Hello again, everyone! I am so excited for the next couple of days, I can barely type this right now. When this blog is posted, we will be on the verge of the best weekend of the year. No, it’s not Halloween, nor is it Christmas. This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, and for race fans, that means only one thing: racing nirvana. This Sunday, May 27th, race fans will wake up to the Monaco Grand Prix, the crown jewel on the Formula 1 calendar. Concluding the day will be the Coca-Cola 600 from Charlotte, NASCAR’s longest and most grueling event. And sandwiched right between those two is the world’s greatest motor race, the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Now some may argue that the title of “World’s Greatest Motor Race” should belong to France’s 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, there are some good arguments on that side. But, in my opinion, nothing compares to the history, prestige, and grandeur of the fabled Brickyard. The Speedway is an old, sometimes cruel mistress. She is big enough to allow for mind boggling speeds yet narrow enough to allow ZERO margin of error. To make it 500 miles here requires extreme speed, extreme focus and in most cases, extreme luck as well. As the old racer's saying goes: “One does not simply win Indianapolis. The Speedway chooses the most worthy.”
The Indy 500 has been a staple in my family since before I was born. My parents began attending when they were still dating, and my first experience was in 1997 at the age of 9. This Sunday will be my 22nd consecutive trip to the world’s largest single-day sporting event., and when I walk through those gates with 300,000+ of my closest friends, I will be just as excited as I was that first time. In the following blog, I will discuss some of the major storylines behind the on-track action at the race, and I'll also handicap the drivers, choosing a few favorites and a few dark horses to watch for.
STORYLINE 1: NEW BODY KITS
If you’ve been following the IndyCar Series over the past few years, you’ll know that the cars had a look that only their mothers could love. They looked big, bulky, and had a bunch of unnecessary aero bits that disturbed the air too much and made it hard to run in close proximity. But now, taking styling cues from the early 90’s, 2018 Indy cars are low, sleek, wide, don’t have useless features like bumpers behind the rear wheels and air intakes over the cockpit. They look, in a word, badass. But the question remains: How will they race at Indianapolis? Because a lot of the air flow is directed under the car instead of over it, some think that drivers will be so comfortable running close together that we will see pack racing – think NASCAR at Daytona or Talladega – and the danger level will increase wildly. Others think that because the air is going under the car instead of over it, there won’t be ENOUGH of a disturbance for the trailing driver to catch a draft, and one team that nails the setup will run circles around the rest. Two very different possibilities, but we will know for sure come Sunday.
STORYLINE 2: THE RETURN OF DANICA AND HELIO
Two of the biggest names in motorsport return to the Indy 500 this year: Helio Castroneves and Danica Patrick. Now, for Helio, he WAS there last year, but in 2018 Team Penske boss Roger Penske has assigned him to full-time IMSA sports car racing instead of IndyCar, so this will be his only appearance in the series he called home for almost 20 years. But don’t call him an underdog. Helio has won the Indy 500 3 times, he has finished 2nd 3 times, 3rd once and 4th once as well. He is ALWAYS a factor on Memorial Day weekend and he’s still racing for Team Penske, the most successful team in the history of the Indy 500, with 16 victories.
For Danica, it’s a different story. She announced that the 2018 Daytona 500 and Indy 500 will be the final 2 races of her career. While I was never a huge fan of hers, I do acknowledge the fact that she broke down a ton of barriers for women in motorsports and was a great role model for young women the world over. Hopefully she’ll have a competitive last hurrah. By the looks of things, she will: Danica has qualified 7th in her first visit to the speedway since 2011. Best of luck, Ms. Patrick!
