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Motorsport

Seven plots to follow in the 2022 Indianapolis 500

After the thrill of seeing Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 winner, nail a record-breaking four-lap run to take his fifth pole position for the championship's most famous event, it’s time for the main business to begin.

If that sounds like it’s trivializing the efforts of all the teams last week, it isn’t: the thing is, it’s almost as if the battle for pole position is a whole separate event in itself, 1) because the cars are so radically different – minimal downforce and 1.5-bar turbo boost instead of the race day 1.3-bar – and 2) because the 500 itself dwarfs every other race on the schedule, let alone the fight to lead the 11 rows of three to the green flag.

Qualifying is hugely important for a couple of days, but is swiftly subsumed by the focus on the race: you'll barely remember a great qualifying run if your race turns to ashes. If you’re served an entrée that tastes like garbage, you don’t leave the restaurant talking about the delicious hors d’oeuvre. 

Or as Dixon put it after his stunning 234.046mph four-lap average for pole: “Step one. Doesn’t guarantee you anything. Pumps you up for at least this week. Hopefully we’re this happy come next Sunday as well, and one of us is lucky enough to be drinking milk. Then that’s job well done. It’s some bragging rights for a few days, but that’s all this means, man.” 

Whoever crosses the line first this Sunday can expect to hear a roar from up to 300,000 people. With the disappearance of the COVID-19 regulations – zero crowd in 2020, 40 percent crowd in 2021 – Penske Entertainment is expecting the Speedway’s biggest crowd since the capacity 100th running of the 500 back in 2016. Those who have not attended IMS since Roger Penske took over the track and the IndyCar Series at the start of 2020 may not notice the neat (and expensive) upgrades, but look closely and you'll be impressed at what a lick of paint, fresh turf, new asphalt and smoother operational procedures can do.

What fans will notice, as they do every year, is the Indy 500’s capacity to astound with the uncertainty that hangs over the outcome of the race. Until Pole Day, we expected a Chevrolet driver to take P1 and maybe the Bowtie would even lock out the front row of the grid. Then Honda took the first two slots thanks to Dixon and Alex Palou, and four of the top six spots.  

“We feel like the competition [Chevy] has definitely brought some speed this year,” says Dixon, and not just here at the Speedway, but at the road courses, too… It looked like yesterday that they were pretty even, actually, and today I think the others have caught up a little bit to what we had last year and the year before. 

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda (Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images)

“You know what it comes down to now is raceability and how the cars are. I think the Ganassi cars are strong, but so are these guys [Ed Carpenter Racing]. The Penskes are very strong. The Andrettis through portions of the day looked very strong.  

“It’s tight, man. The competition is just so damn tough in IndyCar right now.” 

It is, but some of the expected tougher opposition shot itself in the foot in qualifying and have given themselves excess work to do, over and above the mental strain of running a 500. Romain Grosjean is the only one of the Andretti Autosport drivers starting inside the top 20 and the team looks somewhat flaky in race trim. Scott McLaughlin’s third of the Penske team made a bad tactical call on day one of qualifying and dumped the sophomore down to 26th on the grid. Two of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s cars are starting from the back row…  

“It’s not like we have no chance,” said one disgruntled driver who will start from the final third of the field. “If that was true, why would we put ourselves through this, right? But we need a ton of things to go our way. 

“When was the last time the 500’s running order got totally turned on its head because of a caution period that totally suits the guys who went off-strategy early on? It just doesn’t happen as often as you think. And if you go off-strategy, you actually need more than one caution at the perfect time to make the race fall your way.  

“So if you don’t want to take that risk of pitting way early, then you’ve got to do your passes on track and in the pitlane, and that isn’t happening – not from where we are. Maybe if it was the Indy 700! It would be nice to do what [Simon] Pagenaud did last year [26th on grid to third] but I doubt our car is that good.” 

That being the case, look to the first five rows for the winner. Bearing in mind the weather forecast for Sunday is 86degF and the Speedway’s track surface – coated in penetrant last fall and darker than ever – has become more sensitive to changes in ambient conditions, it should favor the more experienced drivers with long-standing and/or strong rapports with experienced race engineers who know exactly how to fine-tune a car for difficult or changing conditions, and who have super-swift pitcrews.

Here are seven plots to follow on Sunday.

1. Can Dixon scratch his 14-year itch? 

Can Dixon take a first Indy 500 win since 2008? (Photo by: Motorsport Images)

Because of Scott Dixon’s constant prominence in the IndyCar Series and his excellence at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, many find it hard to fathom that it’s been so long since the 41-year-old New Zealander drank the milk, but facts are facts and fate is fickle.

Take last year, for example. Helio Castroneves and Meyer Shank Racing shouldn’t take this ill, nor should Ed Carpenter Racing whose drivers led 72 laps, but many onlookers believe Dixon would have walked last year’s race. His car had looked so good in traffic throughout practice, he took pole, and then was happy to run in the wake of a couple of other cars to save fuel. It seemed only a matter of time before he surged to the front.

