- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Given the inclement weather that has settled over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for most of the month of May, Pole Day qualifying took on even more importance than usual this year.
But not in terms of determining pole position.
Since the Indianapolis 500 rolled out its current 11-11-11 qualifying format, Pole Day has developed into two races: the battle for the pole, and the fight to be among the 11 drivers who lock themselves into the field on the first qualifying day. It was the latter race, the one for the back of the top 11, that heated up when it looked obvious that Day 2 qualifying would be rained out.
Making things tougher on those trying to make the top 11, they were basically fighting over three open positions. It was a foregone conclusion heading into qualifying that the eight drivers representing Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Green Racing would easily lock down top-11 runs. True to form, those teams posted eight of the nine fastest speeds on Pole Day.
So in many respects, Panther Racing's Vitor Meira was the real hero of Pole Day after qualifying eighth at 224.346 mph. Ed Carpenter of Vision Racing (10th at 223.835 mph) and Luczo Dragon Racing's Tomas Scheckter (11th with 223.496 mph) were the only other drivers to make the cut.
"We are right where we thought we would be," Meira said. "We are happy mainly because we struggled so much here last year. It was a very tough month for us, and I mentioned several times that I got five years older last May, so it's the beginning of the turnaround for us."
Prior to the arrival of former CART teams like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Green, Panther Racing ruled the roost in the IndyCar Series, winning consecutive championships with Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 and '02. The team's last IndyCar win came in June 2005 at Texas Motor Speedway with Scheckter as the driver.
Meira posted 10 top-six finishes in his first year with Panther in 2006, including six podiums, but he made the top five only three times in 2007 with a best finish of fourth in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The sponsorship woes of 2006 eased when Delphi Electronics came on board for '07, and the team's attack has been bolstered by support from the U.S. Army National Guard for this year's campaign.
"Now we have very good partners in Delphi and National Guard, so we can see the light and it allows us to go search for personnel or test days," Meira remarked. "For the first time in two years that I have been here at Panther, we went to the wind tunnel. We only had four days this year, but we are catching up. It's those small things that don't really look like much, but at a place like [Indianapolis] it makes a difference."
The popular Brazilian has taken over for Danica Patrick as the most prominent nonwinner in the IndyCar Series. The Indianapolis 500 will be Meira's 81st start; he has finished second and third six times apiece since 2002 in IndyCar Series races.
Qualifying on the first weekend will allow Meira and Panther to focus on race setup this week rather than worrying about trying to find the speed just to make the field.
"We'll have a week more than everybody else," Meira said. "We'll have a lot of time to work on what really matters, while in the meantime people are going to have to keep working on qualifying."
Carpenter and his Vision Racing teammate A.J. Foyt IV have shown plenty of speed so far in 2008, but the team's efforts were marred when their qualifying times were disallowed at Homestead due to an illegal rear wing. That resulted in owner Tony George dismissing team manager Larry Curry for "violating the team's code of conduct."
Curry landed at Roth Racing, and Carpenter insisted his departure was not detracting from the team's potential.
"The thing we do have at Vision Racing is a bunch of good people and professionals, and I don't think any of them will let it distract them from what we are here to do in the month of May," Carpenter said. "I think [new team manager] Keven Kukulewicz will do a great job for us, and I think it has been positive for everybody."
Carpenter's only Pole Day drama came when his car was pulled out of the qualifying line at the last minute so his No. 20 crew could make a minor repair.
"I wasn't very happy and I think I could have probably gone a little faster in my original spot because the wind picked up," he said. "One of the mechanics saw something on the rear anti-roll bar. It was more of a safety thing. I probably could have ran, but at that point in the day, we decided to err on the side of caution and go to the back of the line and get it fixed right."
Meira and Carpenter were confident enough in their speeds that they did not make a second run. Scheckter, on the other hand, made a second attempt that wound up being almost 0.4 mph slower than his initial attempt.
"It's a world of difference," he said after learning he was safely locked into the field. "Now tonight I can actually go have a nice dinner and sleep in my bed at home, not having to worry about getting back up and qualifying it and wasting more sets of tires. So it's really great, because my mind is now straight on what we need to do for the race instead of how we will carry on qualifying."
Jay Penske formed Luczo Dragon Racing in 2007 with the assistance of his father, Team Penske owner Roger Penske. Luczo Dragon finished fifth with driver Ryan Briscoe at Indianapolis in its only start in 2007, and the team plans to contest three events this year with Scheckter.
"This crew has just done an incredible job, just coming out fresh and fighting to keep in the top 11 spots," said Scheckter, a two-time IndyCar Series race winner. "We feel that we have a little more speed, but for some reason or another, I just seem to be 10th or 11th every single year
I've been here, no matter how quick we are in practice.
"This is the most stressful day, but I've got to be positive," he added. "I'm just so happy. To be honest, it feels like I've got the pole just to survive that top 11."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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