Top storylines heading into Indianapolis 500 practice

Helio Castroneves’ Drive For 5, Meyer Shank Racing Has Top Story Of The Month

Helio Castroneves had waited 11 years for this. His third Indianapolis 500 triumph came in 2009. He felt then like it was only a matter of time before he’d join the exclusive four-win club. He came close, but it never happened.

He was left out of a full time ride with Team Penske following the 2017 season and after Penske closed up the IMSA shop at the end of last season, he was without a ride in general. Meyer Shank Racing scooped him up for a six race deal with the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 being the first.

Castroneves, qualified three full mph quicker than his one of 2020 with Penske. He’d start eighth. The popular Brazilian driver looked rejuvenated and made Penske pay for not bringing him back. The fourth win was finally his. He becomes the fourth oldest winner in the 105 year history of this event. With that said, can he get No. 5 and become the all-time winningest driver ever in the biggest race of the world? Even if he doesn’t, where does Castroneves rank among the all-time greats?

AJ Foyt got his fourth win in his 20th start. He had 35 total Indy 500 starts (most ever) but could win in a rear engine, front engine, bricks or pavement. Hell, the guy could win on any surface as he holds the record for most championships (7) and most wins (67). He finished runner-up in the race in 1976 and again in 1979. No one has completed as many miles (12,272.50) as Foyt either. 

Hard to not think that he’s the GOAT still.

Al Unser Sr. also has four wins. He did so in his 22nd start as he’s made 27 overall Indy starts. He also had three runner-ups (1967, 1972 and 1983). He finished third four times (1977, 1984, 1988 and 1992) too. On top of that, Unser has led the most laps ever (644) and second most miles (10,890). Unser, had 39 career open wheel wins too (5th most) to go along with 31 runner-ups (6th), 98 podiums (fifth) and 140 top fives (sixth).

Rick Mears has four wins and he got his fourth in his only his 14th start. In fact, in just 15 Indy 500 starts, Mears had nine top fives including a runner-up (1982) and two third place runs (1983 and 1986). Mears had six Indy 500 poles (most ever) but ranks 13th in career Indy Car wins, 13th in runner-ups (22), 15th in podiums (74) and 12th in top fives (111).

Castroneves has four wins in 21 starts. The Brazilian has the third most miles completed too. He’s also had three runner-ups and all three rank among the closest finishes in the 105 year history too. Gil de Ferran stopped his back-to-back reign in 2001 and 2002 with a win by just .2990-seconds over him in ’03. In 2014, Ryan Hunter-Reay stopped him by only .0600-seconds which still ranks as the second closest Indy 500 finish ever. Takuma Sato bested him by .2011-seconds in 2017 for the sixth closest result.

Combine those results, Castroneves is .5601-seconds from being a seven-time winner. So, can he get to five at least?

Both Bobby Unser and Al Unser won in 1981 and 1987 respectively as 47 year olds. Emerson Fittipaldi won in 1993 at the age of 46. Gordon Johncock won in 1982 at the rightful age of 45. So, there’s no reason to believe Castroneves can get to at least five.

Then, where does he rank in terms of all around greats?

It’s hard to compare him in Indy lore with Foyt, Unser and Mears. To me, they’re all even. In terms of Indy Car in general, Foyt has those seven titles and all those wins to separate himself overall. Scott Dixon has only one Indy 500 win but 51 career series wins which ranks him one shy of tying Mario Andretti for second most ever. His six championships are one shy of tying Foyt for most all-time. He also has 49 runner-ups (2nd), 127 podiums (2nd) and 183 top fives (2nd).

Andretti ranks second in wins (52), first in runner-ups (56), first in podiums (144) and first in top fives (194). How do they factor into this when each have just one Indy 500 victory?

Castroneves ranks in a tie for 10th for all-time wins at 31. He’s fourth in poles (50), third in runner-ups (41), sixth in podiums (94) and fourth in top fives (142). Hard to separate him over Unser in this category but you could definitely make a case for him to put some distance between himself and Mears away from Indy.

