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Triumph and setbacks in this year's Indy 500 qualifying

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Indianapolis, IN (Sports Network) - Qualifications for the May 29 Indianapolis 500 -- the centennial anniversary of this prestigious auto racing event -- had its share of surprises and disappointments.

Alex Tagliani shockingly won the pole on Saturday. Then, it looked at one point during Sunday's "Bump Day" that rain would prevent Danica Patrick from making it into the 33-car field. Top that off with a few IZOD IndyCar Series regulars, including Ryan Hunter-Reay, not qualifying for the big show.

It was indeed a dramatic weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Tagliani's pole at Indy comes as a Cinderella story for America's most popular open-wheel racing series. With expectations of a Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske driver taking the pole for the Indy 500, Tagliani, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, stunned the racing world. His four-lap average speed of 227.472 m.p.h. during the rain-shortened "Fast Nine" shootout made him the first Canadian to earn the pole for the famed 500-mile race. He was the last of the nine drivers in the shootout to make his qualifying run.

"It's been an amazing team effort," Tagliani said. "We have a great group of people and the additions with the other cars. I had good input from [teammate] Townsend [Bell] and Dan [Wheldon], and it's been nice to work as a big group this week. I wanted this one so bad."

The pole win came as a huge reward for Sam Schmidt, who is in his 10th year of team ownership.

"From a racing perspective and an accomplishment perspective for the team, for Alex, for myself, this is right up there," Schmidt said.

It would have been a disaster for IndyCar if Danica Patrick -- the sport's most popular driver -- did not make the field.
Tagliani drove a full schedule for series newcomer FAZZT Race Team in 2010. He also co-owned the team. In March, Schmidt's racing organization acquired the assets of FAZZT and retained Tagliani as driver.

While Tagliani and 23 other drivers secured their Indy 500 starting positions on "Pole Day," the remaining 14 entrants were vying for the last nine spots on the grid the following day. Patrick was among them.

Fortunately for Patrick, Mother Nature cooperated.

The six-hour Bump Day session was interrupted twice by precipitation. When rain fell on the historic 2.5-mile oval for the second time on Sunday afternoon, Patrick was next in line to qualify. Race officials found a technical issue with her Andretti Autosport car, which bumped her out of the initial qualifying line.

Patrick anxiously awaited for track-drying efforts to finish. It did with 75 minutes to spare. Patrick then placed her car solidly in the field with an average of 224.861 m.p.h.

"You learn to never take it for granted; that's definitely one thing," Patrick said. "Every time I come here, it's a different situation, a different story and a different field out there. But every time I get to participate in the race, I learn more for the next race, and that's all I can do as a driver is take in as many situations on the track as possible and go on to the next one."

It would have been a disaster for IndyCar if Patrick -- the sport's most popular driver -- did not make the field.

While Patrick was able to breathe a sigh of relief, her team owner, Michael Andretti, couldn't.

Just three of Andretti's five entries made the lineup. John Andretti was the highest qualifier in the Andretti squad with a 17th-place result, followed by Patrick in 26th.

Mike Conway, who recovered from a season-ending crash in last year's Indy 500, did not find enough speed to put him in the race. Conway's failure to qualify came as a shock, since he won his first IndyCar race last month at Long Beach, CA.

Hunter-Reay was on the bubble during the closing minutes. As the gun went off to end the session, so did Hunter Reay's teammate, Marco Andretti, on his final qualifying attempt. Minutes later, Andretti, who had been bumped earlier, locked himself into the Indy 500 with an average of 224.628 m.p.h., good enough for the 28th starting spot.

"I was happier that we got bumped, because that justifies us going out again," Marco Andretti said. "You hate to withdrawal your time and then you have to lift, or you crash the thing, and you're out of it. So many things could have gone wrong. Somebody was looking over me today. I was lucky."

Hunter-Reay was hung out to dry though.

"I can't even process this right now. It's just devastating," he said. We struggled all month, or all week, to find speed, and it just wasn't there. It wasn't enough in the end."

And for Michael Andretti, it was the worst of times rather than the best of times at Indy.

"I knew it was going to come to that," he said. "I knew I wasn't going to be happy either way. I'm ecstatic for Marco, but I'm heartbroken for Ryan and Mike. It was not a good day. It was probably my worst day as an owner for sure."

What amazing stories will happen next weekend at Indy? Could we see a stunning upset?

We had a shocker in auto racing earlier this year, with 20-year-old Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500.

How about another one at Indy?

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

Follow Chris Symeon on Twitter and Facebook.

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