In his rookie, 2006 NTT INDYCAR Series season, Marco Andretti nearly broke the curse. But. Not quite. Sam Hornish Jr. flashed by the third-generation star-crossed family’s racer to beat Andretti by a scant 0.0635 seconds, the third-closest finish in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race’s 103 runnings.
Since that time, Andretti has won two races, shown some signs of competitiveness but has been an inconsistent qualifier and racer. While he’s often been quick in practice, it’s been rare to see the youngest racing Andretti at the sharp end of the qualifying grid.
That changed when practice opened for the 104th Indianapolis 500 on Wednesday, August 12th. The No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco & Curb-Agajanian U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda was quick from the get-go, second in the first practice to Andretti Autosport teammate James Hinchcliffe, 224.345mph to Hinch’s 224.526mph. On Thursday it was five-time champion Scott Dixon’s turn at the top of the scoring pylon but Andretti was third, behind 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, logging 225.249 to Sato’s 225.693 and Dixon’s 226.102.
Come Fast Friday and Andretti blitzed them all by turning the fastest lap since Arie Luyendyk nearly hit the 240-mph mark in 1996. Marco’s 233.491mph was, it’s now apparent, the portent of things to come. On Armed Forces Qualifying day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Andretti topped all comers with his four-lap average of 231.351mph to earn top seed in Sunday’s Fast Nine qualifying session.
What was even more interesting about Saturday’s session is that Andretti was the 28th draw to qualify for the race in the heat of the day and that there were no Team Penske entries in the Fast Nine shootout on Sunday. In fact, the sole Chevrolet to make the nine-car shootout belonged to Dutch rookie Rinus VeeKay, driving the No. 21 Chevy for Ed Carpenter Racing.
On Saturday, Andretti led four Andretti Autosports Honda Indy cars of 2014 Indy 500 champ Ryan Hunter-Reay in second, 2016 Indy 500 champ Alexander Rossi and 2016 indy 500 pole sitter Hinchcliffe. Dixon was fifth, VeeKay sixth, rookie Alex Palou (No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda) seventh and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda teammates Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato.
Spots 10-33 were locked in after several drivers attempted two or three attempts once everyone had cycled through their first opportunities. Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport’s Colton Herta led the balance of the field, while reigning INDYCAR champ Josef Newgarden of Team Penske was 13th, 2018 Indy 500 champ Will Power is gridded 22nd, reigning champ Simon Pagenaud holds the 25th spot and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, making another try for a fourth victory here, has 28th grid spot, all for Team Penske. It was the team’s worst qualifying since being shut out of the race in 1995.
Much changed from Saturday’s benign weather to Sunday’s wind-affected climate. it was still mostly clear with some overcast but the winds picked up to over 10mph, gusts to 20mph. That gave a mighty tail wind on the front straightaway of the historic 2.5-mile oval and a headwind between the second and third turns. The wind caused issues for the drivers as it forced them to battle changes in Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s four turns and short chutes.
As Saturday’s ninth-place qualifier, Sato was first out and put together four amazingly consistent laps for a combined speed of 230.725, that eventually landed him in third. Then teammate Rahal who, like Sato were the sole drivers to take advantage of Sunday morning’s half-hour practice, battled an ill-handling car to set 229.380 for eighth, falling off with each consecrative tour of the oval. Rookie Palou took his turn and put up 229.676, which earned him 7th spot. VeeKay’s Chevy starts 4th with a four-lap 230.704mph average.
Dixon, who made a qualifying attempt late on Saturday that saw him produce a 232-mph tour, produced a four-lap average of 231.051mph, marching to the second spot once the order was complete. He was followed by Hinchcliffe’s disappointed 229.676mph average for 6th, Rossi’s 229.234mph 10-mile tour for 9th, Hunter-Reay at 230.648 to take 5th and, finally, Andretti’s pole run.
“This place means so much to us as a family,” Marco Andretti said after his 4-lap pace of 231.068, which beat Dixon by 0.017mph. His car was a handful, Marco said: “Lap 1 was good; Lap 2 started giving me the hint that [Laps] 3 and 4 were going to be tough. I knew it was going to be interesting; I knew it was going to be close, too, because I was watching the speeds. The luxury of going last is you know the benchmark. Luckily we were just on the better end of that.”
Marco Andretti’s pole position marks for the first Indianapolis 500 pole for the Andretti family since 1987, 33 hears ago, when Mario Andretti earned the honor. His father Michael has never held pole position at the track. It was the first pole for the No. 98 since 1963 when Parnelli Jones took that number to No. 1 on the qualifying pylon. In speaking to his grandfather this morning, Mario reminded Marco, “‘The wind will scare you but it won’t crash you’. He was right today.”
In the post-qualifying practice session, Marco Andretti was again quickest (224.122mph), turning only 27 laps while Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward and Fernando Alonso made 115 tours of the oval. The nine cars behind Andretti after this practice were Castroneves, Dixon, Hunter-Reay, Santino Ferrucci’s Honda, Conor Daly’s Chevy, Marcus Ericsson (Honda), O’Ward, Ed Carpenter’s Chevrolet and Palou.
Will Marco Andretti erase the memories of his rookie year’s second-place close finish to Sam Hornish Jr. and ease the so-called Andretti Curse from the Brickyard oval next Sunday after 200 laps of racing? He has a week to think about it, now that the two-and-a-half hour practice following qualifying is done and only Carb Day remains to discern the right setup for the 104th Indianapolis 500? It wouldn’t be the worst bet in the world.
By Anne Proffit
1. (98) Marco Andretti (H) 231.068
2. (9) Scott Dixon (H) 231.051
3. (30) Takuma Sato (H) 230.725
4. Rinus VeeKay (C) 230.704
5. Ryan Hunter-Reay (H) 230.628
6. James Hinchcliffe (H) 229.870
7. Alex Palou (H) 229.676
8. Graham Rahal (H) 229.380
9. Alexander Rossi (H) 229.234
10. Colton Herta (H) 230.775
11. Marcus Ericsson (H) 230.566
12. Spencer Pigot (H) 230.539
13. Josef Newgarden (C) 230.296
14. Felix Rosenqvist (H) 230.254
15. Pato O’Ward (C) 230.213
16. Ed Carpenter (C) 230.211
17. Zach Veach (H) 229.961
18. Conor Daly (C) 229.955
19. Santino Ferrucci (H) 229.924
20. Jack Harvey (H) 229.861
21. Oliver Askew (C) 229.760
22. Will Power 229.701
23. Tony Kanaan (C) 229.154
24. Dalton Kellett (C) 228.880
25. Simon Pagenaud (C)228.836
26. Fernando Alonso (C) 228.768
27. James Davison (H) 228.747
28. Helio Castroneves (C) 228.373
29. Charlie Kimball (C) 227.758
30. Max Chilton (C) 227.303
31. Sage Karam (C) 227.099
32. JR Hildebrand (C) 226.341
33. Ben Hanley (C) 222.917