Ed Carpenter made a major contribution to this year's Indianapolis 500 when he ensured Danica Patrick would have a car for her farewell race.
Now Carpenter looks like a threat to steal the show himself—and what a story that would be.
Carpenter is making his presence felt at Indy this year as both an owner and a driver. His team added a third seat for Patrick, clearing the way for her to compete in the marquee event as her final race before retirement. Then in qualifying, Carpenter showed up and beat everyone, winning his third career Indy 500 pole and establishing himself as a contender for Sunday's big race in the city he has called home since he was a youngster.
Carpenter was at an event in Michigan on Tuesday—that's where the IndyCar Series goes immediately after Indy — but there's little doubt about where his focus is.
"It's hard to stop thinking about the 500. I've been texting with my engineer all morning," he said. "Just trying to make sure we look at every possible thing that we can to make our car better."
Carpenter won the pole for the Indy 500 in 2013 and 2014. He led 63 laps over those two races but didn't win either. In fact, the last driver to win this race from the pole was Helio Castroneves in 2009.
It goes without saying that this event means a lot to the 37-year-old Carpenter, a Butler University alum with deep ties to Indianapolis. He got his start in racing as a teen when his stepfather, Tony George—a member of the family that owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the IndyCar series—gave him a chance to race quarter midgets
"That race, more than anything else, is what made me want to be an IndyCar driver," Carpenter said. "Coming out of a USAC open-wheel background where a lot of guys were going to NASCAR, that was never really in my mind. It was always about the Indy 500. The fact that I'm starting my 15th is really special. I never in my wildest dreams probably thought I would have this long of a career when I was a teenager."
Carpenter, a 2015 IBJ Forty Under 40 selection, is also a team owner, and Speedway-based Ed Carpenter Racing has three entries in this weekend's race. One of them is Patrick, who is completing her "Danica Double"—a two-race retirement tour that began with the Daytona 500 in February. When she needed a ride for the Indy 500, Carpenter's team stepped up .
"Initially, we weren't really in a place to put something together, just because I was still finalizing our full-time car and plans and sponsorship," Carpenter said. "Once we got all that in place, she was still on the market, so we connected and things fell together fairly quickly from there. Really thankful that she's doing a great job, and thankful that my team, and the management that we have in place, has put together a really competitive group for her."
Patrick has six top-10 finishes in the Indy 500—twice as many as Carpenter in half as many starts—but it remains to be seen how she'll fare this week after years in NASCAR. She hasn't raced in the event since 2011. What seems clear is that adding a third car didn't hurt Carpenter's team in qualifying. He was first, Spencer Pigot was sixth and Patrick was seventh.
Seven of the top eight spots in qualifying went to ECR or Team Penske. In fact, Carpenter's pole-winning performance was all that prevented Penske from sweeping the top three spots. Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden went 2-3-4.
"It's pretty awesome," Carpenter said. "I have so much respect for Team Penske and all four of their drivers, so to be able to go head to head with them and put our team on top is really special. More than anything, I just want to keep the momentum going and do it again on Sunday."