Then, of course, the pitlane closed due to a crash at its entrance, just when Dixon needed to make his first pitstop, and by the time the #9 had trickled into its pitbox with a fuel-starved engine, and it had been coaxed back to life, he was a lap down. Oh, and he was restarting from the rear of the field as a penalty for service in a closed pit. He came home 17th.  

Those are the kinds of things that can happen to even the strongest driver/car combination so it would be foolish to suggest Dixon’s got it made on Sunday. What we can say with absolute certainty is that the generic Ganassi set-up for Indy is very, very strong in 2022.  

By getting four of its five cars into the top six in qualifying, Chip’s squad has lessened the chances of its drivers getting bottled up behind significantly slower cars and therefore hurting their tires in dirty air. But even more significant is how settled the cars look in practice.

All week long, when asked who looked strongest out on track, drivers from rival teams would roll their eyes and cite Ganassi as the team to beat. The cars looked settled in traffic, they were quick when running solo and in a pack, and they weren’t burning up their Firestones to do it.  

Kanaan, the 2013 Indy winner, will roll off sixth for his only start of the year in a fifth Ganassi entry (Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images)

“Yeah, we had really strong cars in traffic conditions,” said last year’s Indy runner-up and IndyCar champion Alex Palou, who starts second. “I was actually happier with my car in race trim than I was at the beginning on qualifying trim… 

“But it’s a long race. I remember last year I was almost nowhere in the first two [stints], and then at the end we were up there. You need to nail everything, every single lap. The strategy, every single pass, every pitstop. The target is to get through the first pitstop and then the second and then until the end and try to be in the first two places for the last stint. We’ll try and do everything we can to get us in that position.” 

Palou is an incredibly complete driver already, prone to exceeding expectations. But, if track conditions get difficult, the safer money would surely be on veterans such as full-time team-mate Dixon or maybe even Indy-only team-mate Tony Kanaan (starting sixth) to have that edge in confidence to exploit the cars’ superiority. 

2. Helio’s drive for five seems barely alive… 

Defending Indy winner Castroneves will line up 27th (Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images)

…at least for this year. Yes, four-time Indy winner Castroneves’ string of victories in American classics – 2021 Daytona 24 Hours, 2021 Indy 500, 2022 Daytona 24 Hours – seems about to end. Not only has he ended up 27th on the grid for this Sunday’s race, the Meyer Shank Racing Dallara-Hondas have just not looked strong.

Team-mate Simon Pagenaud will roll off from a more representative 16th, and of course qualifying pace doesn’t necessarily equate to race pace. But the MSR cars – like their technical half-sisters from Andretti Autosport – have just been average on the speed charts in race trim, too. Certainly Pagenaud and race engineer Garrett Mothersead haven’t yet developed the near-perfect set-ups that he and Ben Bretzman regularly produced at Team Penske, while Castroneves – a match for Pagenaud in race setup – is coming from 11 places further back.  

In the Brazilian’s favor is that Shank’s team will likely go for a highly ambitious strategy that could spring its four-time Indy winner to the front. But despite his vast experience, it’s doubtful he can stay there.

3. Sato: Coyne’s best hope yet for Indy glory 

Sato comes into his own at IMS - could he add a third Indy win to his CV with Coyne? (Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images)

There would be tears aplenty were Takuma Sato to deliver an Indy 500 triumph to Dale Coyne’s little team from Plainfield, Illinois. Both Sato and Coyne, each with six IndyCar wins to their name, admit they were drawn together for 2022 because both recognized the other’s potential at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. DCR regularly builds very fast cars for IMS, and Sato is a proven two-time winner – the first time a driver of such status has raced for Coyne.  

And with a night-follows-day predictability, Sato’s Coyne with RWR Dallara-Honda was second quickest in April’s test and topped the practice times on three days last week. Sure, that was in the tow of other cars but, come the race, that’s where 32 cars will be…

His qualifying pace on his first run suggested he was 10th fastest in low-downforce trim, but a brain-fart meant he stayed out on track instead of reverting to the deceleration lane, he hampered Marco Andretti’s warm-up lap, and thus had his times invalidated.

When he next got a chance to set a time, it was the heat of the day, and he bounced his car off the Turn 2 SAFER barrier on his way to a time that saw him graduate to the Top 12 battle. The wall encounter damaged his car’s floor and that is possibly what held him back to a 10th-place grid position, but maybe not.  

It matters little – Sato should have a strong race set-up and, while his two Indy wins came from a top-four qualifying position, he knows how to progress through the pack. His infamous try and fail on Dario Franchitti on the last lap in 2012 came after charging from 19th on the grid, while in 2019 he started 14th, got dumped outside the top 20 by a bad pitstop, but came back to finish third.

4. Rookie class – as difficult to call as the overall winner 

Johnson will line up 12th for the 500 after a big moment during his final qualifying run (Photo by: Brett Farmer / Motorsport Images)

The battle for Indy 500 Rookie of the Year should be a gripper. Three of them are lined up between positions nine and 13 on the grid and you could make strong cases for each of this trio.

