Join motor sports insider Nathan Brown as he recaps the first day of qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

Indianapolis Star

INDIANAPOLIS — Lady Luck and the Andretti family have been estranged for decades whenever their IndyCar team haulers rolled under the tunnels and onto the grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s why Friday evening’s random qualifying draw made so much sense.

Because of course, after putting his No. 98 Honda inside the top three in peak one-lap speed runs in back-to-back-to-back days of practice, Marco Andretti would again get the short end of the stick. With team co-owner Bryan Herta given the honors to select the driver’s spot for a qualifying day where time-of-day could have a massive hand in picking the Fast Nine, Herta plucked up a coin off the table.

28th, it read.

For all that speed Andretti had shown – including the fastest single lap on the 2.5-mile oval in 24 years – his starting spot looked to have been tarnished by chance. His historic speed on Fast Friday gave him first honors in the random draw, but it didn’t give him a better shot at avoiding the dreaded mid-day heat that was forecast to play a larger role than recent years.

Which leaves us wondering: Just what kind of four-lap average might the 33-year-old veteran have laid down had he rolled out right around 11 a.m.? Andretti had the fastest set of the day during Saturday qualifying to take the top time into Sunday’s Fast Nine despite his late start.

“I wasn’t worried about it,” said Andretti, after running 231.351 mph in his run. “I knew as long as I executed, we’d be a top-nine contender. But did I think P1 (was realistic)? I’m not sure about that, so it made me feel good. I think it’s something we can replicate (Sunday) and find a little bit we can capitalize on.”

The front-of-the-field speed caught his legendary father by surprise, too. Michael Andretti looked on from pit lane, having never started on pole at the race he came so close to winning but never did. After his team’s thorough dominance Friday, where his son paced the field and four of his drivers finished in the top nine with additional qualifying boost, the team owner expected big things out of the six Andretti entries on Saturday – 15 years after the team’s last Indy 500 pole.

But Marco’s first-lap speed of 232.177 mph – the first lap of the day above 232 – caught the father off guard.

“It freakin’ blew me away, I’ll tell ya,” he said. “I think we were all shocked by that first lap, and those last two, he was driving the heck out of it. It was a little loose, but he hung with it. He needed all that (Indy 500) experience to do what he did today, and he did a heck of a job. I couldn’t be happier right now.”

Full coverage of Indy 500 Qualifying Saturday:

That experience includes an elevated performance level just about every time Andretti steps on the track at IMS, ever since his down-to-the-wire runner-up finish as a rookie in 2006. In 14 appearances, he’s started in the front three rows nine times to go with podium finishes in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2014.

Andretti’s IndyCar career, which began at age 19, was peppered with podiums throughout the first decade, along with wins at Sonoma (2006) and Iowa (2011). But since the start of 2016, he’s finished in the top-five only three times. Through six races in 2020, a constant stream of bad luck has him sitting 21st in the season standings entering the 500.

But ever since Andretti popped up second on the Wednesday speed chart, he’s taken the daily success in-stride. Not overly elated, because he knows how quickly the speedway can squash dreams, but also not with anxious hesitation. His aggression, after all, played a huge role in mastering Saturday’s elements when some of the field’s greats faltered.

Andretti Autosport’s biggest Chevy rivals, Team Penske, only got as high as 13th with Josef Newgarden, while former 500 winners Will Power (22nd), Simon Pagenaud (25th) and Helio Castroneves (28th) could do nothing more than shrug their shoulders and lament a car that hasn’t been able to match Andretti’s top-end speed all week. Outside of rookie sensation Rinus VeeKay (sixth), Ed Carpenter Racing’s most experienced drivers settled in the middle of the field, and two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso landed 26th.

Seeing that clear-cut engine advantage begin to take shape over the last couple days, the elder Andretti began to wonder what this weekend might hold for a team that has won three of the last six 500s, but not put a driver on pole since 2005 (Tony Kanaan). By Friday, he thought four – maybe even five – drivers in the Fast Nine might be conceivable.

After a tough couple years around the IMS oval for the engine manufacturer, Andretti said his team was aware the work Honda officials had put into the model that is nearly 10 years old. But pushing that equipment to its limit comes down to the driver himself.

“We were a little bit behind last year, but they really worked hard over the offseason and gave us the car we needed to be where we are,” the owner said. “But honestly, it’s really crazy. We didn’t know what to expect coming into the month, but every day, we got a little more confidence. (Friday), we had a lot, and at that point, our goal was to get five in the top nine.”

Alexander Rossi was the first to put Andretti Autosport at the top, and then two drivers later – with a last-minute assist from his teammate – Ryan Hunter-Reay barely edged him out. Six drivers later, James Hinchcliffe slid in to join them on the front row.

“To get that many cars that fast is a huge undertaking,” Rossi said. “It’s crazy to have this many cars and have them all be competitive. To have 1-4 after the first day, that’s unheard of. They got it done today, every single member of Honda, as well. We’re very excited about what this potentially means for (Sunday) and next week.”

Even the man behind the speed machines – Honda Performance Development Ted Klaus – wouldn’t have dreamed of a day like Saturday, where Honda grabbed eight of the Fast Nine slots and had 11 of the fastest 12 cars overall. After Friday, which saw Power lamenting Chevy’s top-end speed – “We’re not fast,” he said – there were whispers around the paddock that Chevy teams might have been holding back in order to ‘wow’ in Saturday’s show.

“I’m always weary of our strong competitors on the other side of the aisle,” Klaus said. “I’m honestly surprised by the gap. I’m not exactly sure what makes up that gap.”

As he neared the competition of his Zoom call with IndyCar media, Andretti crossed the yard of bricks for his eye-popping first lap. Klaus could only tip his cap to the IndyCar veteran, who overcame bad luck and worse elements to give Andretti Autosport a legitimate chance to become just the second team in Indy 500 history to sweep the front row (Team Penske, 1988).

“When you think about the time of day, it’s that courage,” he said of Andretti. “Everyone knows, in your mind, it’s tougher to go fast. And Marco goes out and trusts in himself, the car, his team and put it together.”

Saturday truly was a team effort, Andretti added – though it paved the way for him to possibly exercise his 14-year-old demons at a track where, in more than 70 runs, his family has won just once.

“I don’t like not being victorious, but it’s not what I wake up and think about. (Sunday), I’m going to try and get the pole in the Indy 500,” he said. “But today, I was able to go out and just do my job, man, and when it all comes together, it’s beautiful. I’m thrilled to be here, considering the conditions. And when we’re on more equal playing field with a lower track temperature, just look out for the U.S. Concrete boys.”

The latest Indy 500 news:

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

IndyStar covers the sports you love