Top storylines to watch for open week of 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 practice

How Do You Balance Qualifying Practice vs. Race Trim Practice?

Indianapolis 500 practice starts on Tuesday. There’s four days of practice available before we set the field for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 this weekend. With that said, the most logical plan would be to dial in your race car on race trim on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday then swap over to qualifying trim on Friday.

That’s because you get the added horsepower boost for Fast Friday which these levels stay around until the end of qualifying on Sunday. In turn, it wouldn’t do you any good to practice qualifying setups prior to Friday.

But, with the data available now and how important qualifying is for this race, teams can start preparing for Indy 500 qualifying earlier than Friday. You can simulate how your car would handle with the added boost and try to find some clean air to go through some simulated runs during the week.

The problem is, the more you focus on qualifying, the less you’re focusing on your “race” car. But, the flip side is that the more that you’re focusing on your “race” car is the less of a shot you’re getting at finding qualifying trim.

How do you balance them?

The teams that have been able to get a head start on qualifying sims have been the ones qualifying up front for this race. With the last three winners coming from the front row, qualifying success is just as important here again.

Stacked Field

Every Indy 500 winner since 2013 is here again. There’s 13 Indy 500 wins on the entry list.

The entire top 14 of last years finishing order is also back. Plus, you add a two-time Indy 500 champion back to the fold that wasn’t here a year ago too.

That could make this one of the toughest fields to get into this year in the 105 year history of this event. I know the glory years saw more cars go home than starting spots, but their depth from top to the bottom wasn’t like this. The speeds weren’t as close to each other then either. The disparity from first to last over four laps now can be separated by a slight bobble on one of your laps.

Throw in high class drivers in every ride and you get what should be a memorable Month of May this year with the best field to ever grace us at the Brickyard.

Chevy vs. Honda – Chevrolet Looked Improved During The Open Test

Chevrolet had the preferred power in this race in 2018 and again in 2019. They’ve swept the front row both years. In 2018, they led nearly 150 of the 200 laps run. 2019, they combined to lead 155 of the 200 laps. Last year, it was all Honda.

This time Honda swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots. They’d lead 179 of the 200 laps and sweep the top four finishing spots and take 8 of the top 10 finishers overall.

How much can Chevy close the gap and how much can Honda gain or even lose was a big question entering this test. But, after the two-day session last month, it appears that Chevrolet has definitely improved.

They took two of the top three spots in the overall speed department and four of the top seven in fact. That’s all due to the fact that Penske, Arrow McLaren SP and Ed Carpenter Racing looking stout. Conor Daly was quickest on Thursday, fastest on Friday morning and sixth overall on Friday’s afternoon. Ed Carpenter was second on Thursday, fifth and 14th respectively during the two sessions on Friday.

The Penske’s looked very fast and very racy. That was their goal though. They weren’t going to come back again without putting up a fight.

“I think Chevy has done a great job, as evidenced with Juan as well,” said Josef Newgarden. “I think the McLaren boys are quick. I think we feel pretty good about things.

“I think they’ve definitely made improvements, and we needed to in the off-season. We all did. Us as a team, I think Chevrolet, we all got together and looked where we were weakest. I think there was a little bit to go around on all sides. They’ve really stepped up.

“We put in a lot of effort. I think we found some good stuff. It’s getting hard nowadays. These gains you’re looking to find are so small. I think they’ve managed to find a decent chunk, which is impressive with how far along we are. Very encouraged with Chevrolet.

“It looks a lot more even this year, is what I would say at the moment. Someone could obviously be miles ahead by the time we get to the month of May. It’s possible. But I would say it looks a lot more even right now than where we were at last year.

“We’re all excited about that. I think Chevrolet has done a great job. It’s going to provide an interesting show for everybody.”

Car Was Still Hard To Pass With, But Improvement Still In Wake

One of the main goals of this last month’s test was to see if the improvements made to the car between August to now worked. The drivers that tested this package last Fall felt like it would be an improvement and they echoed that sentiments two weeks ago. But, some of the drivers felt this week that the cars are still difficult to pass with.

