5 burning questions for Sunday’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

INDIANAPOLIS – How Many Different Winners Will We See In 2021?

This is a question being posed all around for racing this year. The NASCAR Cup Series has ran 14 races so far and have produced 11 different winners. In open wheel, we’re 5-for-5 here. Alex Palou (Barber), Colton Herta (St. Pete), Scott Dixon/Pato O’Ward (Texas) and Rinus VeeKay (Indianapolis GP) have all won so far this season. How many more will we see?

What’s impressive is, four different teams have already reached victory lane too and none of which are Team Penske. Do they end that winless drought in Sunday’s 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)?

Josef Newgarden has had a pair of runner-ups in the last four races on the season and four top 10’s in his last five Indy 500 tries. He’s won at least three races in four straight years now and at least one race in six straight seasons. His teammate Simon Pagenaud has won at least one race in four of the last five years. He’s also won here in 2019. Then you have Will Power, the 2018 Indy 500 champion and a driver with two top fives in his last three tries. He’s won at least one race in 14 straight years now.

I would say all three get at least one win in 2021.

That bumps us up to seven drivers.

Then you have the Andretti Autosport group. Does Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti or Stefan Wilson find victory lane? Rossi, is riding a 26 race winless streak but other than a winless campaign in 2020, he’s won at least one race in every other season that he’s competed in here. Hunter-Reay hasn’t won in 36 races while Hinchcliffe’s streak is a 34 race drought himself.

Rossi, has a top seven result in all but one Indy 500 try. Hunter-Reay has three straight top 10’s while Hinchcliffe was seventh last August.

I do think at least one of them wins this season though, so lets push this up to eight.

Then you have RLL. Graham Rahal has four top seven finishes in five races run this season. He’s not won in the last 62 races, but he’s inching closer and closer to ending that streak. He was also third in last year’s Indy 500. From there, we head to Belle Isle, the spot of Rahal’s last win. I think he can win in this three race stretch (Belle Isle is a doubleheader). His teammate Takuma Sato has won at least one race in all three years that he’s been back with RLL and the defending Indy 500 champion. I believe both find victory in 2021.

That’s 10 winners.

Then, do we get any more first time winners? We’ve had three already this season. What about Scott McLaughlin, Dalton Kellett, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Ed Jones, Jack Harvey, Romain Grosjean or Pietro Fittipaldi. Do any of these 10 drivers win in 2021?

I think you can make a case for McLaughlin, Rosenqvist, Ericsson, Harvey and Daly. I’d give us 1-2 more first time winners this season too.

That would push us to 12 winners in 17 races.

Is this the year a one-off wins the Indy 500

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?

We have Marco Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, JR Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Stefan Wilson, Santino Ferrucci, Pietro Fittipaldi, Sage Karam and Simona de Silvestro on this list. Can any of these 10 drivers sip the milk on May 30 or will one of the other 23 be victorious?

Stats aren’t on their side, but trends are.

The 98 car won in 2011. Can Andretti do so in 2021? The only reason the 98 car won that day was because Hildebrand crashed from the lead on that lap lap in the last turn. Can Hildebrand get redemption 10 years later driving for his new boss who first won this race 60 years ago?

The reason Hildebrand even went high in Turn 4 to even make contact with the wall was to avoid a slowing Kimball. Now, they’re both teammates (Kimball was bumped on Sunday) on a part time role. Weird coincidence, right?

Its been 20 years since Castroneves won his first. Can he win his fourth two decades later?

Ferrucci has gone from seventh to fourth to…first? RLL put two of their three cars in the top three of the finishing order for last year’s race and Ferrucci finished fourth himself.

Honda vs. Chevy, Who Has The Best Equipment?

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 could Chevy close the gap and how much can Honda gain or even lose was a big question entering this year. Throughout the week during race practice, it looked fairly even between the two manufacturers. No one really stood out much above the other.

“I think Chevy has done a great job, as evidenced with Juan as well,” said Josef Newgarden said during the test last month here “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.”

Other drivers said all the way up to Fast Friday on how even the two sides looked. Then, Honda goes out and take seven of the top nine starting spots including 10 of the top 13 starting spots overall. For a race that most also say will be a track position race again where the top three or four can pass and everyone behind can’t, Honda’s have the leg up. But, do they have what it takes in fuel economy and can they hold the track position?

Chevy’s could very well have better race pace and maybe they can end up passing their ways up. Did they close the gap or is it still at Honda show here?

Will A Veteran Or Younger Driver Win Sunday?

We’re five races into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. The biggest event of the year is coming this weekend, but with that said, do we see a veteran or young gun win the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)?

Four of the five race winners thus far are 24 years of age or younger. Three of them are 21 or younger. Furthermore, three of the five winners this season are also first time Indy Car winners in general. 40 year old Scott Dixon may be on the pole, but 21 year old Colton Herta starts alongside with 20 year old Rinus VeeKay next to Herta. 24 year old Alex Palou will start directly one row behind VeeKay for three drives 24 years of age or younger in the first 2 Rows.

