INDIANAPOLIS — Thursday was a busy day of on track activity on the famed grounds of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 3,108 combined laps were turned in the three separate sessions that saw all three rookies pass their three phases as well as the five veterans going through the two refresher courses get through those as well.
Unfortunately, mother nature won out on Friday with no laps being made around the 2.5-mile track. With that said, we still learned plenty on Day 1. Here’s what we learned in this test.
Team Penske On Cusp Of 19th Indy 500 Triumph
Josef Newgarden was quickest in each of the last two years on the overall Indy 500 open test speed chart. That didn’t end up meaning much. He’s qualified 21st and 14th respectively and finished 12th and 13th in those races.
On Thursday, he was once again quickest overall (227.686 mph). What makes this year different than the last two?
He hopes everything. He feels the momentum. He won Texas last year but didn’t win equate to a win either at Indy. He did so again earlier this month.
“Great day. Really great day,” Newgarden quipped. “I wish it was like race day today. But you don’t get to choose those. You got to show up on that day and be really good. I told the team, If this was race day, don’t touch it. It was very good.
“Sometimes have you that around here. Sometimes you show up and sometimes the cars is just great. Sometimes you got to work on it. Today was one of those really good days. We got through a list as well, we learned a lot, which is always positive.
“Sometimes you can go in circles around here, sometimes you’re inefficient. Today as a team I felt like we were very efficient with time, split it up, divided and conquered. Really happy for Team Penske today and feeling good next month for the Shell car.”
Newgarden feels their offseason work has finally paid off. So does teammate Will Power.
Power is a 68-time pole winner in INDYCAR. That set the new record. However, he’s not yet won a pole here. With starting position meaning so much to this race again, that’s partly the reason Penske has slumped in this race lately.
At one point, Power made the Fast 9 in 11 straight years here, including four front row starting spots (2010, 2014, 2015, 2018), but none of those resulted in a pole. He’s finished 14th or worse in 4 of the last 6 Indy 500 starts.
“Man we we’ve done everything we can to get qualifying speed there’s not at the end of the day, you’re at the mercy of the speed of the car simply,” Power told me. “Then you’ve just got to put downforce to match.
“Honestly, it has you have to have the car. You have to have that that you have to have cars capable of doing it then it’s up to you to how much you want to trim. But unless you have that you just simply so you know, just at the mercy of what you want what car it is. Because very finicky here, you can just have a fast car and it can be the best of the team. They’re all built the same. One just slightly faster. So I would be waiting to have that car for many years. I’ve had it been close then. Yeah. Been on the front row. But yeah, yeah, it’d be nice.
“Like to get for flat out lap so team has worked I’d say last three years extremely hard on that. So we’re hoping to get all cars and the top 12 this year and closer to the front, but obviously it matters in the race because I got the top 12 and went all the way back to last with a loose car so I think I think we’re all pretty keen for a good run this month.”
Roger Penske bought the Speedway in late 2019 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.
Heading into last year’s 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.
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.
Newgarden has won everything but this race. The 26-race winner in INDYCAR competition is 0-for-11 in this race with just five total Top-10 finishes in it. 3 of those 5 top 10 results were in the top 5 however, but Newgarden has yet to drink the milk here.
Power is one that has won the race (2018).
Scott McLaughlin is the relative newbie. He’s only 0-for-2 here but is eyeing his first top 10 on the 2.5-mile oval. He was 10th on Thursday.
Dixon Looks Fast Again
Scott Dixon has won the last two Indy 500 poles. No one has the top starting spot at Indy in three straight years. Dixon looks the part to be the first one to do so.
He was fourth on the overall speed chart in 2021. He was in that exact same spot in 2022. He won the pole both years. As luck would have it, he was fourth on Thursday.
Will that equate out to an Indy 500 pole next month?
He says it’s hard telling. There’s so many different testing plans and aero configurations that everyone kind of has their own plans and works as their own pace.
