INDY 500 QUALIFYING: A sleepless night at Andretti Autosport

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 21: Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Team GoDaddy Dallara Honda, looks toward team members during qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 on May 21, 2011 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

While you are waking up and enjoying that first bit of morning coffee and Hobbsian wisdom from the Spanish F1 broadcast, take a moment to feel sorry for someone.

Yes, I'm talking about that junior mechanic from Andretti Autosport, who probably spent the night jacked up on Red Bull - err, Venom Energy - and the threat of a layoff through no fault of his own.

"Team Chaos," as some in the paddock refer to AA, was not the only team to struggle during the first day of Indy 500 qualifying, but was perhaps the most surprising. After all, who would have thought the only one of Michael Andretti's five cars in the field would be erstwhile cousin John Andretti (224.981 mph). who stuck his aqua and red Window World car into the field just before the rain interrupted qualifying?

When the fast nine qualifying shootout ended just after 6:00 p.m., there were 24 cars locked into the provisional field, and four of the them were not the full-time AA entries of Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Mike Conway.

"It's been a frustrating day for me and the team. We were slow all day - we've been slow since we rolled off and haven't really gained or made any improvements. To not make it into the field today just makes it all feel even worse," Marco Andretti said. "But my teammate and cousin John (Andretti) made it in and we're all happy for him. They obviously found some speed with his car and we're hoping that what they've learned can help us with the Venom car tomorrow."

Hope, Alexander Pope said, springs eternal.

But it doesn't spontaneously appear in the setup of IndyCars during qualifying.

Marco Andretti's comment underlines the divide between knowing and hoping. The rain-abbreviated practice schedule treated each team equally, but it was patently obvious that Andretti as a team had come to the Brickyard unprepared. Conway (race winner in Long Beach) and Hunter-Reay had languished near the bottom of the time sheets since rolling off the transporters. Marco and John Andretti had also struggled for speed, although not to the same extent. But the most surprising casualty of the Andretti woes was Danica Patrick, who had shown fairly well in the practice sessions.

"I felt that we had a fast car not only today, but all month and thought we would hit a 226 during today's qualifying run. The GoDaddy car was really fast to start the month off. I was happy. It was the best I've felt here in a long time. I felt really comfortable with car and it felt effortlessly fast and it wasn't really slow until this morning," Patrick said.


"All I can think of is something we missed or something happened with the track maybe and everyone is putting a new set of rubber on and it changed. We just have to buckle down at this point. I guess we are going to have to risk it a little more come tomorrow."

Andretti exile Tony Kanaan had commented earlier in the afternoon that it seemed like some cars had picked up more of a tow in practice than others, and while he did not name names, he seemed to be referring to Patrick. Grabbing someone's slipstream is an art that serves well in the 500-Mile Race, but not when a driver has to hang it out for the four-lap qualifying session.

Kanaan was the face of the Andretti team's struggles last year, as a pair of crashes with a loose race car forced him onto the last starting spot on the grid. Kanaan put on a brave face and took to the underdog role, but it was obvious the struggles were not his alone. It was thought the exit of Kanaan to KV-Lotus Racing would have repercussions, as he had been the driver charged with most of the baseline setup duties for the Andretti team.

But one would have thought a team with four successful drivers, race-winners all, would have been able to come up with some sort of a direction. The Andretti method of operation has been similar in recent seasons, and, as a former team engineer pointed out the team structure all filtering through a layer of engineers to Kyle Moyer, John Anderson and Michael Andretti leaves it with "too many chiefs, not enough Indians."

It may turn out by Sunday night's closing gunshot that AA could be fine and see all five cars in the field. After all, they aren't the only team struggling (Coyne, Conquest, Dragon Racing and even the "G2" Ganassi team are on the outside looking in at the moment.)

But Sunday afternoon is not the time to wait for divine intervention at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, not with the resources and sponsorship dollars at Andretti Autosport. Starting from the back of the field pretty much turns race strategy upside down, and in the current Dallara-Honda spec format seems to predestine a low Top-10 finish in the race as the best possible outcome.

The worst? A car, or multiple cars, not making the starting grid. Or the public relations disaster of the four drivers bumping each other in and out of the field.

"We're all surprised by our speed. We were expecting better, for sure. But, John (Andretti) did something different in his last qualifying run and he really picked up a lot," Michael Andretti said Saturday. "So we're hoping that is going to work on all the other cars tomorrow. That's our hope."

I'm not going to be the one to point out that a concrete plan might serve Andretti Autosport better than hope. Drivers trying to put slow cars in the field in qualifying tend to overdrive and make mistakes. Multiply that chance over four drivers and there's a pretty good chance something unexpected could happen. Then multiply that out by four crews and teams of engineers going balls-out in a panic and you might want to go to Vegas with those odds.

And by now, it's pretty late in the game for anything but finger and toe-crossing, rosaries, rabbit's feet and four-leafed clovers at Andretti Autosport. But it should make for some thrilling theater

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