Scott Dixon fastest in qualifying on Saturday, Fast 9, Last Row Shootouts set, main takeaways

INDIANAPOLIS — Drama was at it’s highest on Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The first time of the day ended up being the quickest, we saw a several minute standoff at the end of pit road and a last minute qualifying run that made it all worth it.

Scott Dixon (231.828 mph) was quickest on the day as he drew spot No. 1 in Time Trials and he made it worth it. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver will be hoping to earn his first NTT IndyCar Series pole since here in 2017 on Sunday. It didn’t come without some nerves though as the “Ice man” said that he was really nervous before going out to qualify on Saturday.

“I was shaking to put my socks on,” said Dixon.

“Going first, normally the Friday I felt like I’ve done prep, kind of understand where it’s going to go. But we’ve made so many changes overnight, then also hadn’t really had any clean runs yesterday afternoon. Our first run was the only run that we did. We were kind of downforced up.

“It’s a big deal, right? You’re rolling out, the first time you go into turn one at 240 miles an hour, you’re hoping you’re going to come out the other side in one piece.”

He’ll be joined his his other three teammates at Ganassi took four of the top nine spots with Tony Kanaan (231.639 mph), Alex Palou (231.145 mph) and Marcus Ericsson (231.104 mph) all making it in despite Palou crashing on his second qualifying attempt this afternoon.

“Huge credit to the team,” said Dixon. “To have all four cars in the Fast Nine is pretty massive, especially with the competition level we have these days. Obviously a huge shout-out to Honda for bringing the performance that they have.

“Yeah, for us it was just that first run, made a little bit of a mistake which definitely cost us a bit of speed. Tomorrow will be a different day, it’s going to be different conditions. Hopefully all four of us can hit it right.”

Colton Herta (231.648 mph) and his teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay (231.139 mph) as well as their alliance car with Meyer Shank Racing driven by Helio Castroneves (231.164 mph) all advance on themselves. That makes seven Honda’s and two Chevy’s.

The lone Chevy’s are both for Ed Carpenter Racing with Ed Carpenter and Rinus VeeKay.

The fight to get into the Fast Nine was almost anticlimactic though with the 231.104 mph set by Ericsson early on made it vastly difficult to get back into. Really only Takuma Sato had a shot of making it back in but the defending ‘500 champion ended up going slower and waiving his time off. He and Alexander Rossi were the first ones up in the regular lane in the end, but the drivers trying to bump their ways back into the top 30 kept pulling time and joining the fast lane.

That led to the big drama with Will Power, Simona de Silvestro, Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball and RC Enerson all making big attempts of trying to push their ways in. The biggest eye opening moment though came in the end with Dalton Kellett making a feast or famine move.

His team sat 30th, the last spot in, and pulled their time due to everyone else behind them already pulling theirs and having no time to stand on for that point. So, AJ Foyt Racing made the bold decision to risk pulling Kellett’s time in hopes he can just run four solid laps and let the time run out while doing so. That would not allow for anyone else to make an attempt and he’d automatically get in by default.

But, they timed it wrong. They went out a few seconds too early as he had to complete all four laps and wait while Simona de Silvestro rolled off pit lane with just eight seconds remaining. By doing so, she’d be allowed to complete a four lap run.

Kellett’s time actually went down too so instead of being at 229.250 mph, his new time was 228.323 mph. That opened the door for Simona. Unfortunately for her, she just wasn’t fast enough as Kellett’s brave move paid off with her and Power being left out.

“Yeah, this place is weird,” said Colton Herta about Penske missing the show. You see that every year that somebody that you think should be really fast just ends up not being fast. I think for me, that was pretty interesting to see. They usually do a really good job around here. For sure that was interesting.”

It’s Not A Chevy Problem But Rather A Team Problem, After Offseason Improvements Penske Left Scratching Their Heads

Is this 1995 all over again? Well not exactly. Team Penske will definitely have three cars into next Sunday’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500. But, their best qualifier and one of the best this series has ever seen, as well as their alliance team in Paretta Autosport will have to qualify their ways in on Sunday afternoon.

Will Power has 62 series poles over the course of his career. Only Mario Andretti ranks higher. Prior to 2020, Power had made the Fast Nine here for 11 straight years. Now, a guy of his talent and a car of their caliber is fighting for one of the last three spots into the show.