“I don’t know I think the biggest thing is to get through the new aero pieces,” Dixon said on if you can take anything away from Thursday in regards to May. “Just kind of tick all the boxes on that side of things. We’ve got our own test plan, test bench, dampers, all that kind of stuff that we kind of need to get some matrices done on those. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s kind of it’s an interesting day just because of the winds. So some of the stuff will be a little bit tough, especially this afternoon, but as always, it’s great to be back here and I could be wrong in some ways.”
I mean think about it, the car hasn’t changed much. The personnel mostly remains the same and if they change teams, they take secrets with them. That makes what Ganassi is doing even more impressive that they can remain on top with all these factors.
“Yeah, it’s a team effort,” Dixon told me. “You know, it’s every kind of department I think trying to get the most out of it our kind of our engineering group during a lot of homework in the offseason. Plus the addition you know, with your partners, right, you know, how do I know I’ve been digging real deep for qualifier speed, but also race, speed, drivability, all kinds of those things. “So you know, it’s never again, it’s never going to be 1,2,3,4 or five big things. It’s going to be hundreds of small things. And I think you know, this team last year the year before that, does that really well so you know, I know they haven’t made up so hopefully we can continue to have some great success here.”
Ganassi has won 5 Indy 500’s in their history. Can they remain on top for another year and if so, how do they do it with everyone chasing them?
For some reason, despite Scott Dixon becoming the all-time laps led leader in the 106-year history of this great event, second place on the all-time poles list (he has 5, Rick Mears has 6), he still sits here with just one lone Indy 500 victory (2008) in 20 tries.
Dixon keeps finding ways to lose here at that. He led 73 laps but finished runner-up to his Ganassi teammate of Dario Franchitti in 2009. He led 73 more laps in a 5th place run in 2011. In 2012, he led 53 laps but was runner-up again to Franchitti. He was on the pole and led 83 laps in 2015 but finished 4th. He won the pole in 2017 but had a frightening crash in Turn 1 that year and would come home 32nd. He led 111 laps in a runner-up effort in 2020, 7 laps from the pole in 2021 to where he was caught out by an ill timed first caution which saw his No. 9 Dallara-Honda having to do an emergency pit stop under a closed pit road and then stall as a result. He fell a lap down and would finish 17th.
Last year, he was 2nd in literally all but 1 practice session, qualified on the pole with a record setting pole lap and led 95 circuits before speeding on pit road for his final pit stop. That relegated him to 21st in the end.
Can Dixon finally pick up a second Indy 500 win?
Racing Package Improved Again
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.
Indy has even more downforce added which could only get better. On Thursday, it was.
The drivers made mention that you could follow closer to other cars in front of you. That’s great news because on a hot and sunny day that saw temperatures soar into the upper 70s and 80s, if you could follow close today, then you certainly can on race day next month.
The only problem that does need to be mentioned is the fact that when you get a run, but pull out to pass, you kind of hit a wall of air that slows you down to where you struggle to complete the pass. That’s natural right?
If you’re behind a car in tow, they’re punching a hole in the air which the headwind naturally slows them down like they’re carrying a parachute. The car behind doesn’t have that wall of air to run into which naturally makes them quicker. When they pull out, they meet that wall of air too.
So, what they’re needing is a little more horsepower to complete that pass and the ability to time the pass to be able to pull out and complete it.
Still, it’s great news that you can follow closer now than last year which is a massive bonus.
“I think purely speaking from what’s available, there will be more load on the cars than last year,” Josef Newgarden said. “That should pack everyone up theoretically. I think that will happen.
“I don’t think you’re going to get the Texas effect. This is not a two-lane racetrack. At least not currently. Outside of restarts and starts, you’re not going to have side by side lap after lap. You’re going to have really exciting restarts, really exciting start to the race, then it’s going to be a matter of how do you work traffic, et cetera.