But, Juan Pablo Montoya warns that there’s a reason that veterans are so good here too.

“At the end of the day you look at how many young guys have won the 500 the last few years,” he said. “I think that answers the question. I mean, do they have a shot? For sure, no question. I think Pato and Herta and all those kids, they’ve got a lot of talent and everything. Felix, as well. At the end of the day you’ve got to run the 200 laps and see what happens at the end of it.

“First of all, you’ve got to make it to 200, you know? So we’ll see.”

This is a perfect place to showcase the younger talent in the series. Indianapolis naturally gets the most attention.

Bobby Rahal though tends to think that while the talent in this field is unquestioned, the best it’s arguably ever been at that. But, it’s not uncommon to see younger winners either.

“Well, I mean, there have been young winners before,” he told me on Fast Friday. “I don’t think this is anything new. We’re early in the year, but all credit to these guys. We saw how good Pato was last year, and we saw some of the other fellas that were very competitive last year, maybe couldn’t put the whole thing together but now can a year later, more maturity, more experience. That’s what makes it exciting.

“But there have always been — Graham won at 18, won at 22 or 23, and there have been others. Marco won very young. This is just more of the same.

“But for sure just as you have a lot of guys over their 40s now in INDYCAR, you have a lot of guys that are under 27, 28. You know, we’re getting close to that changing of the guard, and this is maybe the start of that.”

Another teamowner in Chip Ganassi agrees.

“I look at it a different way,” he said. “There’s youth movements that come along. You guys — the media I should say, talks about youth movements. This isn’t the first time there’s been talk about a youth movement.

“The fact of the matter is people come and go at the top levels of the sport. It’s not that often that a champion come through like (Josef) Newgarden, for instance. It’s not that often. There’s a whole trail of broken dreams in the wake of Newgarden, okay? I don’t want to name any names, but this isn’t the first youth movement that’s come along.

“These young people have to realize to stay at the top level of motorsport in this world, sure, it’s certainly driving ability, but it’s a lot of other things, too. They need to understand that.

“Yeah, youth movements come along, but champions endure. That’s what Scott Dixon does.”

Dixon though, says that youth movements are all part of the evolution of the series.

“There’s going to be a changing of the guard at some point,” said the six-time series champion including the only winner over the age of 25 this season so far. “I think there’s been different segments through my career where you’ve seen some great talent come through, champions that we’ve seen with Josef, for example. But definitely seems like there’s quite a rush at the moment, which is huge for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. It’s very important for the longevity.

“For the veterans, you probably don’t care to see it too much. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s great to see this talent. People coming from all different parts of the world, and they’re all very different in their own way, but also very fast. We’ve already seen, as you mentioned, a lot of first-time winners.”

If we do see another first time winner, look no further than Scott McLaughlin. He’s in a Penske car with a great shot of a potential win next Sunday.

“I think it’s just — I guess you could say in some ways it’s a changing of the guard,” he said. “Someone has got to step up. There’s a lot of young people coming through the Road to Indy program, which I’ve seen firsthand this year for the very first time.

“I think it’s a great program that INDYCAR and everyone involved has got through the F 2000s, the Pro 2000s, all the way through the Indy Lights. It’s a great category to watch.

“I think Rinus, Pato, Colton, they’re world class drivers and they’re in world class teams. And like Simon said before, the competitiveness between the teams now in INDYCAR is — there’s not much in it, and really anyone can win on the day, which not many race series in the world have that.

“It’s exciting. I think it’s great that INDYCAR are taking it in their stride to promote it and get excited by it. And yeah, I’d love to be a part of that, as well.”

His boss, Tim Cindric says that McLaughlin has as much as a chance as anyone to win this race.

“I think Scott has as good a chance as any rookie here has ever had,” he said. “But experience, you can’t put really a value on the experience around here. Yeah, he’s with our team for a reason.”

While McLaughlin, Herta, VeeKay, Palou, Pato O’Ward, etc are very talented and could absolutely steal a win here, there’s still veterans up top too. While we have three drivers 24 or younger up front, we also have five drivers 40 years of age or older in the top 3 Rows too.

40 year old Will Power was quickest on opening day (Tuesday). 40 year old Dixon was quickest on Wednesday and Friday. 46 year old Tony Kanaan led the speed charts on Thursday.

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

So, is it experience or youth for this year’s race? That’s going to be a fun battle to watch.

What Will The Racing Look Like?

Team Penske says that they’ve improved but qualifying didn’t show it. Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing says they have too, but they didn’t show their might in qualifying either. Chip Ganassi Racing looks as good this year as they did last while Ed Carpenter Racing may have gained the most. Andretti Autosport has taken a dip back, but still look fast.

So, who wins the Indy 500? What will the race itself look like?

We know that the racing will be improved. That’s a fact. But, just how much though? The common consensus is that the top three or four car pass really easily. It’s just fifth on back to where you can’t move forward.

