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EMBURY: Surprises Among Firestone Fast Nine Advancees

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In a day preceded by thunderstorms, Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway produced several surprises.

For instance, all three members of last year’s Indianapolis 500 front row, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, and Ryan Hunter-Reay, failed to make the Firestone Fast Nine. Four-time pole winner Helio Castroneves was also not fast enough. In their place, was a plethora of Honda-powered entries and some unexpected Chevrolets.

Regaining the form he showed in winning Indy 500 pole awards in 2013 and 2014, Indianapolis-native Ed Carpenter topped the pole shootout list with an impressive four-lap average of 230468 MPH. The local hero will be joined in the final qualifying round by teammate J.R. Hildebrand, who also posted a strong 230 plus effort.

Amazingly, despite entering five cars this month, Team Penske will feature only one entrant in Sunday’s showdown. Will Power, who was the only member of the Captain’s quintet to post a 230 MPH lap this week without a draft, backed up the early returns to make the cut. The rest though, faded, as conditions changed. Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud only managed a 228, as did Josef Newgarden. Juan Pablo Montoya was likewise stuck at 228, while Castroneves’ 229.3 MPH run also was not among the fast nine.

Beyond ECR, the other big winners Saturday were Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Two-thirds of the way through the original order, Ganassi had four cars in the final phase. Despite Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball getting bumped, the team has two excellent shots at the top spot in veterans Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, who have earned a combined three poles at the Brickyard.

Meanwhile, Andretti Autosport stands at an equal level of opportunity with former Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso leading the charge. The Spanish newcomer to IndyCar racing will be joined by reigning Indy 500 champion Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato, and Marco Andretti, who secured the final spot to advance to the Firestone Fast Nine.

Unfortunately, the shootout will be missing one notable driver as Sebastien Bourdais suffered a serious accident in turn two during his attempt. After running two laps above 231 MPH, the Frenchman made heavy contact with the SAFER barrier sending his Dale Coyne Racing Honda into a flip before coming to a stop right side up. The veteran was transferred to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis where he was awake and alert.

The surprises were not limited to the nine finalists. On a layout where an early draw is viewed as an advantage, the late runners vaulted forward as Saturday’s action went beyond the usual 6 p.m. track closing to allow everyone a chance to perform. Also with only a limited number of drivers taking the track during the Saturday morning warm-up, many competitors were forced to take to the circuit and run at their maximum for the first time in about 24 hours, placing an even greater set of unknowns to the common stack during time trials weekend.

With many curveballs thrown on Saturday, expect more of them to come on Sunday.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

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Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad. A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory. Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.