What went wrong? While some may say it’s a Chevy problem since they took all five spots into the Last Row Shootout, I say not so fast. I think this is a team problem.

We were all were wondering heading into Fast Friday on which engine manufacturer had the leg up on the other. In 2018 and 2019, Chevy dominated here with the bowties locking out the front row in each year. Last August, Honda flipped the script. The Honda drivers swept the front row and took eight of the Fast Nine spots.

Fast Friday showed it was going to be Honda’s pole to lose again. They looked stout. But, did Chevy have anything for them on opening day of qualifying?

Saturday showed that I don’t think this is a Honda vs. Chevy issue, it’s a Chevy team specific problem. Ed Carpenter Racing showed that Chevrolet absolutely can hang with the Honda’s. Ed Carpenter and Rinus VeeKay both went toe-to-toe with the Ganassi’s. Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren SP) was also quick to show that while Honda may have a little bit more pace, Chevy isn’t as far off as it seemed.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing qualified on the last row in each of the last two years here. That’s why it’s not so shocking to see them in the shootout again on Sunday. Top Gun Racing is a new operation while AJ Foyt Raicng having Charlie Kimball isn’t too much of a surprise in the sense that Kimball was just 29th or worse in each of the last three practice sessions and 34th on the no tow list on Friday.

None of those three were shocking to see in the Shootout. Power and de Silvestro are.

This is more of a Penske problem you see. Last year, Penske qualified 13-22-25-28. They were off on Fast Friday and looked off in qualifying with none of their drivers making it to the Fast Nine for a second straight year. They put three cars in the Fast 9 in 2010, one in 2011, three more in 2012 and 2013, four in 2014, three in 2015 and 2016, one in 2017, all four in 2018 and three in 2019. To get shutout for two straight years in glaring.

They tried to improve so much this offseason and it didn’t help. What was concerning is, Chevrolet improved in the sense that ECR all improved from last year to this. Penske just stayed the same. Just look at what they said preseason about Indy improvements that they thought they had made.

“For us, it was skewed last year in that Indy was probably one of our worst tracks,” Josef Newgarden said during his pre season media availability to me. “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 want to win an Indy 500. Last year our qualifying form was not strong. 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.”

Power agreed then.

“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.”

Then look at what Power said on the morning of Fast Friday before practice.

“Yeah, I mean, I feel more comfortable than I’ve ever felt around here right now, just from experience,” Power said. “And it’s amazing that you keep learning as you go. It’s different every year. The package once again is certainly going to race different. It’s going to be closer, kind of packed-up sort of racing where the top two will switch back and forth.

“I think you’ve got to just put yourself in that position like every year in that last stint. You have to be in that top two on the last restart or the last pit stop, whatever is the last thing that happens.

“Yeah, 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. 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.”

Power, was 11-for-11 in Fast Nine appearance here with Penske coming into last year. He’s 0-for-2 since. He’s scored 62 poles, the second most all-time. When he’s not qualifying well here, there’s a problem.

Helio Castroneves went 228.373 mph last year for them and one year later with a new team in Meyer Shank Racing, he goes 231.164 mph. That’s all you need to know for performance.

Is it aero? Is it mechanical? Is it the lines of the drivers? Whatever it is, Penske is lacking and it’s all internal with how ECR/McLaren was showing.

ECR Looks Stout

The day started out great for the Carpenter family. Ed’s daughter Makeena won the middle school state championship in pole vaulting, jumped 10 feet.

“I’m very proud of her. It’s a big day for the Carpenters,” said Ed Carpenter. He said she went six inches off the national record which is very impressive. Her dad, would later going .2mph off of being the fastest qualifier on Saturday from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Carpenter and his teammate/employee Rinus VeeKay each made the Fast Nine Shootout with taking two of the top five speeds in qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

That’s the ninth straight year Ed Carpenter Racing has a car in the Fast Nine Shootout. It all started back in 2013 and has lasted every year since as Carpenter went 231.616 mph in his four lap average on Saturday to put his No. 20 Chevrolet in the Fast Nine for the sixth time. He has three poles and two second place qualifying efforts in his previous five.

VeeKay went 231.48 mph with Conor Daly 230.427 mph. Both were personal bests with VeeKay making the Fast Nine for a second straight year and Daly starting 19th respectively.

