INDIANAPOLIS — The Fast Nine is now set for Sunday’s top nine Shootout. We saw all 33 drivers make qualifying attempts around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday, some of them making multiple attempts, but nine drivers will know that they can make a run for the pole on Sunday afternoon while everyone else 10th-33rd is set.
While a couple of big stories taken away from Saturday was Team Penske’s lack of pace and Andretti Autosport’s dominance, one quiet storyline was the performance of a couple of rookies.
Everyone talked about how difficult qualifying would be on Saturday. The added boost to counter with the addition of the Aeroscreen which hurts drag and adds weight, make these cars a handful. You have to be steady at the wheel and minimize fall off over the course of four laps.
So, when the dust settled, we had not one, but two rookies make the Fast Nine.
Alex Palou had never raced an oval prior to this season as his entire life consisted of road course racing. He’s never been above 215 mph prior to this past Wednesday.
Now, the Dale Coyne Racing rookie qualified on Saturday with a four lap average of 231.034 mph in his No. 55 Honda. Not only did he do that, he did that in the heat of the day too when no one said it could be done.
To put this in perspective, everyone talked about how the qualifying draw would be the biggest factor in determining the Fast Nine. Five of the nine drivers in the Fast Nine qualified outside of the top 10 in the draw. Only one of those five was outside of Andretti Autosport. That was Palou.
For a rookie making his Indy debut to do that, it’s eye opening.
“Amazing place, I love it,” Palou told me on Friday morning. “We had really good two first days. I was just trying to get comfortable with the track.
Despite that, he’s quietly been the best rookie among the talented five driver rookie class all week.
Palou, led all rookies on the speed charts on opening day with a top speed of 223.128 mph in his No. 55 Honda. That was good enough for P8. He backed that up on Thursday with a top lap of 224.971 mph. That was P5. He was sixth when the boost got turned up on Friday at 231.989 mph.
For a rookie driver in a field as competitive as this one is, he’s not supposed to be this fast this early. He’s a driver to watch as the month progresses on.
“We had such a good first day, I was a bit worried that oh God maybe we had too good of a first day,” Palou said of his early impressions. “Everybody can go down right? Yesterday we went up again. We were even faster. I was even more comfortable in traffic. I’m just looking forward to the real thing so I can know where we are.
“This is my first time getting a big tow and yeah you really feel the speed. We’re still not able in our case or our car to get a run just because we’re playing it safe on downforce levels.
“It’s been a surprise but not a felling that I can’t do.”
One thing that he didn’t have to worry about is being bumped. We have 33 cars for 33 spots. Despite that, he still wanted to know what it feels like to have the fear of not making the show.
“Yeah, for sure,” Palou said. “I think that for sure it’s a relief to know that you’re going to do the race. I think that at the end of the day I knew that I had the car capable of doing the show without any problems. It was up to me to make the show.
“So, yeah, anyway knowing that you going to race for sure next week, it’s a relief. I don’t have to be thinking about that. I can go and attack a bit more I think in qualifying. It takes pressure off, for sure.
“But to be honest, I would love to feel that fear of not making the show, having so many people having pressure. I think that’s what drives us. I think that’s what makes this thing so special. Yeah, it’s just a shame that my first experience in Indy 500 is going to be like that, not the full experience.
“But anyway, I’m looking forward. It’s good that we are here. We going to go and try to make a good result at the end of the day.”
Palou says that in Europe you couldn’t really follow Indy Car. The ‘500 though, you can see it. The Spanish driver said F1 was always his dream as a kid but when he got to 10 he felt like he needed to do something to get there. He watched a lot of races with his dad when he was younger of the Indy 500 and it’s a dream to get here to race against drivers that he watched when he was younger like Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon in this race.
He also notes that this is his first time racing against Fernando Alonso too. Sharing the biggest sporting event in the world with such an icon in his home country will surely help him grow in popularity back home too. But, he also notes that Alonso, not him is still getting all of the attention in Spain right now despite him being faster.
“It’s going to help because people are going to be more focused in Spain,” Palou said of having Alonso in this year’s race. “The first day, Fernando I think finished P4, so all the news was Fernando finished P4. I think yesterday we finished P5 and all the news was Fernando.
“If you watch the news in Spain, you’re not going to see anything that I’m ahead of him. Does it help me? I don’t know. It’s good to I think maybe finish ahead of him and show everybody that it’s not only him racing from Spain.”
Palou is a strong rookie so far and if he continues this effort here in Indy Car, he’s going to be a big star. He’s got a ton of talent and it’s being shown this week.
For another European rookie in Rinus VeeKay, his lap came out of no where. Conor Daly told me on Friday morning that VeeKay’s car should have a shot at the front row. He wasn’t wrong.
VeeKay, grabbed the early pole with a four-lap average of 231.114 mph in his No. 21 Chevrolet. That held until the Andretti boys got a hold of him, but still, when he outqualifies literally every other Chevy driver including all four Penske’s and his three-time Indy 500 pole winning boss/teammate Ed Carpenter, that’s saying something.
VeeKay, rattled off a 231.789 mph lap on his first qualifying lap of his career at Indy. He held a steady line for all four laps and here he is as the lone bowtie representative in the top 4 Rows.
To make matters even crazier, VeeKay noted that he and Carpenter had the same setup and the rookie went 231.114 mph and the veteran 229.811 mph.
This car has qualified in the Fast Nine for four straight years now.