Commentary

High and low hit Conquest Racing

Updated: May 18, 2009, 12:05 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Bump Day qualifying for the 93rd Indianapolis 500 officially ended at 6 p.m. ET Sunday evening.

But the bumping continued at Conquest Racing until almost midnight.

Five and a half hours after the action ended on track, Conquest owner Eric Bachelart announced that Alex Tagliani will drive the team's No. 36 car that qualified earlier in the day by Bruno Junqueira. Tagliani had been the last driver bumped out of the field for the 33-car Indianapolis 500 (May 24, Noon, ABC) Sunday afternoon when Ryan Hunter-Reay of Vision racing eclipsed his No. 34 car's speed of 220.553 mph, literally as time expired on the last of four days of qualifying.

The Conquest team and both of its drivers experienced the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat in the same day.

Junqueira made the field for the 500 with a remarkable, minimalist effort just after 1 p.m. But Tagliani, who had posted what was the 26th fastest speed at the time on Saturday, was sitting helplessly in the qualifying line when the gun was fired at 6 p.m. to end Bump Day.

The DNQ was a severe blow for Tagliani, who was attempting to qualify for his first Indianapolis 500. It set into motion a contingency plan that was confirmed just before midnight.

"We've been working with Alex for a long time now and have built our commercial and marketing program around him," Bachelart said. "He has been our primary driver since the start of the season, and we felt that it was in the best interest of the team and our partners to have him in the car for the Indy 500 as we continue to build our future together."

Junqueira, who has made five Indianapolis 500 starts, notching pole position for the 2002 race and two top-five finishes, was disappointed by the turn of events.

"I knew coming into this that Alex is Conquest's primary driver and that if something happened to the first car that I would likely give him my place and I completely understand it," Junqueira said. "I really enjoyed working with Conquest Racing. They gave me a really good car and hopefully I can work with them again the future."

Tagliani, 36, competed in the CART/Champ Car World Series from 2000 to 2007 before joining Conquest's IndyCar Series program late in 2008.

"Obviously it would have been much sweeter if we would have had both cars in the show, because Bruno and I had fast and identical cars," Tagliani said. "It's pretty much a fluke that I didn't make the field. We just got caught out. You never want to second-guess yourself but if we had to redo things we probably would do it differently, but now that is in the past.

"At the end of the day, I'm just really happy right now to be realizing my dream of running in the Indy 500. The team has worked so hard all month and they deserve to be here."

Certainly, Junqueira deserves to be in the field as well after what may go down as one of the most remarkable qualifying performances in the long history of the Indianapolis 500.

Forty-two hours before he successfully qualified, Junqueira's entry was little more than a bare tub. Confirmation of his deal came at about 7 p.m. Friday, leading to an all-nighter for a combination of a few Conquest mechanics and a couple helpers recruited from the dormant Roth Racing team.

They hoped to get on track Saturday afternoon, but a shortage of parts prevented the No. 36 car from turning a wheel until 10:45 a.m. Sunday. Within six laps, Junqueira was at more than 220 mph, and following a simulated qualifying run, the car was pushed into the qualification line at 12:57 p.m.

Less than 10 minutes later, the gritty 32-year-old Brazilian was safely in the Indy field with a 221.115 mph average after an incredibly efficient use of track time. Junqueira ran a total of 13 laps before he qualified with a 221.115 mph average.

"I think I broke a record of [the least] laps in practice to put a car in the field," Junqueira said. "It's one of the most exciting moments of my life and my career."

That's saying a lot coming from a guy who came oh so close to securing a Formula 1 drive with Williams-BMW and instead went on to a successful career in America, winning eight races and finishing second three times in the CART/Champ Car World Series championship between 2001 and 2007.

The impressive run was a karmic payback from Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Junqueira's 2005 racing season ended after a bone-headed move by A.J. Foyt IV during the Indy 500 that put Bruno into the wall and into the hospital with a broken back. Junqueira still lives with a 9-inch rod and 14 screws embedded in his spine, but is as physically fit as any driver on the grid.

Meanwhile, Tagliani looked safe in Conquest's No. 34 car with the 26th fastest speed when the day started. But a surprisingly active last day of qualifying saw seven drivers exceed that speed, capped by Hunter-Reay's pressure-packed 220.597 mph run that started at 5:58 p.m.

[+] EnlargeAlex Tagliani
AP Photo/Darron CummingsAlex Tagliani was still in his car waiting for one last chance when the final gun sounded.

To say the least, Tagliani was red-eyed and distraught when he talked to a small group of media about an hour after he suffered the disappointment of being bumped. Although he is a veteran in American open-wheel racing with seven years of CART/Champ Car experience and a partial season in the IndyCar Series, this was Tagliani's first visit to Indianapolis.

Tagliani practiced at almost 222 mph in the final hour, but his car was twice pulled from the qualifying line when it appeared no one would find the speed to bump him at the last minute. But John Andretti and Hunter-Reay came up with the necessary pace to bump their way into the field in the final eight minutes.

"It's really difficult to accept that we're going home with a car that's capable of being in the field," Tagliani said Sunday evening. "It's probably the disappointment of my career, but I'll be ready to go [May 31] in Milwaukee."

He won't have to wait that long. The No. 36 car will be adapted for Tagliani and Junqueira will likely spend next Sunday at home in Miami.

"I want to thank the team for giving me the opportunity to qualify their car today," Junqueira said. "I was able to go fast right from the start despite not having a lot of practice, and that was very rewarding for myself."

Bachelart, who runs his team on a limited budget from a north-side Indianapolis shop, struggled to cope with his emotions when he talked to the media in the immediate aftermath of watching his No. 34 car get bumped.

"I don't know how to explain or describe it: it's unbelievable and incredible," Bachelart said. "We had plenty of speed and after we were 26th on the grid [Saturday] we never expected to get bumped. The track conditions were much better today and I guess we felt we would be fine.

"We missed it, what can I say? Alex and the engineers did a great job. It says good things about how competitive the series is, and this is Indianapolis. We just have to accept it. At least we have another car in the show and will be in the race."

In the end, Bump Day at Indianapolis lived up to the hype, with an exciting final half hour. Seeing the Andretti/Richard Petty effort make the show made for a good story line, and it was certainly a nail-biting time for Hunter-Reay and Vision Racing, especially given Hunter-Reay's position as the front man for Izod's widespread promotional campaign with the IndyCar Series.

There would have been some red faces in the Indy Racing League camp Monday had the series embarked on its annual New York City media tour -- with Izod as the focal point -- if Hunter-Reay hadn't made the field.

But you had to come away thinking that Bruno Junqueira somehow deserved better.

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