Danica Patrick dodges disaster at Indy
INDIANAPOLIS -- They set a new track record at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday.
With Danica Patrick sitting in the qualifying line just after 3 p.m. and rain teeming down, things didn't look good for America's favorite female racer. But the IMS Safety Team managed to get the famous 2.5-mile oval dried in just 90 minutes -- faster than any veteran Indy observer could remember.
That allowed Patrick to take to the track at 4:43 p.m., and about five minutes later, she was safely in the 33-car field after a four-lap qualifying run that averaged 224.861 mph. That was the second-fastest run of the day, eclipsed only by Paul Tracy's 224.939-mph effort.
But even with Danica safely qualified, it was a bittersweet day for Andretti Autosport as only three of its five drivers made the show.
Making matters worse, Marco Andretti bumped his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay out as the final qualifier, an unsatisfactory ending to a long and frustrating week for AA owner Michael Andretti and his team.
Still, Danica's close call was the big story of the day. With a full-time NASCAR career likely in her future, a DNQ wasn't how her Indianapolis 500 career was supposed to end.
She has always performed at her best when the pressure is on, and Bump Day 2011 at Indianapolis was no different.
"This place is like a person -- it reads you when you are nervous or not confident and it reads you when you are," said Patrick, who will line up 26th for next Sunday's race. "It throws a lot at you, but that's why it's the greatest racetrack in the world. You'd think after seven years here I'd be better off, but this week was my worst ever.
"I feel like I need a drink," she added. "Between angry and happy, I've been at both ends of the spectrum this week."
Patrick was among the quickest on the first day of practice, but the Andretti Autosport team's performance throughout the week mirrored what the team went through a year ago, when Tony Kanaan came perilously close to not qualifying. All five AA drivers struggled for speed as temperatures rose for the qualifying weekend.
Long Beach Grand Prix winner Mike Conway -- perhaps spooked by memories of his severe accident in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 -- never showed enough speed to make the show. More surprisingly, Hunter-Reay also failed to qualify, his 223.690 mph average barely shaded by Ana Beatriz's 223.879 mph run.
"I can't even fathom this at the moment," Hunter-Reay told a TV reporter while choking back tears. "We just ran out of time. We were on the unlucky end of that and it's just heartbreaking. My teammate bumped me out ... that's not ideal.
"We have to rebound somehow, but I've got a lot of faith in these guys, and that's what we'll do."
Marco Andretti expressed dismay at the way he bumped himself into the field at the expense of his teammate. Andretti was "on the bubble" from 4:48 p.m. until 5:55, when he was bumped by Alex Lloyd of Dale Coyne Racing. Fortunately, Andretti was already in his car in the qualifying line, and he set off on his make-or-break run at 5:59.
With Hunter-Reay and his fiancée, Beccy, barely able to watch, Marco found 224.628 mph in a car that struggled to top 223 on Pole Day.
"It's a bummer that we were in that situation," he said. "There were a lot of circumstances that put us in this position.
"We needed to get bumped to really justify going back out. We didn't want to look bad. It was either going to be in the wall or in the show."
For Michael Andretti, who led 431 laps during his 16-year driving career at Indianapolis but never won the 500, it was a reminder of the tough times he experienced at the Speedway.
"It was not a good day -- probably my worst day as an owner," he said. "I've had some real tough times here as a driver that were worse, but this was bad.
"I just feel so bad for Ryan and Mike. It breaks my heart. I don't have the words for them, but on the other side, I'm so happy for Marco. He did a hell of a job to pull it out there in the end."
Last year, Tracy was the big-name driver who failed to make the show at Indy, and the Canadian star must have sensed some déjà vu when he didn't get his Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entry in the show on Pole Day.
But just before the afternoon rain shower, Tracy put together a run that averaged nearly 225 mph and took him out of the stress zone.
"Indianapolis has dealt me a tough deck over my career, but we knew we could run those speeds if we got the opportunity," Tracy remarked. "Over the last day I developed a fever blister on my lip and that doesn't happen unless I'm really stressed out.
"But that's what Indianapolis will do to you. It will drive you crazy."
After crashing during the Pole Day practice, Ryan Briscoe put up a 224.6-mph run to safely qualify Team Penske's third entry. Other Bump Day qualifiers included Charlie Kimball, Graham Rahal, Lloyd and rookie Pippa Mann, who helped tie an Indianapolis 500 record by becoming the fourth female driver in the field.
But the combined star power of Mann, Beatriz and Simona De Silvestro doesn't come close to matching that enjoyed by Patrick, who was the first to admit that she, her sponsors and her massive fan base dodged a bullet on Sunday.
"I didn't have words for what happened today," Danica said. "I was speechless. I couldn't believe what was happening.
"But it is exciting, I guess."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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