Mears, 61st in the qualifying line, waited as his teammates took turns bettering Andretti's time. Unser went first, after his crew had adjusted his car to the track. Though Al's 215.270-mph average was good enough to briefly put him on the pole, he said, "This number won't stand. Rick and Danny can beat it."
Sullivan did, with four laps at 216.214 mph, after a loose and wild ride—his crew had overcompensated for the track. Meanwhile, rumor spread along pit row like a methanol fire: Andretti was at work in his garage preparing his backup car; he would throw out his first time and try again. No chance. Andretti, although hardly immune to the emotion of the moment, knows full well that qualifying for a 500-mile race is merely the first of many steps to Victory Lane.
As the bright yellow sun moved across the sky, Mears's bright yellow car crept toward the head of the line. Penske paced around it, looking like a man with a lot at stake while Roger Penske Jr. bit his nails. Mears's wife, Chris, scowled nervously, hating the wait. Everyone was on edge but Mears, who wandered around laughing and chatting. Even when he stood by himself, he wore a small smile. Has there ever been a driver who appreciated the qualifying game more than Mears?
His Pennzoil Special was a blurry yellow shriek as he took the green flag. When his first lap of 220.453 mph was announced, the roar from the crowd was enough to shake the garages on Gasoline Alley, especially the one in which Andretti was awaiting the inevitable. The yellow blur spun around the track three more times as the clock ticked off laps of 219.877, 218.781 and 217.702, for a four-lap record of 219.198. Mears never lifted his foot, but he was happy to see the checkered flag. "That's when I could stop holding my breath," he said.
Mears had won his fourth pole position for the Indy 500, tying the record held by Rex Mays and A.J. Foyt, and his eighth front-row start in 11 years, one less than the mark held by Bobby Unser. For Penske, the front-row sweep was the second-best 20th-anniversary present imaginable. The best is yet to come.