Can they eclipse the Honda’s though who took seven of the top nine spots and nine of the top 11 overall?

“I mean, yeah. We have two cars in the top nine. I think we have just as good of a shot at winning a pole tomorrow as any of these guys,” said Carpenter. “I’ve been in this position enough times before.

“That’s the beauty of qualifying here, you have to go out and do four laps. We only get one chance at it tomorrow. That amps up the pressure again. Everyone has to make what they think is the best decision. After we all run four laps, we’ll find out who is the best.

“Yeah, for me, we have everything we need to go fight for it. That’s what we’ll do.”

As to if there’s any squeeze to carrying to bowtie flag on Sunday?

“I think we’re carrying the flag for Chevrolet ourselves, Sonax, Bitcoin, everyone that is a part of what we do,” he said.

“Just as competitors, these guys talking about you get nervous. Yeah, you get nervous qualifying. I think being in a position like Scott before, going first out, I think it’s always harder to be the first one to go out anyway. It’s nice to watch a couple guys go. Even after doing it for 17 years, I feel like if you don’t get a little nervous or anxious, you probably don’t care any more.

“Hopefully we can go out and have some fun.”

Chip Ganassi Backs Practice Speed Up With Fast Nine Dominance, Palou Still Gets By But Crashes

Chip Ganassi Racing went through a time here to where qualifying was difficult for them. From 2012 through 2016, they failed to make the Fast Nine four times in a five year span. They put two cars in the Shootout in 2017, two in 2018 but were shutout again in 2019. A year ago, Scott Dixon was their lone bullet in their chamber as he’d start second.

But, this month, they’ve been en fuego. They had the top speed on the speed charts from Wednesday on and in qualifying, put all four cars in the Fast Nine Shootout on Sunday. Alex Palou did crash in Turn 2 while going out to make a second attempt, but his speed was good enough earlier to propel him by.

I get some wondering why Palou, who at the time had the seventh fastest time of the day would go back out, but I wonder how much of that was due to the case of them trying a different setup for the Fast Nine session on Sunday. The crash occurred at 3:38 p.m. ET. That’s the exact same time as the Fast Nine tomorrow.

“It’s always an open book,” Dixon said on if it’s an advantage or disadvantage to having all four cars in the Fast Nine. “I think we all debrief for a good hour afterwards to figure out how we can help each other. Yeah, it’s always been that way at Ganassi. Very open book. You can’t hide anything these days. You’re kidding yourself if you think you can do that.

“But, yeah, no, I’m sure it makes Chip really happy. He owns the team. It’s his cars that we drive.”

This will be Scott Dixon’s seventh Fast Nine appearance (2010, 2011, 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2020). He won the pole twice (2015, 2017) and was second in 2020. In fact, that pole in 2017 was his last of his career so far.

This will be Tony Kanaan’s third Fast Nine (2012, 2015, 2017) appearance. His bet qualifying spot under this format was fourth in 2015. Palou qualified seventh in his lone Fast Nine shot last year while Marcus Ericsson will be making his first try at it on Sunday.

Veterans Rule Still

The big storyline at the start of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season has been the youth movement. Four of the five race winners were 24 years of age or younger. In fact, three of the five winners this season have been 21 or younger including three first time winners. But, Indy has always proven to be a veteran track.

40 year old Will Power was quickest on opening day (Tuesday). 40 year old Scott Dixon was quickest on Wednesday and Friday. 46 year old Tony Kanaan led the speed charts on Thursday. In qualifying on Saturday, five of the top nine drivers are all 40 years of age or older.

Dixon (40), Ryan Hunter-Reay (40), Ed Carpenter (40), Kanaan (46) and Helio Castroneves (46) take five of those nine spots to the Shootout.

But is there an advantage to be hard by that? I mean it’s telling to see veterans dominate here, but Scott Dixon noted that he was nervous before he qualified and if the guy nicknamed the “Ice Man” is nervous, then that’s saying something.

“I think it gets worse. T.K. and I were actually getting changed before we came out to qualifying. He’s like, Hey, man, do you still get nervous? I’m like, Dude, I’m really nervous,” said the quickest qualifier on the day.