“I think the goal would be giving a little bit more of the frontrunners an opportunity to shuffle around. Typically it’s just the front two shuffling. I think if we could get the shuffle going three, four deep, even getting people opportunities in the mid pack to make moves more often, that’s really the goal without overstepping it. It remains to be seen if we’ve struck that right balance. It’s just very hard to predict.”
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.
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.
On Thursday, all three rookies were in the bottom seven of the speed charts. Agustin Canapino (222.162 mph) was 27th, Sting Ray Robb (221.785 mph) was 29th and Benjamin Pedersen (220.109 mph) was last in 33rd.
However, if you go from 25th on back, you get both Foyt cars (25th, 33rd), both Juncos Hollinger Racing cars (27th, 31st), three of the four RLL cars (26th, 28th, 32nd) and Devlin DeFrancesco of Andretti (30th) and Sting Ray Robb of Coyne (29th).
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.
Familiar Names Up Top
Josef Newgarden was quickest in both open tests the last two years. Scott Dixon was fourth both years too. Conor Daly was second fastest on Day 1 last year and did so this year. Takuma Sato was second last year and fifth this one. Both years, the speed chart looked mighty familiar. Does that mean the race will too?
Even in session 1 out of the gates, you had the last two Indy 500 winners (Marcus Ericsson, Helio Castroneves) being 1-2. Runner-up in 2021 was third.
Helio Not Done Yet
In 106 past years of the Indianapolis 500, no one has ever won this race more than 4 times. Prior to 2021, only 3 drivers had 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 last year. Castroneves was 22nd on the opening day speed chart. He was 22nd again on Day 3 (Wednesday was washed out). On Monday of race week, he was 13th. He qualified 27th and finished seventh.
This week, he was 19th on Thursday (224.280 mph). After a tough start to the year that has seen him collected in two first lap crashes and has him mired deep in the points in 20th (-74), how much longer does he want to keep doing this?
“As long as I have the passion,” Castroneves admitted on Thursday afternoon “Nothing you can change. Nothing can beat it when you have passion and it’s run by good people behind you that you can have the same goal. And work ethic you know, continue to work and make sure that you find those details because technology, competition. I will say evolution, you know, it could change that you can’t run the same computer that you have, like 10 years ago. Right? So you’re gonna continue improving and somehow because of the cars keep changing. You find something new. So as long as I keep having fun.”
Right now, he’s having fun.
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.
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 22 starts. The Brazilian has the third most miles completed too. He’s also had three runners-up and all three rank among the closest finishes in the 106-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.
Foyt made 15 attempts after notching his fourth Indy 500 victory in 1977 to score his fifth win. He’d never do so with only scoring two top fives after including a runner-up finish in 1979.
Unser was the next to join the four win club in 1987. He’d try five more times to earn a fifth ‘500 triumph with finishes of 3rd, 24th, 13th, 3rd and 12th respectively.
Mears joined in 1991. A 26th place finish in 1992’s race was his final shot.
“Well, we basically felt we’re feeling very strong and it’s some of the rules changed a little bit bigger than me,” said Castroneves. “This is the actual Indy 500 car. And, and we were able to we were able to have some too many laps on it, but feels like we’re in the right direction. And I’m excited man, it’s great to be back again. In the special with this weather, nice weather. Got to take advantage of these today, obviously. But yeah, we want to take as much as we want to run as much as possible so that we can learn just new aerodynamics bits.
“Every time you’re behind the steering wheel here you always learn something. And it’s funny because you like feel things you like, I didn’t feel this last year. So I’m telling my engineers always the same. It’s like, I know, but I didn’t feel this before. So, it’s funny, because you kind of like understand what the bar you like and that you’ve felt before and what you need to achieve. And that’s what we hear.”
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Sleepers To Watch
The bigger teams may still win next month’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500. However, Meyer Shank Racing just two years ago showed that the little guy can still compete and get the job done with the right amount of hardwork and skill.
