as a team, we maximized everything we had. We made all the right decisions, and I had the best car I’ve had in qualifying weekends during the Fast 6 qualifying, so that shows how on point we were today. The car was fast.”
Behind Dixon, Palou, and VeeKay on the front row, Carpenter will start fourth, alongside two of Dixon’s CGR teammates in Marcus Ericsson and Tony Kanaan on the second row.
Arrow McLaren SP teammates Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist will roll off seventh and eighth, respectively, followed by Romain Grosjean, Takuma Sato, Will Power, and seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson to make up the top-12 starters when the green flag drops.
Both Indy 500 rookies, Grosjean and Johnson, had sketchy moments during Sunday’s second day of qualifying that precluded them from being able to put up a fast enough speed to transfer on to the Fast 6.
Grosjean, the former Formula 1 driver, was on his third flying lap during Fast 12 qualifying when his No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda ran wide off Turn 1, nearly making contact with the SAFER barrier, but the Frenchman was able to keep it off the wall and complete his run intact.
“That was scary,” Grosjean said. “Track conditions changed a lot from the morning.
“We tried everything we had to go fast to get some speed in the car, but it was definitely a run that wasn’t easy. Honestly, I used all the tools in the car and wasn’t very comfortable, so I’m glad it’s behind me. I’m proud of what we’ve done so far.”
If Grosjean’s flirtation with the Turn 1 wall looked close, Johnson one-upped him during his run, as his No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda skated up the track as he barreled into the turn on his first flying lap, coming within a hair of tagging the wall himself.
By some miracle, Johnson was able to save the car from imminent danger, staying off the wall with a masterful save, but by that time the damage had been done and he wasn’t able to build enough speed over the remaining laps of his run to post a fast enough average to transfer into the next round of qualifying.
“The track’s a little different than it was this morning,” Johnson said. “The same approach wasn’t going to work. We certainly were trying for it. So, that’s the most effort in the setup of the car and trim settings and stuff that we’ve had. I was committed to run one flat, and it just was so light on top of the track. I was wide and trying to keep it off the fence at that point.”
Johnson added that it was his inexperience in open wheel cars at IMS that caught him out during his run.
“Inexperience, ultimately. I think the sunlight on the track and the track temp coming up, and these conditions. Just trying to find that right balance in the race car. These guys are so good at what they do in these trickier conditions. I just need a bit more experience.”
With a week to go before this year’s Indy 500, drivers and teams will have just two more opportunities to get their cars dialed in with practice on Monday, May 23 at Noon, followed by Carb Day practice at 10:00 am on Friday, May 27. Both can be seen on Peacock.
The 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled for 11:30 am on Sunday, May 29 on NBC.
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