Tony Kanaan and Takuma Sato made it into the Indianapolis 500 field but Paul Tracy failed to qualify after withdrawing his speed and then failing to improve on a highly dramatic Bump Day.
Kanaan's pair of accidents this weekend and Sato's big crash yesterday had left both on the outside going into today's six-hour session to decide the final nine spots in the field.
As both made it in, Tracy eventually ended up on the bubble in 33rd, having also started today outside the cut as he had failed to muster sufficient speed on Pole Day.
Confident he could improve his pace, KV Racing withdrew his time with 10 minutes to go but effectively knocked the GEICO No. 15 out of the race as the wayward handling of his car, which twice brushed the wall, persuaded the team to abort the run. When Sarah Fisher Racing's Jay Howard did likewise minutes later, rookie team and driver combination Sebastian Saavedra and Bryan Herta Autosport were elevated back into the field despite having crashed during a practice run an hour earlier.
The initial qualifying runs at the start of the afternoon saw FAZZT's Bruno Junqueira, Dale Coyne's Alex Lloyd, Andretti Autosport's John Andretti, owner/driver Sarah Fisher and Foyt driver Vitor Meira qualify comfortably, with Tracy (KV), Howard, Mario Romancini (Conquest) and Saavedra those left feeling vulnerable.
Milka Duno in the second Coyne car, Sato in the KV car repaired after his massive Saturday morning practice crash and Foyt Racing's late substitute Jaques Lazier – who replaced AJ Foyt IV just hours ago – were all too slow to make the top 33 on their first runs, while Kanaan was still sitting in the Andretti garage as his crew worked frantically to get his No. 11T car back in shape.
As the crucial final hour approached, Saavedra's hopes of making the field seemed to be dashed when he crashed heavily at Turn 1 – leaving him unable to respond if any of the non-qualified drivers beat his speed.
Kanaan was first to try, and although his practice laps in the repaired car had been disappointing, his four-lap average of 224.072mph was good enough to get him into the field in 30th and knock Saavedra out.
That left Romancini on the bubble in 33rd. Keen to avoid a repeat of last year's heartbreak – when driver Alex Tagliani was bumped and unable to respond, so had to commandeer teammate Junqueira's car to make the race – Conquest withdrew Romancini's time and sent him out again. He duly produced a 224.641mph average to elevate himself to a safe 27th place and leave Howard on the edge.
Lazier and Duno's next attempts were still too slow, but Sato managed a massive improvement over his tentative earlier effort and grabbed 31st, pushing Howard out and Tracy down to 33rd.
Although Howard's immediate retaliation was not quite quick enough, Tracy and KV still decided to withdraw their speed of 223.892mph with just 10 minutes to go and try for a safer position – but the gamble backfired. A big slide on his first lap cost Tracy speed and he waved off the attempt, allowing Howard back in.
Howard responded by withdrawing his time too only to also go slower than he had previously, which allowed Saavedra – who had moved back onto the bubble because he had been bumped rather than withdrawing his time – to take 33rd place after all, giving former driver Herta's new team its IndyCar debut in the most incredible circumstances. With no more time left to respond, Tracy, Howard, Duno and Lazier ended up as the four non-qualifiers – Tracy and Howard kicking themselves for having voluntarily scrubbed times that would have got them on the grid.
The huge drama of the final half hour overshadowed the incredible achievement of Junqueira, the fastest qualifier of the day, who had just nine practice laps in Fazzt's second car before the Bump Day session, a sponsorship issue having sidelined him for all of practice and Pole Day. Despite his non-existent preparation, Junqueira immediately turned in a speed that would have gotten him into the top 10 alongside teammate Alex Tagliani had he run yesterday.
Penske's Helio Castroneves and Will Power will start first and second, with Ganassi's Dario Franchitti completing the front row.
Pos Driver Team Speed
1. Helio Castroneves Penske 227.970mph
2. Will Power Penske 227.578mph
3. Dario Franchitti Ganassi 226.990mph
4. Ryan Briscoe Penske 226.554mph
5. Alex Tagliani Fazzt 226.390mph
6. Scott Dixon Ganassi 226.223mph
7. Graham Rahal Rahal Letterman 225.519mph
8. Ed Carpenter Panther/Vision 224.507mph
9. Hideki Mutoh Newman/Haas 223.487mph
10. Townsend Bell Ganassi/Schmidt 225.097mph
11. Justin Wilson Dreyer & Reinbold 225.050mph
12. Raphael Matos de Ferran Dragon 225.029mph
13. Mario Moraes KV 224.888mph
14. Davey Hamilton de Ferran Dragon 224.852mph
15. Mike Conway Dreyer & Reinbold 224.583mph
16. Marco Andretti Andretti 224.575mph
17. Ryan Hunter-Reay Andretti 224.548mph
18. Dan Wheldon Panther 224.465mph
19. EJ Viso KV 224.380mph
20. Tomas Scheckter Dreyer & Reinbold 224.261mph
21. Ana Beatriz Dreyer & Reinbold 224.243mph
22. Simona de Silvestro HVM 224.228mph
23. Danica Patrick Andretti 224.219mph
24. Bertrand Baguette Conquest 224.189mph
25. Bruno Junqueira FAZZT 225.662mph
26. Alex Lloyd Dale Coyne 224.783mph
27. Mario Romancini Conquest 224.641mph
28. John Andretti Andretti 224.518mph
29. Sarah Fisher Sarah Fisher 224.434mph
30. Vitor Meira Foyt 224.388mph
31. Takuma Sato KV 224.178mph
32. Tony Kanaan Andretti 224.072mph
33. Sebastian Saavedra Herta 223.634mph
Did not qualify:
Jay Howard Sarah Fisher
Paul Tracy KV
Jaques Lazier Foyt
Milka Duno Dale Coyne