The 105th Indianapolis 500 will be held with fans in the stands this Sunday, but will be limited to 40% capacity at around 135,000 spectators … which would still be the largest outdoor sporting event since COVID-19. The Memorial Day weekend tradition is full of interesting storylines to give us some potential insight on who will drink the customary milk in victory lane and get his or her face on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Here are my Indy 500 storylines to watch and best value plays:
Last August, Honda responded with a vengeance in terms of speed. The entire “Fast 9” shootout for the pole was made up of cars powered by Honda engines and Honda made up 11 of the top 12 spots for the starting grid. Honda also had eight of the Top 10 finishers in last year's 500 including the top four. This year it has been more of the same as Chevrolet, while not swept out of the "Fast 9", only had two driver/car combinations (Ed Carpenter and Rinus VeeKay) that were able to make a run for the pole. This past Sunday's qualifying practice allowed teams to go into race trim and Honda still has eight of the Top 10 spots on the speed chart. Can Chevrolet find some speed on Carb Day this Friday?
The Iceman Cometh
Scott Dixon (4-1) won his fourth career pole at Indianapolis last Sunday and only trails A.J. Foyt (67) and Mario Andretti (52) in all-time IndyCar victories. Known as "The Iceman", Dixon picked up his 51st victory last month at Texas. The defending IndyCar Series champion (six titles, just one behind Foyt) also leads the points for the current 2021 season. Perhaps his one blemish is a lone Indy 500 triumph way back in 2008. The man from New Zealand topped the speed charts in two of the four practice sessions before he once again took the pole position. He is clearly the best open-wheel driver of this generation but wants desperately to add another Borg-Warner Trophy to his mantle. Last year's runner-up finish (leading 111 of the 200 laps) was the third time he finished second in his career at the Brickyard. No driver is more intelligent in terms of maintaining that balance of being a driver and a racer. It also helps that he is the best fuel-saver on the grid and arguably has the best race strategist in the paddock with Chip Ganassi Racing Managing Director Mike Hull.
Penske Lacking Power
Team Penske has won the last two Indianapolis 500s (2018: Will Power; 2019: Simon Pagenaud), which added to their record mark of 18. Roger Penske never rebuilds, he reloads. Nevertheless, “the Captain” has stepped away as a race strategist and is focusing more on his other business operations, including as the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Last year, the four Penske drivers started 13th, 22nd, 25th and 28th respectively; not much has changed this year as they will start 17th, 21st, 26th and 31st. Josef Newgarden carried the team banner here last year with a fifth-place finish and the team led 22 of the 200 laps but was basically a non-factor. It’s hard to believe that could very well happen again considering two Penske drivers are Indianapolis 500 winners (Power, Pagenaud) and Newgarden is a two-time IndyCar Series champion. However, they like most Chevrolet teams are behind the eight ball when it comes to speed.
Youth Gone Wild
While 40-year-old Scott Dixon will once again be on the pole at Indy, he is joined on the front row by an emerging youth movement: 21-year-old American Colton Herta (7-1) and 20-year-old Dutchman Rinus VeeKay (16-1). Herta, VeeKay, 24-year-old Spaniard Alex Palou (14-1), who will start sixth; Outside Row 2, and 22-year-old Mexican Pato O'Ward (10-1), who will start 12th; Outside Row 4, have all each won a race thus far this IndyCar season. However, they have a combined five Indy 500 starts between the four of them. All posted at least one Top-10 finish in the oval doubleheader at Texas last month, but Indianapolis is a different animal. Experience has reigned supreme here in recent years, as only one driver younger than 30 has won the 500 in the last decade (Alexander Rossi; 2016).
Ed Carpenter Racing: Contender or Outlier?
The only Chevrolet-powered team that has been able to find speed all month has been the team owned by 40-year-old Indy resident and Butler University graduate Ed Carpenter (25-1). Carpenter is a full-time owner but only a part-time driver as he only races the four ovals on the IndyCar schedule. Carpenter, a three-time pole sitter at Indy, and teammate VeeKay will start fourth and third respectively on Sunday. Another ECR driver, Conor Daly, qualified 19th but has been near the top of the speed charts all month. ECR is a solid organization that has less funding than the big boy teams of Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport. They have clearly had the speed all month of May, but will they have it on race day?
Five value bets
Scott Dixon 4-1
You never get a bargain on the price with the best driver of the generation, but at his best, he is the best in the field -- even at the age of 40. He has been fast all month and has a great team behind him. Cooler temperatures are expected on race weekend, and no one makes better adjustments when the elements change than Dixon, Hull and their entire engineering team.
Pato O'Ward 10-1
O'Ward earned his first IndyCar Series victory last month on the oval at Texas, and he was sixth as rookie at Indy last year. While most young IndyCar racers tend to fare better on the road and street circuits early in their careers, O'Ward has taken more of a liking to the ovals as four of his six podium finishes have been on ovals.
Alex Palou 14-1
Of all the Indy Car Series young guns mentioned above, no one is under the radar more than Dixon's teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, Alex Palou. The Spaniard not only is learning under the tutelage of Dixon, but also Tony Kanaan (18-1), the 2013 Indy 500 winner and 2004 IndyCar Series Champion, who is running just the ovals this year as seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson drives the 48 on the road and street courses. Palou is not all that experienced on the ovals but did finish fourth and seventh at the two Texas races last month. He was the fastest on the grid in the final practice in race trim for Sunday's post-qualifying session.
Graham Rahal 20-1
Rahal has qualified in the Top 10 three times in 13 career Indy 500 starts, but has improved on his qualifying position in five of the last six 500s. He is in his usual mid-pack spot on the grid at 18th, but did earn two Top 5s (fifth and third) last month at Texas. His team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, is the defending race champions and got to victory lane last year with Takuma Sato.
Ed Carpenter 25-1
Although he is now a part-time driver and full-time owner, no race in the world matters more to Carpenter. He is the stepson of Tony George, who was the longtime chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before the Hulman-George family sold IMS to Roger Penske. The three-time pole sitter has four career Top 10s here, including a second-place finish back in 2018.