INDIANAPOLIS — The second largest crowd in decades will show up on the west side of Indianapolis on Sunday for the annual Memorial Day weekend gathering. In fact, since 1911, fans have shown up in droves for 106 years now to witness history.
This year will be no different.
An estimated crowd of more than 300k will come through the gates of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday for the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
This comes after the first five races to the NTT INDYCAR Series season that 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 while 2 of the 3 days at the Barber Motorsports Park were completely sold out.
For Indy, you got a nice sized crowd in the rain for the GMR Grand Prix and an estimated crowd of 50k for qualifying weekend which was the largest since 2016. 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 and now we head to the year’s marquee event.
As far as the on track product?
We’ve had 6 poles winners in 6 tries with 4 race winners in the 5 races run to completion. Will we get a 5th in 6 tries?
Among the 15 podium spots scored this year between the first 5 races this season have seen 10 different drivers on it.
The points leader has 5 top 4 finishes in 5 races but no finish better than 3rd. Will Power starts 11th on Sunday. 18 points separates 1st through 3rd but only 44 small points separates 1st through 7th with double points on the line this Sunday too.
You have one of the most underappreciated drivers in the history of the sport on the pole. Scott Dixon ranks 3rd on the all-time wins list and is 1 victory shy of tying Mario Andretti for second most ever. He’s 1 championship shy of tying AJ Foyt for most all-time too.
His 49 runner-ups are second to Andretti’s 56. Just Andretti (144) has more podiums than Dixon’s 127.
In terms of top five finishes, Andretti has 194, Dixon has 183. The next best is Foyt with 149.
Despite all of that, Dixon has just one Indy 500 win. In 2020, he started second, led 111 laps, but came home second in the end. Then last year, he won the pole, was quickest on Day 2 of practice, fastest on Fast Friday, fastest on Carb Day and best in both qualifying days. He was the man to beat. The stars were aligning.
A fluke crash on pit road in the middle of the opening pit sequence ruined that for him this year. In 2017, he won the pole for the ‘500, was robbed at gun point in a Taco Bell drive through that night, look the part in the early portions of the race itself but in a fluke way, ran over Jay Howard’s slow car in Turn 1 and launched airborne in a frightening crash.
If it could go wrong for Dixon at Indy, it has. What does he have to do to win again here? He’s 1-for-19. Can he get a second win in 20 tries this month?
He’s not won the race in his last 13 attempts. In fact, he’s had a top two starting spot in 5 of the last 8 years here. He’s just not won.
Only Rick Mears’ six Indy 500 poles is more than Dixon’s five.
Furthermore, Dixon is third on the all-time lap leaders chart and is only 74 laps led away from tying Al Unser for most laps led in Indy history. He led 111 laps alone in 2020. He’s also just 43 laps led away from moving past Ralph DePalma for second place on the list.
Is this his year?
What about someone like Josef Newgarden. He won the Pit Stop Competition on Carb Day but is 0-for-10 in this race. Between he and Dixon, they’ve won 4 of the last 5 series championships. They’re also a combined 1-for-29 in this race too.
Can either of their teammates reach glory? Penske has 18 Indy 500 wins but none since he took over the keys to this place in 2020. Ganassi has 4 but 3 of which came in a 5 year span. They’re 0-for-9 since 2013.
Overall, 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.
Ganassi looks the part so far this month with 4 drivers in the top 6 of the starting lineup but do you trust they’ll end their near decade long drought of tasting the milk? Can Penske get up front when none of their 3 roll off from a top 10 starting spot?
Each of the last 4 Indy 500’s were won by a top 8 starter.
Does it open the door for Ed Carpenter Racing. They have 2 cars in the top 4 of the lineup but it’s also the 10th straight year they’ve put a car up front for the ‘500. They’ve not won any of them.
Andretti Autosport looks off this year and has a backup car for Colton Herta, 2 rookies, a driver who’s 0-for-17 and another who’s likely on his way out from the team at seasons end.
Does that open the door for Helio Castroneves to win his record setting 5th? His 1st two Indy wins were back-to-back. However, 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.
Maybe it’s his teammate Simon Pagenaud. He’s been quiet all month but has a good car despite starting midpack. He charged from 26th to 3rd last year and starts much higher this time around with a team that won a year ago with Castroneves.
The hard part for Pagenaud though is that it’s going to be likely hard to pass on Sunday. The sealant has caused some problems with the color of it. The sealer is a darker black and by being so, with sun on the track, it makes it even hotter and slicker than it normally would be. That means drivers are sliding around.
It also could create some chaos.
“Part of me thinks that you’ve got to do it at the beginning and wait to the next restart to do it again but another part of me excuse my French thinks it’s going to be a shit show,” said Alexander Rossi. “I think there’s going to be a lot of yellows and you can not be as aggressive and wait for the yellows. That’s the battle in my mind for the next 48 hours.”
As far as to why?
“If we use a banking analogy I think people have been banking their lines of credit this month and at one point they’re going to hit their limit,” he continued. “There’s no way people can continue to drive the way that they’ve driven. Those people that have done that, their confidence is only going up and they’re thinking that they can get away with this. It’s like maybe. I mean maybe. I don’t know. I would think not, right. A lot of these people have these moments and they pit. For 200 laps, you can’t pit. You’re going to have these moments and have to sort yourself out. It might be a super green race but last year was super green and not a lot of yellows so I don’t see it happening 2 years in-a-row.”
Graham Rahal agreed with that assessment.
“I do think this year there’s a good chance,” he said of a lot of yellows. “This year the check ups have been late and very aggressive. That’s probably going to bite somebody. There’s guys testing the limits all the time. That’s not going to last. I just see more mistakes potentially happening.”
Conor Daly says that no one wants to lead. He experienced that last year. If you’re leading, you’re burning more fuel and if you’re burning more fuel you have to pit sooner. So, in order to avoid that, you slow down to laps in the 207-210 mph range to save. As a result, you bunch everyone up and when you do so, you create havoc of what Rossi and Rahal are talking about in mistakes.
We’ve seen 3 crashes in the last 153 minutes of practice this week including 1 getting airborne.
Honda went 1-2 last year but Chevy led the most laps. Honda took 7 of the top 12 starting spots and have dominated the speed charts this month but only has 1 win this season. Chevy has dominated the year until the wet race two weeks ago in the GMR Grand Prix.
Buckle up. This race could be chaotic with a photo finish in the end.