Moreno's gamble unnecessary but satisfying
Roberto Moreno supplied the real drama on an Indy 500 Bump Day largely free of it, writes John Schwarb.
INDIANAPOLIS -- Roberto Moreno was on the bubble, although not necessarily in danger of missing the Indianapolis 500.
But instead of waiting to see what the likes of Jimmy Kite or P.J. Jones could do in their unqualified machines, the 48-year-old Brazilian took his status into his own hands, pulling a slow speed off the board and replacing it with a stout effort better than those of a half-dozen cars on the grid.
That was the extent of the thrills at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the last hour of Sunday's Bump Day. Last-minute posturing and a waved-off run closed the day, nothing to upset the field of 33 that had been set earlier.
Richie Hearn, driving for the very first day for Hemelgarn/Racing Professionals, made the first qualifying attempt and became the 33rd car with a speed of 219.860 mph. Only 32 spots were secured through Saturday's qualifying.
Phil Giebler then bumped Kite from the field, requalifying the No. 31 Playa Del Racing Panoz-Honda he had crashed during qualifying Saturday. The rookie's 219.637-mph attempt (good for 33rd and moving Hearn up one position) then put Moreno in the crosshairs as the slowest car in the field.
Moreno had run 216.229 mph the day before in another Panoz, and he faced a decision. Kite had been practicing all day expecting to need to make another attempt, and Jones lurked in a Team Leader car. Those were the only two threats remaining, no other last-second car-driver combinations materialized Sunday.
So, would either one be able to top 216.229? Jones had during the day's practice; Kite had not.
Moreno and Chastain Motorsports owner Tom Chastain didn't wait to find out, sending Moreno back on the track for another four-lap qualifying run. If he had crashed or turned in a slower time, it would have opened them up to all sorts of second-guessing.
Instead, Moreno dropped the hammer with a 220.299-mph effort over 10 miles on the 2.5-mile oval, a time faster than six other cars. He retained his 31st spot on the grid.
"We came back here after being gone for 10 years. We didn't come back to just try to see if we could make the field," said Chastain, who last raced at Indy in 1997 with Stephan Gregoire, finishing 31st. "We came back to give it our best effort. I think we did it."
For Moreno, it was an end to a whirlwind few days that started Friday when he got the job after Gregoire was injured in a practice accident. Now the "super sub" known for pinch hitting will run the 500 for the first time since 1999.
"I'm so glad that I got this opportunity. One day, you are nobody sitting at home," Moreno said. "Some people think I am too old and I don't have any more left. But do not forget my spirit. I am 48 years old, and today I feel great."
Kite ended the day at the other end of the emotional spectrum, as his PDM Racing entry made only a whimper instead of a bump. He and Jones worked feverishly during the 5 o'clock hour to find enough speed to make the field, but Jones didn't bother making a last-ditch qualifying attempt.
Kite did, but it lasted just one lap. That 214.744-mph lap wasn't going to improve enough in the next three passes to bump Marty Roth's 218.922 out of the show, and the team waved it off.
"We started trimming it out and trimming it out. The speed we expected just wasn't there," said Kite, a five-time 500 starter. "It's not as if the engineers weren't working their tails off, and it's not as if I wasn't out there trying my hardest and running foot to the floor. It's like we found terminal velocity in the car and no matter what we did, it just didn't handle real good down the straightaways."
Giebler reported a well-handling car, no small feat given his qualifying wreck one day earlier. He had been cruising toward a sure spot that would have been above the bumping fray, only he got into the marbles through Turn 2 and hit the outside barrier.
The right front and rear wing sustained damage, but the Playa Del Racing crew was pleased to find it wouldn't be an all-nighter job.
"As far as the damage, we were very lucky. It was surprisingly light," team engineer Mark Weida said. "We didn't break the gearbox. We did break the engine; it was hard enough that it cracked the engine. The majority of the body work was in good shape, which is what takes a long time to fit as far as doing repairs.
"We crashed after 5 [p.m.]; we got the car around 6; and the guys got everything stripped down. We got the engine in it and they fired it up last night around midnight, so we got out of here at midnight and were back here at 7 [a.m.]"
Giebler reached 220 mph in prequalifying practice, then qualified a notch below that to keep his rookie month of May alive. He also is the fastest rookie in the field, having topped Milka Duno's 219.228 mph (although he will start in Row 11 compared with Duno in Row 10 after qualifying Sunday).
"We just balanced it back in little by little, and it was good enough for qualifying today," said Giebler, 27. "We've had a big mountain to climb all week, so it feels really good to get everything done and get it in the show.
"That was more than the initiation I wanted."
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.