INDIANAPOLIS 500 QUALIFYING WEEKEND: Five things to watch
Before you can race in the Indianapolis 500, you must qualify for the Indianapolis 500.
While that hasn’t been a problem in recent years with just 33 entries, an expanded field for 2018 means that some dreams will be dashed this weekend over two days of qualifying.
Here are five storylines to watch as May heats up at Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
With 35 entries for 33 starting positions, there will be plenty of drama and intrigue on track. The process is far from simple. On Saturday, the fastest nine qualifiers over a four-lap run will be locked in to race for the pole late Sunday afternoon. Also determined on Saturday will be the two driver/team combinations that will not move on to Sunday’s on-track action.
The tightness of the field makes it nearly impossible to identify the leading candidates to be bumped.
Could Indy-only teams such as Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (Sage Karam and J.R. Hildebrand) and Scuderia Corsa (Oriol Servia) struggle for speed?
What about relatively new teams such as Juncos Racing (Kyle Kaiser), Harding Racing (Gabby Chaves) and Carlin (Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball)?
Could a six-driver strong stable of drivers at Andretti Autosport have a weak link?
How tight is the field this year? The lap time between the fastest and slowest practice speed during Wednesday’s seven-hour session on track was 0.9 seconds.
2. RACE FOR THE POLE
While the nine drivers that will race for the pole will be decided Saturday, we will have to wait until the late afternoon of Sunday until those drivers take to the track one by one to go for the pole.
Scott Dixon’s speed of 232.164 last year was good for pole position, the highest average speed for a pole-sitter since 1996. With the new universal aero kits, qualifying speeds are expected to remain about the same for this year.
As teams trim out the cars more and more through the weekend, speeds should creep up into the low 230s, particularly if the weather cooperates (more on that below).
3. DIXON’S DRIVE FOR SPEED
The pole-sitter for two of the last three Indy 500s enters qualifying weekend looking for results. The New Zealander with 40 career IndyCar wins has yet to notch a victory in 2018 and has just a single podium.
Last week, Dixon started the IndyCar Grand Prix from the 18th spot before fighting his way through the field to finish second.
Despite the good result, Dixon has been vocal about his team’s inability to find consistency on track, even with Chip Ganassi Racing shrinking from four cars to two this year in an effort to minimize the focus of the team.
That said, Dixon has been fast in practice so far this week and will likely be a contender to win his fourth pole at Indy.
4. GUESS WHO’S BACK…AND FAST
While not a full-time participant in the IndyCar Series this year, Helio Castroneves is back for the month of May in a quest to win his fourth Indianapolis 500.
Not as hyped or as celebrated as the wins are the poles won by Castroneves — four of them — with the last coming in 2010. Only Rick Mears (six poles) has started the Indy 500 on the inside of the front row more than Castroneves.
Despite not having the experience of competing in the first four races of this season, Castroneves has gotten up to speed quickly with Team Penske. He finished sixth in the Grand Prix and has been consistently among the leaders on the practice charts throughout this week.
With the rust knocked off, Castroneves will be a factor over the next two weekends.
After relatively dry weather for practice most of the week, Indianapolis is expected to get some precipitation this weekend. While a complete washout is unlikely, Friday’s practice and Saturday’s first day of qualifying look to have some wet periods at times.
Saturday, in particular, will be interesting if rain moves in. The frenetic pace of qualifying will be exacerbated if rain is forecast for later in the day.
Also factor in track temperature. By and large, sunny and hot days make the track slicker and can lower speeds, while cloudy and cool conditions are more conducive to putting up gaudy lap times.
Strategy on when to be in the qualifying line could be something to watch if the soggy weather forecast holds.