With the 33-car field set for Sunday’s 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, the anticipation is now running in high gear.
This is the fastest arrangement of cars in event history – the first group average in excess of 230 mph -- and with storylines spread throughout the 11 rows, it stands to be one of the most intriguing 500-mile races in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.
Best of all, it will have fans in attendance for the first time in two years, albeit limited to 135,000 as Indiana works through the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Remember, masks are required to be worn at the facility.
With that, let’s examine the intrigue that awaits.
Dixon Leads Field
Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) should be the prohibitive favorite to capture the 105th Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” given that he starts on the pole, is part of a team with four drivers starting in the first nine positions, and he is the best driver of his generation. Sunday’s pole made Dixon one of only five drivers in history to record at least four poles at Indy. The others: Rick Mears with six and Rex Mays, A.J. Foyt and Helio Castroneves with four each.
However, Dixon will be the first to admit that there are no guarantees in a race of this distance. He has started 12 “500s” since winning from the pole in 2008, yet he hasn’t been able to reach victory lane, and his average finish is 10.6. Yet, this is the third time Dixon has started from the No. 1 position in that span, and he has led 17.3 percent of all of the laps (416 of 2,400).
Proof of how much luck is involved with these Memorial Day weekend races: Dixon has won 38 NTT INDYCAR SERIES races and five season championships since winning the “500,” so while success has come everywhere else, it hasn’t led to a second likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Fact is, he’s overdue to win here.
As important to Dixon knowing he can win, his competitors do, as well, and that’s an obstacle for them to overcome. Dixon led a race-high 111 laps in last year’s second-place finish, and he will be the one to beat Sunday.
Those ‘Kids’ on Front Row
There was a humorous photograph posted on social media after Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying ended Sunday. It featured a 40-something man and two young boys, and the caption suggested it was Indy’s front row, a clear reference to Dixon, 40, being joined by two drivers young enough to be his sons. Colton Herta is 21 years old, Rinus VeeKay 20.
All humor aside, these cubs are tigers on the track, and it will be fascinating to see how they approach the opening lap of this race. Last year, Dixon took the lead from pole sitter Marco Andretti approaching the first turn and didn’t look back, and it won’t be a surprise if Herta and VeeKay do the same in this instance.
Driving the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian, Herta is starting on the front row for the first time in three “500s.” His fifth-place start as a rookie in 2019 was spoiled by mechanical failure, and he completed only three laps. He has led only one lap at Indy, but he is a four-time race winner in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
VeeKay, who drives the No. 21 Bitcoin Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing, started fourth last year as a rookie. He drew a stop-and-go penalty on a Lap 62 pit stop for locking up the brakes and hitting a crew member. He finished 20th. But VeeKay is brimming with confidence after winning the GMR Grand Prix, qualifying third for the “500” and demonstrating in Sunday’s post-qualifying practice that he has a car capable of passing competitors. Like Herta, he figures to be a handful for anyone with designs on winning this race.
While VeeKay is the youngest front-row starter in Indy 500 history, this front row – with an average age of 27 – isn’t the youngest ever. That came in 1930, when Billy Arnold (24 years old), Louis Meyer (25) and Shorty Cantlon (26) produced a Row 1 with an average age of 25.
Mix of Champions, Relative Newcomers
There are examples of INDYCAR’s age variety beyond the front row. The second row has three-time pole winner Ed Carpenter (No. 20 SONAX Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing), 2004 series champion and 2013 “500” winner Tony Kanaan (No. 48 The American Legion Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) and second-year INDYCAR driver Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing). Carpenter and Kanaan have combined to make 36 starts in this event.
Row 3 has a similar mix. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) have combined for four “500” victories, four poles and 468 laps led in their 33 starts. Meanwhile, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) is making his third start and has never led a lap.
There are nine former winners in this field, the most since there were a record-setting 10 in 1992. Alexander Rossi, the 2016 winner, starts 10th in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda of Andretti Autosport. Two-time and defending champion Takuma Sato (No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) starts 15th, and two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 86 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) is in the 24th position. Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Chevrolet) and Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Chevrolet) start 26th and 32nd, respectively.
Only two rookies made the show, the fewest since 2015. Pietro Fittipaldi, the grandson of two-time “500” winner Emerson Fittipaldi, was the highest qualifier – 13th in the Military Salutes NURTEC OTC Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR. To the surprise of many, Scott McLaughlin was the highest-qualifying Team Penske driver – he starts 17th – in the No. 3 Pennzoil Chevrolet.
Finally, there’s this: Sato can become the first driver to win three “500s” in his 40s while Herta, VeeKay and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) can break Troy Ruttman’s 69-year-old record as the youngest winner. Ruttman was 22 years, 80 days when he won in 1952.
Power among Other Surprises
Be honest. Who had the best INDYCAR SERIES qualifier of the past two decades nearly failing to qualify for this race? Obviously, no one did.
Yet, there Power was Sunday as the Last Chance Qualifying session was held. Power called his four-lap run one of the best of his career given the pressure he was under to complete the last two corners with his car knocked out of alignment after brushing the Turn 2 wall.
Simona De Silvestro (No. 16 Rocket Pro TPO Chevrolet of Paretta Autosport) also expected Bump Day to not be part of her return to the Speedway after a six-year absence. But she held on for the 33rd and final starting position after her team joined its technical partner -- Team Penske -- in struggling to find speed when all cars received the standard additional boost for qualifying beginning Friday.
The speed fluctuation of the cars within Michael Andretti’s organization also was mysterious. While Herta, Hunter-Reay and Rossi qualified in the top 10 and James Hinchcliffe was 16th in the No. 29 Genesys Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport, Marco Andretti was 25th in the No. 98 Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana of Andretti Herta-Haupert w/Marco & Curb-Agajanian, and Stefan Wilson was 28th in the No. 25 LOHLA SPORT/Cusick Motorsports Honda.
On-track activity takes a break until Friday’s Miller Lite Carb Day practice, a two-hour session beginning at 11 a.m. (ET). The practice will be broadcast live on NBCSN and the Peacock Premium streaming service. All 33 cars are invited to participate.
The impact of the pandemic has forced the cancellation of many of the traditional race weekend activities, such as the Pit Stop Challenge, the AES 500 Festival Parade and the various concerts.
Saturday, the annual Drivers Meeting with BlueJeans by Verizon is set for 10 a.m. – a virtual event this year live-streamed for free on INDYCAR.com – and the 500 Spectacle of Homes features a reverse parade with all 33 drivers driving throughout Indianapolis to get a look at the incredible designs of homeowners. That begins at 11:30 a.m.
Sunday, IMS gates open at 6 a.m., with the live pre-race show beginning at 9 a.m. on NBCSN and the race broadcast starting on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network at 11 a.m. The green flag is set to wave at 12:45 p.m.