What I’m watching for the 2-day Indy 500 test

INDIANAPOLIS — 32 NTT IndyCar Series drivers will take to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval on Wednesday and again on Thursday to test for next month’s 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). With that said, here are the top 5 things to watch this week.

How To Watch: NBC Peacock. Sign up here

Entry List: All 32 cars here

Schedule:

Rookie Orientation/Veteran Refresher Program Rules:

Normally, rookie orientation is saved for the Month of May, but as customary the last couple of years, INDYCAR is allowing the rookie drivers to complete the three phases ahead of time. That way, when practice officially opens next month, they can just hit the ground running.

This year, Kyle Kirkwood, Devlin DeFrancesco, Romain Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson, David Malukas, Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard are the rookie class.

Phase 1 requires a driver to complete 10 laps at speeds between 205-210 mph. Phase 2 requires a driver to complete 15 more laps at speeds between 210-215 mph. The final stage, Phase 3, requires a driver to complete 15 laps at speeds over 215 mph.

For Johnson and Grosjean, they just need to finish their third and final phase which due to the rules, makes them already eligible for ‘500 practice. They did their first two phases at IMS back in October.

You also have the veteran refresher course which will have these drivers complete the final two phases. Those drivers completing this are Marco Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Santino Ferrucci and Sage Karam.

We’ve had just 4 part time winners win this race since the turn of the century with the last 3 being in 1 numbered years (2001, 2011, 2021). We’ve also had just 3 rookie winners since 1967 too. So, while the odds are long for someone on this list to win, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities too.


Johnson/Grosjean

Why would I not be watching them? This is their first time of being on track at IMS for specifically the oval with other cars around them. Johnson, said prior to Texas that he wanted to get used to how the car felt in wake behind other cars. He did a great job of adjusting to that as he came away with a top 10 result that day. Now, he gets the ability to do so with 31 of his closest peers including Grosjean.

This will be a fun moment for both drivers.


Chevy vs. Honda

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. In 2020, it was all Honda.

This time Honda swept the front row and took 11 of the top 12 starting spots. They’d lead 180 of the 200 laps and sweep the top four finishing spots and take 8 of the top 10 finishers overall.

How much could Chevrolet close the gap?

They did by a lot. They led over 100 laps but it was closer between the 2 manufacturers. Each had 3 cars in the top six while Honda had better qualifying pace, it was virtually even in race pace.

So, what happens this time around?


Penske Eyeing Indy 500 Improvement

Roger Penske is undefeated this season (3-for-3) but winless in the Indy 500 (0-for-2) since he took over the keys to the gates in the winter of 2020. Is this the year the Captain gets back to victory lane in his own house?

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 the last two years, it means they take it personally and want to get back to the top as quick as possible.

For Indy specifically, they’ve not only been off, they’ve been off in every area.

“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,” Josef Newgarden told me. “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.”

Roger Penske bought the Speedway and turned the ultimate flex up to a whole new level. See, his parking space is located just outside of the media center in the shadows of the pagoda. Everyone else’s space is known through initials. Mark Miles’ is MM. Doug Boles’ is DB. Penske’s? It’s 18. Not RP. The 18 stands for Indy 500 victories.

At the time, he had won two straight Indy 500’s. A third seemed likely in the very near future. But, as we sit here today, he’s 0-for-2 and surprisingly hasn’t even been close.

What’s baffling is, Penske, spent a lot of time, money and resources the last few years to improve their Indy speed. The problem was, everyone else improved too.

Penske qualified 13-22-25-28 in 2020, finished 5-11-14-22. They’d lead a grand total of 16 laps that day. A year later, they’d qualify 17-21-26-32 and finish 3-12-20-30 with just 3 laps led all day.

19 total laps led in 2 years.

Simon Pagenaud has looked like the best Penske driver the last two years with him leading all three laps last year and 14 of the 16 in 2020. He’s since departed for Meyer Shank Racing, the team that won last year’s race with former Penske driver Helio Castroneves.

Can Penske find the qualifying speed to get up front in 2022 and then become a factor in the race itself?

“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.”

Penske has started 2022 off as perfect as one could. They won each of the 1st 3 races, started on the front row in all 3 and have taken 5 of the 9 podiums spots.

Still, even with all this early success, they’re talking Indy. It’s all about Indy and Indy only.

Even after his Long Beach win, Newgarden instantly started talking Indy even with one more stop at Barber before. He’s as locked in as ever on winning the Indy 500.

