Pole Day: Sharp shock for Indy pole

As it has done so often in its history as the world's biggest race, the Indianapolis 500 proved that being a heavy favorite doesn't always equate into success. Greg Ray discovered that on Saturday, as he couldn't knock Scott Sharp off the Indianapolis 500 pole.

Pole Day: Sharp shock for Indy pole

Sharp had a four-lap average of 226.037 miles per hour when he started his qualification attempt at high noon. Ray decided to wait until a cooler part of the day to make his run for the pole, but the best he could do was a four-lap average of 225.194 mph when he began his run at 5:11 p.m.

"This is tremendously exciting," Sharp said. "I would certainly call it my greatest accomplishment so far in racing. When you think about the emotions, anticipation, anxiety, nervousness, all that goes into today, from a race driver's perspective, qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 is probably the hardest single day you have all year."

No other driver could run faster than Sharp, who won his first-ever Indianapolis 500 pole. Robby Gordon, who began the season in NASCAR Winston Cup racing, but was fired after five races by Morgan-McClure Racing, rounds out the front row with a four-lap average of 224.994 mph.

Mark Dismore, Sharp's team mate at Kelley Racing, starts on the inside of the second row at 224.964 miles per hour. Defending CART champion Gil de Ferran is in the middle of the second row at 224.406 mph, whilt wo-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk completes the second row at 224.257 mph.

Twenty-seven cars qualified for the 33-car starting field on Saturday but qualifications continue on Sunday at 1 p.m. local time. The track will be closed on Monday and Tuesday, with practice resuming on Wednesday through to Saturday. The final round of qualifications, known as Bump Day, is next Sunday beginning at 1 p.m.

Ironically, Michael Andretti is in danger of being bumped out of the field in his first Indy 500 appearance since 1995. Andretti accepted a four-lap average of 220.747, which appears to be borderline with two more rounds of qualifications. That speed placed him 24th.

Others in jeopardy of being bumped out are 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever, 25th at 220.513; Roberto Guerrero, 26th at 220.054 and Buzz Calkins, 27th at 220.039 mph.

Despite the return of three of CART's best teams and a cloudless sky with temperatures in the mid-60s, this may have been the smallest pole day crowd in modern Indianapolis 500 history, with around 20,000 spectators at the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has 340,000 permanent seats.

While Ray went into the day as the favorite to win the pole, it was Sharp who turned the fastest lap in practice in the days leading up to pole qualifications. In a sense, Sharp thought Ray had been preordained as the pole winner before qualifications ever began.

"Most definitely," Sharp said. "They probably earned that respect in some regards. They put a lot of emphasis in qualifying. They normally put up fast times in qualifying and spent a lot of time working on a low downforce set-up.
We didn't spend a lot of time working on that. The speed we did turn a few days ago was with some drafting help.

"To be honest with you, I got up this morning and didn't know where we were going to sit. I thought the best we could finish would be the pole and the worst would be sixth or seventh. It was just a matter of how we put our four
laps together."

When Ray saw Sharp post his qualifying speeds, he shook his head and expected some serious work.

"When I saw Sharp do it, I thought, `Oh no. It's going to be a long day at the office,'" Ray recalled. "That is all we could get out of it. The whole day has been stressful, stressful, stressful. The conditions on the track didn't match the car at all. I don't know where Scott Sharp pulled that rabbit out of his hat, but I have to tip my hat to them."

Ray was able to run his best laps of the week when the weather conditions were hot and windy. The other competitors ran fast during the final hour of practice, known as "Happy Hour" when weather conditions are cooler and more conducive to speed.

So rather than beginning an initial qualification attempt that began at 1 hour and 38 minutes into the seven-hour qualifying session, Ray waved off an attempt that had a first lap of 224.862. The team decided to wait. He practiced in his backup Dallara-Oldsmobile Aurora and began a qualification attempt with 49 minutes left in the session.

Ray was on target with a first lap of 225.227 mph and upped the speed to 225.636 mph. But his speed dropped off to 225.405 mph on lap three and 224.512 mph on lap four for a four-lap average of 225.194 mph.

"I think the cooler conditions today were a little bit of an equaliser to other cars in the field," Ray said. "We knew last night when it was going to be cooler today, it would open the door for a lot of people. Normally, when you have a car that is good in the heat, it is much better in the cool. We just never could find that magic sweet spot.

"You can be fast, but you really have to be on top of it to be at he absolute limit, be trimmed out and be flat for 16 corners. Now, we will work on the best race car we can have."

Team owner John Menard has won three Indianapolis 500 poles since 1995 and it looked like his driver was going to win the pole for the second-straight year. Close, but not enough.

"We were off just a little bit, but that's all it takes running at those kind of speeds," Menard said. "We were just off our game a little bit. We will come back and redo our set-ups and what we really want to do is win this thing. They came up with more speed than we thought they would and we came up with a little less speed than we thought we would.

"The good part of it is we can probably race under those conditions. The bigger prize is two weeks off. We would have liked to have won the pole, led all the laps and win the race, too. We're greedy."

Sharp had to wait nearly the entire day to see if his pole speed would stand. He had to wait nearly six hours before he could celebrate winning the pole.

"It was pretty nerve wracking," Sharp said. "This day didn't move very quickly. But nobody else was able to put four laps together like I could."

While the focus on this month of May at Indy has been about the fabled CART teams returning to the race for the first time since 1995, Sharp was once a CART driver himself. He was the first driver for PacWest Racing in 1994, but was out of a ride after one year. He went back to the Trans-Am Series in 1995 and returned to open wheel racing when the Indy Racing League opened for business in 1996.

"There is a master plan that the man upstairs has for everybody and obviously, it wasn't meant to develop for me," Sharp said. "I wouldn't trade anything for what I've had the last three or four years. I think Indianapolis is getting back to being greater than it was before. There will be 20 cars that have a chance to win this race. I can't remember ever since I was a little kid, that being the case. It's the rules, availability of equipment and a fair level of play here.

"Today is the first race and we won that. Now, we have to work on the next race - the biggest race of all."

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