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Scott McLaughlin during Indy 500 qualifying

Source: James Walsh/Penske Entertainment / other

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — There was no doubt about it coming into the day. Team Penske would be fast on the opening day of qualifying for the 108th running of the Indianapolis 500.

All three drivers posted the best four-lap averages on Fast Friday and appeared to not show any signs of flinching in the wake of an embarrassing scandal from the weeks prior. The drama, uncertainty, and recent history for the Penskes were also left in the review mirror on Saturday as all three enter Pole Day as the favorites to secure the pole.

The burning question now will be which one will stake the claim of the coveted first starting position in the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” The Penske drivers also had the added benefit of early qualifying draws, allowing them to take advantage of cooler and faster conditions earlier in the day.

“It was a good smooth run. Obviously got an early draw, which helps,” said Will Power, the provisional pole sitter heading into Sunday. “Would like to have run in the heat, but Roger didn’t want us to go out. We’ll do the practice tomorrow.”

Power set the tone for the field with his first and only qualifying run at an average of 233.758 mph. Teammates Scott McLaughlin and Josef Newgarden are not too far off.

However, the aforementioned burning question may be answered by a different driver altogether as Arrow McLaren had a strong showing from 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi. With the fourth fastest average (233.069) on his second run late in the day, he was solidly in the “Fast 12” after foregoing his initial qualifying draw and waiting for conditions to get better in the early afternoon.

“It was a pretty wild day for us. It started with the draw last night, thanks to 34th. It was pretty tough,” Rossi said. “Obviously it was a little chaotic for the whole organization in the beginning. But we knew we had fast cars, and it was a lot of just teamwork to kind of stay calm with the unpredictable stuff that started to happen.”

What was unpredictable for Arrow McLaren was Pato O’Ward, who was uncharacteristically slow to start the day. However, he rallied later on and was able to snag a spot in the Fast 12.

Plenum Fires

O’Ward was an early victim of what would end up being a glaring problem for the Chevy teams as the day dragged on. “Plenum Fires or “Plenum Events” kept happening to several drivers with Chevy engines. It’s a mechanical phenomenon that happens when shifting at high RPMs.

O’Ward’s teammate Kyle Larson was the first to fall victim to the issue as he had to bail on his opening qualifying run that showed promise. It would also plague Ed Carpenter, Conor Daly, and Agustin Canapino.

Larson, who is attempting the IndyCar-NASCAR Double in a week’s time, overcame the engine issues and was able to score the fastest speed among the Indy 500 rookies at 232.563, good for seventh and in the Fast 12.

Canapino and Daly in particular were furious given the fact that the issue spoiled what looked like runs that would have put them in the Fast 12.

“We’re going to be running overnight, and then we’re working on ways to mitigate the issue and eliminate it,” said Chevrolet representative Jim Campbell. ” Last year we had eight out of the Fast 12, but we did not get the pole last year, so we’re pushing to get to the pole.”

Chevy engines occupy nine of the top twelve spots as drivers head into Pole Day.

Last Row Deja Vu

A year ago Graham Rahal had the most stressful and heartbreaking experience in Indy 500 qualifying being bumped from the field in the Last Row Shootout. He and his Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan team had said in the days leading up to Fast Friday that there had been significant improvements to ensure history would not repeat itself.

On Saturday, at least for Rahal, it did.

“We’ve just got to put our heads down. It’s not at all what we expected as a team,” Rahal said. “I think it’s a culmination of a lot of things that have put us back here again, but it’s no excuse. We’ve got to figure out why we’ve lost some speed over the last couple of days and just go from there.”

Rahal and his teammates had shown promise in the days leading up to Fast Friday. However, the speed started to dissipate once they started running in qualifying trim, and by the end of Saturday, Rahal found himself back in the Last Row Shootout after failing to put up a speed fast enough to grab a spot in the Top 30.

He is joined by Dale Coyne teammates Katherine Legge and Nolan Siegel. Siegel is still coming back from a wreck during Fast Friday.

Also in the mix for the final row is Marcus Ericsson, who also failed to get a backup car up to a sufficient speed after wrecking in practice on Thursday.

“It’s been very tough, obviously. But yeah, I can only blame myself,” Ericsson said. “I crashed our primary car on Thursday and put us in a difficult spot. I think the team has done a really good job at building up the backup car and really putting in a lot of work yesterday to try and dial it in.”

Vicious Veekay

Indianapolis is also about miraculous performances in clutch moments. There was no moment more clutch than what Rinus Veekay accomplished. On the day’s third of what would end up being 72 qualifying attempts by the field, Veekay crashed hard into the Turn 2 wall.

His day looked like it may dash his hopes of making the field.

However, his crew pieced the car back together and got him back out onto the grid for a few more runs with 90 minutes left in the day. Veekay got the car in the field at the 29th spot, but with less than five minutes left in the day, that was not enough for the Dutch driver.

Veekay withdrew his standing average that had him in the field and he hunted for bigger game. He turned a stunning average of 232.419 mph and stole a spot in the Fast 12 bumping out Colton Herta.

“Such a heartbreak to start the day,” Veekay said. “Crew got the car back together in under three hours, which is incredible to start with. Then to get a banker run in, get the car cooled down, go back out again at the end and do that — I’ve never lost hope, but I mean, I never expected us to do that. It’s such a great story, such a great job by the guys.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay also shocked thousands of onlookers by coming home with an average of 232.385 which bumped last year’s pole-sitter Alex Palou from the top twelve. Santino Ferrucci also overcame a sluggish early run to grab a top-twelve spot as well.

What’s Next?

Positions 13 through 30 on the starting grid are set in stone. A surprising fact is that all the Chip Ganassi cars failed to make the Fast 12, which means fans will not see any of them on Sunday.

Only drivers in the Fast 12 and the Last Row Shootout will turn laps on Pole Day.

The gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will open at 10 a.m. EDT and practice will begin at Noon EDT for the Fast 12 drivers to get some warm-up runs in. Last Row Shootout drivers will get an hour that immediately follows until 2 p.m. EDT.

At 3:05 the first round of the Fast 12 will trim the field from twelve drivers to the Firestone Fast Six. At 4:15 the Last Row Shootout will take place. Each driver gets as many runs as they want to take within an hour-long time span. At the end, one driver will be bumped from the field.

At 5:25, the final six drivers standing will get just one run to try and secure the pole position for the Indianapolis 500.

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