5 things I’m watching for the 2-day Indy 500 test this week

INDIANAPOLIS — We’re a little less than a month away from oval activity starting at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but before we do so, the NTT INDYCAR Series is conducting the annual open test on the famed grounds of the 2.5-mile track.

Here are five things that I’m watching this week.

Racing Package

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. For 2019, they combined to lead 155 of the 200 laps.

Then 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 back up?

They did by a lot. They led over 100 laps in 2021, but it was also 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 despite Honda going 1-2.

Last year, Chevy had led nearly 80% of the laps and won all 4 races entering the Month of May. Honda however instead swept the month including producing 6 of the top 9 finishers in the 106th Running of the Indy 500. They also led 166 of the 200 laps too.

The Honda’s looked good in practice during the opening week before too Chevy turned the wick up in qualifying on Saturday to sweep the provisional front row. On Sunday, the Honda’s adjusted and took 4 of the top 6 starting spots.

In Monday’s race practice, Honda had 11 of the top 14 speeds. For Carb Day, Honda went 1-2-3-4 again.

Did Chevy do enough to flip the script after being shutout of the last two Indy 500’s?

In Texas, the only other superspeedway on the schedule, it’s been all Ganassi and Penske. 

The last eight races on that 1.5-mile track, Penske and Ganassi have dominated all. In those last eight years, Penske and Ganassi have combined to have taken 17 of the 24 podiums spots and have led 78% (1,489-for-1,902 laps).

Last year, they led 219 of the 248 laps run. A year prior, it was all 212 laps of Race 1 and 188 of 248 in Race 2. In 2020, it was 198 of the 200 laps. In 2018, it was 204 of the 248 and in 2017, it was 233 of the 248. The only exception was in 2019 when they only led 87 of the 248 laps.

That means since 2020, they’ve combined to have led 965 out of the 1,158 laps turned (83.3%) and taking 12 of the 15 podium spots (80%).

Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have also alternated wins there in each of the last six years too and 8 of the last 10 overall at that. 

Penske drivers went 1-2 last year and led 209 of 248 laps (84%). They went 1-6 this time around earlier this month, leading 123 of 248 laps (49.5%). They’ve also now had a driver finish either first or second in in each of the last 8 Texas races too.

Ganassi played second fiddle to Penske last year in Texas but in Indy, it was Scott Dixon leading 95 laps, Alex Palou 47, Marcus Ericsson 13, Tony Kanaan 6 and Jimmie Johnson 2. That’s 163 of 200 laps (82%) and the win.

If you combine Indy and Texas Penske and Ganassi have won 4 of the last 8 Indy 500’s and 7 of the last 8 in Texas. Throw Andretti Autosport and McLaren into that equation since this has basically become the “Big 4” and you get 14 of the last 18 Indy 500’s and 18 of the last 23 (since 2000) won by them. RLL is the outlier who took two of the top three spots in 2020 and have won 2 of the 5 that the “Big 3” didn’t since 2000.

At Texas, they’ve won 16 of the last 19 with RLL, DCR and ECR being the only other winners in that span. 

In saying that, how does this aero 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 in 2021 and 38 more last year, which seemed to be a better version. Yes, it was sunny, but yes it was also cooler too.

Still, the last couple of years looked vastly improved from the 2020 race. The front few cars could pass with ease while fifth on back was difficult. If the lapped cars in front at the end of the 2021 race 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 year, there’s more downforce on these cars and if Texas was a preview for Indy, then watch out.

An insanely close finish last year in Texas saw 15 lead changes with 12 of the 27 starters leading at least one lap. I’d say Texas delivered.

How would this year look?

With some more downforce added and similar race conditions, this year’s PPG 375 delivered an even better show than the one of last year. The 26 lead changes were the most there in over two decades. The 2001 race was the last time that we had as many lead changes on the 1.44-mile-high-banked track.

The 482 passes for position was nearly 200 more passes last year.

I heard Indy may have even more downforce added which could only get better.

This week will see 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 and so far, it seems like they may have found it.

The thing is, the beginning portions of the race are always going to be all about fuel saving with the ending an intense shootout, just as we witnessed in Texas. I feel like INDYCAR is close to a perfect package here and that the 2023 race will be even better with the direction that they’re heading in.

