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Honda sets pace as historic Indy 500 nears

By Wes Reynolds  (Point Spread Weekly) 

For the first time in its long history, the Indianapolis 500 will be run this year outside the month of May. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the annual Memorial Day weekend tradition to move to Sunday, and no spectators will be allowed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This was expected to be an important year in the history of IMS because Roger Penske, IndyCar racing’s winningest and most iconic owner, and his Penske Entertainment Group took ownership of the speedway from the Hulman-George family at the start of 2020 and made numerous improvements to the property.


Nevertheless, several interesting storylines came out of last weekend’s qualifying for the 104th Indy 500.


Honda horsepower

Over the last two years, Chevrolet has had the power edge at the Brickyard, but Honda has responded with a vengeance in 2020. The entire “Fast 9” shootout for the pole was made up of cars powered by Honda engines, and Hondas hold 11 of the top 12 spots in Sunday’s starting grid. Rumors of Chevy sandbagging never came to fruition in qualifying as the bow ties just didn’t have the speed. However, results of the post-qualifying final practice indicate that the two manufacturers are fairly even in race trim. Of course, it’s always better to start up front, and the Chevrolets will likely be on equal footing in race speed but will have to be more creative with pit strategies to work their way up front.


Andretti curse?

The half-century mark passed this year for the last time a driver named Andretti was in Victory Lane for the Indianapolis 500. Mario Andretti was the last one to win Indy in 1969, his lone 500 victory. The curse is maintained in terms of drivers but not for Andretti as a car owner. Michael Andretti has won the Indianapolis 500 five times with five drivers — Dan Wheldon in 2005, Dario Franchitti in 2007, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, Alexander Rossi in 2016 and Takuma Sato in 2017. Andretti Autosport has five of the top 10 spots on Sunday’s starting grid, including pole sitter Marco Andretti, who has been at or near the top of the speed charts in every practice session, including taking the top spot Sunday afternoon.


Penske power (or not)

Team Penske has won the last two Indys with Will Power in 2018 and Simon Pagenaud in 2019. That added to the team’s all-time mark of 18. Roger Penske never rebuilds, he reloads. Nevertheless, “the Captain” has stepped away from race strategy and running the day-to-day team operations, although he is still the boss. Tim Cindric, Penske’s longtime top lieutenant, is highly capable but is having to navigate the team through a tough year in calling the shots as Penske tends to Indianapolis Motor Speedway responsibilities. The team swept the weekend last month at Iowa, but its Chevy power was insufficient this month. The four Penske drivers will start 13th, 22nd, 25th and 28th. However, three have won the Indianapolis 500, and non-Indy winner Josef Newgarden is a two-time IndyCar Series champion. You can never count out Team Penske even though it is lagging a bit.


The ‘Iceman’ cometh?

Scott Dixon trails only A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti, widely considered the best open-wheel racers ever, in all-time IndyCar victories. Perhaps his one blemish is a single Indy 500 triumph in 2008. The New Zealander won the first three races of the current IndyCar season and is the points leader as he goes for his sixth IndyCar championship. Dixon just barely got beaten out for the pole position by Marco Andretti and has not been outside the top three in any practice session. The “Iceman” is the man to beat almost every IndyCar weekend no matter where he starts, and this weekend should be no exception.


5 for the 500

Scott Dixon 5/1

He’s the best driver of his era and still arguably the best driver in the series at 40. Dixon is the best driver because he’s the most intelligent. He strikes the perfect balance between knowing when you have to be a driver and knowing when you have to be a racer. He has not only one of the fastest cars in the field, he also has his great longtime race strategist in Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull. Indy 500 races aren’t always won by the fastest car. Often they are won on strategy and fuel mileage, and no one manages that better than Dixon.


Marco Andretti 10/1

It’s tough to consider Andretti’s career anything other than a disappointment, as he has only two IndyCar Series wins in 240 starts and zero wins since 2011. Even at Indianapolis, where he was runner-up as a rookie in 2006 and has three thirds and a fourth, he hasn’t contended for several years. His last top-5 in the series was on the road course at Sonoma in the 2018 finale. However, something may have clicked here. Andretti is in his 15th season of IndyCar, but he always has seemed to struggle with his confidence in having to follow his grandfather and father. Despite his experience, Andretti is just 33. Perhaps he’s a late bloomer. One thing for sure: He knows how to get around Indianapolis and will be the first to take the green flag Sunday.


