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Ben Smith

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Associated Press
Michel Jourdain Jr. is comforted by a member of his crew after failing to qualify Sunday.

Jourdain only one frustrated

– Three-thirty on a warm sun-flooded Sunday afternoon, and here’s what’s stirring around garages B-26 and B-27 in Gasoline Alley: Not a whole lot.

The garage doors are down, giving off a nobody’s-home vibe. In front of B-27, a 70-ish man sits on the back of a golf cart, blue-jeaned legs crossed, chatting idly with a shorter, younger man in a white shirt. The older man is saying something about “ice-cold beer.”

And here is your snapshot, America, of another Bump Day when you could cut the desperation with a chocolate éclair.

In B-26 and B-27 there’s nothing doing, because the garages belong to Lazier Partners Racing Inc., and Lazier Partners Racing Inc. is already in the show. Its driver, 45-year-old Buddy Lazier, qualified 32nd with a 223.442 run 15 minutes after qualifying began at noon. Ana Beatriz followed and then Sebastien Saavedra and then five others, and finally, at 12:53, Katherine Legge wheeled around at 223.176, and the field was full.

That left Michel Jourdain Jr., the only non-qualifier left, over there in garage B-12. The door is up, over there. The engine cowling is off the black No. 17. Eight or nine or 10 mechanics are swarming over the car; two of them on their backs beneath it.

If there’s desperation anywhere here this day, it’s here. In one small corner of all this immense sprawl.

Once upon a time, in an era that will never return, this place reeked of desperation on Bump Day, desperation and tension and intrigue.

Now, on this Bump Day, it’s just Michel Jourdain Jr., and he’s not close to getting there. And he won’t, barely clearing 214 as the minutes tick away.

“Michael Jordan’s got a better chance to qualify than Michel Jourdain,” someone quipped.

Which left us with Legge and Lazier as the last two drivers to slip into the field, and that’s not all bad. Legge, after all, just got in a car Sunday morning, hooking an eleventh-hour seat in a Sam Schmidt Honda. And Lazier, who won the 500 for Ron Hemelgarn 17 years ago, is driving for a race team that basically consists of himself, some old friends from the Hemelgarn days and a handful of investors from Vail, Colo., Lazier’s hometown.

“I’m not gonna lie. I was freaking out this morning,” Legge said.

“I’ve got to take my hat off to my team. Two weeks ago this car was a bunch of pieces,” Lazier said.

And he’s back in the 500 for the first time since 2008, wonder of wonders. He hasn’t finished higher than 12th since 2005, but he’s a former winner with five top-five finishes and six top tens in 16 starts, so people continue to come around.

This time they put him in a 2012 Dallara purchased from Jean Alesi, who finished last in it here a year ago. Its woeful Lotus engine has been replaced by a Honda and there are all those aforementioned pals who’ve been only too eager to help.

“What comes around goes around,” Lazier says. “There are others that have been on small teams who needed help when we were part of the big team. … We would never ask for the really tricky stuff, but it’s nice to have friends to help you.”

A broad smile now, contemplating it all.

“I love racing,” he went on. “I really do. And I really like the month of May.”

How could he not, on this day? How could he not?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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