Commentary

Sharp gets in under the gun at Indy

Updated: May 11, 2009, 9:21 AM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Although there are another two full days of qualifying ahead for the 93rd Indianapolis 500, it was still critical for several veterans to make the show on the first weekend of action.

After being bumped from the Indy field Sunday afternoon, Scott Sharp was already scrambling to figure out how he would be able to work in returning to Indianapolis next weekend to qualify into the race with his American Le Mans Series sports car commitments.

But Panther Racing got Sharp back out just before the 6 p.m. ET gun sounded and the former Indy pole winner responded with a 222.162 mph run that bumped out EJ Viso of HVM Racing.

Sharp had posted a 221.333 mph average about 45 minutes earlier, but that speed didn't hold as A.J. Foyt IV suddenly found 2 mph and ran 222.586.

[+] EnlargeJohn Andretti
AP Photo/Steve RussellIt was not a good day for John Andretti, trying to drive the Richard Petty entry into the Indy 500.

The 41-year-old Sharp returned to the IMS oval at 5:59 p.m. and the American responded with one of the most pressure-packed runs of his career.

"I've never been so happy to qualify 20th," said Sharp. "It's been a tough last few days for the Panther team -- it wasn't supposed to be this tough."

Sharp is scheduled to drive Highcroft Racing's Acura prototype in next weekend's ALMS race at Miller Motorsports Park.

"I was sitting there thinking how I would need to rent a plane to fly back here from Salt Lake City Friday night to qualify," he added. "I thought we were done, but then Brian Barnhart said it was time to go and the car was really good. We struggled to get speed out of the car but it was there when we needed it."

That successful last-minute run saved Sharp and sponsor Patron Tequila $130,000. Had they needed to run an additional week of practice and qualifying, the price for their Honda engine lease would have jumped from $95,000 to $225,000.

It was an expensive day for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, which qualified only one of its four entries (Davey Hamilton) and lost two cars (and possibly one driver) to crashes.

Mike Conway crashed D&R's No. 24 Purex-sponsored car in the morning practice session and sustained a minor concussion. Then the Richard Petty to Indy story line suffered a setback when John Andretti backed the Window World-sponsored No. 43 car into the Turn 1 wall a little before 5 p.m.

Andretti's smash almost pulled in second-row qualifier Graham Rahal, who spun his Newman/Haas/Lanigan car in avoidance without hitting anything.

"Hopefully our scare of the month is out of the way," Rahal said. "We ended up with some flat tires and that's the only reason I couldn't drive it back to the pits. I'll take it. It's better than putting the McDonald's car into the wall."

Rookie Rafael Matos was the fastest second-day qualifier, running 223.429 mph in the No. 2 Air Force car run by Luczo Dragon Racing.

"We made a change in the car overnight and it worked," Matos said. "We were impressed with our speed and hopefully we will have a fast car for the race."

Sarah Fisher
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanSarah Fisher secured an eighth Indy 500 start, qualifying for the outside of the seventh row.

Paul Tracy avoided having to spring for a full-month engine lease by posting the second-fastest speed of the day at 223.111 mph. Other second-day qualifiers included Vitor Meira, Justin Wilson, Hideki Mutoh, Ed Carpenter, Dan Wheldon, Sarah Fisher and Davey Hamilton.

Helio Castroneves gave Team Penske a scare when he pulled his car off track in the afternoon trailing smoke and fluid. A Honda Performance Development spokesman said the problem was a detached oil return line and that Castroneves' car -- a backup -- would receive a precautionary engine change.

Besides Andretti and Viso, drivers bumped from the field on Sunday after posting qualifying speeds were Milka Duno and Alex Tagliani.

Eleven of the 33 starting spots for the May 24 race remain open.

Viso's 221.745 mph run was the fastest Sunday among nonqualified drivers, Andretti ran 221.109 mph, Ryan Hunter-Reay 221.5, Duno 219.0 mph and Tagliani 218.0.

Tagliani's effort was hampered by a morning practice crash that kept his Conquest Racing entry sidelined until after 5 p.m.

Other potential second-weekend qualifiers include former race winner Buddy Lazier; Robert Doornbos, who crashed two Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing entries within 24 hours last week; Nelson Philippe, who also crashed in practice; Stanton Barrett, whose best practice laps have come in the 218 mph range; and Oriol Servia, who is expected to be named as the driver of Rahal Letterman Racing's No. 17 car.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.