INDIANAPOLIS -- If the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the world's largest theater of human emotion, then Danica Patrick and team owner Michael Andretti had all the drama they could take during Sunday's Bump Day for the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500.
When rain began to fall for the second time on Sunday, Patrick was strapped in her race car in the tech line, ready to make her attempt. The rain grew heavier and a cover was brought out to put over the race car, with Patrick's helmeted head popping out to see her chances at making the race dwindle with each drop of rain. A few minutes later, she climbed out of the car and headed back to the Andretti Autosport garage in Gasoline Alley.
If the rain continued to fall and the track could not be dried by 6 p.m., Patrick would miss out on qualifying for the biggest race of the year. That's because earlier in the day the car did not pass technical inspection and had to be pulled out of the qualifying line. Per Indy rules, when a car pulls out of line, it is not guaranteed another attempt if weather halts the session. So Patrick desperately needed the skies to clear and the track to be dried.
It's been said the Indianapolis 500 is actually two races -- the 500 miles run on race day and the race just to get into the starting lineup. Drivers have died by pushing a car beyond its limits just to make the field, most recently in 1982 (Gordon Smiley on Pole Day). Bump Day is when the last group of the 33-car field makes the race, with the slowest car in danger of being bumped with each qualifying run. The week began with the largest entry list at Indy since 1995 -- the year before the CART split over -- as 41 cars attempted to make the race.
Patrick had plenty of speed earlier in the week, appearing to be a cinch to make the field on Pole Day, the first day of qualification. But she faded on Saturday and wasn't one of the 24 cars that made the starting grid that day. That meant dealing with the drama of Bump Day, and when a part near the brake duct in the rear of the car was replaced and didn't pass technical inspection; she had to go to the back of the qualifying line.
"I thought once the first system went through earlier in the day that we would be clear," she said, "but when another one popped up pretty big it gave me that feeling that it might not happen. I had to trust my faith, trust what the plan is and be along for the ride.
"But you know what -- really great people have not made this race. Roger Penske's drivers didn't make this race in 1995. I'm not saying I'm great, but people that you wouldn't expect to not make the race don't make the race. Anything can happen here."
But the sun would come out on Patrick's day. When qualifications resumed at 4:43 p.m., she took the 2-½-mile race course and laid down her four best laps of the weekend -- 225.411 miles per hour, 225.017 mph, 224.566 mph and 224.453 mph for an average of 224.861. That put her solidly in the field in 26th position. Last year she started 23rd and wound up sixth.
As she climbed out of her car, the fans cheered loudly and she was able to celebrate with her crew. It was quite a contrast from 2010, when she criticized that same crew for giving her a slow race car in qualifications and was showered with boos from the spectators who heard her critical comments in an interview on the IMS public address system.
"I feel like I'm in my 40s in age after this weekend," said a weary Patrick. "I feel like I need a drink. That's really how I feel. This makes you think about how good those good days are here, and that's really true. It makes me love those memories even more. The important thing now is we focus on making new memories for 2011 and get the car up the field as far as possible for the 100th Anniversary."
For Patrick, it was like a line in an old Tom Petty song -- "The waiting is the hardest part."
"I can't tell you how many times I got to the front of that open line and my stomach drops and I was nervous," Patrick said. "I felt physically sick this weekend especially after the way we ran on Saturday. I didn't eat much this weekend and my engineer told me I lost seven pounds since Friday."
MORE DRAMA FOR ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT
By making the field, Patrick bumped Alex Lloyd out of the starting lineup and put one of her teammates at Andretti Autosport -- Marco Andretti -- on the bubble. When Lloyd retook the track with nine minutes remaining before the end of qualifications, he ran a fantastic four-lap average of 223.957 mph to bump Marco out of the race and put Andretti's teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay, on the bubble.
Auto racing is a competitive and selfish business. While teamwork is important, it's every driver for himself when it comes to making the Indy 500. So Marco whipped off a four-lap average of 224.628 mph to get into the race while bumping out Hunter-Reay.
"It's a bummer to be in this position but I'm happy to be in the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing,'" Marco admitted. "It's a bummer that we were in this situation. I kept the pedal to the floor and the car held in there and was pretty good. We went for it. We were either going to stick it in the fence or stick it in the show."
Emotions were high at Andretti Autosport for the entire weekend, and while Marco, Danica and teammate John Andretti could celebrate making the race, fellow Andretti Autosport teammates Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway had to deal with the crushing disappointment of missing the biggest race of the year.
"I can't even process this right now," Hunter-Reay said. "It's devastating. We struggled all week to find speed and it just wasn't there. It was tough in the end. This is terrible. It was my teammate that bumped me out of the field. I've been on that side of it before in 2009, when I was the last car on the track and I bumped my way into the field. I know what that's like. This is a hard one to take.This is the worst."
With three of his drivers in the race, the team owner is thinking more of the two drivers that didn't make it. "I knew it was going to come to this," team owner Michael Andretti said. "I'm ecstatic for Marco and I'm heartbroken for Ryan and for Mike. It was not a good day. It was my worst day as an owner for sure."