Through practice, Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean has, frankly, looked alarming at times when traveling in a crocodile of cars. It’s as if, spasmodically, he drove into the turns as deep and hard when following five cars as he should when following two, taking little account of that much more dirty air, that much less downforce.

But despite this, Grosjean is yet to tag the SAFER barriers because he has strong enough sensory perception and fast enough hands to deal with 225mph-plus transitions from understeer to oversteer. That could serve him well as the track becomes slick in Sunday’s (forecast) heat. 

But don’t discount NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson, who has truly earned much of the attention he has drawn. He thumped the wall side-on during his first Fast Friday run, returned to the track to deliver a very composed run of four laps that got him into the Fast 12, and then survived a wonderful if heart-stopping dirt-track slide in Turn 1 on his qualifying run on Sunday. Of course that killed his four-lap average, but from 12th on the grid he can definitely match the sixth he achieved in his first oval IndyCar race at Texas in March.  

Starting just one grid slot behind him is Dale Coyne’s other car, driven by 2021 Indy Lights runner-up David Malukas. One might have questioned his composure after a couple of shunts in the early rounds of the IndyCar season but, under Coyne’s tutelage and Takuma Sato’s advice, Malukas is learning fast how to deal with high-stress situations.  

Should all three hit trouble on race day – and maybe even if they don’t – Callum Ilott can crack the top dozen and contend for RotY honors. He’s being advised by 2014 Indy winner and much-missed 2012 IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, and is starting 19th, ahead of some much ‘bigger’ names in the sport. This is a credit to both him and the Juncos Hollinger Racing team, the only full-time squad to run only one car in 2022.  

Kyle Kirkwood is the most promising open-wheel driver America has produced in years but, from 28th on the grid, the AJ Foyt Racing driver will likely need a chancy strategy to go extremely well to finish in the top 15.  

It’s worth remembering, too, that the 500’s RotY award doesn’t necessarily go to the newbie with the best finish. It’s decided by various judges, including officials and media.  

5. McLaren’s first Indy 500 win since 1976 is a possibility 

O'Ward, pictured, and Rosenqvist shouldn't be counted out (Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images)

Pato O’Ward is one of the best drivers in IndyCar and, whenever his confidence is running at 100 percent, so is Felix Rosenqvist. Which means the Arrow McLaren SP team should be in contention to win, providing the fresh engines that will be fitted to all 33 cars in time for the race see Chevrolet looking strong again at the 1.3-bar boost setting of the twin BorgWarner turbos.

The cars of the AMSP full-time pair looked composed in race trim, able to run very close to competitors without dropping back due to turbulence. In fact, in this regard they were probably the next best team after Ganassi. And O’Ward is much more than the spunky one-dimensional fast-handed boxer so often portrayed in the media: he knows when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, which is why he’s finished Indy in the top six for the past two years.

Rosenqvist is arguably even smoother on the wheel than his team-mate, but subconsciously may be hampered by the need to get his season back on track.

6. Can Carpenter finally get it done? 

Local hero Carpenter always runs well at Indy and is still seeking a first win (Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images)

There are a great many local fans who would love to see three-time Indy polesitter Ed Carpenter finally bring it home and, from fourth on the grid, the 2018 runner-up should have a strong chance. Said locals will also be open-minded enough to celebrate for Carpenter as a team-owner if front-row starter Rinus VeeKay delivers the goods.

The one worry over ECR is that its race set-ups, traditionally, have almost required them to run up front: in traffic they’ve looked uncomfortable, with a grand appetite for front tires. But if push came to shove in a final-stint fight, both Carpenter and VeeKay have the bravery to go wheel-to-wheel with anyone. 

7. Er… what about Penske? 

A disappointing qualifying for McLaughlin means the early season points leader will start 26th (Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images)

After the 2021 qualifying disaster, Team Penske has looked a whole heap better this year, if not outright pacesetters. Due to a tactical blunder in qualifying that resulted in 26th, poor Scott McLaughlin can probably be discounted from contending for victory in his second attempt at the 500, although a top-10 is still on the cards.  

The 2018 winner Will Power starts 11th and Josef Newgarden 14th, both surrounded by wild things and rookies on the grid, but as long as they survive the lap-one chaos and the Chevy is as strong as we expect, both can move up to fight over a top-three spot.

Whether it’s Chevrolet thump or a set-up that Power and race engineer Dave Faustino have developed, the Australian has looked very strong out of Turn 4, gaining time on those ahead, and only being passed down the front straight when Power has cooperated by airing the throttle.

Newgarden can never be written out of the equation at any track because… well, because he’s irrepressible. And, crucially in a race involving five or six stops, both have fantastic pitcrews. Don’t bet against either of these champs. 

Two-time IndyCar champion Newgarden is another chasing his first 500 win from 14th on the grid (Photo by: Motorsport Images)