Power saves Penske from Indy 500 qualifying embarrassment

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Will Power

Will Power, of Australia, waits in the pit area for his car during practice for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Will Power was wide open around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, unwilling to let off the gas, even when he brushed his car against the wall.

His spot in the Indianapolis 500 was at stake and Power, one of the greatest qualifiers in IndyCar history, was not going to miss the show.

The 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner was one of five drivers fighting for a spot in the final row of the May 30 race. A Team Penske car never should have been on the bubble, and yet on Sunday, Power desperately tried to avoid becoming the first Roger Penske driver sent home from the Indy 500 since 1995.

“This really gives you respect,” Power said. “Definitely lose a little bit of sleep over that one, just knowing you have to execute.”

Sage Karam was fastest in the shootout, followed by Power and Simona de Silvestro, who was driving a Penske car in an alliance for the women-led Paretta Autosport. The three will start in the last row in the field of 33 next Sunday.

It will be the third consecutive year Karam starts 31st.

Charlie Kimball was bumped from the race, bringing an end to 10 consecutive starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” R.C. Enerson, a rookie with new team Top Gun Racing, failed to qualify for his first Indy 500 after a week of struggles for the late entrant.

“So what do you want to do next weekend?” Kimball asked his wife as he climbed from the A.J. Foyt Racing entry.

Power, with 62 career poles in IndyCar, trails only Mario Andretti’s 67 poles for most in series history. He’s been the best of his generation at qualifying a car, but the Team Penske entries have struggled since Friday when engines were given a horsepower boost.

The issue doesn’t seem to be with the Chevrolet power plants because Ed Carpenter and Rinus VeeKay put a pair of Chevys in the Fast Nine qualifying group. The Penske issue appears to be in the mechanical setup, and none of its four cars dazzled in qualifying.

New IndyCar team owner Paretta has a heavy alliance with Penske as part of Roger Penske’s diversity push, and the struggles of the Penske cars applied also to de Silvestro. The Swiss driver is back at Indy for the first time since 2015 and theoretically in the best car of her career.

Yet she and Power both sat still in their cockpits under a hot Indiana sun as they waited to see if Kimball and Enerson would knock them from the race. Only when the clock hit zero on the 75-minute session did Power and de Silvestro climb from their cars and briefly hug in celebration.

Beth Paretta and de Silvestro will be the first female team owner and female driver in the Indy 500, and the team has a strong crew of women that could be used on pit stops next Sunday.

Many drivers already locked into the race watched the bumping process from pit lane with empathy for their fellow competitors.

“People will never understand the intensity that these five drivers and teams are feeling,” Graham Rahal said. “This is the most intense moment of your life, all magnified on national TV, pressured by sponsor implications, and worsened by terrible track conditions. Indy 500 qualifying at its worst.”

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