Maybe this year’s Cinderella and glass slipper will fit the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing camp.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been competing in the famed 500-mile event since 2000 and qualified 45 cars over its course of competition. They’ve been phenomenal at Indy lately too which could make Ryan Hunter-Reay and teammate Stefan Wilson darkhorses when we come back for real next month. Sage Karam finished 7th in 2021 while Santino Ferrucci was 10th a year ago in the 2nd entry.
On Thursday, they were 2-3 in the refresher session and sixth (Wilson) and 14th (Hunter-Reay) on the Day 1 overall speed chart.
“Really good day for us,” Wilson said. “To get through the pressure and I think I did 140 laps today, I did a lot more than I thought we were going to get done today with how windy we expected it to be, how windy it got.
“Yeah, really positive start. It’s nice to be in a positive window. The car’s in a decent window right now. I think we need to refine it, but we’re not throwing the kitchen sink at it. That’s good place to be.”
Instead of using a part-time team as a detriment, they’re making it an advantage.
By being an Indy only operation, it allows them the luxury of preparing for just one race, on one discipline of tracks and can throw all their eggs in one basket. It clearly worked in 2022. It can work in 2023.
“We feel like we have as good a shot as anyone. We specialize in the 500,” says Reinbold. “We don’t specialize on those other tracks. We specialize at the Indy 500. We’re confident in our ability to get out there and prepare and do what it takes to be in the mix.
“We were in the mix last year, fortunately, with Santino and Sage as well running in the top five to six cars with Santino and around the 12th place car for much of the race last year.
“So we know what it takes and the preparation, dedication, offseason testing to get to that level, and it’s not inconsequential. There’s a lot that goes into it. You have to have the driver that can deliver on that once you get in that position. We feel good about it.
“So I’m just excited about going into the month of May and starting our testing. And we’ve already started our testing, but continuing our testing. And it’s like the old saying, is it May yet? We’re ready to go.”
Hunter-Reay will be attempting to make his 15th start in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and doing so in the No. 23 Dallara-Honda. “Captain America” is a former Indy 500 champion (2014) as well as a season champion (2012) too. The 18-time NTT INDYCAR Series winner didn’t race last year with his final start in the Indy 500 coming in 2021 to where he finished 22nd. Prior to that though, the Florida native had 5 top 10 finishes in an 8 year span which includes his 2014 triumph as well as a third place finish in 2013 and fifth in 2018. He was also 8th in 2019 and 10th in 2020 too.
This will mark the fifth different team that Hunter-Reay has driven at Indy for. He ran with RLL in his first start here in 2008. A year later, he was with Vision Racing. He then raced for Andretti Autosport in 11 of the remaining 12 tries. The lone time he didn’t was in 2011 when he missed the show but later hopped into AJ Foyt Racing’s qualified car to which he finished 23rd.
Now, he’s with DRR for which this being his first time back with Chevrolet power since the two years that Andretti was with them in 2012 and 2013.
“It was great,” Hunter-Reay said of his Thursday. “The first proper run out, felt like a kid going down a ramp, that feeling of just pure excitement. It was great. I absolutely couldn’t wait to do it.
“But, no, it’s great. Like Stef said, the team has done a great job preparing these cars. Really happy to be joining Team Chevy again. We have a lot of great history together not only the sports car side with GM, Cadillac and everything, but winning a championship together back in 2012. I have a lot of good friends there. Look forward to working with them. It’s something that I’m definitely going to take the time and the most of.
“Working with the team, it’s been excellent. Today we were going through some pretty big-ticket stuff, big-ticket items with the wind and everything. With the starting that refresher deal was really strange, I didn’t like that part. Wanted to get through that as fast as possible. Like eating your vegetables as a kid. Not fun, but got through it fast. Yeah, after that, I had a blast.”
Wilson had a little over two weeks prepare for last year’s Indianapolis 500. He’s had six months this time around.
