By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bobby Rahal is back at Indianapolis and likely not just as a father, former champion or spectator.
Rahal Letterman Racing is close to finalizing a deal that would put Spanish driver Oriol Servia in the No. 17 car and give Rahal an opportunity to make his first start of the season -- the Indianapolis 500.
"There's nothing official until the contracts are signed and the money is in hand," Rahal said. "But we do anticipate some (announcement) very shortly."
If Rahal completes the deal, there would be 34 cars vying for 33 starting spots in the May 24 race. Speculation is that there could be two more deals announced in the next week.
But Rahal, the 1986 Indy winner, isn't resting easily yet.
While others were putting finishing touches on the contract, Rahal was in his familiar garage watching crew members assemble the car.
It's a chance Rahal has been waiting for all season, though not necessarily in this manner.
When the team's sponsor pulled out of the series after 2008, Rahal found himself searching for money in one of the worst economic environments in decades. He couldn't cut a deal.
Rahal said then that he didn't want to run only at Indy.
So he wound up missing the series' first three races in St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Kansas, and as recently as a week ago, Indy, where he won five years ago as a team owner with Buddy Rice, appeared to be in jeopardy, too.
Now, he's back in the game although the plans for the rest of this season remain unclear. The deal being negotiated is for this race only, though Rahal hopes something will work out to keep his team on track for the rest of 2009.
Fortunately for Rahal's team, they've been preparing for this chance all season.
"We haven't been waiting around doing nothing," Rahal said. "We made sure we were ready in case something came at the last moment. Oriol would be thrilled if we could keep running, and we would be thrilled, too."
Fans expecting to see Rahal's car on the historic 2.5-mile oval this weekend will be disappointed.
If all goes as expected, Rahal's car won't be on the track sooner than Thursday, meaning Rahal won't get a chance to qualify for the top 22 spots. Eleven spots will be filled each of the first three days of qualifying, which begins Saturday.
But if Rahal can cross the Ts and dot the Is, it will almost assuredly mean at least one car will be bumped from the field before the May 24 race.
DRAWING NUMBERS: The two fastest cars this week could be on the track very early for Saturday's qualifying round.
Marco Andretti, who had the top speed Thursday and second fastest Friday, drew the No. 4 spot. Penske Racing driver Ryan Briscoe, the fastest driver Friday, is 14th, though of the cars in front of him have no announced driver. Other pole contenders include Danica Patrick, Andretti's teammate with Andretti Green Racing, at No. 13; defending Indy champ and series points champ Scott Dixon at No. 31 and 2007 Indy winner Dario Franchitti at No. 34. Dixon and Franchitti both drive for Target Chip Ganassi.
Two-time pole winner Helio Castroneves, Briscoe's teammate, will have the longest wait. His No. 3 car is slated to go 54th, though nearly half of the spots ahead are for backup cars -- only one of which ran in Friday's practice -- or have no announced driver.
Justin Wilson, of Dale Coyne Racing, drew the No. 1 spot.
LONG NIGHT: Panther Racing was preparing for a long night back at the shop after Scott Sharp damaged the right side of his No. 16 car 2 1/2 hours into practice Friday.
Sharp, a former pole winner, spun coming out of the first turn and tried to save the car before it slid up the track and slammed into the outside wall.
Afterward, Sharp was checked at the track hospital and released, and his team immediately took the car back to its Indianapolis headquarters to try and repair it before Saturday's opening qualifying round.
"I'm not exactly sure what's up," Sharp said before answering questions about Pole Day. "I have to go back and figure all of that out with the Panther team. We've been struggling a little bit to gain more speed and didn't really need this to happen right now. We'll see what the plan is and find a way to rebound."
Rookie driver Robert Doornbos, of The Netherlands, also was not despite crashing in practice. He was immediately cleared to drive and made it back onto the track in his backup car for Newman Haas Lanigan Racing late in the afternoon.