ST. PETERSBURG — The increased competition in the IndyCar Series was on display during qualifying for Sunday's Indianapolis 500.
Two fan favorites (Pippa Mann and 2013 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner James Hinchcliffe) couldn't crack the 33-car field. Another championship contender, Alexander Rossi, barely made it. And the night before, another big name (2008 Grand Prix winner Graham Rahal) feared he could be stuck on the outside, too.
"It could have easily been us," Rahal said earlier this week during a visit with local media. "Honestly on Friday, we did not have the speed to make the field. I never thought I'd say those words in my life, but it was the truth."
All-night cramming by his crew helped Rahal sneak into the field and start 30th, but the point was made. If some of the series' top drivers were struggling to make it onto the 33-car grid, the talent level has jumped.
The biggest name is Danica Patrick, who is retiring after one last shot at the 500 (where she has six top-10 finishes in seven starts). The field features six former 500 winners, including three-time winner Helio Castroneves and defending champion Takuma Sato.
And then there's the core of talented drivers the series has been waiting for.
Three of the top six drivers in points (Rahal, Rossi and defending series champ Josef Newgarden) are Americans. All three are under the age of 30. A fourth, Windermere's Spencer Pigot, will start from the second row.
Rahal, 29, said the series' diversity is one of its perks, with Brazil natives Castroneves and Tony Kanaan consistently ranking among the most popular drivers. But it wouldn't hurt if Americans like Rahal — the son of 1986 Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal - became mainstream stars.
"I think that American drivers are going to continue to win for a while here," Rahal said, "and I do hope that it helps grow the popularity of the sport in our country."
Despite qualifying in the second-to-last row, Rahal thinks he can contend for his first 500 win. His No. 15 Honda was among the fastest during Monday's practice, and the lack of data about the series' new cars has led to even more uncertainty about an unpredictable race.
"I think it's going to be one of the trickiest races we've had in a long time," Rahal said.