INDIANAPOLIS — The fastest laps of the month were once again turned on Fast Friday as the day lived up to its billing. Scott Dixon set the quickest lap of the day with a speed of 233.302 mph in his No. 9 Honda. Dixon, hasn’t won an NTT IndyCar Series pole since the 2017 race here which was famously known for the Taco Bell incident after. This week, he was eighth, first, fifth and first now respectively as this looks as good of a shot as any for him to not only earn the pole but his second Indy 500 victory as well.
“Yeah, the team was really fast,” said Dixon. “I think any time one of the Ganassi cars went out, they improved and improved in a big way. Interesting day. Happy with the speed of the car. Looks like there’s a lot of strong cars out there. Looks like Honda is doing a superb job again. Definitely proud to powered by Honda.
Dixon has some company via his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates. They took four of the top five spots on the overall speed chart on Friday with Tony Kanaan (232.690 mph), Marcus Ericsson (232.531 mph) and Alex Palou (232.155 mph) being third, fourth and fifth respectively.
Colton Herta (232.784 mph) was the lone driver of everyone else in the top five in his No. 26 Honda. As you could see, there’s a theme brewing. Honda took the entire top five on the speed chart and 12 of the top 14 overall. Pato O’Ward (232.034 mph) was the top bowtie in sixth.
How Important Will The Qualifying Draw Be?
Normal years, Indianapolis 500 Time Trials began at 11 a.m. ET here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That led to a pretty sizeable advantage for those drivers that got an early draw for qualifications. The track is cooler with the conditions normally cooler overall then than it would be as the day goes on. But, with qualifying now starting one hour later (12 p.m. ET) on Saturday, how much does the draw weigh into things this year?
“I think the qualifying draw is a little bit — that’s going to be important,” Rossi told me on Friday. “You’re obviously going to want to try to get it done early before the track temp comes up.
“I think your first draw is going to be critical and could play out badly if it doesn’t go the right way.I don’t know. Hopefully there’s enough time in the day that people can rerun and all that type of stuff. It’s definitely tight out there.”
Pato O’Ward echoed that statement himself.
“If you draw early, you need to take advantage of it because it really does make a difference,” he said. “Not that in the afternoon you can’t be fast, but it just makes it a lot harder to be consistent throughout the four laps especially. Those little extra bits of just wear that you get whenever it’s hotter, you really do feel it.”
Scott Dixon says that not only the draw, but the final hour of qualifying will be exciting too.
“I think it will depend on conditions,” he said. “I think the falloff looks more tomorrow maybe than what it did last year, as in the temps and conditions. It got pretty quick there at the end if you could find clear track.
“I think the last hour could be pretty exciting, you know.”
Rossi agreed with that assessment.
“Yeah, because you’re going to have the guys that are on the cusp of getting into the Fast Nine trying to get in,” he said. “You’re going to have the excitement obviously of 32nd to 35th. They’re going to be a lot of guys out there trying to get runs in for different reasons, but still to transfer to the next day.”
O’Ward said that he thinks everybody’s going to try to make their race car as fast as they can. It’s going to be a big factor to win the race he notes.
“It’s so important to start up front. But ultimately you can qualify in the first three, something happens in a pit stop, you’re going to be stuck in 20th. If you don’t have a good race car, you’re screwed.
“I think that’s probably the priority, is to have the best race car you can.”
Honda vs. Chevy
This is a fun battle worth paying attention to. Chevrolet drivers swept the front row in both 2018 and again in 2019. They would lead 150 of 200 laps in the 2018 race and 155 of 200 the next year in 2019. But, a year ago, Honda got the better of the bowties.
Honda this time swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots in general. They’d lead 179 of 200 laps last August.
Chevy vowed to close that gap in the offseason. Honda vowed to improve. That led to a fairly balanced speed chart all week with the top pretty evenly split between Chevy and Honda. But, once the boost levels got turned up on Friday, well Honda showed their advantage again.
Honda had 12 of the top 14 speeds on Fast Friday including taking nine of the top 12 on the four lap average chart.
The drivers have all said that the top three or four spots on track that you can definitely pass much easier than you could last year but spots fifth on back was as difficult as ever. Does this give Honda an advantage again?
“I mean, I think we can all look at the chart and see who is more dominant,” O’Ward told me. “My Chevy has been good to me so far. I think we’ve been doing a good job with what we have. Tomorrow obviously the goal is going to be getting to the Fast Nine.