Conor Daly said in the middle of the day on Friday that despite these new aero pieces that he found it difficult to make passes. He said that the cars felt a little bit better in wake but unless the driver or car in front of you makes a mistake, it’s still going to be really tough to make passes.

The thing is though, he also noted that it’s not too concerning in the sense that it’s only Day 1 essentially. They have plenty of practice days ahead next month to get the cars dialed in.

Josef Newgarden though said that he feels like the show will still be improved from last year.

“Yes, definitely. It’s easier to follow,” said the quickest driver of the test. “It’s still tough. You’ll still get a big front wash in traffic. 10 cars back, it’s always going to be difficult. But I think they’ve made the ability to follow better. That balance separation between clean air and dirty air is definitely reduced.

“Some of them are tricky to drive, some of these parts. I think you’re seeing some split camps here along pit lane. Not everybody is running the same stuff. That’s been interesting to watch. There’s more downforce on the car. I think the balance shift in traffic is less.

“Yeah, the ability that we’re going to have to race compared to last year will be better.”

Also, Daly figured the weather conditions played a role too. Temperatures soared into the upper 70’s and was even at 80 degrees at the time of the checkered flag. That plus some high winds also affected the cars on Friday. Newgarden though said it didn’t faze them much.

“I mean, I think it was a pretty easy day,” he said. “It was pretty ideal conditions. Not too hot. Certainly not too cold. A little bit windy. That was probably the most difficult part about the day, was the wind, the movement of the car. Pretty standard for this place. You’re always kind of fighting that depending where it’s coming from. It’s always playing a factor.

“Weather wasn’t an issue. It was a pretty easy day, for the most part, to be honest.”

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 was a difficult race in terms of passing, hence the changes. So, INDYCAR held a test at the end of October at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year to help with the superspeedway racing package. The race last August featured a lot of single file racing with on track passing being really hard to do.

See, from 2012 through 2017, the racing at Indy looked like something you’d see NASCAR have at Daytona or Talladega. No, it wasn’t a “pack race” but rather a sling shot race to where you don’t want to be leading. The tow as well as the drag was so big in those cars, that it made passing easy.

The 2012 race had 34 lead changes. The 2013 race had a race record 68 of them. 34 more followed in 2014 with 37, 54 and 35 more between 2015, 2016 and 2017 respectively.

INDYCAR wanted to reel that in a bit. Unfortunately, they went too far in the other direction. Since this new car came out in 2018, passing has been great on road/street courses as well as short ovals. Indy, well it’s been really difficult. We had 30 lead changes in 2018, 29 in 2019 and just 21 last year.

That’s why changes have been made again.

The series knows though that they can’t go too far the other way because it could create artificial racing. Passing isn’t supposed to be easy. The faster cars are supposed to be up front. They’re just searching for a happy medium, hence the potential of push to pass for 2023.

But, for the immediate future, the test in October was to help for the 105th Running this May. Well, by the sounds of things, it seems like the test went so well that setups from that test were used as a baseline for the last session a few weeks ago.

“Everything that we’ve found in the November test from that aero dynamic side was already on the cars today,” said Alexander Rossi at the test a few weeks ago. “So that package that we kind of adjusted for 2021 already exists. It’s what we had here is what we will race in May. The push to pass was just with a view to the future and once the hybrid systems become a reality and we can use that to change the way the race goes.”

Jay Frye said that he thinks the aero changes they’ve made to the car for this year’s Indy 500 will be “really good.”

That’s a far cry from what drivers were saying last August.

Pato O’Ward told me during that test last October, that everything felt great.

“It was good,” O’Ward said on how the car felt in October compared to just a couple of months ago. “Honestly the baseline car from the race earlier felt the same. Which was good to then get the changes to the new stuff, the new addons.”

Each car in October had three setup options to go off of. You had the baseline from this past year’s race, a first small change, a second smaller change and a third change with everything put together.

