INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis 500 is embarking on its second century much as it did its first: Nobody really knows what to expect in next weekend’s race.
Pole-winner Scott Dixon posted the fastest four-lap qualifying average at Indy in 21 years Sunday. But with the first rows filled by three race winners, three 500 runner-ups and a two-time Formula One champion, picking a favorite is anybody’s guess.
“I think the hardest part of the week leading up to the 500 is you’re basically trying to predict things,” Dixon said. “Everybody asks you how do you think you’re going to do, how is the race going to go? It’s so hard to talk about the race continuously before you’ve even done it. You know, you have to be positive, but there’s always some doubts in your mind.”
This year is particularly confounding after Dixon qualified with a four-lap average of 232.164 mph — the fastest attempt since Arie Luyendyk’s track record 236.986 in 1996.
Many around the track, including second-place qualifier Ed Carpenter, think increasing the speeds is long overdue and something fans have been craving.
“It’s cool to see the speeds going back up, to hear the crowd roar when Scott did those laps when everyone put up big times” Carpenter said Sunday. “It’s part of the mystique of this place is pushing the limits of the cars and us as drivers. So I enjoy that part of it. It’s thrilling when it goes well and when it goes poorly like we saw [Saturday’s crash], but that’s part of what makes IndyCar special.”
But even with one of IndyCar’s best career drivers leading the way, there are no sure things at Indy.
Dixon won after claiming his first Indy pole in 2008. Two years ago, after getting his second, the New Zealander finished fifth because of an overheating car. He’s the fifth driver in race history with three pole wins and now faces a 33-car field with talent, experience and fast cars.
Carpenter, a two-time Indy pole winner, will start from the inside of the front row after going 231.664.
Defending champion Alexander Rossi was the fastest car in Andretti Autosport’s six-pack. He’ll start third after posting a 231.487.
Japan’s Takuma Sato, Rossi’s teammate, will start fourth. He is best remembered for trying to make a dangerous first turn pass for the lead on the final lap at the 2012 race. Instead, he touched wheels with Dario Franchitti and wound up crashing.
JR Hildebrand, Carpenter’s teammate, will start sixth, the outside of Row 2. He was the 2011 runner-up crashing on the final turn of the last lap.
The third row is comprised of Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy winner; Marco Andretti, the 2006 runner-up; and Will Power, the 2015 runner-up.
But the most intriguing story might be the quest of Fernando Alonso, who is skipping Monaco to run his first oval race. He qualified fifth with an average of 231.300 after only eight days on the track and just hours after an unscheduled engine change.
“He’s proving why he’s one of the best in the world right now,” Rossi said.
Roger Penske has won the 500 a record 16 times. Helio Castroneves has three of them. Both face an uphill battle to reach victory lane at the Brickyard.
After winning the first five poles this season, only Power advanced to Sunday’s nine-car pole shootout — and he wound up ninth at 230.200. Nobody else in the five-car stable will start higher than two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya at No. 18, the outside of Row 6.
Meanwhile, Castroneves is making his eighth attempt to join the four-time winners club, and he’ll have to do it from the worst starting spot of his 500 career:” 19th.
“Of course you always want to start more near the front and you want to say you are on the pole or on the front row,” Castroneves said. “But it means a lot more to say that you are an Indianapolis 500 winner. That is our focus and that is what all of Team Penske is here to do.”
One day after four-time Champ Car champion Sébastien Bourdais had surgery to repair multiple fractures in his pelvis, team owner Dale Coyne named James Davison the replacement.
Davison has started two previous 500s, finishing 16th in 2014 and 27th the following year. But he has driven for Coyne before. He could be on the track Monday.
The No. 18 will start from the back of the field after failing to make a qualifying attempt after Bourdais’ frightening crash Saturday.