“Yeah, it’s just…
Alexander Rossi cut him off, “Honda with a capital H,” empathetically on who has superior power right now.
Laps 3 and 4 Will Determine Top Qualifiers
It’s one thing to look good on your first or second lap of qualifying, but it’s another to get through the end of your qualifying run. Four laps here (10 miles) is a long way to go and with the tires falling off over the course of a run, how long you can hold on will make or break your starting position this weekend.
See, the temps are going to be high this weekend which makes this track even more treacherous than it normally already is for qualifying trim. With a lot less downforce on this package, you could really make a mistake over the course of four laps that could ruin your overall run.
You could look like a pole contender on Laps 1 and 2, but if the fall off is too much on Laps 3-4, well then you’d quickly fall down the speed charts too. The ones who can find the right balance and right consistency to keep the speeds the same over four laps, well they’ll fare really well come Saturday.
“Yeah, I think the consistency is definitely key,” Dixon told me. “I think even today we saw some pretty big falloff. It should make qualifying pretty exciting. You’re going to see some big first laps, see how everybody holds onto it.
“It’s interesting when you look at the data. A gust of wind alters your speed. A bad downshift or upshift, it ruins one of those laps.
“Consistency is definitely going to be key, make sure you execute on the first run so you have a bit of breathing room. Sometimes it’s out of your control, man.”
Rossi agreed saying that it could be something as small as a little condition change on just one lap that could affect a run.
“It’s so close now, wind gusts, upshifts, I mean, it’s crazy the minutia of detail that makes a difference around here,” he said. “You can’t afford to have anything not really fall your way.”
Penske Guys Puzzling Again
Team Penske was one of the Chevy teams talking about how much they felt like they improved from last year. Their first goal this month was a Fast Nine appearance. See, their three drivers who raced here last year qualified 13-22-25. It was very uncharacteristic of them. They know how important qualifying is here and they spent a lot of time and resources to close that gap.
So, their absence from the top of the no tow chart on Fast Friday was certainly eye opening. I mean, just look at what they said this morning about qualifying.
“Team Penske has prepared so hard for this one, as we always do, but you always keep looking for more,” said Simon Pagenaud on Friday morning. “The goal is really to get one Penske car on the pole.
Here’s what Will Power said.
“I feel like as a team we’ve done a lot of work to improve the cars over last year and have a really good chance this year,” said the 2018 ‘500 champion. “I think the moment of truth is qualifying to see where the true speed is, and I really hope that we’re all in the top nine.
“I still believe track position is really key this year. It’s still closer and packed up, but unless you’re in that top four, you’re pretty much locked out of being able to pass because obviously the car, the further back you get, every car is drafting off the car in front, so you don’t get the advantage of a car breaking the air in front of you. So yep, qualifying you want to be in that top nine.”
The most eye opening was what Tim Cindric said. He said Fast Friday will actually give them some indication of the difference between last year and this year and that it’s been really difficult to tell in the running that they’ve done at this point in time to what degree their competitiveness has changed from last year.
“I know there’s been a lot of work put in, not only from our team but also everybody at Chevrolet into how to make ourselves more competitive than we were last year, not only as a team but as an overall manufacturer’s group,” he said.
“I think we’re optimistic that we’ve closed that gap, but we only know what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done. And I think we’ve taken good steps there. I think our preparation for the race and understanding the different things that occurred last year I think is as good as any year that we’ve been here.
“The answer to your question is our first goal is our qualifying. Last year we didn’t have any cars in the top nine. That may have been the first time we’ve ever been in that situation.
“As one of the guys said, It’s our goal to get the cars in the top nine and then focus on race day. It’s probably a little too early to give you, I guess, a full grade on kind of where we are.”
On Friday, they were only 22nd (Newgarden), 24th (McLaughlin), 29th (Power) and 30th (Pagenaud) overall and just 17th (Newgarden), 20th (McLaughlin), 26th (Pagenaud) and 32nd (Power).
Penske, put three cars in the Fast Nine in 2010, one in 2011, three more in 2012 and 2013, down to two in 2014, three in 2015 and 2016, one in 2017, all four in 2018 and three in 2019. Could they get shut out of the Fast Nine for two years in-a-row?
Andretti Guys Surprisingly Quick
The Andretti guys have been somewhat frustrated as the week has gone on this month. Marco Andretti told me on Thursday that he has no shot at a pole this year. He and some of his teammates have said that they have just been lacking in overall speed, so with that said, they just started focusing on race trim to ensure that their cars are going to be good in traffic instead.
