By Lori Wood
Speedway — In a span of less than three minutes, Panther Racing’s Scott Sharp’s stress level went from off the charts to manageable.
Sharp, who last raced at Indianapolis in 2007, bumped his way into the 22nd position during Sunday qualifying for the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500.
Sharp faced not only a car that lacked the necessary speed, but a commitment for an American LeMans Series race in Utah next weekend. If he didn’t make it Sunday, Sharp would have to rent a plane to fly to Indianapolis to qualify then return to Utah to race.
Initially, Sharp bumped Milka Duno from the field. She did not make another attempt. However, the team withdrew his time, knowing it would not hold up. At 5:12 p.m., he took his second of three daily attempts, turning in an average of 221.333 miles per hour, bumping John Andretti, who had already crashed and was finished for the day.
A.J. Foyt IV, after being bumped by Vitor Meira, fought his way back in with a 222.586, leaving E.J. Viso on the bubble. As the minutes ticked down, Sharp found himself four cars back in the qualifying line behind Sarah Fisher, Davy Hamilton and Viso.
After Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alex Tagliani waved off their attempts, workers scrambled to move Fisher and Hamilton from the line since they were safely in the top 22.
With Viso on the bubble, he could have sat in the line, keeping Sharp from the track. In the good spirit of the sport, Viso removed his car from the line, allowing Sharp to make a final attempt.
Sharp rolled off of pit lane, just as the gun fired. His final four laps were his fastest of the day, bringing his four-lap average to 222.162 and making his 14th Indy 500 start from the 20th position.
“We were just chasing speed. Our runs were good enough in practice, but we couldn’t get the numbers. Finally at the end, the team hustled hard and laid the wings down a bit. We just had to go for it.”
While Sharp sat in the tech line, he looked at his watch, seeing it was six minutes until 6 p.m. and thought they were done. He lost his radio.
“I’m sitting in line thinking this isn’t going to happen.”
Suddenly he got the go signal, laying it all out and it worked.
Drivers vying for positions 11 through 22 found Sunday’s weather, sunny and without wind, a complete opposite of the conditions on Saturday. Rafael Matos scored the highest qualifying run of the day, 223.492. Matos’ run was actually the seventh fastest in the field, but because he qualified Sunday he will make his first Indy start from 12th.
Fisher got in on her second attempt with an average of 222.777, putting her 21st on the grid.
After crashing Saturday, Dan Wheldon found enough speed to put him on the outside of row six. His seventh start in Indianapolis will be his worst, but when he won in 2005, he started 16th.
Ed Carpenter’s 222.780 got him back in after being bumped Saturday. “As upset as I was [Saturday], I’m that happy today. Today is a whole lot faster, the track is better, and we made the car better, too,” Carpenter said.
Andretti took the hardest hit of the day. His earlier qualifying speed of 221.109 left him on the bubble. While running practice laps, Andretti did a quarter spin in Turn 1, smacking hard into the SAFER barrier.
In morning practice, Dreyer and Reinbold’s Mike Conway and Tagliani both made heavy contact with the Turn 1 wall, just minutes apart. Conway was taken to Methodist Hospital for further evaluation, but Tagliani was released from the infield care center and cleared to drive.
The remaining 11 starting positions are up for grabs next Saturday, with final bumping on Sunday.