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Indianapolis 500 qualifications include incredible drama, tremendous pressure and potential heartbreak

In Sports
May 19, 2024

INDIANAPOLIS – The starter’s pistol was fired from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway stage, right on time at 5:50 p.m. ET to conclude an incredible roller-coaster of a day in Saturday’s Indianapolis 500 qualifications.

Penske Corporation president Bud Denker, one of Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Roger Penske’s key senior management officials, remarked on the day of drama, exhilaration and heartbreak to NBCSports.com.

“This is what it’s all about, the drama that comes with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” Denker told NBCSports.com. “This place is incredible. Like nowhere else on Earth.”

It’s pressure personified, where the achievements are celebrated with the highest of highs and the disappointments are crushing, bitter and often cruel.

Just two years ago, Marcus Ericsson was celebrating the 106th Indianapolis 500 in Victory Lane. Last year, he finished second to Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, coming incredibly close to being the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

But on Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ericsson climbed out of his No. 28 Andretti Global Honda as one of four drivers who have yet to make the starting lineup for the May 26 108th Indianapolis 500.

It all started when he crashed his Indy 500 specific No. 28 Honda during practice on Thursday. The damage was severe, and the team had to prepare a backup car for “Fast Friday” and this weekend’s qualifications.

Although the other three Andretti Global entries easily qualified for the Indy 500 on Saturday, including Kyle Kirkwood in fifth, Colton Herta in 13th and Marco Andretti 19th, Ericsson could not get his Honda up to speed to make the 30 cars that were locked into the starting lineup in Saturday’s qualifications.

His four-lap average speed of 230.603 miles per hour was not fast enough to top Pietro Fittipaldi’s four laps at 231.100 mph. Fittipaldi is in the race, but Ericsson has to qualify through Sunday’s Last Chance Qualifying.

It’s a cut-throat round of qualifications as four drivers will fight it out for the final three starting positions in the last row.

Ericsson joins Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Graham Rahal, who is in the Last Chance Qualifying for the second year in a row after his four laps at 230.233 mph was too slow.

It was another cruel surprise that Indy has bestowed upon the son of team owner and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal.

Also, both Dale Coyne Racing entries are in the Last Chance Qualifying, including Katherine Legge (230.244 mph for a four-lap average) and rookie Nolan Siegel (226.621 mph).

Ericsson had made one final attempt at racing his way into the field before the gun sounded to end qualifications. He wasn’t fast enough, and he pulled his No. 28 Honda into pit lane, climbed out, took off his helmet and thanked his crew as they are faced with the unenviable prospect of having to do whatever it takes to find the speed for Sunday.

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

Syndication: The Indianapolis Star

He kissed his wife, Iris, and walked up pit lane, chased by photographers and media members.

About 10 steps behind, his wife walked by herself and confided her thoughts to NBCSports.com.

“This certainly isn’t what we had in mind when the day began,” Ericsson’s wife told NBCSports.com. “We were hoping to be in the ‘Fast 12’ and have a great chance to run for the pole on Sunday.

“Instead, we aren’t even in the race yet.

“It’s going to be a very long night.”

Her husband understands the joys and the risks of racing. By winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2022, he achieved glory that will last a lifetime with a victory that will stand the test of time.

His face will remain on the Borg-Warner Trophy along with the other winning drivers of the Indianapolis 500 – faces that date all the way back to Ray Harroun’s victory in the first edition in 1911.

Two years later, Ericsson is faced with the prospect of missing the race entirely.

“It’s tough, it’s very tough, for sure,” Ericsson said. “It’s tough because I’m out there driving with my heart in my throat. It’s very, very tough. It’s very low grip, exciting, and really, really tough every run trying to get everything out of it.

“We’ll try to regroup tomorrow. I’m thankful my group, the 28 guys at Andretti have done a great job. We’ll dig into the data and get back out it tomorrow.

“We struggled with our backup car. The team has done an amazing job to get it ready, but we seem to be missing some speed with it. I’m driving for my life. Can’t get the speed out of it, but it’s exciting.”

Ericsson realizes he wouldn’t have been in this position if he had not crashed his Indy 500-specific car on Thursday.

“It’s tough, but I can’t blame anyone but myself,” he said. “I crashed our primary car on Thursday. It was a really good car. I put myself in this position, we have to fight to get out of it, but we have another day tomorrow.”

High and lows – the Indianapolis 500 has both in abundance.

“True, sure is,” Ericsson admitted to NBCSports.com. “It’s been a good place for me, but the last couple of days have been tough, for sure.

“It will be all right. We have to dig into the data and find why we are lacking so much speed and balance on this car, but the team has done a tremendous job. We need to work hard tonight, figure it out and put together and good run on Sunday.

“This place always brings surprises, and we have to bring our ‘A’ game tomorrow to deliver to be in the race.”

Paul “Ziggy” Harcus has been part of the Indianapolis 500 for more than three decades. He is a key part of team owner Michael Andretti’s team as one of its team managers.

Harcus has celebrated many great Indy 500 memories including victories with Dan Wheldon in 2005, Dario Franchitti in 2007, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, Alexander Rossi in 2016 and Takuma Sato in 2017.

“This was something we did not foresee coming here,” Harcus told NBCSports.com. “I thought we had really good cars. Crashing the car, you put the other one together and do the best job you can. We think it’s good, but we can’t get the speed out of it that we need.

“I never saw this coming. We’ve had some good and some bad days at this place.

“The other cars are all pretty good. We’ll have some good race cars here, so I’m not worried about that. We are trying different stuff but can’t find the sweet spot that we need.

“The drivers have their speedway cars, and this was the backup but some reason, it’s not working well.

“Once we get to the race, we’ll be fine.”

But Ericsson has to make the race, first.

He has one last chance Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500

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