It was a heartbreaking day for both Scott Dixon and Alex Palou in last year’s Indy 500. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Does Anyone Have Anything For Chip Ganassi Racing?

Heading into race last year’s race, we all felt like this was Chip Ganassi Racing’s to lose. Ganassi went 2-3-4-6-10 on opening day, 2-5-7-20-29 on Thursday practice (Day 2), 2-3-4-9-20 during qualifying weekend, 1-2-3-5-22 on Monday’s race week 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 last spring, I thought that this could be their race to lose.

They had 1-2 early and 1-3 in the end.

The thing is, last year wasn’t the top 2 Ganassi finishers that we’d all thought it would be. Scott Dixon won the pole, led 95 laps but was speeding on pit lane on his final stop while leading.

For Alex Palou, he had a similar fate to what occurred to Dixon in 2021. When Callum Ilott crashed in Turn 2 on Lap 68, Palou was coming down to pit lane. Unfortunately, Ilott’s crash sparked a quick caution light which in turn closed pit road. Palou wasn’t fully on pit lane yet which caused him to have to pass on by. Unfortunately, his No. 10 Dallara-Honda was out of gas and he’d have to pit again a lap later while the pits were closed. That was a penalty. That’s why they took an emergency service and would pit again when the pits opened. 3 pit stops in a 4 lap span took him down to 30th. He would rebound to finish 9th but it was a day of what might have been for him too.

Palou led 47 laps and if you combine that with Dixon’s 95 you get the Ganassi duo leading 142 of 200 laps but neither having a win to show for it.

It was Marcus Ericsson and Tony Kanaan picking up where they left off and sealing the deal.

Now, you get Takuma Sato replacing Kanaan and Jimmie Johnson’s car not here giving Ganassi three Indy 500 winners in their four-car lineup.

Sato could enter rare air with an Indy 500 win in May. He’s drank the milk twice after an Indy 500 triumph. He’s actively searching for a 3rd opportunity at doing so.

10 drivers have won this race 3 or more times with only 4 of the 10 having won this prestigious event a record setting four times. Sato can become the 11th in May.

What’s even more rare about this is, if he win, this would mark the third team he’s won Indy with. Only three drivers (Al Unser, Bobby Unser and AJ Foyt) have accomplished that feat. 2 of the 3 are in the 4-win club.

Sato inherits arguably the top Indy team over the last few years.

In 2021, they had 4 of the top 9 starters including 2 more on the front row with leading 42 of 200 laps and having 3 finishers in the top 11 including a runner-up.

In 2020, they led 119 of 200 laps and had the 2nd place finisher.

In Texas, they put 3 of their 4 cars in the top 8 of the finishing order. That comes a year after getting all four in the top seven…

That’s 324 of 600 (54%) of the overall laps led in the Aeroscreen era and now you hand them Sato…

Ganassi has won 5 Indy 500’s in their history.

Marcus Ericsson led Pato O’Ward across the Yard of Bricks on Lap 199 for last year’s 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

McLaren Racing

The top team to rival Chip Ganassi Racing this year may very well be Arrow McLaren. They have secured the 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th placed drivers from last year’s race. They also looked very strong in Texas too for which all three of their full-time drivers qualified in the top five.

Tony Kanaan, the 2013 winner, a runner-up in 2004 and three different third place finishes in 21 appearances joins the Indy only entry. He was third with Chip Ganassi Racing last year. Fifth place finisher of a year ago, Alexander Rossi, is the other newcomer. He won the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016.

Both former winners are hoping to bring that little extra to McLaren to get them over the top.

Pato O’Ward, who drives the No. 5 car, finished second in the 2022 race, and has never finished worse than sixth in three Indy 500 tries.  He has made 16 total oval starts with two wins, five runner-up finishes and 12 top four results including 11 top four’s in his last 12 tries.

Felix Rosenqvist is in the 6 car and was fourth a year ago.

This is a team to watch.

Colton Herta on pit lane during the Month of May a year ago – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Penske/Andretti/RLL Find Improvement?

