Published November 20, 2014
INDIANAPOLIS — Bump Day is going to be relevant again at Indianapolis.
IndyCar drivers and team executives say the final day of Indianapolis 500 qualifying could be more interesting than usual because several Champ Car drivers who joined IndyCar when the series merged in 2008 have gained enough experience at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to challenge the veterans.
That could leave some longtime IndyCar drivers fighting for a spot in the field on Sunday.
Former Champ Car driver Will Power leads the point standings and is among the favorites to win the May 30 race after finishing fifth last year. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who spent three years in Champ Car and now is fourth in IndyCar points, was Indy 500 rookie of the year in 2008 after finishing sixth.
Alex Tagliani finished 11th in last year's Indy 500 and was rookie of the year after starting 33rd. Graham Rahal qualified fourth last year, but crashed early in the race and finished 31st.
Justin Wilson is another ex-Champ Car driver who has been solid in practice. He sits sixth in the standings.
"It makes everybody up their game," John Andretti, who fought through Bump Day last year and qualified, said. "It's not only the drivers, but the teams that came over. They're getting more knowledgeable about the race car and what to do to it too. And they're extremely competitive."
Rob Edwards, general manager of the FAZZT Race Team, agrees.
"Certainly, there's a lot more depth to the field," he said. "Since 2008, we're definitely back to where the best drivers racing in America are competing to qualify for the field. And that means the split between the front and the back of the field is that much closer."
The time difference in qualifying between pole-winner Helio Castroneves and the slowest qualifier last year was a record-low 3.0967 seconds. Mark Johnson, general manager of KV Racing Technology, wouldn't be surprised if that was lower this year because the former Champ Car drivers are getting used to the ovals. In the Kansas event on May 1, Hunter-Reay finished fifth, Tagliani eighth and Power 12th.
"There were a lot of talented individuals in the IRL and in Champ Car," Johnson said. "Now that we've had a couple of years for the Champ Car drivers to adjust, it's become very competitive. It's got everything we've hoped for when we got back together."
The format for qualifying has changed. Last year, the first 22 spots qualified one weekend, the next 11 spots were filled the following Saturday, and Bump Day was Sunday. This year, the first 24 spots will qualify on Saturday, then nine more on Sunday before bumping.
This year, there are 37 driver-car combinations competing for 33 spots, meaning at least four drivers will be out of luck at 6 p.m. on Sunday. There also are drivers hanging around Indy, hoping to get sponsorship, a ride and a chance to crack the field before the weekend is over.
As recently as 2004, there was no bumping because there weren't enough combinations. Last year, Buddy Lazier and Stanton Barrett failed to push their way into the field on Bump Day.
Bruno Junqueira was the only driver who bumped a car out last year. He said preparation this year will be more difficult for the drivers.
"With two weeks compressed into one week, at the end of the day, it's just less practicing time for everybody," he said. "Sunday will be very exciting."
It also means teams don't have overnight to make adjustments after the second round of qualifications.
"I think what's changed is the amount of preparation we have," Edwards said. "There's less room for error than there was before. That could make a surprise or two in who ends up in the 33, but at the end of the day, it will be the fastest 33, and that's the way it should be."
Junqueira's Bump Day story last year was unique because he qualified a car for Conquest Racing, then was replaced because Alex Tagliani, Conquest's full-time driver, had more sponsorship money.
"Last year, I had no team," Junqueira said. "I walk around for two weeks, trying to find a ride. I go out Saturday night, before Bump Day, get a ride," he said. "Did, like, eight laps, and went out and put the car in the field, and then end up not racing."
Junqueira hasn't shaken his bad luck. He now is a member of the FAZZT team, but his sponsor hasn't come through with the money for his car. He got some track time in rookie Sebastian Saavedra's car on Thursday, but would have preferred to be getting his own car ready.
He'll debut in his car on Sunday if he has to.
"It's very difficult because you don't have much time," he said. "I know how to drive very well, but it's a lot of pressure because it's very fast. You should be really precise and fast. I've done it in the past, and I think I can do it again."
Andretti hopes to qualify on Saturday and avoid a stressful Sunday altogether.
"It's a tough situation to be in," he said. "Mentally, it lingers in the back of your mind. Everybody always thinks that that will never happen to them. It's what Indianapolis brings out. All of a sudden, it can catch you from behind pretty hard. You think you're OK, but you're not."