5 things I’m watching heading into Sunday’s 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Helio Castroneves’ Drive For 5

This is the obvious one, right? In 105 past years of the Indianapolis 500, no one has ever won this race more than 4 times. Prior to last year, only 3 drivers have crossed the famed yard of bricks first on 4 occasions. Then Helio Castroneves stamped his name into the record book by becoming the fourth one to do so. Can he now be the first to win No. 5?

He’s had a quiet month thus far. Castroneves was 22nd on the opening day speed chart. He was 22nd again on Thursday (Wednesday was washed out). On Monday he was 13th. He qualified 27th. Only 1 driver has won this race from the Outside of Row 9 (Fred Frame in 1932) and just 3 drivers in 105 years have won this race from a starting position of 26th or worse. In fact, all 3 instances came from 1936 and prior.

David Malukas has been the top rookie this week but not getting the attention for it. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Rookie Of The Year

This award seemingly will go to Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson. They’re the top two starting rookies and have garnered all the attention this month. Johnson starts 12th with Grosjean coming from Row 3 (9th).

However, there’s still 5 other rookies in this field. One rookie driver that I have my eyes on is David Malukas though. I think he has a very real shot of taking home the honors of top rookie driver.

Malukas was 7th quickest on opening day, 3rd on Thursday, 14th on Monday and starts 13th. His Dale Coyne Racing No. 18 Dallara-Honda looks stout and it’s a situation that reminds me of 2017 when Fernando Alonso stole all the headlines but a DCR rookie in Ed Jones quietly drove to a 3rd place result.

Malukas can do something similar.

I don’t think any of the 7 will win the race outright though. There’s been just 10 total rookies winners in the 105 year history of this race. Only 3 of the 10 have come since 1967.

While everyone is talking Grosjean and Johnson, I’m looking at Malukas.

Ed Carpenter is hoping this is his year at Indy glory. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Is This A Ganassi vs. ECR Show?

I wondered entering the month if Sunday’s 106th Running would come down to a Penske vs. Ganassi show. After all, the tandem has 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 also have 6 of the top 8 drivers in points right now.

However, I feel like Ed Carpenter Racing has supplanted Penske as the top Chevrolet team while Ganassi looks like the clear cut favorites.

Ganassi went 2-3-4-6-10 on Day 1, 2-5-7-20-29 on Thursday, 2-3-4-9-20 during qualifying weekend, 1-2-3-5-22 on Monday’s practice and took 5 of the top 12 starting spots including 4 of the top 6 overall. After putting all 4 full time drivers in the top 7 at Texas, I think this could be their race to lose.

However, they’ve not won the Indy 500 since 2012 too so the door is always open.

ECR always seems to be in this role but they’ve also not capitalized either. They’ve never won an Indy 500. They do have 2 of the top 4 starting spots and look the part of a real contender.

Combined, Ganassi and ECR have the entire top 2 Rows of the starting lineup in a race that has seen the winner come from the top 8 in each of the last 5 years.

Colton Herta may start 25th but his last 2 race wins came from 14th. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Who Are The Chargers

Every year we see drivers work their ways up to the front. It can happen. This year in particular, you have some big named drivers starting midpack on back. Josef Newgarden (14th) is within striking distance. Santino Ferrucci (15th) has never finished outside the top 10 in 3 tries. Simon Pagenaud (16th) won this race in 2019 and has 3 top 6’s in his last 4 Indy starts. Conor Daly (18th) led the most laps of the race last year and starts 1 spot better than he did in 2021. Alexander Rossi (20th) and Graham Rahal (21st) are both always hard chargers and can play into this thing by the midway mark.

Sage Karam finished in the top 10 from 31st last year. He starts 3 rows higher this year. Marco Andretti (23rd) told me his car is as good as ever here. Colton Herta (25th) is going for the 3rd Month of May sweep in the last 5 years. Scott McLaughlin (26th) finished 2nd at Texas. He starts in the same spot that Pagenaud finished 3rd from just last season. Helio Castroneves (27th) is going for his 5th Indy 500 crown. Juan Pablo Montoya (30th) has 2 Indy wins from 2 different teams.

That’s some star power that’s not afraid to charge coming from 14th on back.

Will Team Penske really start off 0-3 in his 1st three years with the keys here in Indianapolis? Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Is Penske Going To Really Start Off 0-for-3?

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. Yes, they are starting better than last year (17-21-26-32) as well as 2020 (13-22-25-28) but only slightly (11-14-26).

Can 1 of them find their ways to the front by Lap 200 or does Penske start off 0-3 with the keys to his own place?

They’ve led 19 total laps in the last 2 years here.

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?

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