It was the final change that had the drivers liking what they felt.

“The little addons didn’t do much but the full package did a significant amount of positive to the car,” said O’Ward. “I was able to run behind traffic a lot better, passing was a lot easier. It’s not just as horrendous anymore. During the race, it was so aggressive when the car takes off and the window of opportunity trying to save it was very small. I am all in favor of these changes.”

O’Ward noted that the first step wasn’t any different what the car had for August. The second step was an improvement, but after 16-17 laps in a run, it went back to where the car initially was in step 1. The third step, well it was eye opening.

So, what was it about the third setup on Friday that O’Ward liked?

“You’re able to follow the car in front of you, even if there’s 2 or 3 in front of him, a lot closer,” he said. “That then allows you to try to pass. Usually it’s a pretty late move because of the draft that he has, but we need this to improve the racing.

“It stuck the car more to the ground when you were right behind someone. The understeer was a bit more predictable so you go with it and it was very manageable. Before, it was kind of just take off and you’re going straight towards the wall.”

O’Ward says that if they can run a race similar to how they tested, then it’s a win-win for all parties involved.

“I think it’s just going to make the racing all around for the fans a lot better,” said the future star of the series. “A lot better for us too. I mean it really does get kind of annoying whenever you’re not even close to the guy in front of you and you’re holding onto your life like not knowing what the car is going to do. Man it was tough during the race. I’m all for these changes.”

Penske Eyeing Indy 500 Improvement

An Indy 500 win and a championship. That’s the top two goals for any NTT IndyCar Series race team. But for Team Penske, those aren’t lofty goals. Those are realistic. When they don’t win either, as was the case for 2020, it means they take it personally.

So, how do you balance those goals? Putting too many eggs in the Indy basket can compromise success elsewhere and vice versa. How do you go all in at trying to make the gains to win at Indy, but not lose ground elsewhere a vie for a championship?

That’s the challenging part of INDYCAR racing. There’s superspeedway’s. There’s short ovals. There’s also road and street courses too. Everyone is trying to improve on areas to where they’re bad at, so even if you’re good in one area, you can’t rest on your laurels. For an organization like Team Penske, you can’t go all in and try to win the Indy 500 but risk a decline in stats for other tracks either.

“It’s a balancing act, for sure. That’s a good point,” Josef Newgarden told me during INDYCAR media days last month. “You have to try and understand, when you push resources one way, how does that affect everything else. I think for us, we’re pretty good at balancing that formula.

“Indy is a really tough track, not only because it’s the most important race but I think because it’s all about very small details, and those little details take a tremendous amount of time and effort to move the needle. It’s all these little things that add up at the end of the day when you show up in the month of May. It takes a tremendous amount of time to make large progress at Indianapolis, whereas at another track you may find a small difference or small change with something that you found that didn’t take nearly as much energy or money or resources.

“I think you can have these bigger magnitudes of shift at a place like a street course or a road course compared to Indianapolis. Indianapolis really takes a ton of time, ton of resources to make those little incremental improvements forward. That’s why we emphasize trying to get that right. For us, it was skewed last year in that Indy was probably one of our worst tracks. There’s no doubt. We didn’t perform like we wanted to at the 500 from a qualifying standpoint and race standpoint. I think that’s why we’ve heavily leaned to get that right in the off-season.

“We haven’t left anything else behind. We’re still pushing forward on all the other fronts because we need to be strong across the season.”

Newgarden has won two NTT IndyCar Series championships to his credit. He nearly won a third last year. But, the one thing that’s nagging in the back of his head still is the lack of an Indy 500 win. Newgarden, is 0-for-8. He does have four top 10’s in his last five starts there, but that lack of taste of the milk in victory lane isn’t quenching his thirst.

“We want to win an Indy 500,” Newgarden said. “For me specifically, that’s a big goal. I’ve not won that race. Obviously as a team, we’ve had a lot of success there. They’d like to add to that. For me, I’d like to get my first.”

