INDIANAPOLIS — Carb Day didn’t feel like Carb Day on a beautiful Friday afternoon in August at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This was the first day that the lack of fans felt big. See, Carb Day is annually the second biggest crowd at the famed track of the year with fans in excess of 75k normally attending the unofficial holiday in Indiana.
This year though, no fans were allowed inside as fans have been absent all month here at the 2.5-mile facility. Every day has seemed more like a test session, but this day is the final tuneup for the Indianapolis 500 and the feelings of a party day for some, more or less feels like Christmas Eve Eve for others.
While Carb Day is normally met with fun anticipation, it also begins the anxiety feeling that we’re just a couple of days away from having to wait a year before we get to witness history again.
This year, this felt like just a practice session, an intense one at that. While that’s what Carb Day is, final practice, the entire day’s festivities from the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race, to the pit stop competition to a concert to wrap up the day really overshadows the final practice before the ‘500.
This year, none of the other support events on this great day took place. It was practice and practice only. The session was moved to two-hour and it was thrilling from the drop of the green flag at 11 a.m. ET until the checkered flag flew on the practice at 1 p.m. ET.
2,207 laps were turned with the two rookie Arrow McLaren SP teammates showing some surprising pace. Pato O’Ward was one of three drivers to miss the show last year, but was left on top of the speed charts heading into Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (1 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) this year.
O’Ward, circled the track with a top speed of 225.355 mph in his No. 5 Chevrolet to top all 33 drivers over the 120 minute session in length. O’Ward, was only 28th and 20th on the speed charts in race practice last week but was eighth on Sunday. He starts on the Outside of Row 5 this weekend.
“I think we are ready for the challenge ahead,” O’Ward said. “It was a very positive day in terms of how we were feeling in traffic, passing cars, and playing around in five-, 10-, and 15-car trains. I think it is going to be very interesting to see how the cars will behave on Sunday in 10-15 degree hotter temps. I think we are ready, and we ended the day very happy with how everything fell and felt. So, we are looking forward to Race Day and going forward.”
His teammate Oliver Askew was P5 (224.128 mph) in his No. 7 Chevrolet. Askew, was 31st, 10th and 29th respectively in the three prior race practice sessions. He’ll roll off on the Outside of Row 7 on Sunday himself.
“It was good,” said Askew. “Probably the best I have felt in traffic. I think we are really going in the right direction and made the right changes over the mid-week break. The No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet felt good throughout the stint, and I passed a few different people. Race Day is going to be a different animal, but I’m sure we are ready to react to the challenges and have a good day.”
But, there were also some familiar names up front too. Current NTT IndyCar Series points leader, Scott Dixon, was second quick in his No. 9 Honda. Dixon, turned in a lap of 224.646 mph as he was in the top three in literally every practice session that he competed in this month. He also rolls off second on Sunday too.
“We had to go through our front wings today just to make sure they’re all close in case we need one in the race,” Dixon said. “We lost some front grip, and we’re trying to see if the teammates had the same situation.
“Apart from that, the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda felt really good and really fast. It pulls up wicked fast. Hopefully that’s true when it comes to the race. It definitely looks like there are some good cars out there and some not so good cars, so hopefully we’re on the right end of the grid.
“I think there has always been, especially these last few years, an underlying tone of ‘it’s hard to pass,’ which it was in that camp last year. This year’s been a lot easier for us. I think a lot of credit goes out to HPD and Honda. We’re proud to be powered by them. They have done a lot to help that, but also I think we’ve made a lot of changes on the team and the car and that’s helped that, as well. It’s good to see.”
Alexander Rossi was third (224.599 mph) in his No. 27 Honda. Rossi, has an average finishing position of 3.5 in his four career Indy 500 starts and told me on Media Day that he’s very happy with his race car now. He compared it to the one he’s had in the last few years which is a good sign for him. He starts ninth on Sunday.
Takuma Sato (224.580 mph) rounded out the top five of the speed chart. He’s been quietly good all month as he starts on the Front Row (3rd) and has been fast in race practice too.
Chevy talked about how they had great cars in traffic and should have something for the Honda’s on race day, but it was Honda who took seven of the top 10 speeds on Carb Day including four of the top six overall.
Here are my main takeaways.
Penske guys found something by end of practice
Will Power wasn’t happy early in Friday’s Carb Day practice. He was quite worried he said. But, by the end of the 2-hour session, he became happy. They kept working at it all 120 minutes and it worked on his last few runs. Power, turned 81 important laps in his No. 12 Chevrolet and while he was only 24th fastest on the speed charts, he’s pleased with the pace and balance now.
“We were quite far off at the beginning of today,” Power said. “I was worried that we weren’t going to find anything. Then we found some stuff late in the session, and hopefully we have the Verizon 5G Edge Chevrolet in the window where it needs to be. Obviously, we are starting back in the pack, so I tried to run around cars and see how it is going to be. We have really good pit stops, great guys on the car. I think that is going to be our game, with strategy and our pit stops is where we are going to make time up. But it’s every man for himself. It is the Indy 500, but if we can be mistake-free, we can get ourself to the top five.”
So is his teammate Josef Newgarden. The defending series champion is 0-for-9 here, but was seventh fastest in final practice (223.764 mph). He said he doesn’t really want to jinx himself but he’s happy with his No. 1 Chevrolet too.
“I think the Shell V-Power Nitro Chevrolet is pretty good, to be honest with you,” said Newgarden. “You don’t want to be overconfident, but I feel cautiously optimistic.
“It’s been fast in traffic and felt really fast today. I think Team Chevy has a really good package for us for the race. So, feeling very confident with what they are bringing. Carb Day is one of those days if you need it, you use it all. If you don’t, you take it easy and not use the car up. It felt like the second of those for us.
