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INDY 500: Juan Montoya has Top Spot at 'Halftime' on Indy Pole Day

20 May 2000

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel

INDIANAPOLIS (2:45 p.m.): Juan Montoya showed the Indy Racing Northern Light Series fans why he is the defending CART FedEx Champion. A rookie at Indy, the young Brazilian dazzled the crowd with one of the smoothest, but aggressive runs in Indy Pole Day qualifying history.

On a day when speeds went down for most drivers due to cold temperatures, Montoya stayed consistent with his practice speeds. Montoya drove a smooth line. That line was dangerously close to the walls around the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Montoya took his car below the while line at nearly every corner's apex. While he used all of the track, he didn't twitch. His four lap average was 223.372 mph.

Although Montoya doesn't have the pole position locked in yet, he looks to be a certain front row starter. Qualifying continues until 6:00 p.m. (Indianapolis time).

Twelve drivers had qualified for the 2000 Indianapolis 500 by mid afternoon before the track opened for practice sessions. Many teams elected to "wave off" their qualifying attempts in hopes of better weather later in the day.

The cool temperatures are reminiscent of race day, 1992, when several drivers (veterans and rookies alike) crashed because of the lack of grip in their tires. Three drivers suffered from accidents during qualifying Saturday. Scott Harrington, Jimmy Kite, and Memo Gidley all crashed but were uninjured. All have been cleared to drive. Memo Gidley is the only driver who crashed today that does not have a backup car.

The first driver to make the 2000 Indy field was two time winner Al Unser Jr. The 1992 and 1994 winner has not participated in the Indy 500 since his victory in 94. Unser is solidly in the field with a speed of 220.293 mph.

"We're officially back now," said a jubilant Unser. "We are really happy to be back. We are here to win another one."

"I wanted to be in the show so bad, I was a little to conservative on that first lap," Unser commented after he returned to the pits.

Eliseo Salazar, who was in an on-track altercation with rookie driver Sarah Fisher at Las Vegas, is currently the second fastest car in the field. Salazar, who was the twelfth car on the track, held the pole until Montoya took the top spot.

Salazar, after receiving much heat for his open and blatant criticism of the young Sarah Fisher, finally apologized publicly today at the Speedway. Fisher has never held a grudge for the comments made by Salazar. She said that she lets her driving do the talking for her.

"When you get out of the car, you say things," Salazar said. "I am very happy that we are both in the race."

Of the current qualifiers, Fisher has the slowest car in the field, but her speed of more than 220 mph is safely in the field. Fisher drives for a veteran crew chief and team, Walker Racing.

Some very fast drivers and teams have made qualifying attempts but elected to call them off in mid run. Greg Ray and Robby Gordon, both driving for Team Menard have been fast all week. The two Team Menard cars both called off their qualifying runs. This is not uncommon for Team Menard.

In 1996, Menard went so far as to withdraw a car driven by Scott Brayton, who had qualified well enough for the front row. Menard wanted the fame and luxury associated with the Indy pole. Brayton qualified a backup car late in the day and won the pole. Scott Brayton was killed the following week while practicing for the Indianapolis 500.

The two Menard cars are expected to challenge for the pole position later in the day.

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