Jim Ayello of USA TODAY Sports and the Indianapolis Star breaks down the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. USA TODAY
During last year's Indy 500, full-time IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe was bumped from the starting lineup during qualifying, and since then, the conversation about guaranteeing entries for full-timers has intensified. Team owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi have voiced their support for teams who compete in the other 16 IndyCar races throughout the season having a guaranteed entry in the top race of the year.
That didn't change this year. Sunday's qualifying session featured the Last Row Shootout (formerly Bump Day on Saturday), where the bottom six drivers raced for the final three entries.
Overall, every driver had to earn his or her way into the Indy 500, ending in heartbreak for three drivers, including two-time Formula 1 champion Fernando Alonso. But, despite being a newcomer to the marquee event, Dale Earnhardt Jr. warned against guaranteeing entries and pointed to NASCAR.
The retired driver who will work as an Indy 500 analyst for NBC on Sunday cited how NASCAR guaranteeing Daytona 500 entries eliminated the drama of the qualifying duels ahead of the race. Earnhardt explained, via NBC Sports:
"Not trying to get myself in the weeds here, but I think Indy could look at the history of NASCAR and how it has changed the excitement for some of the Duels and qualifying," Earnhardt told NBC Sports.com. "I would not go in that direction. If I was in control of things, I would not pull those levers to have guaranteed spots. The thrill of Bump Day and the battle for the final row, increased the value of Sunday and viewership for Sunday. It taught people about other drivers and teams. We don't learn those things if you don't see them going through that battle and experience.
"I thought it was a tremendous win for the people that want to keep things at Indy as they are."
Qualifying last weekend last weekend was intense and thrilling because truly anyone, including Hinchcliffe again, could have failed to qualify for the Indy 500.
The driver and team that bumped out Alonso and McLaren, Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing, were huge underdogs — they still are going into race day. The fact that they were able to rally after a devastating setback and take down a racing superpower created an intense atmosphere and incredibly entertaining single-car qualifying.
At his first Indy 500, Earnhardt continued explaining what that was like as an outsider and why he thinks it's a good thing. More from NBC Sports:
"I experienced the drama before with Bump Day that has happened here in this race in the past, but I thought it was symbolic with the conversation going on about guaranteed spots," Earnhardt said. "For the folks who are the traditionalists who believe you have to earn your way in, it was a great day for those folks and their argument. Fernando Alonso and how that story played out and his reaction to not making it, I thought he handled it like the champion he is. All of that was interesting.
"The little teams beating the big teams was pretty cool. It created some really exciting stuff and did nothing but build excitement in the race."
The 103rd Indianapolis 500 is Sunday on NBC. The green flag is set to fly around 12:45 p.m. ET.