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VeeKay, Palou Make Strong First Impressions To Reach Fast Nine Shootout

It has been 37 years since an Indianapolis 500 rookie won the pole for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Two will have a chance to end that drought Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing and Alex Palou of Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh earned positions in Sunday’s prestigious Fast Nine Shootout, which gives them one shot each to earn a rare achievement.

Only three drivers in “500” history have earned the pole in their first trip to IMS, and the most recent was Teo Fabi in 1983. Jean Chassagne (1914) and Walt Faulkner (1950) also earned the right to lead the field to the green flag. Lewis Strang held the position for the inaugural “500” in 1911, but the starting order for that race was set based on the timing of entries.

Tony Stewart paced the field for the 1996 race, but he was elevated to the position after Team Menard teammate Scott Brayton lost his life in an accident in practice.

VeeKay had the sixth-fastest speed Saturday in the No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet with a four-lap average of 231.114 mph. Yes, he benefitted from drawing the fourth position, which afforded him a run in some of the best weather conditions of the day, but he has a history of being fast and drives for Ed Carpenter Racing, which has won the pole here three times and placed three drivers in last year’s top four in qualifying.

VeeKay even called his shot, telling his trainer before qualifying that his best lap would be 231.8 mph – it was 231.552 mph – and his average would be 231.3 mph.

“That’s what I guess, and it’s kind of close,” he said. “I’m pretty happy with it.”

VeeKay is the youngest driver in the field, still 27 days from his 20th birthday. He won’t be the youngest “500” starter in race history – A.J. Foyt IV earned that designation by racing on his 19th birthday in 2003 – but he can become the youngest pole sitter. Rex Mays was 22 years, 81 days when he led qualifying in 1935.

VeeKay finished second to Oliver Askew in last year’s Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series and won the Indy Pro 2000 Championship presented by Cooper Tires in 2018.

VeeKay has an inside track to IMS speed. VeeKay’s father, Marijn van Kalmthout, was a race-winning driver who worked on a car driven by Arie Luyendyk in Europe. Luyendyk won three “500” poles and still holds the track record for one- and four-lap averages.

Luyendyk has been a frequent source of guidance for the 19-year-old VeeKay, and he offered the following advance as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES arrived at IMS earlier in the week.

“Arie gave me one tip, and that’s to listen to Ed,” VeeKay said of his team owner, Ed Carpenter, who won the “500” pole in 2013, 2014 and 2018. “Ed knows everything about this car, and he’s kind of the qualifying specialist from the past few years. I think that’s a very good tip he’s given me.”

VeeKay described a relatively stress-free run as the day’s No. 4 qualifier.

“I didn’t have to adjust the tools or anything,” he said. “I could just keep the foot down for four laps, and I didn’t have to worry at all.

“I think because of that quick warm-up lap, I kind of had a feel of the car on the high speeds. I could already know what the car was going to do on the first real lap. It just felt great, and I didn’t worry at all about the car breaking, getting loose or getting understeer at all.”

VeeKay said Luyendyk was the first person he saw when he climbed out after the run.

“That was great; he was happy for me,” VeeKay said. “It was my best qualifying ever.”

Sunday’s Fast Nine Shootout airs at 1 p.m. (ET) on NBC. The 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is Sunday, Aug. 23 at 1 p.m. on NBC.

Driving the No. 55 Honda, Palou had the seventh-fastest time Saturday at 231.034 mph and will be third in line for the Fast Nine Shootout, which qualifies in reverse order of Saturday’s performances.

“That was awesome to complete a qualifying run here at Indy,” he said of his effort. “It’s special because yesterday we couldn’t complete four consecutive laps because of traffic.

“The Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh crew gave me such a great car. It’s so enjoyable to drive, every lap.”

Unlike VeeKay, who had competed in an Indy Lights race at IMS, Palou, a 23-year-old Spaniard, is experiencing the 2.5-mile oval for the first time this month. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but after attaining the goal of qualifying in the top nine, he expects to sleep well.

“I’m going to sleep like a baby, I think,” he said. “We did the job today. The super target was to be in the Fast Nine, (and) we did it. (Sunday) is about enjoying and going for the pole if we can.”

Palou’s chances are aided by the engineering of Eric Cowdin, who led Tony Kanaan’s Indy-winning program in 2013.

“Every time I do lunch with him, I can see the (500 winner’s) ring,” said Palou, who admittedly isn’t all that confident on ovals. “He has a lot of experience; he’s a really good guy. Obviously, he knows how to make a really fast car here. … It always gives you a lot of confidence having a guy who’s won the Indy 500 already.”

VeeKay and Palou weren’t ready to make predictions about how they will fare in the Fast Nine Shootout, but they have a chance to win the pole, and they’ll seize the moment.

“Our track conditions were not perfect when we went out (Saturday), but then Marco (Andretti) went out after me and did those (fast) laps,” Palou said. “I think it’s going to be challenging tomorrow with the Andrettis – they’re really quick – but I think a top five we can do pretty strong.”

Said VeeKay: “I think we can fight with the Andretti cars.”

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