STORYLINE 3: BUMPING IS BACK
Indianapolis fields 33 cars each year for the 500, in those 11 rows of 3 that are so synonymous with The Speedway itself. For a while, IndyCar was riding the struggle bus and barely getting enough cars to fill those 33 spots. So, to be honest, all you had to do was show up with a car, run 4 laps at basically any speed and you’d be in the show. But this year, there were more than 33 cars entered – 35, to be exact. That means 2 car/driver combos would not be able to participate in 2018. The PR firestorm was incredible. Finally, some drama on qualifying day like the old days! How many times will a car try to qualify to make the show? Can they get their last run in before the gun goes off at 6pm EST? Who’s in? Who’s out?! Everyone was ready for the nail biting on qualifying day. But then James Hinchcliffe missed the show…
If you’re not familiar, James Hinchcliffe is the face of Indy Car. He’s got a witty, engaging personality that everyone loves, he is EXCELLENT with the media, fans, and sponsors and he was even a spokesperson for Honda on national TV and radio ads this year. He’s also a damn quick driver. In the first 5 races of the year, he had qualified and finished in the top 10 each weekend and came into the 500 sitting 5th in the championship points. But he got bumped out for Indy. His first qualifying attempt was somewhat compromised because he was the first car to run after a 2+ hour rain delay. He went out on a cool, slick race track and couldn’t post a quick speed. His 2nd attempt to make the field was over before it began, as the tire pressure sensor in his right-front wheel broke off, causing an uncontrollable vibration. And just like that, the most popular driver missed the biggest race of the year. Imagine the Patriots making the Super Bowl, then saying “Oh by the way, Tom Brady got sent home.” Think of the Argentina national soccer team in the World Cup WITHOUT Lionel Messi. That’s how huge this is. I’m still in disbelief.
HANDICAPPING THE FIELD: THE FAVORITES
1 – Josef Newgarden: The 27 year-old Nashville native has been riding a massive wave of momentum for the past 18 months. He’s the defending series champion and he currently leads the 2018 standings with 2 wins out of 5 so far. He’s the lead bullet for Team Penske, which as I mentioned above is the team to beat at Indy. Penske runs Chevrolet engines, which is noteworthy because it appears that they have the upper-hand over the rival Honda-powered cars, at least through practice. Best team, best engine, best driver…don’t be surprised if Newgarden is drinking the milk this year.
2 – Will Power: Another Team Penske driver, with a Top-5 All Time name. This year he is rolling off from the 3rd starting position. He’s had bad luck at The 500 over the past couple years, but he has finished runner-up before and has led a lot of laps in this race. If weird circumstances, like pit road mistakes, don’t hamper his efforts again, Power will have a say in how this race plays out.
3 – Alexander Rossi: He was going to be my number 1 favorite until trouble in qualifying dropped him to 32nd starting position. He has steadily been getting better and better since his IndyCar debut in 2016. In 2018 he is driving like a man possessed. Even though Newgarden leads the points today, Rossi is my 2018 champion prediction. It will take a miracle for him to move all the way from 32nd to a victory, but young Rossi has pulled off “Indy Magic” before: Look up his rookie drive at the 100th running in 2016. Although he is powered by Honda, he is driving for Andretti Autosport, which is the team that has won 3 of the last 4 races here.
HANDICAPPING THE FIELD: THE DARK HORSES
1 – Carlos Munoz: Even though he is not a full-time driver this year it would be very easy to consider this man a favorite to win. He was instantly comfortable at Indianapolis as a rookie, qualifying and finishing 2nd. In 5 Indy 500 starts, Munoz has 4 top 10 finishes, 3 of those within the top FOUR!! Oh, and he’s driving for the venerable Andretti Autosport.
2 – Gabby Chaves: The young Colombian is driving for tiny little Harding Racing, making their first full-season run in IndyCar this year. The team’s first race was one year ago at Indianapolis and Gabby brought the car home 9th. In 3 starts last year, he finished in the top 10 twice. This kid is also very comfortable on the hyper-quick ovals in the series, and has the preferred Chevy power in the back.
3 – James Davison: This Australian is simply fearless, which I guess isn’t a surprise, given his nationality. In 2017, he was a last-minute replacement for an injured driver. He started dead last in a car he only had a few laps in, yet he still lead the race for a while! He was comfortably in the top 10 when a late race multi-car crash put him out. This year, he crashed the day before qualifying in AJ Foyt Racing’s 3rd car and most people thought his car wouldn’t be rebuilt in time to qualify. But the crew hustled, and Davison found some true driver's crash-amnesia, and he qualified a very respectable 19th for Sunday’s race.
There you have it – the good, the bad, the favorites and the potential surprises. IndyCar is one of the few racing entities in the world that are experiencing growth right now and the fantastic races at The 500 over the past 5 or so years are a big part of that momentum. Before you grill-out on Memorial Day Monday, crack a beer and find your favorite spot on the couch to watch what’s bound to be another classic from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Or better yet, come join me and 300,000 of my closest friends at the race this year and experience the magic yourself. If you do go, come find me. I’ll be the guy in the Check Engine Podcast t-shirt.