INDIANAPOLIS — James Hinchcliffe watched the Indianapolis 500 last year from his hospital bed. He had nearly died from injuries six days earlier in a crash at famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Now he’ll start the historic 100th running of “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” from the pole.
The Canadian driver who spent the past year fighting back from the life-threatening leg injury, completed a remarkable comeback Sunday by posting a four-lap qualifying average of 230.760 mph on the final run of the day to barely edge American Josef Newgarden for the pole.
“I get it. (The accident) was a big deal,” Hinchcliffe said after the fourth-closest pole finish in race history, winning by 0.06 mph. “You’re coming back to this place and you want to focus on the here and now and not remember or focus on hitting the wall at 125 Gs. ... Hopefully, this (the pole) is the topic of conversation for the next week.”
The pole shootout was so close that Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will start third, thought he actually had passed Newgarden on the second-to-last attempt when he was clocked at 230.648.
When Hinchcliffe’s speed was announced, the large crowd in the front straightaway roared and it wasn’t just fans who appreciated the accomplishment of one of the series’ most popular drivers.
Newgarden and Hunter-Reay, the 2014 race champ and one of Hinchcliffe’s former teammates with Andretti Autosport, both congratulated the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver who missed the final 11 races last season after a broken suspension part punctured his left leg right and nearly caused him to bleed out the day after Indy 500 qualifying ended.
“I don’t think anyone can describe nearly losing your life at a track, then going back there to go 240 mph into a corner,” Hunter-Reay said.
Hinchcliffe also struggled to explain the frenzied finish on a wild qualifying weekend.
Newgarden thought he had given Ed Carpenter Racing its third pole win in four years after finishing with an average of 230.700 on the 2.5-mile oval.
Hunter-Reay’s teammate with Andretti, Townsend Bell, came up a little short on the next run and the last two Team Penske drivers, Helio Castroneves and Will Power, both posted averages under 230.
When Hunter-Reay’s speed was posted, Newgarden started trading high-fives with his crew members but then had to watch Hinchcliffe pull off of the most memorable pole-winning runs in recent years.
“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Newgarden said. “It was difficult waiting. I was trying to remind myself it’s not about (the pole). I wanted to win the pole so bad, it would have been amazing,”
Hinchcliffe’s victory marks the first time in six races that Team Penske drivers have not won the pole and ends a 31-race pole drought for Honda, which dated to the 2014 race in Houston. It’s the first time Honda has taken the 500 pole since 2011, the year before Chevrolet rejoined the IndyCar engine competition.
For Newgarden, it will be his first career front-row start at Indy.
There was one crash Sunday.
Alex Tagliani spun coming out of the fourth turn of his warmup lap and slammed into the attenuator at the entrance to pit road. Though his car spun 5 1/2 times, he was quickly checked, released and cleared to drive by the infield medical center. He will be the first race starter since 1924 to make the starting grid without an official qualifying speed.
Everything seemed a bit out of whack Sunday.
Defending series champion and 2015 Indy pole winner Scott Dixon needed his crew scramble to change engines in 64 minutes — a job that normally takes three hours — after the No. 9 car developed a mechanical problem in practice. Dixon qualified 13th.
Defending 500 champ Juan Pablo Montoya will start 17th after a bizarre sequence in which he ran over a trash bag during his qualifying attempt. IndyCar said the debris on the track was its responsibility and gave Montoya a second chance.
And one day after Marco Andretti was bumped from the top nine by his teammate, the American lost his fifth gear before qualifying began and still finished 14th on a day that belonged to Hinchcliffe.
“It’s crazy,” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s incredible what a difference a year makes.”
WHO’S HOT: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Andretti Autosport. Michael Andretti’s team took three of the top five spots with, Bell qualifying fourth and Carlos Munoz fifth. Sam Schmidt’s team got all three of its drivers in the top 10 with Mikhail Aleshin seventh and Oriol Servia 10th.
WHO’S NOT: Team Penske. After Montoya failed to make the shootout, Power, three-time race winner Helio Castroneves and points leader Simon Pagenaud all struggled Sunday. Power was the best of the group and will start sixth. Pagenaud was eighth and Castroneves was ninth.
BAND OF BROTHERS: Indy rookie Stefan Wilson, of England, will start 30th. He’s driving in honor of his late brother, Justin, who was killed last August after being hit in the head with debris during a race at Pocono.
UP NEXT: Another practice session Monday, from 12:30 to 4 p.m.