The drivers say the ending of the Indy 500 should be as thrilling as ever, an inside look at how difficult and how mentally draining the final laps can be

INDIANAPOLIS — The 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 is officially sold out. All the estimated 135k tickets have been sold which means for just the second time in decades the local TV blackout for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will be lifted. So, for the fans in attendance or the millions watching on TV at home, what you’re about to witness on Sunday afternoon is going to be edge of your seat good.

From 2010 through 2019, the final pass for the win in this race all occurred inside of the final 10 laps of the race. Last year it didn’t but that’s because the guys up front were in fuel save mode. By comparison, it only happened 15 times in the history of the event prior.

All of the drivers that I’ve spoke to all month have all expressed the same common theme – the first couple of cars can pass as easily as ever before. They all expect the top two drivers to exchange the lead almost every lap, if not a couple of times a lap at the end.

“Depending on what you like to see, I think fans will probably like it,” said Josef Newgarden.

“Up front on your own you kind of a sitting duck,” said his teammate Simon Pagenaud.

Their teammate Will Power agreed.

“You want to be leading or second, if you’re not, you’re going to be left out,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. The front row are just going to switch back forth back forth all the way to the end. They’ve added so much downforce that the leader can’t get away. Unless the second and third place cars start battling and the guy gets away up front. Certainly going to be a lot more passing than there was last year.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay is no stranger to end of race shootouts here. He even said that this race could look like the one that he had in 2014 with his end of the race battle with Helio Castroneves.

“I think P1 and P2 will be very similar to that type of show,” he told me. “P1 is a sitting duck for the most part. In 2014, Helio and I were running lines that were never really done before almost. Just stuff that we were coming up with lap by lap. At that point you were just trying to get by as quick as you can or at least try to position yourself to make the pass happen to get your nose to the start finish line in front of the guy that you’re passing. 1-2 I see no problem swapping the lead at least once a lap or if not twice a lap.”

Alexander Rossi says that it’s probably not as easy to pass as 2017 but as crazy as a finish as 2019. He said the same strategy that you had two years ago you better use again this year. That’s because the end of the race strategy is way more mental than we ever knew.

With this package, it’s more about positioning yourself for the ending because if a yellow doesn’t come out, you really don’t want to be leading coming to the last lap.

“It was difficult that year,” Rossi said. “We didn’t have the pace that Simon did. I didn’t want to pass him with 3 to go when I did. But it had taken me like 9 laps to get that run and I didn’t have a choice. I knew it was too early. But I was kind of hoping Sato was going to get in there. I knew I could beat Takuma but I didn’t know about Simon. I learned some things. I’m not going to say what I learned because hopefully I can apply them on Sunday.”

Pagenaud said that it wasn’t the fact that Rossi made the move too early, it’s that Pagenaud had one more move left in his arsenal.

“I don’t think he made the move too early, I think he didn’t know I had one more move in my pocket,” he told me. Pagenaud also told me that he studies each driver and knows that they do and don’t like. He said that he uses that if needed at the end of these races.

“I do, I have a secret book that I may share after racing,” he continued. “I have notes on everybody. I have trends on things they like to do, what they intend to do. It helps me in the last laps of racing when you have to do something special. Rossi was able to do things in that race that no one else could do. I kept telling my spotter to tell me things what he was doing and it’s running in places where no one else likes to run. We’re trying to find the air and trying to position your car where others can’t.”

Hunter-Reay said that he too takes notes and does mental notes throughout the race based on guys he’s racing again. He said he can use them at the end of the race too.

“Throughout the race, you’re noticing the strengths and weaknesses of the other cars. You kind of put that in your bank for assault at the end. You can see that this guy you’re racing with might be the guy that you’re racing with in the end. If he’s not so good out of Turn 2 but so good out of 4, I make sure that I make my run out of 2 and make your run accordingly.

“Yeah but it changes year to year,” he told me. “This is a different downforce package from last year so it changes sometimes. It doesn’t really relate but it shows a trend. We have a quarter of the grid for sample size. I can see what a quarter of the grid wants to do.”

Pagenaud notes that this year is very different though.

“If I found myself in the same position as 2019, I don’t think I could hold the lead for example because the suction is very strong by second place,” Pagenaud said. “Third place is quite affected because of second place. It affects on how you want to position yourself in the last 50 laps.”

The reason for third place on back having difficulty is that the leader is just a lame duck with the drag on these cars. He has no one in front of him to get a tow off of. Second place has the leader to get a run on and is running faster. Third place though is getting a tow on second place, but it’s hard to pass second place if he’s not close enough to first place because the second place car can be getting a big tow on the leader but not be too close to where the third place car is getting an even bigger air pocket from two cars in front. If he’s only getting one car’s tow, how can he pass that one car when that one car is also getting a tow?

Another wrinkle is how do you balance making the move but risking making it too early but also if you wait too long and a caution comes out? Last year, Scott Dixon had a good car but he didn’t want to pass Takuma Sato in order to save fuel. But, if he had done so before the crash, then he wins, not Sato.

“I think last year you wanted to be the leader,” he said of this package. “I think that’s the same even when you look at 2013 with (Tony) Kanaan. He was aggressive on the restart, made a move then got a caution. He was a deserving winner. Unfortunately, had the race been red flag or run to its proper order or form, maybe the result may have been different. But like people like to say, maybe this race picks its winners and I’ve been second many of times under caution, I think three times under caution in second, it’s frustrating but this place owes me nothing. It’s a privilege to race here.”

Kanaan told me that it is probably different circumstances then and now too. In 2013, he says that they probably would have red flagged the race then. But, he also said on that end of the race battle that he knew he had to make the move on the restart when he did for the top spot. While he said that he probably would get passed back on the final lap, he also knew that how close the field was that there was also a really good chance of a crash in the end before we even got to the checkered. That’s exactly what happened.

The final wrinkle to this is the downforce levels. Rossi says that some guys start on heavy downforce and trim off more and more as the race goes on. Other guys start light on downforce and either stay light or put more on.

You have to have a good read on your downforce levels for the final stint before you ever get to the final stint.

“I don’t know. I’ve been really thinking about that this past week,” he told me. “I think it really depends on what downforce level you’re at for that part of the race. You have guys that start heavier at the beginning and trim as the race goes on. You’re going to have guys that start heavier and stay heavier if they stay up front so it’s really going to depend at the pace of your car leading.

“It’s going to be important to whomever is at the front at the end is going to have to be our front earlier in the race to find out their speed in their car relative to the competition. If you can’t be very fast leading, then you’re certainly not going to want to be leading with 2 laps-to-go. If you can go pretty quickly then maybe you take that chance.”

Conor Daly said that his car is great in towing up. Simon Pagenaud said his is too and that he plans on starting on lighter downforce because he can pass and hang on with it. Is that the winning move?

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