See, Penske is synonymous with Indy success. Heading into 2020, Roger Penske had just purchased the place. He figuratively and now literally owned victory lane. But, Penske’s cars struggled on track in August. They finished P4-11-14-22. They were rarely found up front on any speed chart all month.

That’s not good enough for Penske. It was honestly rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2021.

“Last year our qualifying form was not strong,” Newgarden continued. “We were all disappointed with our speed. That was first and foremost. How do we fix the speed of the cars from last season? There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s been put in. We have the best of the best in my opinion when it comes to talent and personnel. There’s been no shortage of effort and time to make these Penske racecars as fast as possible. That was first and foremost.

“Then I think the race condition of the car, how does it really work across 30 laps on a set of tires in multiple-car drafts? That’s probably the most important ingredient nowadays is just figuring out if you get buried 10 or 15 cars back, how is your car reacting in that much dirty air. That was something we needed to be stronger at.

“Just outright speed and the car’s potential in a big wake. That’s all different this year, too. We tried to learn where we were deficient last year, but now we also need to figure out where we need to be better in the future with the new aero parts. Quite a bit of difference with not only the front wing but the underside build of the car aerodynamically. There’s going to be some new elements. The car is going to drive different. We need to be better all around.”

Will Power, Newgarden’s teammate, agreed.

“I feel pretty good about definitely being better than where we were last year at Indianapolis,” said Power. “I think that’s probably the most disappointing we’ve been since I’ve been at Penske. It was a surprise to us. Certainly worked very hard on that.”

Chip Ganassi Racing Eyeing 1st Indy 500 Triumph In Last 9 Years

Chip Ganassi Racing is arguably one of the best Indy Car teams in the series today. They hold 114 wins, 12 series titles and four Indianapolis 500 victories. While the team has enjoyed much success, they would really enjoy another Indy 500 win, as their last one was back in 2012.

It’s not like they haven’t competed very well lately. Scott Dixon has three top eight finishes in his last five tries. The No. 10 Honda will have its third driver in it over the last four years, but even that car has been strong.

They just haven’t won the thing.

That’s not a byproduct of them being off their game at Indy, it’s just that this race has seen so much parity lately.

Dixon, has won just once though (2008). Does he need another Indy 500 win to cement his legacy?

Only AJ Foyt has more championships than Dixon now. Foyt has seven, Dixon has six. Only Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52) have more overall race victories in the series than Dixon’s 50. Only Andretti has as many runner-up finishes, 56-48, than Dixon. Just Andretti (144) and Foyt (119) have more podiums than Dixon’s 123.

In top five finishes, Andretti has 194, Dixon has 176. The next best is Foyt with 149.

Is it fair to compare Dixon to Andretti in this race?

Andretti, was close so many times but only had that one ‘500 triumph 51 years ago this year in 1969. But, he’s regarded as one of the best there ever was to race an open wheel machine because of those stats above.

Will Dixon be mentioned closer to Andretti than that of Foyt?

“I don’t think this place owes me anything,” said Dixon. “We’ve had the car to win some, but hey, if we didn’t get it right we didn’t get it right. We didn’t deserve it. I know there’s a couple where we thought we’ve had a good run at it but it didn’t happen. I feel very fortunate to have raced here. It’s the same goal for everybody. Unfortunately, there’s 32 others that want the same thing.”

Foyt, has four Indy 500 wins. Tied for most ever. I don’t think it’s a secret that Dixon is the best of this generation and that his name is mentioned in the same breath as Foyt and Andretti. But, what would another Indy 500 win do for him?

Since his lone ‘500 victory, Dixon has eight top eight finishes in 12 tries. He led the most laps last year and came home runner-up for his second top three result in three years.

This year, Chip Ganassi Racing will have four drivers vying for the top spot in victory lane.

Dixon’s teammates this May will be Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson and a return to the team from Tony Kanaan.

The No. 10 car is Palou’s and has actually been really good at Indy. Ganassi won three Indy 500’s in a five year span between 2008 and 2012 but this entry won two of those.