The thing is, you can make an argument that Mears walked away early but Helio was out of the series full time from 2018 on. Where would his stats rank if he remained full time all along? Yes, he doesn’t have a championship, but he did finish second four times in the final season standings.

I say you have to put him in the top five all-time with Foyt, Andretti, Dixon and Unser.

In saying that, MSR still has to be THE story of the early month so far. The little team that could won the Indianapolis 500 in historic fashion last year has 2 drivers that have won 2 of the last 3 Indy 500’s.

For Simon Pagenaud he enters with a ton of momentum. He is coming off of a runner-up on Saturday and 3 top 11’s in the last 4 races to propel him to 8th in points.



Jimmie Johnson is ready for his Indy 500 debut this week. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Johnson/Grosjean Indy 500 Debuts

This is another large topic this week as Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean are set to make their Indy 500 debuts. This is it. All the build up and test days are now behind them here. Tuesday marks opening day of practice.

Each have realistic shots at winning this one too.

Johnson, was in the top 10 on overall speeds during the two-day test and enters having scored a top 10 finish in Texas. Grosjean, is in an Andretti car which is always fast around this place.


Wild Season So Far

The first 5 races to the NTT INDYCAR Series season couldn’t have gone much better. St. Pete featured record crowds for the February season opener. Texas appeared to be fixed in terms of the on track product. Long Beach’s attendance was as good as its even been, 2 of the 3 days at the Barber Motorsports Park were completely sold out and the GMR Grand Prix is coming off of a crowd bigger than 2019.

That’s just the crowds. The TV ratings are higher now than they’ve been in the last 2 decades. The series is booming in person and on television.

As far as the on track product?

Colton Herta became the 4th different winner in 5 races run this season when he triumphed in last Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix. With Will Power being on pole for that race, we’ve also had 5 different pole winners in as many races.

Last Saturday’s race was also considered to what was arguably the best road course race this track has ever seen with 471 total passes (269 previous record). 362 of those 471 (198 previous record) were for position while 142 of those were for a spot inside of the top 10.

Chevrolet had combined to win each of the 1st 4 races but Honda went 1-2 on the 2.439-mile road course including 3 of the top 4 spots overall.

Herta gained over 30 points in the standings and now sits 6th. Barber race winner, Pato O’Ward, looked strong until being on the wrong strategy on slicks instead of pitting for wets. He lost some ground and sits 7th.

Still, the last two winners on the season are O’Ward and Herta respectively and if you factor in Josef Newgarden’s Long Beach and Texas celebrations plus Scott McLaughlin’s in the season opener in St. Pete you get 5 races won by rising stars.

Now it’s the Indy oval. This is a place reserved for veterans. You have to pay your dues before winning here which is why we’ve also seen so much parity over the last decade. Just 3 drivers entered have multiple Indy wins with Helio Castroneves (4 wins), Juan Pablo Montoya (2 wins) and Takuma Sato (2 wins). 7 are rookies. 5 others are 1-time champions (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Alexander Rossi, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud) here.

Then you have winless fan favorites like Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter and Marco Andretti.

The season is a high coming to the year’s biggest race.


Did Pit Road Problems Get Fixed?

The main thing from the two-day test last month to come out of it was the difficult of pit road. For the first time in the last several years, pit lane as well as the pit access roads (warmup lanes) were treated with a sealer last Fall. That’s customary to do so on the actual racing surface between years, but this time around, pit road and the access roads around the track were sealed too. That proved to be a major storyline during the two-day test.

The sealer was used on a different day than when they did the 2.5-mile track and they’re wondering if that was the culprit to the three crashes we witnessed on the first day of the test.

We instantly had a stoppage for Alexander Rossi spinning on the warmup lane while coming onto the track when we got underway at 12:30 p.m. ET on Day 1.

At the time, most thought it was just another odd example of bad luck that has been striking the 2016 Indy 500 champion lately. 6 hours later, we found out that maybe it wasn’t such bad luck after all. We had a problem…

The 2 hour session for the 24 eligible drivers would go off without a hitch after. Same for the 2 hour rookie orientation/refresher course participants. In the all-skate though, that’s where issues really arose.

