Opening week takeaways from Indy

INDIANAPOLIS — It’s hard to believe, but we’re a week away from the 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). Three opening week practice sessions are behind us. So is two days of qualifying and one more practice session that saw 2,443 laps turned around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in just 2 1/2-hours.

Now, all that’s left is a two hour practice next Friday for Carb Day and the race itself.

  • Marco Andretti is the favorite. There’s no question about it. This may be the best that the 33 year old has ever driven here and that’s saying something since he’s driven pretty damn good here over the past. Andretti, has had a rocketship from the get go. He’s not been worse than third on any of the speed charts all week and was first on Saturday in qualifying, won the pole on Sunday and fastest in the practice session late in the day this afternoon. Its been 33 years since an Andretti was on the Indy 500 pole this seems like all the past curses may be behind this family.
  • Dixon is Andretti’s top rival for this year’s win. Like Andretti, Dixon was in the top three (3rd, 1st, 3rd, 3rd) in all four practice sessions that he’s taken time in and will start second to Andretti next Sunday.
  • Sato’s quietly getting the job done too. He’s been fast, has a good balanced race car and qualified third. The only other time that he’s started in the top 10 here? He won from fourth in 2017. He starts third.
  • Honda and Chevy on varying plans – Honda went for qualifying pace Chevrolet went for race pace. Both knew that next Sunday’s Indy 500 would be a track position event. Both have differing paths to get to the milk first. Honda’s way of looking at it was you might as well take it early. They swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots. Chevy’s path was that they looked at it that you need to have a good car in traffic. They took the bottom six spots and put 11 cars in the bottom 12. Which strategy wins out next Sunday? The track position at the start or the cars good in traffic?
  • Difficult to pass – it’s been unanimous, the drivers have said all week that next Sunday’s race is going to be a track position race more so than in the past. Yes, the top couple of cars can pass maybe even easier than the past, but from third or fourth on back, it’s just not possible. The Aeroscreen has disrupted the air so much, that if you’re not close enough in wake behind the car in front, you can’t break through that invisible bubble. But, if you’re marred outside of the top three or four, even if you’re in the bubble, your car has so much understeer in the corners, it wants to wash out towards the wall. That’s why you see varying strategies for the two manufacturers.
  • Pit stops are going to dictate the race – We’ve seen how issues that we’ve had on pit road all season. With a condensed schedule, there’s only been one practice session each weekend. That doesn’t give the pit crews much time to work. Here, there’s more practice, but there’s also more pit stops for the race. As the drivers have been telling me, due to track position being key and the quality of the field so deep, pit road is going to win or lose next weeks race.
  • Rookies exceeding expectations – With a difficult car to handle, I expected the veterans of the sport to shine this month. I mean, you do have a five-time series champion qualifying in second. You have a 15 time starter on the pole. Three of the seven Indy 500 winners in the field will roll off in the top five. But, you have two rookies in the top seven too. Alex Palou had no oval experience prior to this year. He’s never been over 210 mph before. He qualified with the fastest single lap on Sunday and outqualified Alexander Rossi, Graham Rahal, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Fernando Alonso and several others. VeeKay, outqualified both of his teammates and looks like the strongest in a loaded ECR field.
  • Don’t sleep on Alonso – Everyone started writing him off once he crashed on Thursday. He didn’t have a fast car on Fast Friday or in qualifying. But, that was by design. They went with more downforce just to get his car qualified. His race pace is stellar. He was the fastest Chevy on opening day. He was P9 on Day 2. He was P11 in Sunday’s practice.
  • Kanaan is happy – He may be starting 23rd, but he’s happy with his race car too. He’s smiling and told me he’s confident in his car and his team that he has a big shot to win next Sunday despite a poor starting spot. Again, he went with heavy downforce because they didn’t think that they had a Fast Nine shot. Watch out for TK next Sunday.
  • This may be RLL’s best shot at an Indy win – All three cars start in the top 4 Rows. Two in the top nine. While the Chevy’s have good race pace and good in traffic, RLL looks to be among the best Honda teams in similiar guidelines. They have good starting spots and good race cars. They seem pleased.
  • Pagenaud can win from 25th – He won from last (23rd) on a short track at Iowa. He only had 250 laps (218.75 miles) to do that. He has 200 laps and 500 miles next Sunday. Everyone is saying how good his car looks. I think we could see the first repeat winner since 2001-2002 even though he’s starting so far back.
  • Speed is back. Marco Andretti turned the fastest practice speed in 24 years on Fast Friday. That’s because with the added weight and drag caused from the new Aeroscreen, the speeds would have been down from last year. INDYCAR thankfully isn’t about going backwards in the speed department. So, the boost levels went further up than before and so did the speeds. We saw a 230+ mph pole speed for just the ninth time in 104 years. In a couple of years, the overall engine formula will be faster and louder. So, the speeds in theory will go up again. That means we may be pushing closer to a track record in 2022.
  • Honda ended Chevys pole reign at Indy. This was just the second pole since Chevy came back to the series in 2012. The bow ties swept the front row in each of the last two years here. Honda retuned the favor on Sunday.
  • Kudos to the IMS/INDYCAR staff. They’ve been excellent all week and the way that they’ve set up not only zoom calls, but a media bullpen was fantastic.

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