INDIANAPOLIS — James Hinchcliffe watched the Indianapolis 500 last year from his hospital bed. He had nearly died from injuries six days earlier in a practice crash at famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Now he'll start the 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing" from the pole.
The Canadian, 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 capturing the pole by the fourth-closest margin (0.06 mph) in race history. "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 had passed Newgarden on the second-to-last attempt when he was clocked at 230.648 mph around the 21/2-mile track.
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. Hinchcliffe, the 2013 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner and one of the sport's most popular drivers, 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.
"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.
Newgarden, who went fourth in the nine-driver pole shootout, saw his average of 230.700 mph withstand four challengers before Hinchcliffe, who went last, surpassed him.
"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,"
Alex Tagliani spun coming out of Turn 4 on his warmup lap and hit the attenuator at the pit road entrance. His car spun 51/2 times but he was quickly checked, released and cleared to drive by the infield medical center. He will be the first driver since 1924 to make the 500 grid without an official qualifying speed.