Now that practice and qualifying are over, who’s going to win Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network), my thoughts thus far

INDIANAPOLIS — All the words have been written. All the practice sessions have been run. Qualifications are behind us. It’s time to run Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).

Before I give away my picks to win this weekend’s “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” lets first discuss what I’ve seen here on site for up until now.

  • Honda vs. Chevy – This is going to be a wild battle. Chevrolet had the preferred power in this race the last two years. They’ve swept the front row in both 2018 and again in 2019. In 2018, they led nearly 150 of the 200 laps run. Last year, they combined to lead 155 of the 200 laps. They’ve now won two straight years too. But, Honda has the starting positions and Chevy the race pace. Who wins out? Honda has 11 of the top 12 starting spots, Chevy has 12 of the bottom 13. 
  • Passing – The drivers have all said that the passing opportunities will be limited on Sunday, but it’s not going to be impossible. Yes, the clean air up front will be key. The top few cars can pass as easy as they have in recent years. But, from fifth on back, you have to take calculated risks too. Passing is supposed to be hard and it will be this weekend.
  • Aeroscreen making passing tough – The Aeroscreen added drag, but it also has caused the drivers to not find the limit on it. See, they’re used to the turbulent air from inside of these race cars. They can literally feel when they’re about to get into danger. Several drivers told me on Thursday that with the screen now, they don’t feel the air flow which means they can’t feel the brink of disaster. With the Aeroscreen, it creates a dirtier air bubble in wake, so when it in, you tend to wash out a little more. So, where is the limit in wake? They still don’t know. That’s why passing is more difficult this year than in years past.
  • Pit Stops more crucial – Every driver I talked to said pit road is going to be the main factor in winning this race or not. We’ve seen many pit road problems all season and if any occur on Sunday, it can make or break your day. See, with the competition so tight now and passing being so tough, it’s going to be hard to make up any ground on track. But, you can on your in and out laps as well as on pit road too. So, if you are slow in those areas, you lose track position and therefore, a shot to win.
  • More of less lead changes? – Prior to the DW12 aerokit being introduced in 2012, the most lead changes in Indy 500 history was 29 in 1960. But, over the past eight years, we’ve seen at least 29 lead changes in each race. There were 34 lead changes in both the 2012 and 2014 races, with a record 68 lead changes in 2013. In 2015, the manufacturer specific aero kits were introduced, and resulted in 37 lead changes in 2015, 54 in 2016 and 35 in 2017. In 2018, we saw a new car that was supposed to produce even closer racing, but instead, it became further apart. While there were 30 lead changes, the majority of those were a result of pit sequences, not on the track racing. While some blamed the weather’s effect on the car, IndyCar and IMS wanted to ensure closer racing in 2019 and have made a number of adjustments to make sure the race is an exciting one. Unfortunately, we only saw 29 lead changes last year. How many do we get on Sunday? The drivers all say that they think it will be difficult to pass from third on back but up front could be easier which helps the lead change factor.
  • Veterans in the back, worried about 1 offs around them- Just listen to this lineup from Row 8 to Row 10. You have six combined Indy 500 wins among four drivers. You also have a two-time Formula One World Champion. But, that all-star cast of drivers are also worried about some of the one-offs near them at the start. See, the offs know that the veterans need to take it easy. They want to be there at the end. The one-offs, need track position. So, James Davison, Dalton Kellett, Max Chilton and both Dreyer & Reinbold cars could pounce. But, after talking with all of those drivers, I expect Row 8 on back to take it easy as all say they know they need to be there at the end and won’t take any unnecessary risks early.
  • Helio’s final drive for Penske? – Helio Castroneves will be here in 2021. I have no doubt. But, to what capacity? He wants a full time drive and is getting emotional that he knows this is likely his last start with Team Penske in an Indy Car. He seemed as much on Media Day. He sees what’s coming. There’s no full time room for him and even the part time season may be gone to someone else. So, where does he end up? He says he won’t just drive for any FT team as he wants to be competitive and enjoy racing. Someone is going to take a shot on him.