“I think it’s going to be harder to hold a lead, so I don’t think you’ll see someone lead the race as I did in ’19,” said Simon Pagenaud. “But Team Penske has prepared so hard for this one, as we always do, but you always keep looking for more, and it’s been a pleasure so far to go around this amazing place every day.”

His teammate and 2018 race winner Will Power says that he feels as good now as he ever has.

“Yeah, I mean, I feel more comfortable than I’ve ever felt around here right now, just from experience,” he 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.”

RLL returns the first and third place finishers from last year and adds the fourth.

“I do, yes,” Bobby Rahal told me on if his cars are betting this year compared to last. “I think we learned a lot of good things in the off-season. Well, not just the off-season, but after Indy of last year, we did a lot of good things. I think the engineering group has done a very good job over the course of that period of time. Our relationship with Honda has been very strong and collectively we’ve discovered some things together.

“I do feel that we are in a better position than we were last year. That’s not saying, though, that it takes a lot more than that to win the race. But still, I’m very pleased with where we are, what we’ve done, and I think as a team we’re better across the board than we were a year ago.

“Mainly it’s the same people but just greater commitment, greater dedication. Just realizing the talents that they have. I’m pretty pleased right now.”

The Andretti drivers took a different approach to this month. They were quick last year but didn’t have a trophy to show for it, so they elected to focus on race trim all month.

What about the Arrow McLaren SP guys? Pato O’Ward won at Texas and they’ve been quietly solid this month so far.

“I think the race has become more of a qualifying race but looking on how its been easier to pass this year it might make it mix up a little bit more,” Felix Rosenqvist said. “You just have to be good in both. There’s no good for qualifying in the back and having a bad race car too.”

“I think we’ll have a good car. Overall it feels like a good starting package.”

His teammate Pato O’Ward agreed.

“We’ve been really working on our race car to be honest,” he told me on Wednesday morning. “I think you’ll see bigger numbers when you see the boost go up. We need to make our race car as good and comfortable as possible and then we can focus on qualifying. If you get to a point where the race car is always solid and strong, it just translates well over to the qualifying car.

“It’s still more important to have a good race car. Last year, I didn’t really qualify up front. I started 15th and we finished sixth because we had a good race car. There’s going to be a point in the race to where you’re going to get behind a 15 car train. Everyone’s car is going to feel like absolute trash but you just need to make your car feel the least trash.”

With the last three winners coming from the front row, qualifying success is just as important here again.

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 was a difficult race in terms of passing, hence the changes made between last year and this. 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 the 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.

“You know when you have one car it’s not an issue or two cars you can travel and pass, but when you’re behind five, six cars, it’s like, good luck,” Juan Pablo Montoya said.

“I think they improved the car, but if you look at the guys when you run in a pack, the top three guys, they can pass each other and you look really racy. You drop to sixth or seventh and you’re like praying for dear life.”

His former Team Penske teammate of Helio Castroneves said that the new flooring that they have with the bargeboard and strakes has changed a little bit of the feeling with the ride height.

“As we know, if you’re running behind people there’s a lot of turbulence,” said the three-time winner. The Andretti guys said that the changes did affect their speed between last year and this, but they also noted that they were so quick all month last year but it didn’t translate over well to race day success. So for their camp, they’re focusing more on race pace this week.

“It is on one hand but on the other we still have over 30 hours of more practice here than anywhere else,” said James Hinchcliffe. “It’s all relative. It used to be two full weeks of practice, then eight days then six days, I mean no matter how much time you give engineers, they’ll find a way to fill it. I mean we went back to Texas a couple of years ago and got 10 minutes of warmup before the race and it was fine.”

Power agreed with them too but does say that you can still pass a little better though too.

“Yeah, I think last year was evident if you didn’t start at the front you didn’t have a chance. It might be a little bit better this year.”

Rosenqvist agreed with Power saying that he was pleasantly surprised from what he saw on opening day in the sense that the top two or three could really make moves up front of a pack too.

Power also said that adding the new downforce is certainly going to help the racing still. The Team Penske driver says that he thinks that you’re going to have one of the old style races where the front three are just swapping positions constantly because you can follow so close now.

“I think they needed that after last year’s race and they added it all to the flow so that makes it much better in traffic,” Power continued.

Part of the reason the cars felt better too is that the weather was cooler the first couple of days of practice. Conditions this weekend will be a bit cooler too than in years past which also helps in the sense of passing.

I predict this will be a fun race up front but a treacherous one behind. In turn, that makes pit sequences the most important aspect of the race. These drivers are all so talented, so it’s going to be rare to see someone make a mistake. The guys with track position have to be perfect in order to not lose it. The guys behind are hungry and know they need to be aggressive getting onto and off pit lane. Clean in and out laps as well as a fast pit stop can gain you positions on track. Bad sequences can also cause you to lose ground too.

So, the winner on Sunday will be a full team win with the upmost perfect in every phase.

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