Indianapolis weather washes out qualifying

Updated: May 16, 2006, 8:43 PM ET
By John Schwarb | Special to ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Danica Patrick found the silver lining in the rain clouds that hovered around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway again Sunday, canceling Indianapolis 500 qualifying for a second consecutive day and forcing it into next Saturday.

"I want to qualify next weekend. We'll get more track time, and for us we need it," the second-year Rahal Letterman driver said.

Poor weather Sunday knocked out the second of four scheduled qualifying days, with the only activity a half-hour practice session in the early afternoon between showers.

It was the first time since Thursday that teams turned laps on the 2.5-mile oval, though not enough time for drivers like Patrick to put up speeds rivaling Team Penske and Ganassi Racing, which continue to own the top four spots on the speed charts.

But now everyone will get another week of practice to continue the search before making a qualifying attempt.

"It's definitely going to help some teams that aren't up to speed yet," Team Penske's Helio Castroneves said. "But it's the same for everyone."

In other words, the top teams will reap the benefits of practice time by starting to turn their attention to race-day setups. Defending champion Dan Wheldon turned the month's fastest lap Sunday at 228.663 mph in his Ganassi Racing Dallara-Honda, and he's not the type to worry too much about qualifying. He won last year from the 16th spot.

"The thing you've got to remember is that people remember the race winner for life here. They remember the pole winner for as long as the guy's on pole, until the race starts," Wheldon said. "With qualifying being pushed back a whole week, you've got to focus on the race car.

"That's all that counts."

But for the fans that turned out at the Speedway and tuned in on television over the weekend, the rainouts meant a missed opportunity to see the new Indianapolis 500 qualifying format. The plan, hatched last year but also thrown off schedule by rain, was to qualify for 11 spots at a time over three days, with bumping available on each of those days and on a fourth day, the traditional "Bump Day." Instead the format will now be full-field qualifying on Saturday and bumping on Sunday.

"Our original plan under the new format called for 33 cars to be in the field by the conclusion of the third day, so we are going to stick to that plan," Indy Racing League President and COO Brian Barnhart said. "The potential of this format is really exciting, two years in a row we haven't been able to experience that. But that's fine, that's one of those things you can't be too unhappy about. You can't control it."

During Sunday's abbreviated practice session, the majority of the field turned in their best laps of the week. Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves trimmed out to 228.220 mph and 227.888 mph respectively to claim the second and third spots on the speed chart. Wheldon's Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon is fourth after turning 227.274 mph Sunday, and Dario Franchitti leads the Andretti Green team with a fifth-place 226.960 mph speed.

It was the kind of day that would have been ideal for qualifying, but the dry weather didn't last.

"It's a bummer, I actually would have loved to have done it today," said Michael Andretti, who topped 224 mph for the first time Sunday. "The conditions were so perfect. It would have been one of those days where you didn't have to guess about gears because of the wind and all that. I think we could have put it in the top 10, and I would have been happy with that."

Then again, for some there was happiness in not qualifying.

"We're just going to work through a bunch of different stuff," said Patrick, whose top speed for the month ranks just 18th out of 33 drivers. "It's like a little jigsaw puzzle, there are so many things you can change. I know it takes away from our race testing, but if we can get a fast qualifying car, all we do is bolt on some downforce and go racing. So our goal is to get a fast car."

They'll be trying again starting Wednesday, weather permitting.

John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to espn.com.