“I’ve been very impressed with how hard Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has worked at and focused on the Indy 500,” said Wilson. “It’s such an honor for me to join them in partnership with Cusick Motorsports and work on our collective goal of trying to win the Indy 500. There’s a great opportunity here for us to all grow together. I hope this leads to more 500’s, and maybe even more races together.”
As far as what led DRR, Cusick and Wilson together?
“We had always hoped we could get a relationship with someone like DRR,” Cusick says. “They were number one on our list of potential partners for 2023. Anders and Stefan did the majority of the legwork and put together proposal and sent it out and had the conversations that needed to be had.
“I didn’t actually talk to Dennis until after the deal was signed. I had an opportunity to get on the phone with him several times and talk it all through.
“For me the faith that the entire DRR team put in Stefan and the way they talked and treated him was super heartwarming. I mean, it’s probably an overused analogy, but they made us feel like we’re part of the family. That’s pretty unique, especially in what we’re doing.
“Yeah, that’s been great. Like I said, my analogy is kind of like we’ve been dating for a little while now, and now we’re going to go to the next step. I feel really, really good about it, and I really like those guys, and I think we’re going to make some good things happen and surprise a few people in the process.”
Dennis Reinbold, like Cusick, just gushed over Wilson as far as what impressed him the most to get this dialogue going.
“We’ve talked to Stefan before, and I really appreciate his persistence and his hunger,” he said. “And all the attributes you want in a driver he comes with. He is ready and excited to get going more so than — his excitement level really is contagious.
“And so him really, as well as Anders, putting Don and I together to have the conversation and then get to the point we are, it’s like, yeah, I couldn’t be happier with the way things are going.
“We’ve done a lot of kind of partnerships in the past that haven’t worked out very well. There have been a lot of factors involved because of different agendas and different ideas on how to go about things.
“We’re on the same page, and that’s the only way you can do it and be successful. I feel like we’re positioning ourselves and this program to be a really good program that could continue on for sure.”
Now that they are teamed up, this could be the beginning of what most consider the best opportunity Wilson has had at winning the big race. While Wilson has appeared in the Indy 500 for a team like Andretti Autosport twice, this entry may be his best shot at winning.
“Yes, I do,” Wilson said on if this is his best shot of winning this race. “I can’t thank Andretti enough for what they did for me in the years that I ran with them, but this time it has a little different feeling to it. I can’t thank Team Chevy enough as well. I’m excited to work with team Chevrolet again.
“As we’ve all said, this effort, there is so much focus on the 24 car and from internally and the team that it feels like we’re all pulling in the same direction, and we’ve got a lot of runway to plan and get prepared for May.
“So, yeah, I’m really excited. What they showed last year, and the previous year, really, the race cars they have, the race setup, is really strong, and their qualifying form this year was really strong as well.
“So with all that stuff we’re working on in the offseason, we’re only going to make that better. Yeah, I think, like I said before, this team really needs to get a lot more credit for what they’ve achieved in the last couple of years.”
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Stefan Wilson also have a family tie together as Wilson’s late brother, Justin, drove as a full-time entry for the team in the 2010 and 2011 seasons in the IndyCar Series.
The elder Wilson had 12 top 10 finishes in 28 starts with DRR including a pair of runner-up finishes at that. One of those 12 top 10’s was a 7th place run in the 2010 Indy 500.
“There’s history here with this team,” Stefan Wilson continued. Justin [Wilson, Stefan’s late older brother] spent two years with DRR back in 2010-2011 and secured podiums. I got to know Dennis (Reinbold), Brett De Bord and Chase Selman really well back then, so it just feels great to be rejoining them in a sense. I also have to say a big thank you to Don Cusick, who has put more faith in me than anybody else in my career. I’m honored to represent Cusick Motorsports and all our partners and will do my utmost to make the most of this fantastic opportunity.”