This year, choosing a winner for the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 is nearly impossible. For the first time in many years, the unknowns of the new car, new engines, and the weather will all play important roles in deciding the fate of the 33 racers in the field.
Throughout the Month of May, Andretti Autosport has been fast. It would be hard to rule out Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, or James Hinchcliffe. Andretti Autosport is also fielding an additional entry with AFS Racing for Sebastian Saavedra who had been quick in practice until a blown motor while qualifying relegated him to a poor starting position. Ana Beatriz is running in an Andretti Autosport entry as well that is fielded with Conquest Racing. Beatriz, like Saavedra, has been quick in practice despite their limited experience with the DW12.
Team Penske has all 3 drivers starting in the first 2 rows for the race. Although the Penske cars were mid-pack during practice, the Chevy-powered cars came to life for qualifying. With Ryan Briscoe on the pole, and with something to prove after 2 poor performances at Indy the past 2 years, Briscoe has a lot riding on a strong performance this year. Will Power, with his growing confidence on ovals, should be near the front of the field as well. Castroneves is always a threat at Indy.
Despite the Honda engines not performing as well as the Chevy’s for qualifying, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing rookie Josef Newgarden has been the fastest of the Hondas. Teammate for the 500, Bryan Clauson, was fast in the week leading up to qualifying as well, but a crash on his qualifying run severely damaged his car. However, barring any big rookie mistakes, Newgarden could be a dark-horse for the win. A good performance by Clauson could lead to opportunities for him to participate in other events this season.
The biggest surprise has been the speed, or lack thereof, from the Chip Ganassi group. Not a single Ganassi entry made the Firestone Fast 9 final qualifying round. Despite the speed, look for the Ganassi contingent of Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal, and Charlie Kimball to be fast on race day.
The Dallara bodywork on the DW12 punches a much larger hole in the air that the previous car did. Drivers have reported the “tow” is much stronger this year. With 33 cars on the track and lots of dirty air buffeting the cars, not only will handling be a big issue, but the slingshot pass will come into play. The possibility of more passing than ever during the race is in place.
Regardless of the speed shown by the teams, one big question mark is engine reliability. No team is immune to a possible engine failure this year. The issue of engine reliability has been a non-issue in recent history, so the looming question for teams will be if their engine can hold up.
Another major factor in Sunday will be the heat. With temperatures forecasted to be in the mid-90’s on race day, and no rain since the start of the practice to wash the rubber buildup off the track, Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be treacherous on Sunday. The track will be very slick, and there could be quite a bit of shredded carbon fiber during the race. Nailing down the handling of the cars will be extremely important.
With the weather and engine reliability questions looming, survival could be key to a win or top-10 finish. Getting a handle on the car in the hot conditions, staying out of trouble, consistent pit stops, and the engine staying together will almost certainly guarantee a great performance.
So, who is my pick to win the race? I’m going with James Hinchcliffe. The Mayor of HInchtown has been fast all season and fast at Indy just missing the pole by what equates to around 9 inches over 4-laps. That’s close! Not only that, Hinchcliffe is the emerging (and cute!) face of the next generation of IndyCar drivers. He has an excellent personality and is great with fans. He has a well-known sponsor and the potential to be a breakout star bigger than the current winners in the series like Power and Franchitti. You can’t root against the guy. But, for sentimental value, Hinch is driving the car Dan Wheldon was tabbed to drive before his fatal accident in Las Vegas. Hinchcliffe winning in what was essentially Wheldon’s car 1-year after Wheldon won would be a headline made in PR heaven.