INDIANAPOLIS — One minute, Scott Dixon thought the numbers were a mistake.
The next, he was sitting on the Indianapolis 500 pole.
On one of the strangest qualifying days in Indy history, Dixon overcame rules changes, a revised schedule, the threat of rain and Team Penske’s powerful four-car lineup to earn his second Indy pole with a four-lap average of 226.760 mph.
Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, who drive for Roger Penske, will start second and third on May 24 after going 226.350 and 226.145. Penske had won eight straight poles.
“I was definitely a little shocked with the first number when I saw it,” Dixon said. “I thought the steering wheel was broken but broken in a good way. Yeah, it’s a tough week, no matter which way you look at it, the curveballs that you get with the weather, but you understand that’s part of the month of May.”
That meant he had to adapt on the fly.
Heading into Sunday, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver thought his No. 9 car was good enough to end the Penske monopoly.
But when Ed Carpenter’s primary car went airborne in the morning practice, the third Chevrolet car to do that this week, team owners, engine manufacturers and series officials huddled in Gasoline Alley to find a solution.
They settled on removing the extra horsepower for qualifying and instructed all teams to use race setups, a combination that sent 34 drivers trying to make the May 24 race scrambling. The 5-hour, 15-minute delay forced everyone to scramble.
Despite the steep drop in speeds, Dixon somehow had enough to move into the top spot 25 minutes into qualifying, then hung on as 29 other drivers took shots at knocking him down a notch on the 33-car starting grid. None could. His winning average was more than 4 mph slower than last year’s pole-winning speed and almost 7 mph slower than the fastest laps turned this month.
“It’s nerve wracking because you’re getting in a car you that you haven’t really driven,” the New Zealander said. “I’m ready to go home and go to bed and have a good night’s sleep.”
Others might not rest as easily.
Power’s dream of a May sweep — winning both poles and both races at Indy — ended when the Australian couldn’t catch Dixon.
As the speeds slowed, nobody else could, either.
Three-time Indy champ Helio Castroneves thought he had a shot at a fifth Indy pole but never topped 226 and will start fifth, the middle of Row 2 after averaging 225.502. The Brazilian was trying to break a tie with A.J. Foyt and Rex Mays for the second-most Indy poles behind Rick Mears (six).
Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2000 Indy winner and another of the pole favorites, qualified 15th, the outside of Row 5, with a speed of 224.657
Carpenter’s crash ended his quest at becoming the first driver to win three straight poles at Indy. The delay did give his team time, however, to get a backup car ready and he wound up in the No. 12 starting spot after going 224.883. He was the third car out and held the top spot for a few minutes, until Dixon, the fourth driver in qualifying line, finished his run.
Because the revised schedule gave each car only one shot at the pole, Dixon didn’t even have to worry about anybody getting a second chance.
And some of the Honda drivers were understandably upset with the changes.
“I just feel like it’s playing into Chevy’s hands,” Graham Rahal predicted during the delay. “Chevy’s really, because of their problems with the aero kits lifting, that’s really what forced this issue in the first place. So I don’t fully understand why the Hondas should be penalized.”
He was right.
Chevy took eight of the first 10 starting spots with the top Honda driver being England’s Justin Wilson. He will start sixth, the outside of Row 2, after going 225.279.
Marco Andretti was the top American qualifier and will start in the middle of Row 3 with an average speed of 225.189.
Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, the second car out, and will start on the inside of Row 6 after posting a 224.573.
The only driver not to make the field was 1996 race winner Buddy Lazier, who was late to the qualifying line in the first round and then couldn’t bump his way in later.
And now after a tense qualifying weekend that included a rainout one day and a mad scramble the next, Dixon will try to duplicate the feat he achieved in 2008 — winning from the pole.
“The race for the pole is definitely prestigious, but it’s not winning the Indianapolis 500,” Dixon said. “If we could replicate 2008, that would be fantastic, that’s the goal. It’s very hard to pull that off.”