At 5:11 p.m. ET, just 39 minutes after the green flag dropped on the final session of the day, Helio Castroneves spun in similar fashion as Rossi in the same warmup lane. He’d spin back up on the track though and hit the outside SAFER barrier in Turn 2.

Castroneves was unhurt, but his Indy 500-winning No. 06 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda suffered significant front, right-side and floor damage.

“I didn’t feel anything strange, anything bottoming, I wasn’t pushing,” Castroneves said. “And the rear just spun out. I was trying to control it, making sure I didn’t crash, and it was a very odd situation. Unfortunately, we couldn’t avoid that. It was very unusual.”

Again, we felt like something was brewing but maybe these were flukes. 22 minutes later, just six minutes after going back green, we saw another problem again. This time, it was Will Power who spun in the warmup lane in Turn 1 and when he went back up on the track in front of oncoming traffic, Colton Herta went high to avoid him and as a result, made right side contact with the Turn 1 SAFER barrier.

These incidents were starting to become reminiscent of Alex Zanardi’s in Germany in 2001. That crash left him with both legs amputated. We graduated from a fluke to a concern because when you have 3 of the last 6 Indy 500 winners spinning in the warmup lane, including 1 of which a 4-time winner, you have problems.

INDYCAR decided to halt the session 30 minutes early as a result and go back to the drawing board.

“The first thing I said all day was I thought the warmup lanes felt slick,” said Conor Daly who was 2nd fastest on the day at 226.985 mph. “I didn’t know if I was just a bit of a weirdo, but then I saw Alex (Rossi) spinning, so it made sense.”

When asked if his incident was a case of cold tires, Power said it was quite the opposite actually. He had warm tires from coming off the track. He just came off the track to not impede a draft behind and went back out. He still spun.

“We had a sealant, but it’s the first time since 2018 the pit entries and exits have been done,” said Scott Dixon. “I don’t know. I know when we did the engine test here, the painted sections of the circuit were quite slippery to start with, then it comes good. That hasn’t come good yet.”

The actual track itself while slippery early, wasn’t bad they all said. It’s just getting off pit road where the issue lies.

“The track surface feels good,” continued Daly. “I think, like Marco said when we walked in here, you can usually get out of pit lane, be flat right out of the gate. I think there was a little bit of nervousness on maybe we can’t be flat out of pit lane.

“I mean, it just took a little bit of conservativeness. I didn’t necessarily say it would have been worth stopping the whole day. I think we probably could have still kept running because the track surface was fine. It was quite enjoyable running in traffic, getting a feel for it again. I didn’t think it was worth stopping the day. Obviously since people were spinning and crashing, yeah, that’s probably not great.”

Dixon, says that while the situation isn’t similar to his in his crash here a few years ago, it’s not an ideal one to be dealing with.

“Well, I think any situation like that is not great,” said last year’s pole sitter. “I think Will was extremely lucky there that the car didn’t roll back any further because it would have been massive.

“To compare situations like that is pretty tough. It was in the middle of the race, somebody crashed in front of me, had nowhere to go. His, he could have lost it on the pit exit.

“Yeah, I’m sure he had a few bowel movements in that situation. I know I would have (laughter).”

Still, in a day and age of racing where the smallest margins are measured differently and a bobble here, a slow stop there, getting on or off pit road slower here can be the difference in winning or not, drivers push the limits on and off pit road. Colton Herta was a little bit slower in Long Beach getting onto pit road. That cost him the lead. It cost him the win too because he pushed harder coming to pit road the next time around and crashed.

At Indy, you’re pushing onto pit road and in the warmup lanes for just the slightest advantage. With as slick as both spots are now, this was glaring.

IMS ran a tire dragon and did prep work on the warmup lane areas until after midnight between the two days. They felt like they made progress. Unfortunately, heavy rain fell after it. They couldn’t truly know if it worked or not until the rain stopped, the track was dried and a grip meter test was done.