“I couldn’t put my socks on,” joked Kanaan while Dixon said he was shaking while putting his on.

“Going first, normally the Friday I felt like I’ve done prep, kind of understand where it’s going to go,” Dixon continued. “But we’ve made so many changes overnight, then also hadn’t really had any clean runs yesterday afternoon. Our first run was the only run that we did. We were kind of downforced up.

“It’s a big deal, right? You’re rolling out, the first time you go into turn one at 240 miles an hour, you’re hoping you’re going to come out the other side in one piece.

In saying that, the rookies have to be nervous too. Kanaan, says that it’s because they still rule at their craft.

“I don’t think so,” Kanaan said on if there’s an advantage to be had here for veterans. “We just talked about it. It’s worse for me now. Every year that goes by, it’s worse. When you don’t know a lot, I think it’s actually better. You go in. Over the years I think the pressure builds up more, at least for me.”

It definitely pays to be a veteran here at Indy.

Fastest Field Ever?

The fastest “slowest” driver in the history of the Indy 500 is 227.920 mph set by Buddy Lazier back in 2014. The next is Kyle Kaiser with 227.372 mph in 2019. After that, the next best is Billy Boat (226.589 mph) in 2002. No one else is above 225.1.

On Saturday, the slowest speed among the top 30 was 228.323 mph. Only Jack Havey’s speed of 225.496 mph on a bad tire was slower than 227 mph for the day. With 33 starters, this may be the quickest field in the history of the event.

Will We See 230 mph On Sunday?

We’ve seen the pole sitter hit 230 mph in three of the last five years. On Saturday, 21 cars qualified with a four lap average of 230 mph. While the Fast Nine Shootout will take place in the heat of the day on Sunday, I still think someone lands a 230 mph lap to get the pole.

Last year, Marco Andretti went 231.068 mph to win the pole in the Shootout. Dixon went 231.828 mph this year but that was as the first qualifier at Noon ET.

Colton Herta went out on track during a time that the Fast Nine would take place on Sunday to look for data. He ran over 230 mph then and says that if conditions are similar on Sunday, it could be a big move for the pole.

“Yeah, I mean, I really wanted to try to go out in that kind of range of what we’re going to see tomorrow,” said the 21 year old driver. “I think conditions are going to be similar, at least I was told that. We’ll see how true that is. Maybe we just did the run for nothing.

“I just wanted to see what the grip was going to be like, what the bar changes were going to do to the car. Probably a little bit too heavy on downforce, but we didn’t want to do anything stupid.

“Yeah. If it ends up being like that tomorrow, yeah, I think there is something to it. For me, just kind of understanding the shift points and what’s going to be best for shifting for tomorrow. I hate when they do that, when they put a different gear stack in, then it puts pressure on me to absolutely nail where to downshift and to figure out when to upshift, if I should upshift.

Y”eah, it definitely helps for me. Like I said before, the downforce level wasn’t the best for what we probably could have done. Everything else was right there.

“But, no, car felt good. I was happy to do that for the team. So, yeah.”

Dixon said that he does expect the speeds to exceed 230 mph though.

“I don’t know. I think definitely some 232s,” Dixon said of the speeds on Sunday. “I think once we look at the weather tonight, kind of figure out where it should be. We thought there might have been some bigger speeds this afternoon, especially after the line broke. Drag looked like it was going to be down several pounds. Thought there might be some big single laps, then some falloff.

“Yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t looked or seen too much for tomorrow. If it’s going to be similar, maybe quicker first laps, then maybe a bigger spread. I don’t know. It’s kind of weird, sometimes you roll out and the thing just goes. Sometimes you roll out and it doesn’t go that well.

“Hopefully we’re in the situation of the car goes really well.”

Locked In Starters From 10th-30th

Row 4: Alexander Rossi, Ed Jones, Pato O’Ward

Row 5: Pietro Fittipaldi R, Felix Rosenqvist, Takuma Sato

Row 6: James Hinchcliffe, Scott McLaughlin R, Graham Rahal

Row 7: Conor Daly, Jack Harvey, Josef Newgarden

Row 8: JR Hildebrand, Santino Ferrucci, Juan Pablo Montoya

Row 9: Marco Andretti, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastien Bourdais

Row 10: Stefan Wilson, Max Chilton, Dalton Kellett

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