From 2009 on, Dario Franchitti and Kanaan led a ton of laps in this ride in the ‘500. This car has led at least one lap in nine of the last 11 Indy 500’s. While Ed Jones failed to lead a lap in 2018, the only other times this ride wasn’t out front for at least one lap in the ‘500 was in 2013.

Between Dario and TK, the No. 10 ride had five top seven finishes between 2009 and 2018.

Marcus Ericsson is back in the third car while Kanaan takes over the No. 48 Honda.

This could be the time that Ganassi is drinking the milk again. They’ve already won four races this year.

It will be interesting to see if either of these Chip Ganassi Racing drivers can bring home the Borg Warner Trophy for their beloved team.

Helio Castroneves’ Drive For 4 With A Different Team Now

Nothing against Michael Schumacher (Formula One) or Jeff Gordon (NASCAR), but their five wins each at IMS will never even compare to AJ Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr’s four Indy 500 wins. While five wins anywhere is impressive, four Indy 500 wins is legendary.

Only three drivers in history have won the famed race four times, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, but for the past nine years, three-time winner Helio Castroneves has been knocking on the door.

Over the past 11 years now, Castroneves has had six top 10 finishes, two of which were second place finishes. He almost joined the four-time club in both 2014 and 2017, just missing the mark by 0.060 seconds and 0.2011 seconds, respectively. Ouch.

Castroneves will return this year in hopes of winning a fourth Borg Warner Trophy. This time though, he’ll do so without being with Team Penske. His previous 20 Indy 500 starts were all with Penske, but this year will come with Meyer Shank Racing in the No. 06 Honda. MSR has an alliance with Andretti Autosport, so this could be Castroneves’ year.

This is the 30th anniversary since we’ve last witnessed a four time winner at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in regards to the Indianapolis 500. Rick Mears last did it in 1991. That came four years after Al Unser joined the club in 1987. That came a decade after AJ Foyt being the first to accomplish this exclusive feat in 1977.

Since then, no one has been able to do it. Some have been close, but just can’t get it done. Seven drivers have won this race three times but only one of them is active – Castroneves. But, his stats as a one-off have declined. It’s been 11 years since he last won a ‘500 here. Can he win again? He’s moving further and further away from doing so instead of closer. In 2014 and 2017, he was close. 2018, 2019 and 2020 he’s moved further away than ever before.

Then you have Takuma Sato. He’s one of the other two drivers in the field with multiple Indy 500 wins. Heck, only 20 drivers in this world can say that they’ve won this race more than once. Sato, has two wins in four years, but can he realistically win two more soon? He’s already the fifth oldest winner ever at 43. Does he have enough time to get to four wins?

For Castroneves, he just turned 46. The oldest to win this race is Al Unser at 47.

No one else left has more than one Indy 500 win in their career. With the field as competitive as it’s arguably ever been and only four drivers having won this race more than once since 1998, what makes you think we’ll get drivers winners at least three times over the next decade? I mean, we’ve only had two repeat winners of this race in the last 66 years, so Sato winning later this month doesn’t seem likely.

The four win feat may be one of those stats that as low as it sounds, may be unreachable for quite some time.

One Off List A Strong One

It’s been 10 years since we last saw a part time driver win the Indianapolis 500. Dan Wheldon did so in thrilling fashion that day. That came 10 years after the last in which Helio Castroneves did it in 2001. Now, can one of the talented drivers on this list do so this year?

The numbers are on their side. 2001, 2011…2021?

Right now, we have Marco Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton, Santino Ferrucci, Cody Ware, Pietro Fittipaldi, Sage Karam and Simona de Silvestro on this list. Can any of these drivers sip the milk on May 30?

Stats are on their side, but trends are.

Difficulty Winning This Race Makes That Trip To Victory Lane All That Much More Special

We’ve seen over the years the emotion that comes out of an Indianapolis 500 champion. I mean, it’s the only race on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule that labels the race winner as a “champion.”

