Practice plans could have shifted this week in comparison to the last several years

INDIANAPOLIS — As teams begin practice this week for next weekend’s 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network), the customary check lists and plans could differ this year in comparison to years past. Normally, with how the schedule would go, you’d have three scheduled days of “race” practice before the boost gets turned up on Fast Friday. At that point, you’d transfer from race mode to qualifying setups. You’d then not focus on race setups again until the Monday post qualifying practice.

However, that may now be changing.

As simulations have evolved over the years, teams have found ways to simulate boost levels throughout the week before you even get to turn them up. Why wait until Friday when you can split the plans in half?

“Yeah, probably,” Josef Newgarden told me on if the Penske camp would alter their approach this year and to jump on qualifying setups earlier in the week. “Just because it is important to qualify well. I mean, you can win from wherever, but it’s equally important to qualify well too, so I think you’re seeing more people do that.

“We’ll probably see the same this year. But I think just even more so than the race just people are putting more emphasis on qualifying well and trying to find the speed in the car.”

Penske cars 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). Their drivers 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.

That’s why qualifying pace is very important for their resurgence.

Scott Dixon leads a pack during Thursday’s Indy 500 open test. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

That onus had a split mindset inside of Gasoline Alley though. Some teams felt like it was beneficial to spend some parts of the day focusing on qualifying sims and others on race trim. With technology able to get a feel out of the car early, you might as well get a head start.

Others felt like it wasn’t true data and that why waste laps on track without the boost? After all, knowing that you’re likely in the race, why not just focus full-time on race setups and have an advantage of tons of race day data to work off of.

“Because a qualifying car is always gonna be a qualifying car,” says Tony Kanaan. “But, you know, you see less and less people doing that you see people working a lot on their race setups, because at the end of the day, I mean, the series is so competitive that you have to have a car that you’re able to pass and qualifying is a part of having a fast car.

“It’s so random, right? It’s the number you’re going to draw for Day 1 sometimes you have a huge advantage so even it doesn’t mean that the fastest car around is going to start on the pole. So I think that has changed a bit.”

In the early years of this DW12 era, track position didn’t tend to mean a whole heck of a lot. From 2012 through 2016, every race winner came from a starting spot outside of the Top 10 (16th, 12th, 19th, 15th, 11th). In that era, it paid more to focus on getting your car feeling great in traffic because you could still move your way up no matter where you started.

Since then?

The last six winners have each started in the top 8 including five of the six from a top five spot.

With that said, you now can’t wait until Friday to simulate qualifying setups. You have to almost start as early as possible because track position has been a big factor in deciding to wins the Indianapolis 500 again or not.

If you have it, it really takes a self-inflicted mistake to lose it. That’s partially why Team Penske hasn’t won here in the last three years. They’ve not qualified well enough to give themselves the best shot at victory here.

Chip Ganassi Racing has been the vast opposite.

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

Last year, Scott Dixon led 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.

That’s also 324 of 600 (54%) of the overall laps led in the Aeroscreen era. For them, they’ve been among the top starters and it’s paid off.

Drivers Playing With Other Teams In Traffic

In the early hours of Thursday’s practice session, we saw all four Chip Ganassi Racing cars practicing in tow. Between them however, was Alexander Rossi. One lone McLaren within four Ganassi Honda’s. That was by design.

“Obviously last year the Ganassi’s were the different benchmark. They’re the ones that we’re chasing,” said last year’s runner-up finisher, Pato O’Ward.

Ganassi drivers led 163 of 200 laps (82%) last year. They went 1-2-4-7 in Wednesday’s practice.

“Marcus (Ericsson) out of nowhere just came out with insane speed,” O’Ward said last year when he finished second. “Got by me like I was standing still. Got up to Felix (Rosenqvist) I think within two laps, passed him like he was standing still, left him. I got to Felix finally. I passed him. I had nothing for him. I said, I need a yellow to try and have a shot.

“Tony was also really quick coming behind me. I know he was catching me faster than what I was catching Marcus. When the restart happened, I said, I have one shot, I have to go flat, and still wasn’t enough.

“Too fast in the straight. Maybe if I would have timed it a little bit better. I really don’t think I could have done it much better. I did enough to what we had been doing all race.

“But, yeah, at the end I was surprised with how much more pace they had in a straight line with quite a bit more downforce. I was just trying to time it as good as possible.”

They even qualified 1-3-4-6-12 a year ago and 1-3-7-9 in 2021.

That’s why they’re the ones to beat. That’s also why Rossi was the Guinea pig to run with them to see not only where the McLaren Chevrolet stacks up, but maybe see if they can pinpoint some things the Ganassi’s are doing too.

“I mean that traffic that’s the that’s the whole reason that you get into traffic, right because you can see what other people are doing to an extent and understand what you need to excel on with your car,” Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood told me about learning on what other teams are doing in traffic. “And it’s also good to work with teammates, because you know that they have some differences and that they’re trying to tune in on something here like where did that help them because it’s almost easier to see how someone else’s car is reacting compared to yours than it is when you’re actually in the seat.

“So that’s the whole point that we all run together and we all get as many laps together as possible because we all know that we’re on different setups and we know where each other thrive and where we don’t.”

If you can’t beat them, join them. Why not see how you stack up and see if you can see some subtle things on their cars while doing so.

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