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Indy qualifying yields little drama, full field; Total of 33 cars in next Sunday's race

INDIANAPOLIS -- The field is set for the Indianapolis 500. And, more importantly, it's full.

On an otherwise ho-hum day of qualifying, nine cars made the field on their first attempts, ending any potential last-minute drama and assuring this Sunday's race would start with a full field of 33 cars for 64th consecutive year. Things went almost as smoothly Sunday as race organizers could have expected.

"We're happy to see it," Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Jeff Belskus said. "There was very little doubt in my mind that we wouldn't. To put it another way, I was confident we would end up with 33 cars."

The script could have been better.

For the first time since 2004, there were no bump attempts -- taking away the intrigue of last year's enthralling finish when Marco Andretti bumped his way into the race by knocking out teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay on the final four-lap qualifying attempt of the month. Heck, there weren't even any rumors floating around Gasoline Alley about late additions to Indy's entry list.

The three slowest qualifiers, all of whom qualified at less than 215 mph, didn't have to sweat out anything. It will be the first time the 11th row is filled with cars under 215 since 2004, too.

Despite getting a rude welcome to the Brickyard's 2.5-mile oval, former Formula One driver Jean Alesi still made the race. The Frenchman will start 33rd after finishing with a four-lap qualifying average of 210.094 -- the slowest speed of any Indy starter since the late Fermin Velez went 206.512 in 1997.

"It's a big relief for me to finally get into this race," said Alesi, one of seven rookies in the Indy field. "This is an amazing experience for me. I'm 47 years old, and I have learned more in one week than I did in my entire Formula One career."

Now the bigger questions.

Simona de Silvestro and Alesi will be the only drivers using the lumbering Lotus engines in next Sunday's race. They'll start 32nd and 33rd. De Silvestro had the second-slowest qualification speed at 214.393.

Alesi has already said he feels "unsafe" on the track with faster cars trying to pass him and worries he'll become an impediment to other drivers. He was almost 16 1/2 mph slower than Saturday's pole winner, Australia's Ryan Briscoe, who went 226.484.

"The speed difference is too great," points leader Will Power said Friday when asked about the disparity. "Simona is one of the best drivers in the series, so it has nothing to do with her, it has to do with the situation she's in, and it's a pity if it comes to her not racing."


All-Star format vexes fans

CONCORD, N.C. -- It didn't take teams very long to figure out their best shot at winning the All-Star race would be in the first 20 laps.

What few predicted, though, was that the new format would encourage drivers to take it easy for portions of Saturday night's $1 million race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Now fans are upset winner Jimmie Johnson essentially sandbagged for 60 or so laps before turning it up for a final charge to his third All-Star race victory.

"Everybody knew if you could win that first segment, you could control the night," said Johnson, who indeed won the first of four 20-lap segments.

Under the format for this year's race, the winners of each of the first four 20-lap segments lined up 1-through-4 for the mandatory trip down pit road. Once there, it was a race to simply be the first drivers to get back on the track for the final 10-lap sprint to the finish.

So Johnson claimed the first segment, then faded to the back of the field for the next three segments. Matt Kenseth joined him at the rear after winning the second segment, and although Brad Keselowski was reluctant to follow the same strategy, he also went to the back when his team insisted it was the best strategy after the third segment.

It wasn't all that popular for race fans, who seemed nonplussed by the three-wide racing through the pack that accentuated several of the opening segments. Instead, many seemed annoyed that Johnson, Kenseth and Keselowski had no incentive to race once they won their segments.

Johnson, who claimed "when the rules came down, every crew chief in the garage area realized the importance of that first segment," declined to criticize the format.


Around the tracks

*Ricky Stenhouse Jr. led 209 of 250 laps and won the NASCAR Nationwide race at the Iowa Speedway on Sunday, his third straight win on Iowa's short oval.

*Jack Beckman raced to his first Funny Car victory of the season, beating Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the NHRA Summernationals at Heartland Park Topeka in Kansas.

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