It’s not just the win that’s special. Don’t get me wrong, crossing the yard of bricks is enough to make a grown man weep of happy tears of joy. But, it’s also everything after it too. You’re forever lauded in racing lore when you get to cross the famed yard of bricks first. But, it’s also to what happens during the course of 500 miles to what makes winning here so damn special too.

In order to win Indy, you have to be perfect. Literally. There’s no margin for error here. From on track, to pit road, to everything in between, you can’t slip up or a win will become out of reach in an instant.

Especially now. The field is just so deep, so talented. To beat drivers like this, you have to be perfect.

“It’s a package” said defending Indy 500 champion Simon Pagenaud. “Obviously, it’s not just the race car. You have to have luck that day. The stars have to align for you. You need to bring your A game. The entire crew, the strategist, everyone has to make the perfect execution.

“At the end of the day, you also have to have the right package that year on your car. Setup, engine, everything. It’s obviously to me, with the 24 Hours of LeMans, the toughest race of the year to win. There’s so many factors to get right, especially the outside factors beyond your control and you do need the outside factors need to go your way.”

It’s eerie that the guy that he beat in 2019 in Alexander Rossi, echoed the same thing as Pagenaud about an hour earlier in the day.

“Yeah everything has to go right,” said last year’s runner-up but also the 2016 champion in Rossi. “Who would have thought that the strategy that we defaulted to after pit stop problems in ’16 would have been the one to have won the race. There’s no predicting it.

“There’s 33 cars that have a full and equal part to win this thing on Sunday. Pit stops are going to be, I mean each year there’s a little bit more of a track position race over years past because the competition gets better and it gets hotter, that sort of thing.”

500 miles. Four turns per lap. 800 turns all day. The amount of precision, perfection and concentration is what makes that cold drink of milk after 3+ hours of a mentally taxing race so damn worth it.

But, once you win it, it’s something that you don’t ever want to give back either.

“I don’t want anyone to take it from me,” Pagenaud said.

Rossi feels the same. He knows that people questioned his love for the race following his 2016 win. It wasn’t that he didn’t love to win, he just didn’t know what to expect. That’s why he says you see even more emotion pouring out of series veterans that have never experienced a win here despite several tries. But, that emotion a second time, it would come out for Rossi.

“Everyone talks about like when Tony (Kanaan) won and Will (Power) won, they’ve been trying so long and that type of emotion came out and that is obviously a real thing,” Rossi said. “But, for the guys that have won and gotten a taste of it, you don’t know what you don’t know. Until you’ve won, you don’t realize how amazing it is. How special an event that this is to win. Every time that a year goes by and you know someone else will get to go do all that stuff that you get to go do, you just think ‘oh this sucks.’ So for sure it adds fuel to the fire every year that goes by.

When told about Rick Mears getting more and more emotional after each one of his win, Rossi said “oh for sure because you realize every year you come here, you realize how challenging it is to get it done. How all the pieces of the puzzle have to fall in place. Some are in your control and some aren’t. It’s a pretty magical part when it all happens.”

A prime example is finishing second to Pagenaud last year. Rossi notes that he thinks about that race more right now than his win in ’16 because of how close he was and how you can’t squander a race winning car here due to all the circumstances around it.

“To this day I still haven’t watched and Indy 500 from start to finish that I’ve competed in,” continued Rossi. “I mean, I still think about the 2019 finish more of the 2016 win because it’s more recent or maybe it’s because it sucks to finish second. It’s a horrible feeling especially when it’s a second place for when you know you got up there trying to do something wild.

“Like in 2016, if we finished second, that’s a total different emotion. To have a car to potentially win and you come up short is tough because it’s so hard around here that puts you in that position. It takes so many factors and elements that puts you up there to win the Indianapolis 500. You never know if you’re going to have it again. When you see that opportunity and it gets away from you, it’s hard to swallow.”

On May 30, another driver will go down in Indy lore. Only Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato have won this thing more than once, but even if either of them, the emotion will be just as joyful as the others.

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