At one point of this race, Andretti Autosport, Team Penske and Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing had combined to have won the Indianapolis 500 in 7 straight years. They’re 0-for-3 since. In fact, they combined to lead just 3 of 200 laps during last year’s race. Despite having 11 of the 33 combined starters, they finished 5th (Alexander Rossi), 13th (Josef Newgarden), 14th (Graham Rahal), 15th (Will Power), 18th (Christian Lundgaard), 20th (Devlin DeFrancesco), 22nd (Marco Andretti), 24th (Jack Harvey), 29th (Scott McLaughlin), 30th (Colton Herta) and 31st (Romain Grosjean). That’s 3 of the bottom 5.

Andretti Autosport capped a rough month on the oval last year with a rough day in the Indy 500. While Alexander Rossi went from 20th to 5th for his 5th top 7 result in 7 ‘500 tries, the rest of the lineup had a race to forget about.

Rookie Romain Grosjean found the wall on Lap 105 and would finish a disappointing 31st. Colton Herta was only one spot better (30th) after battling an ill handling race car all day. That likely was a direct result of his Carb Day crash on Friday. He still has no top fives and just 1 top 10 in four career Indy 500 starts.

Marco Andretti finished a quiet 22nd while Devlin DeFranceco was 20th in his Indy debut.

5-20-22-30-31 with 3 total laps led all day.

However, they’ve had much faster race cars this year. While the opening two races to the season didn’t go as planned, last Sunday in Long Beach did with Andretti having 3 of the top 4 finishers including a 1-2 effort.

Can that carry over into Barber and then later into the Month of May?

Will Power leads Scott McLaughlin and Devlin DeFrancesco during last year’s Indianapolis 500 – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

In terms of Penske, heading into the Month of May, Team Penske was off to an undefeated start to the 2022 season and the team everyone was talking about them to win last year’s Indy 500. They had 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.

They were once again, nowhere to really be found in Indy.

That included another winless Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to where they’re now 0-for-3 here on the oval since Roger Penske took over the keys to the place in January 2020.

They failed to lead a single lap a year ago here and now have led a grand total of 19 over the last 3 years (600 laps). They finished 13th (Josef Newgarden), 15th (Will Power) and 29th (Scott McLaughlin).

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 laps led in three years.

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-3 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.”

RLL is the other one that has the most concern. They have been off this year and in Texas, they looked dare I say worse this year than last?

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was beaming with confidence entering this season. They felt like they fixed their speed deficit in a lot of areas. However, they looked off in practice in the season opening weekend in St. Pete and once again, looked off in both practices at Texas too.

They took the bottom three spots on the speed charts in session 1 with Graham Rahal (219.600 mph) being 26th, Jack Harvey (219.548 mph) in 27th and Christian Lundgaard (215.983 mph) being last in 28th.

In qualifying, they took three of the final five spots and only went 24th with Rahal (217.611 mph), 27th with Lundgaard (216.210 mph) and last (28th) from Harvey (216.103 mph).

For the race, they weren’t even close to being competitive. All three were lapped by time we got to the halfway mark with the top finisher being Harvey in 18th. Lundgaard was one spot behind in 19th. Both were three laps off pace. Rahal crashed on Lap 219 with Devlin DeFrancesco and was credited with a 24th place finish.

RLL lacked on superspeedway’s last year too, most notably in qualifying. They started 24th, 26th and 27th at Texas in 2022 and 21st, 31st and 32nd at Indy.

This could have the four-car team for Indy worrying.

Marcus Ericsson leads the field during last May’s Indianapolis 500 – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Bottom Of The Speed Charts

While it’s not necessarily normal to be looking more towards the bottom than the top of the speed charts, my eyes will be geared more towards the bottom both days. That’s because it could provide some clues on who may be sweating out qualifying weekend.

The two cars that didn’t test here in 2021 were the only two cars to miss the field in that’s year’s race.

The bottom eight on the 2021 open test speed chart saw five of which start 25th or worse.

Last year, while there was no bumping, 5 of the bottom six on the second day speed chart started 25th or worse including 4 of which taking spots in the last 2 Rows. Stefan Wilson was the only entry not to test and he started last.

That’s why I’m curious on who’s struggling for all out pace on Thursday and Friday. Trends show that it likely means that they’ll be behind when they come back for when it counts next month too.

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