“I do. I’m focused on it,” he said of a Borg Warner Trophy. “I can’t do more than what I’ve done in the past, I can tell you that. So I’m not putting extra pressure on myself that I have to do some superhuman feat. It’s for whatever reason just not clicked yet, so I’m just staying the course. I’m going to put effort forward like every year, and I’m going to put myself in position to maybe win the race and I just — one of these years it’s got to work out.

“I would love to do that for our team. It’s a tough one to win. I think that’s what makes it so special. You can go your whole career and not win the Indy 500, and I accept that if that’s the case, but I’m not going to go down without a fight.”

That’s also not good enough for Penske. It’s honestly been rare to see. So, instead of staying status quo, Penske has been all-in on an Indy 500 victory in 2022.

“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.”

Can they close the gap this year?


How Will The Racing Package Look?

Jay Frye and his talented team around him have done a great job of trying to make this racing package perfect. They know passing shouldn’t be easy. It’s the most talented race cars drivers in the world, so you can’t just dumb this thing down to where anyone can do it. But, with the UAK, passing was almost too difficult to start with. The flip side of things is these are the best drivers in the world and they rarely make mistakes. So, how can you pass a driver of equal talent in a car that’s equally as good on a track to where they’re going similar speeds?

In 2018, the first year of the UAK, the lead changed dropped from record levels prior to 30. The next year, it was down to 29. Most of those during pit sequences. Then, factor in the Aeroscreen for 2020, it went down to 21 lead changes.

However, we had 36 lead changes last year which seemed to be a better version. Yes, it was sunny, but yes it was also cooler.

2021 looked vastly improved from 2020. The front few cars could pass with ease while fifth on back was difficult. We did see 35 lead changes, the most since 2017. If the lapped cars in front at the end weren’t in the way, I know with the upmost certainty that Helio Castroneves and Alex Palou would have had a hell of a battle for the win. Strategy played a part in how Castroneves got the victory, but Palou could have made a counter move back if cars weren’t in front of Helio.

This week will be cooler temps too so how much can you learn from the two-day test and apply it to May on race day if conditions are in the 80’s like they sometimes have been lately? Does temperature play a role here in all of this?

INDYCAR has held multiple tests to figure out ways to improve the show. How do you make these cars race closer but not make it too easy. That’s the fine balance they’re working with.

The beginning portions of the race are always going to be all about fuel saving with the ending an intense shootout. I feel like INDYCAR is close to a perfect package here and that the 2022 race will be even better with the direction that they’re heading in.

Also, you have the veterans vs. youth movement too. One of these years, these younger drivers are going to win. Then 24 year old and recently turned 25 year old Alex Palou qualified seventh in 2020 and finished second in 2021. He looks the part. Soon to be 23 year old Pato O’Ward was sixth in 2020 and fourth in 2021. 23 year old Santino Ferrucci was seventh in 2019, fourth in 2020 and sixth in a one-off in 2021. Now 22 year old Colton Herta qualified second this year while a then 20 year old Rinus VeeKay qualified third and finished in the top 10.

So, do we see a veteran dominate like they did this past May in leading every speed chart or do one of these youth drivers finally break down the barriers to victory lane?


Key Indy 500 Numbers

We’ve had a new, first time winner for the Indy 500 in six of the last eight years. Also, since 2011, we’ve had a different winner each year with the exception of Takuma Sato (2017, 2020) here too. Going back to 2003, only Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon, Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves have won this race multiple times in that time frame.

Will Starting Position Matter?

In the aero kit era, starting position didn’t matter at Indy. But, with this universal car that debuted in 2018, it now does. Simon Pagenaud became the first pole winner to win the ‘500 since 2009. Will Power won from third in 2018. Takuma Sato started fourth in his 2017 win and third in his 2020 victory while Helio Castroneves came from Row 3 last May.

Watch Out For The “Big 3”

Penske, Andretti and Ganassi are the top three organizations in Indy Car. While we’ve seen parity in terms of the driver front lately, we haven’t seen the same for the teams. Combined, Penske and Andretti have won six of the last eight Indy 500’s but among those two they didn’t win, each came in the last two years. Throw Ganassi in there, and these three organizations have won 13 of the last 17 ‘500’s overall and 17 of the last 22 (since 2000).

RLL and MSR are the only two outliers with RLL taking two of the top three spots in 2020 and have won 2 of the 5 that the “Big 3” didn’t since 2000. MSR won a year ago with Helio Castroneves.

Plus, the last non Penske Chevrolet driver to win at Indy was Al Unser Jr. with Galles in 1992.

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