Firestone felt like the fix overnight added more grip so away we went. However, Tony Kanaan says that it’s still not ideal yet.

“Better in one lane. They have a lot of work to do,” he said. “They know that. If there’s a track that’s going to make it happen, it’s going to be this one, so..”

Is this going to be a troublesome area?



Josef Newgarden was quickest in Thursday’s test session at 229.519 mph – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Did Penske Close The Gap? Why This May Be a Ganassi/Penske Show For The Milk

Team Penske started off 3-0 to begin the 2022 season. Pato O’Ward (AMSP) and Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport) have since moved them to 0-2 after. That the same record Roger Penske is in the Indy 500 since taking 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?

They sit 1-3-4 in points and have said all the right things leading up to this year’s race. However, the speed charts didn’t necessarily reflect much improvement on the Wednesday test but told a different story come Thursday.

On Wednesday’s overall speed chart, Penske was only 14th (223.984 mph by Scott McLaughlin), 18th (221.936 mph by Will Power) and 22nd (221.131 mph by Josef Newgarden). While they didn’t have the time on Wednesday to fully dial in, neither did everyone else.

On Thursday, Josef Newgarden (229.519 mph) set the fastest time of the entire test. His teammate Scott McLaughlin (228.397 mph) was 5th. Will Power (227.204 mph) was 14th. Does Thursday or Wednesday signify what we’ll see out of Penske when they come back?

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?

So far, it seems like it.

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.

“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 4 of the 5 and have taken 6 of the 15 podiums spots available.

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?

Scott Dixon was quickest in both sessions on Wednesday and 4th on Thursday – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Chip Ganassi Racing may have something to say about that.

This race may shape up to be a battle of Penske vs. Ganassi. What’s new, right? The two teams have only combined to win each of the last 9 series titles to go along with 13 out of the last 14 overall. Not only that, they’ve combined to win 44 of the last 69 races in the series (66%) since this new UAK car came out. Since the Aeroscreen?

24 wins in 35 tries (73%). They’ve combined to win 9 of the last 13 races overall and if you count Texas in March, the only other superspeedway on the schedule, they combined to sweep the entire top 7 of the finishing order.

On the overall speed chart for the two-day test, they took 4 of the top 5 speeds and 7 of the top 10 overall. Is this their race to lose?

They have 6 of the top 8 drivers in points right now.

Throw Andretti Autosport 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.

Chip Ganassi Racing has won 4 Indianapolis 500’s themselves. The thing is, 3 of them came in a 5 year span between 2008 and 2012. In the nine years since?

0.

They hold 119 wins, 13 series titles but only four Indy wins is what keeps Ganassi wanting more.

Last year seemed to be their year. They led the way in 5 of the 6 practice sessions last May. They also put all 4 cars in the Fast Nine Shootout too. However, none of which was victorious in the end.

Alex Palou narrowly lost to Helio Castroneves in the end. The thing is, through two days of testing, it appears that they may be in an even better situation now than they were then.

Ganassi, put all 4 of their cars at Texas in the top seven of the finishing order. On Wednesday, they were quickest in both sessions including putting 3 cars in the top 7 in session 1 and a pair of cars in the top 5 in session 2.

On Thursday, it was more Ganassi strength. They looked race ready and put all 5 cars in the top 10 of the speed chart.

Speaking of that 10 car, from 2009 on, Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan led a ton of laps in this ride in the ‘500. This car has led at least one lap in 11 of the last 13 Indy 500’s. While Ed Jones failed to lead a lap in 2018, the only other times this ride wasn’t out front for at least one lap in the ‘500 was in 2013.

Between Dario, TK and now Palou, the No. 10 ride had six top seven finishes between 2009 and 2021.

This could be the time that Ganassi is drinking the milk again.

It will be interesting to see if either of these Chip Ganassi Racing drivers can bring home the Borg Warner Trophy for their beloved team or if Penske will be there to snatch it away.

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