“I’m optimistic. I think we have a shot. It would be amazing to win this race. It is so special; you just grow to love it more. I’ve been so fortunate. This is my ninth ‘500.’ I would love to win this race. But you can’t force her. If it is going to happen, it is going to happen. But to win one for The Captain in these trying times, we are going to do our best to make it a great race.”
Defending race champion Simon Pagenaud was 14th fastest (223.419 mph) in his No. 22 Chevrolet and is everyone’s pick still to potentially win due to how good his car has looked in traffic all week.
“It’s always going to be about balance,” said the defending race champion. “Chevy has got it tremendous in race trim. We are equal to the competition, and we have plenty of speed in race trim.
“It’s going to be all about finding the balance in your race car the entire day. The wind might change, and when the wind shifts, you might find yourself good in (Turn) 2 and bad in (Turn) 4. The cars are very sensitive this year, much more than last year.
“So, balance is going to be everything. It’s also going to be about downforce, no question. We are going to have to run close to people, and we need downforce. So, the question is going to be how much. For me, it is going to be about balance. We are going to have to be aggressive from the start to pass people to get clean air.”
Helio Castroneves (223.093 mph) was P17 when it was all said and done. He was second in Sunday’s practice.
“Good strong finish for the No. 3 Pennzoil Chevrolet for Team Penske here at Carb Day,” Castroneves said. “We definitely have great pit stops. Everybody seemed to be in sync, and right now we just have to play the game, stay clean and go to the front.”
Marco Andretti had a wow moment early in practice, don’t be worried about practice spot on timing chart
Marco Andretti hasn’t put a wheel wrong all month in his No. 98 Honda. He’s been in the top three of every practice session until Friday. Andretti, was coming out of the pits early in the practice on cold tires, but one of the Arrow cars on a hot lap went around him on the backstraight and into Turn 3. That dirty air caused Andretti to get wicked loose and nearly crash in the third corner.
They battled his car all day and he was only P28 on Carb Day. Still, that was by design. Andretti, was working on a lot of different strategies on Friday because he told me on Thursday that his car is there in terms of race pace. He’s happy with it. So, Carb Day was about putting his car in tense situations to try out different setups.
“Today we found a few things we didn’t like in the car, which is good and bad because we found it out before Sunday,” the pole sitter said. “We ticked a lot of boxes on a semi-difficult day, but I think we are still in a good position for the race on Sunday.“
His teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay was also working on different setups Friday too. That’s why they were where they were on the timing charts.
“The 28 DHL boys got a lot done on this Carb Day. I think everybody understands now that it’s pretty difficult running in heavy traffic. We got through our list, and we’ll try to piece it together from here. We’ll make the changes on the car and let her set sail.”
Dixon, Rossi The Favorites? Sato the top sleeper?
As we head into Sunday’s 104th Running, I have to say I think this could very well be a Scott Dixon vs. Alexander Rossi battle for the milk. Both looked extremely good in race pace and Carb Day further proved that point.
Dixon, was in the top three of literally every speed chart of every practice session this month. He rolls off second in his No. 9 Honda on Sunday. He’s happy with his car right now too.
Rossi, wasn’t too happy with his car prior to last Sunday’s race practice, but he said they found something then that made him feel like this car is similar to the ones he’s had here in the past. He has a 3.5 average finishing position in four starts here, including a win in 2016 and a runner-up last year. He ended up P3 on the speed charts on Carb Day, so that’s saying something.
The sleeper no one is talking about is Takuma Sato. He starts on the front row (3rd) and was fourth in practice on Friday. He was second in the final race practice on Thursday. Sato, has started in the top 10 just one other time here before and that was in 2017 when he started fourth. He won that race.
These may be the top three to beat at the moment with Andretti right there with them.
Carpenter fought electrical gremlins all practice
Ed Carpenter was confident in his race pace last week. He even said as much on Thursday too. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see much of it on Friday as he fought electrical gremlins all session. He completed 65 laps, but a lot of time was spent on pit road to try and diagnose what went wrong.
That’s not an easy feeling to have going into race day, but at least it happened today and not Sunday.
Rahal battled handling problems in practice
Graham Rahal has loved the way his race car has felt all month. He’s been quick in each practice and will start eighth on Sunday. He said on Thursday just how much he likes the feel of his race car. Then, Friday came and it all went away.
Rahal battled grip all session, pitting several times for spring adjustments as they fought the grip levels for the two-hour practice. That’s why he was only 25th on the speed charts when it was all said and done.
Karam brushed the wall
Sage Karam was the only driver to get into the wall on Carb Day as he barely touched the Turn 4 wall late in the session. His car had just came back from Gasoline Alley not long prior as they struggled with the handling too on his No. 24 Chevrolet.
“We rolled out with a bit more understeer than we had on Sunday,” said Karam. “We just overshot our setups this morning. We went back to the garage then and put on last Sunday’s setup and felt a lot better at the end of the practice.
“I was able to run up on people and stay with them. Toward the end, I got in the gray and skimmed the wall in Turn 4. It didn’t do much to the car. We ran through some fuel settings and different mixtures to prepare for Sunday. We practiced in and out laps and had some excellent pit stops from the WIX Filters crew. As usual, they will help me pick up spots in the pits. They are always able to gain two or three positions on pit stops. I felt comfortable getting into the pit box, and the crew is fast and consistent. I’m sure that will be the case Sunday, too.”
But, they found something in the changes, then he scrapped the wall. Karam, said that he was still happy with the way his car felt prior to the incident but they had to call the session early due to the contact with the SAFER barrier knocking the tow out.