Monday, May 23, 2011

Underdogs flex their muscles in Indy qualifying

Sacramento, California – Just when it all seemed so predictable, the always unpredictable events that are staples of Indy 500 history came screaming down the front straightaway this past weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Who had these names in the first three rows for the May 29 centennial running of the race?: Alex Tagliani (on the pole, no less), Oriol Servia, Townsend Bell, Buddy Rice and Ed Carpenter.

The always formidable Target Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon is up there – even with the mind-bending team mistake of underfilling their fuel tanks during the pole shootout – but Roger Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe are well back in the starting field. Andretti Autosport drivers are holding down back-of-the-pack starting positions.

Castroneves, who has thus far had a miserable year in INDYCAR, was a particular disappointment. The three-time race winner was gunning for an unprecedented three consecutive Indy 500 poles and had the fastest speed in the Friday practice session before Saturday’s run for the pole. Inexplicably, he had middle-of-the-pack speed when it counted.

It’s an indication that things are very even up in the series, with the smaller teams finding plentiful speed to compete with the Penske, Ganassi and Andretti powerhouse teams on INDYCAR’s biggest stage. And if you can’t feel good about the performance put in Tagliani and the rest of the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team, you probably don’t have a pulse. It’s the feel-good story of the month to date.

Schmidt, confined to wheelchair as the result of a racing crash and one of the genuinely nice guys in the sport, was brought to tears when Tagliani clinched the pole on Saturday. Best as I could tell, most of the other racing teams beaten by Tags felt pretty good about their whipping on this day.

Tagliani chimed in with a previously unspoken truth: Many fans are tired of just three power teams dominating the Indy 500 and want to see some new blood leading the pack, and perhaps winning the race. Judging from the loud ovation Tagliani received when he nipped Dixon for the pole on Saturday, I’d say he’s pretty much right on the money.

But two things to remember: The race is 500 miles long, and the power teams know how to set up a car for the big money-paying race. And next year, you have to believe the financially robust teams will have a leg up testing, building and crafting the new engines and chassis coming into the INDYCAR series for 2012.

Simply put, if the small teams want to steal some Indy glory, this is probably the best year to do it.

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