James Hinchcliffe 25/1

The Canadian was without a full-time ride this season and is running only a few races with Andretti Autosport, for whom he drove from 2012-14. The personable Hinchcliffe has done some TV commentary this season when not wearing the helmet and fire suit. Nevertheless, he always has been fast at Indy and has qualified on the front row three times, including on the pole in 2016. The late Dan Wheldon was without a full-season ride in 2011 yet won the biggest race of them all. Hinchcliffe starts on the outside of Row 2 and should be able to stay up front, since it will be hard to pass in the heat.


Graham Rahal 30/1

Unlike peer and rival Marco Andretti, Rahal has found some consistency in the IndyCar Series with six career wins, though none since 2017. However, like Andretti, Rahal has never gotten to Victory Lane at Indianapolis. His best finish was third in 2011, but this might be his best chance in several years here because he did something he hasn’t done since 2010 — qualify in the first three rows. Rahal is always considered a better racer than a qualifier. Perhaps Andretti taking the pole lit a fire under Rahal. The IndyCar media and fans have always wanted a rivalry between the two young Americans since they came through the go-karts in their teenage years.


Ed Carpenter 30/1

Speaking of another guy who hasn’t won here but knows how to get around Indianapolis, Carpenter is an Indy native and a Butler University graduate. He is a three-time pole sitter and finished second here two years ago. Carpenter is the stepson of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO Tony George and focuses mostly on the ownership of his team. He’s essentially just a part-time driver now and races only the ovals. At 39, he’s on the back nine of his racing career, but this event is what keeps him racing. He starts in the middle of the grid, but this is a very good price on a veteran driver.


Row 1

98. Marco Andretti, Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, Honda, 231.068 

9. Scott Dixon (W), Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda, 231.051

30. Takuma Sato (W), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Honda, 230.725 

Row 2

21. Rinus VeeKay (R), Ed Carpenter Racing, Chevrolet, 230.704 

28. Ryan Hunter-Reay (W), Andretti Autosport, Honda, 230.648

29. James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport, Honda, 229.870 

Row 3

55. Alex Palou (R), Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh, Honda, 229.676 

15. Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, Honda, 229.380 

27. Alexander Rossi (W), Andretti Autosport, Honda, 229.234

Row 4

88. Colton Herta, Andretti/Harding/Steinbrenner, Honda, 230.775 

8. Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda, 230.566

45. Spencer Pigot, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Honda, 230.539 

Row 5

1. Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, Chevrolet, 230.296 

10. Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing, Honda, 230.254 

5. Patricio O’Ward (R), Arrow McLaren SP, Chevrolet, 230.213 

Row 6

20. Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing, Chevrolet, 230.211 

26. Zach Veach, Andretti Autosport, Honda, 229.961 

47. Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing, Chevrolet, 229.955 

Row 7

18. Santino Ferrucci, Dale Coyne Racing w/ Vasser-Sullivan, Honda, 229.924 

60. Jack Harvey, Meyer Shank Racing, Honda, 229.861 

7. Oliver Askew (R), Arrow McLaren SP, Chevrolet, 229.760 

Row 8

12. Will Power (W), Team Penske, Chevrolet, 229.701 

14. Tony Kanaan (W), A.J. Foyt Racing, Chevrolet, 229.154 

41. Dalton Kellett (R), A.J. Foyt Racing, Chevrolet, 228.880 

Row 9

22. Simon Pagenaud (W), Team Penske, Chevrolet, 228.836  

66. Fernando Alonso, Arrow McLaren SP, Chevrolet, 228.768 

51. James Davison, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing and Byrd/Belardi, Honda, 228.747 

Row 10

3. Helio Castroneves (W), Team Penske, Chevrolet, 228.373 

4. Charlie Kimball, A.J. Foyt Racing, Chevrolet, 227.758 

59. Max Chilton, Carlin, Chevrolet, 227.303 

Row 11

24. Sage Karam, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Chevrolet, 227.099 

67. J.R. Hildebrand, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Chevrolet, 226.341

81. Ben Hanley, DragonSpeed, Chevrolet, 222.917 

(R) — Rookie

(W) — Former winner


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