Indy 500 Fast Nine Shootout promises to be just that

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INDIANAPOLIS – Ed Carpenter sounded amused by the light-hearted suggestion that there could be team orders when three of his cars, including his own, compete Sunday for the pole in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

“If there were team orders, I would have been first today,” Carpenter said after coming in seventh Saturday in provisional qualifying. The Fast Nine Shootout to decide the NTT P1 Award pole winner was slated to start at 1:15 p.m. ET Sunday but has been delayed by rain until around 5:30 p.m., sometime after completion of the Last Row Shootout to determine the final three starters in the field for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

What stands out about the fastest nine qualifiers is that six are Chevrolet-powered entries driven by drivers for Ed Carpenter Racing and Team Penske. ECR’s Spencer Pigot was quickest Saturday at 230.083 mph in the No. 21 ECR Chevrolet.

The competition for this pole should be fierce. In addition to having to contend with his boss in Carpenter as well as teammate Ed Jones, there’s the Team Penske trio of NTT IndyCar Series champions in Will Power, who is also the defending race winner, as well as Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden.

There’s also the series’ hottest young rookie in 19-year-old Colton Herta, who wasn’t content with sitting eighth on the grid. So he bumped up to fifth with another run Saturday in his No. 88 GESS Capstone Honda. Herta became the series’ youngest winner at 18 when he triumphed in this season’s second race, in March at the Circuit of The Americas.

Rounding out the nine are Honda-powered cars driven by 2018 championship runner-up Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan.

That’s a lot to contend with if you’re Pigot, who in just his second full-time season has never won a series pole. His best qualifying effort has been sixth, most recently earlier this season for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama in April.

“I've got all the confidence in the world that we're going to be able to challenge for the pole,” Pigot said.

It’s the second consecutive May that all three Carpenter cars made it into the fast nine. It’s also worth noting that the only driver in this field who has won an Indy 500 pole is Carpenter, who did it for a third time last year.

But unlike then, he appears to be slower than the other two ECR cars. Jones posted the best no-tow practice lap during the week and seemed on the verge of becoming the fastest qualifier this day before a last-lap issue dropped him back to sixth in the No. 63 ECR Scuderia Corsa Chevy.

“I know Spencer is hoping it rains,” Carpenter said. “I think the rest of us are hoping it doesn't rain so we can try to beat him. No, there are no team orders.”

The same could be said for Power, Pagenaud and Newgarden. Power just missed pushing Pigot to second by 0.0011 of a second, a distance measured at 4.4544 inches. Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, was third. Newgarden, the 2017 series champion, was fourth.

As team owner Roger Penske reminded Friday, he’s celebrated the same record number of Indianapolis 500 poles (17) as victories. A year after becoming the 12th different Penske driver to win on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, Power would love to claim Indy as his 57th career pole.

“I feel like there’s about five guys that actually have the car to do it,” said Power, whose best start in 11 previous Indy 500 tries is second.

Presuming he’s counting himself, his teammates and Pigot, that would mean one other car.

“I hope I do it one time,” Power said. “That would be cool.”

Rossi, who won the 2016 Indy 500 as a rookie, sounded somewhat resigned to his fate of not being able to contend with the fastest qualifiers on Sunday.

“Ultimately it didn’t matter,” the driver of the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda said, “because I don’t think we were going to have anything for the top six, anyways.”

That said, Rossi is glad he won’t need to maneuver his car through almost the entire field as was the case last year, when he started 32nd and finished fourth.

“I’m very grateful to be in a comfortable position and have the privilege of going for a Fast Nine (Shootout) and not have to deal with a positive kind of stress, if that makes sense,” Rossi said, “of trying to have a good starting position versus the stress of getting in the show.”

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