INDIANAPOLIS – Josef Newgarden felt like the oddest of odd men out.
It was Saturday evening, the Fast Nine was all set for the run for the pole Sunday, and here he was up at the podium next to, among others, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves. Here he was, a 23-year-old from Tennessee driving not for Penske or Ganassi royalty, but for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
That was the thing about this weekend, though: It wasn’t as if he didn’t belong.
He was, after all, a member in good standing of the Fast Nine, having at the last minute pulled his previous time – which was 13th best – and put up an 11th-hour run of 230.033 to sneak inside the velvet rope with the eighth best qualifying time of the day. It set him up for a 229.893 trip Sunday that will send him to the Indianapolis 500 next weekend in the middle of Row 3.
So what happened there at 5:41 in the afternoon Saturday, nine minutes before the track closed?
We definitely went for it, Newgarden said. Sometimes it’s just fast and you don’t know why. It’s different for everyone, but sometimes you go slower – or you go faster – and you don’t actually know why.
It’s a funny place. Sometimes you get the conditions right or just the right run, but it definitely seems to pick you. When this place wants you to be fast, it lets you be fast.
And it doesn’t seem to care what your pedigree is.
Newgarden, for instance, qualified 25th last year and finished 28th, after finishing 25th as a rookie in 2012. He was 14th in the IndyCar points last year and 23rd in 2012, and he came to this weekend 13th in the points this season.
Yet the place let him be fast this weekend. And he wasn’t the only one.
When it was all in the books Sunday, the top 13 qualifiers had all cleared 230 mph, and not all of them were from the Penske-Ganassi-Andretti Autosport axis. Ed Carpenter put himself and his race team on the pole for the second straight year – Castroneves last did it in 2009-10 – and teammate J.R. Hildebrand qualified ninth.
In fact, four of the Fast Nine came out of smaller stables: Carpenter and Hildebrand from Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden from Sarah Fisher Hartman and, in the middle of Row 2, Simon Pagenaud from Sam Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Five teams in there (in the Fast Nine), Carpenter said. All sorts of teams represented. That’s what’s awesome about (IndyCar) right now.