KRAVITZ: Just because Hinchcliffe failed to qualify for the race doesn’t mean he won’t race next Sunday

James Hinchcliffe answers questions from the media after failing to make the cut for the 2018 Indianapolis 500, Saturday, May 19, 2018. (WTHR Photo/Rich Nye)
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Bob Kravitz

SPEEDWAY, Ind. (WTHR) - This is why bumping matters at the Indianapolis 500 – or why it should, anyway. This is why bumping, which hasn’t been a part of the program since 2011, a year when Ryan Hunter-Reay was bumped and only returned when team owner Michael Andretti bought a race-day ride from A.J. Foyt’s team, belongs in the run-up to this race. I’ve read the arguments pro and con, considered both sides, but after watching the wrenching final moments of qualifying Saturday, after watching one of IndyCar’s stars, James Hinchcliffe, miss the race, it confirmed my initial feelings on the subject.

Thirty-five drivers, 35 cars, came to Indy in the fervent hope they would be good enough to qualify for the race. Thirty-three made it. As Hinchcliffe said on TV shortly after he failed to get on the track in time to meet the 5:50 p.m. deadline, “This place can be a cruel mistress.’’

This kind of thing has happened before: In 1993, former champion Bobby Rahal failed to qualify. In 1995, two Team Penske drivers, Al Unser, Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, got bumped from the field despite their pedigree. In 2011, Hunter-Reay wasn’t fast enough, although, in a move I genuinely hope is not repeated here, Andretti purchased Bruno Junqueira’s qualified car and drove in the race.

Might Hinchcliffe’s team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, yank Jay Howard from the car he qualified Saturday and put the immensely popular Hinchcliffe in that seat? There’s a lot of money in Hinchcliffe’s corner. He’s got the sponsors. He’s got the leverage. Howard is a one-off driver while Hinchcliffe is fifth in the IndyCar point standings. There are a lot of important people with deep pockets who want to see Hinchcliffe run next Sunday.

I’d hate to see it.

But listening to Hinchcliffe late Saturday after he nobly came and faced the media music after his qualifying failure, it appears it’s going to happen. I asked the question, referencing the Hunter-Reay decision, and he sounded very much like a man who is going to race next Sunday afternoon.

“I mean, I’m here to race at the end of the day,’’ he said. “I work for Sam [Schmidt] and Rick [Peterson]. Whatever Sam and Rick tell me to do, I’ll do. I believe there’s some options being investigated. At this point, I don’t know any more than you do.’’

Sigh.

I understand: It’s the car that qualifies for the race, not the driver. And so if Hinchcliffe is returned to race in the Indianapolis 500, it will not be counter to any rules. Fine. But why have the drama of Bump Day when a team can simply pull a driver from his car and replace him with another driver who, along with his team, failed to get it done on the grand stage? To me, it smells and it runs counter to everything qualifying is supposed to be about.

“We’re not the first big-name, big-car to go home in this race,’’ Hinchcliffe said, tears in his eyes. “That’s Indy. We finally having bumping again, which everybody was super thrilled about. I’m a little less thrilled about it than I was 24 hours ago, but you’ve got to take your lumps here sometimes....This place can be a cruel mistress.’’

Hinchcliffe wasn’t fast all day, and after an early qualifying attempt that found him on the bubble, he slowly slid down the grid. By the time bumping came along, Hinchcliffe was in trouble, big trouble. When Oriol Servia and Conor Daly snuck back into the field, Hinchcliffe tried again.

"There’s a very bad vibration," he told his team on the radio during his late qualifying attempt, "A very bad vibration."

He hurriedly returned and tried to get back in line, but had to sit and wait as Alexander Rossi attempted (and failed) to slip into the Fast Nine and then Pippa Mann made one desperate, final run at making the field. Sadly, and wrongly, some fans were flipping Mann the middle-finger salute, wondering why she wouldn’t yellow-flag a run that was clearly not going to be good enough. But as Mann explained later, and she was right about this, you never know if another car might fail in tech, so it only made sense for her to finish her run.

If you want to wonder about a late run, wonder about Graham Rahal’s bid after he found himself 30th and clearly did not have the speed to move up very far on the grid. That’s his prerogative, of course, but it didn’t do Hinchcliffe any favors.

Then time ran out at 5:50 – it used to be 6 p.m., but TV changed it to allow for post-qualifying interviews before the TV window closed – and Hinchcliffe and his teammates dissolved into tears.

When Hinchcliffe arrived at the Media Center, he was still distraught, but thought first about Mann, who was getting castigated by social media trolls.

"I just want to start off by saying, I haven’t been on the Internet, heard anything myself, but heard some stuff from other people: This is in no way Pippa Mann’s fault," he said. "This is our fault. If there’s anybody out there that has anything bad to say about that, you don’t know motorsports. Keep your mouth shut.

"The track kept getting a little bit quicker, so we were pretty optimistic, to be honest. As soon as I left pit lane, I felt a horrible vibration. I called it in. Weirdly, it started to go away. I thought I had some pickup on my tires or something. I called into the team, 'I think it’s all right, I’m going to keep going.' Turn Three, it all came back again.

“...Not enough seconds in the day to get our last run in. For sure, the car had speed to be in the show. I mean, not the fastest car by any stretch this month, but we weren't expecting that. Certainly [fast] enough to be comfortable in the show."

Hinchcliffe was on the wrong side of Bump Day, but still believes qualifying is better when more than 33 car-and-driver combinations attempt to qualify.

"They got their drama, so that worked," he said jokingly. "I mean, man, you can play Monday morning quarterback all you want, try to look at things that could have been done differently, decisions made by certain people to maybe help the cause. They weren't. At the end of the day. It’s our bad....Everybody has been hoping for a Bump Day. It’s part of the tradition of this race, the excitement of this race. Thirty-three cars start, that’s the deal. It always has been.

“It sucks to be sitting up here saying that at this point. The purist in me, the motorsports enthusiast in me thinks this is good for the sport. That’s more important than what’s good for James Hinchcliffe today."

He continued. “Nobody screwed us,’’ he said. “The system didn’t fail us. We failed us. We just have to do better…’’

Ed Carpenter, who qualified second behind Helio Castroneves, believes in the importance of bumping.

“I think any time there’s this many cars, the question is asked, 'Should they just start everyone?' To me, I’m definitely a traditionalist," Carpenter said. "As tough as it is to watch a guy like Hinch, who has had great moments here, really tough moments-- I feel for him. I feel for Pippa. We’ve all worked very hard to be here. I really feel for them.

"At the same time, Indianapolis, that’s part of the lure of what makes this race so special and important to all of us. Growing up around this event, seeing years when Team Penske struggled and missed the race, Bobby Rahal miss the race, it’s happened to great teams…I definitely feel for those teams because we all work just as hard to be successful here. I can’t imagine what they’re feeling right now.’’

Mann could tell you. After the race, she was inconsolable. And later, when she willingly came to speak to the media, her eyes were still red, her voice trembling. Her car had been so good Thursday and Friday. And then Saturday…nothing.

“It’s the worst feeling in the world,’’ she said.

As Hinchliffe knows all too well, this can be a cruel place. He nearly lost his life on this track. Saturday, he failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

Bump Day matters. Unless Hinchcliffe’s team owners pull Howard from his car and put the more prominent driver in the seat. And then, well, I guess it really doesn’t, and this was all a massive waste of time.

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