(Reuters) – Three-times winner Helio Castroneves topped qualifying speeds for the May 27 Indianapolis 500 as Danica Patrick assured herself of a spot in the final race of her career on a rainy Saturday at the famed Brickyard.
Brazilian Castroneves, winner in 2001, 2002 and 2009, powered his Penske to a four-lap average speed of 228.919 mph during a morning run as he prepared to chase a fifth Indy 500 pole on Sunday.
“I ran only half-throttle, so tomorrow I’m going to go full-throttle,” Castroneves jokingly told reporters. “Certainly, we’re going to push it.
The top nine fastest times from Saturday will stage a shootout for pole position on Sunday.
Patrick will be among those nine as the only woman in the field sneaked into the Fast Nine in the final slot at 227.610 mph.
“I have high expectations here,” Patrick said. “But to think I was going to come back and be in the Fast Nine? I’ll tell you, I was running 208 (mph) during the first day of practice thinking, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I can do this’.”
Team Penske have three of the top four positions heading into Sunday’s shootout: Castroneves, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud third and Will Power fourth.
Former pole winner Ed Carpenter broke up the group, finishing second fastest at 228.62 mph for a team that bears his name.
Also making the top nine were Sebastien Bourdais (fifth 228.090), Spencer Pigot (sixth, 228.052), Josef Newgarden (seventh, 228.049) and Scott Dixon (eighth, 227.782).
Castroneves, who has moved over to race sports cars for Roger Penske and no longer competes full time on the IndyCar circuit, signalled he is ready to fight for an elusive fourth win.
In more than a century of racing at the famed speedway only three men — A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr and Rick Mears — have triumphed four times and with a win next Sunday, Castroneves would become the first non-American to join that exclusive club.
With 35 cars battling for 33 spots on the starting grid, Bump Day was filled with tension, drama and a one big shock as Canadian James Hinchcliffe failed to qualify.
Hinchcliffe, who after a near-fatal crash at the circuit in 2015 came back to grab pole a year later, cut a frustrated figure in his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda as the clock clicked down, denying him one last attempt at qualifying.
“It’s devastating in every way possible,” Hinchcliffe said. “We have three cars in the show but unfortunately the fourth one didn’t make it but we win as team and lose as a team.
“It is crazy to be here after where we were two years ago.
We’ll learn from this.”
There was also disappointment for Briton Pippa Mann, who got out ahead of Hinchcliffe for her final shot but could not coax enough speed out of her Dale Coyne Racing Honda to make the cut.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto and Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by John O’Brien)