Fast Nine: James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Townsend Bell, Josef Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud
James Hinchcliffe never fretted about posting the best four-lap average in qualifying at Indianapolis on Saturday.
All he wanted was a chance to win the pole Sunday.
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The Canadian driver, who nearly died last year from a life-threatening leg injury sustained during practice for last year's 500, survived two challenges in the final 25 minutes and barely held onto the top seed with a speed of 230.946 mph. Ryan Hunter-Reay was second at 230.805 on the next-to-last run in the session. Team Penske's Will Power came in third at 230.736.
"Our first run, that was the hardest qualifying attempt I'd ever done at the speedway here," Hinchcliffe said. "When you kind of take a step back and let yourself think about it a little bit, it does feel good."
To complete his comeback with a pole-winning run for the May 29 centennial race, Hinchcliffe must do it all over Sunday.
The nine fastest drivers from Saturday will compete in a late afternoon pole shootout and, if it resembles anything like the first day of qualifications, fans could be in for a real treat.
The lead changed twice in the final 40 minutes, nearly changed two more times in the last 25 minutes and included Russia's Mikhail Aleshin bumping his way into the shootout on the final run of the day. Hinchcliffe and Aleshin are teammates with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Hunter-Reay made the top nine with a daring run that knocked out teammate Marco Andretti, the son of Andretti Autosport's team owner, Michael, just moments after Andretti had bumped out Hunter-Reay.
"That was hectic," the 2014 Indy winner said after finishing second. "I have some bad memories at this place being right as the gun goes off. I had to keep reminding myself, `It's only for the top nine. Everything's good.'"
It also was a challenging day.
Another Andretti driver, Townsend Bell, led most of the afternoon and his 230.452 and held up until three-time 500 champion Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, went 230.500. Then, after American Graham Rahal made his second attempt, Hinchcliffe drove onto the track and moved past Castroneves.
Rain delayed practice by more than four and a half hours and, when the cars finally made it onto the 2.5-mile oval, the conditions were totally different. When the sun came out, the track temperature warmed up and the wind gusts began. Drivers found themselves fighting to stay on the track.
"I was really holding on from Lap to Lap 2 and it was worse on Lap 3, I thought, `I wish this was the last one,'" said Scott Dixon, the four-time series champ and 2015 Indy pole winner who drives for Target Chip Ganassi.
He wasn't the only one struggling.
English driver Pippa Mann, of Dale Coyne Racing, crashed in qualifying and another English driver, Max Chilton, crashed in practice. Both were released from the infield medical center and were cleared to drive but did not return to the track.
Four of the six former Indy winners including Dixon, of New Zealand, and Penske driver Juan Pablo Montoya, the defending champion from Colombia, also missed the shootout.
Hinchcliffe, on the other hand, hung on long enough to give himself one more chance.
"It doesn't mean much today," he said. "It's bragging rights. It gets us into the fast nine."