I mean, their philosophy was altered following how last year’s month went. They were quick across the board in every practice and then that translated over to a dominating in qualifying. It unfortunately for them, didn’t lead to success in the most important day of the month – race day.
They struggled and didn’t even place a single car inside of the top five. So, with them needing a win next weekend, why not focus more attention on race trim than qualifying trim?
So, it was surprising to see them quicker on Fast Friday. They had three cars in the top 10 on the overall speed chart but most impressively, 1st (Rossi) and 6th (Herta) on the no tow and 2nd (Herta), 4th (Rossi) and 5th (Wilson) on the 4 lap averages.
Does this bode well for this weekend?
Getting A Clean Lap Was Tough
You would think that a 2.5-mile track would give way for some good real estate for drivers to find some clean laps on. That’s normally the name of the game on Fast Friday. With the boost levels turned up, you don’t want a false reading of a tow. The three days prior was all about traffic, Friday was about single car runs.
In saying that, normally drivers give some room on track so they’re not impeding anyone else’s progress. It’s gamesmanship per say. This year’s practice day though, several teams had tough readings.
“Obviously it was really tough out there today,” Scott Dixon said after practice in the post practice press conference. “Just really tough to get a clear track. You had some guys doing some pretty silly stuff out there. Teams I think, too, should have been held responsible for some of those runs as well.
“I know it’s difficult. I know everybody wants to try to get a run. Some of those closing speeds when you have people doing cool-down laps at 150 miles an hour, you’re coming in at 240, gets pretty hairy.”
As to if he thought there was some gamesmanship going on?
“Yeah, one of the situations I had was just I think the driver should have pulled off into the lane,” he said. “When you’re coming in at 240 miles an hour, you had a car in the short chute at 150, that’s a pretty big problem.
“Some of it you got to rely on the spotters. We found ourselves in some positions today. I think as long as you can pull off the track, I don’t know. It’s not easy. It’s hard to talk about. I find the stand in the pit lane or even the spotters, make sure they keep after it.
“I think it’s part of the process now. Once you do a run, everybody is trying to cool the cars off. Some people used to not care about that, but now everybody is doing it. It becomes a lot of cars on track at different speeds.
“I feel like if you’re off the pace, you just got to use the bottom lanes. How they address it, I don’t know, man. It’s tough what speed you say that is, what scenario.
“I think it was just more difficult this year because I think you’ve got a very full field that are very close. You have a couple people that are going to be hanging on pretty tough. Everybody’s trying to get a run.”
“Yeah, it was kind of annoying,” said the Andretti Autosport driver. “People aren’t doing anyone any favors either. Whatever, it’s fine.”
Pato O’Ward and Ed Jones said that they had issues too with it. Both gave examples as to what drivers were impeding them.
“Yeah, I really don’t know what Marco (Andretti) was doing in the last run where I was out,” O’Ward said. “I was just making a gap, he just decides to pass me. I don’t really know what he was trying to do, I guess. We got a couple laps clean, which we could really see what we had for pace. That was good.
“Yeah, it got pretty messy in the end. Everyone wanted to go out, and there was not enough time to do it.”
Jones said it was the same driver twice to him.
“The first one was (Scott) McLaughlin. The second one, I’m not even sure who it was. Yeah, it was McLaughlin again. So twice.”
Ferrucci Underrated Day
Santino Ferrucci was being released from a downtown Indianapolis hospital around 12 hours before talking to the media this morning from IMS. He spoke of his mistake that he made at 4:14 pm ET on Thursday when he crashed in Turn 2. The car was able to get repaired. It took all night and into the early hours of Friday morning, but the No. 45 Honda was ready and as good as it was before Ferrucci backed it into the SAFER barrier late in practice on Thursday.
Ferrucci, was banged up but okay. RLL decided to ease him up to speed. No need to rush it. Just throw on max downforce to get him comfortable again and trim out more and more after each run. By the end of the day, Ferrucci was 14th on the overall lap chart with a top speed of 230.924 mph. He was ninth on the no tow report too.
Imagine crashing and hurting your leg in an accident, one that sent you to the hospital, then hopping into a car and going around that same track a day later at speeds nearly 231 mph. Oh yeah, he had more horsepower too via a boost increase on Fast Friday.
Ferrucci showed his skill and bravery on Friday.