  • Kanaan’s Last 500? – He said back in January that this was his “Last Lap” but he’s said recently that without fans, he wants to come back again. While he has nothing lined up for 2021 either, I expect him back too.
  • Tough for One-offs – It’s been since 2011 that a one-off won at Indy. It’s tough to do here. This year, it may be even tougher. With the new Aeroscreen and with less on track time, it’s a tall hill to climb for the one-off teams.
  • Will starting position matter? – In the aero kit era, starting position didn’t matter at Indy. But, with this universal car that debuted in 2018, it now does. Simon Pagenaud became the first pole winner to win the ‘500 since 2009. Will Power won from third in 2018. Takuma Sato started fourth in his 2017 win. The drivers have all said this will be a track position race. I think this matters immensely.
  • Parity – We’ve had a new, first time winner for the Indy 500 in each of the last six years. Also, since 2011, we’ve had a different winner each year here too. Going back to 2003, only Dario Franchitti and Dan Wheldon have won this race multiple times in that time frame.
  • Watch out for the “Big 3” – Penske, Andretti and Ganassi are the top three organizations in Indy Car. While we’ve seen parity in terms of the driver front lately, we haven’t seen the same for the teams. Combined, Penske and Andretti have won each of the last six Indy 500’s. Throw Ganassi in there, and these three organizations have won 13 of the last 15 ‘500’s overall and 17 of the last 20 (since 2000). With the points above, whom does this favor? See down low for more. Plus, the last non Penske Chevrolet driver to win at Indy was Al Unser Jr. with Galles in 1992. The trio have won 83-percent (33 of 41) of the races run since the start of 2018 and 81 percent (59 of 74) since 2016.
  • Rookie’s Shining, But Can They Win? – Rinus VeeKay starts fourth. He’s confident. Alex Palou was in the top 10 of every speed chart this month. He starts seventh. Pato O’Ward was fastest on Carb Day. In the past 103 years of this race, only nine times has a rookie driver won. It’s happened three times in the last 52 years and only four times in the last 91 years. So, while two rookies start in the first 3 Rows, it’s not likely they will win. 
  •  Repeat Winner? – Pagenaud doesn’t want anyone else to win. He knows though that he has the odds stacked against him this weekend. The last repeat winner was his teammate Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002. Helio, is the last repeat winner since Al Unser Sr. in 1970 and 1971. That’s two times this has happened in 65 years. Do you think it happens for the third time in 66 years? He has a good car but starts 25th. He did win from last at Iowa in half the distance run last month too.
  • Past winners want it as bad as ever – It’s one thing to want to taste the milk here. It’s another to have tasted the milk here in the past and want it again. See, all the past winners that have won here, say that the jealousy is almost greater when they leave here and to have not won the race than it was when they left here before they had won the race. Indy is a place everyone wants to win at. The desire is stronger here than anywhere else. But, once you get a win, you don’t want anyone else to bask in the ambiance as the winner for the next 12 months. You want it to be yourself. Pagenaud, Rossi and Power want it again more than ever. They said winning the first time, you get to witness what this feels like. You don’t ever want to give it up. The guys who have won in the past (Dixon, Sato, Hunter-Reay, Rossi, Power, Kanaan and Castroneves) want it back. Pagenaud, doesn’t want to relinquish it.

Finally, my picks –

  1. 98 Andretti – The determination is there. I’ve never seen him so focused. The car is there for him too. Andretti, wins the Indy 500 for the first time of his career.
  2. 27 Rossi – He narrowly misses another win. His average finish around here is 3.5. He finishes second for his fourth top four in five Indy 500 tries.
  3.  9 Dixon – He was in the top three of every speed chart. He was P2 in final practice and starts second.
  4. 30 Sato – Track position right. Sato, keeps him and finishes fourth. He was P4 in final practice and starts on the front row in third.
  5. 22 Pagenaud – Just not enough time to get all the way to the lead, but the defending race winner gets his third straight top six here.

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