The COVID-19 pandemic might not be quite over, but when the engines fire Sunday for the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500, it will represent a huge step back to normalcy.
Last August, the race was held in front of empty stands for the first time in the 111-year history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For Sunday’s race, the speedway is allowing up to 135,000 spectators, 40% of normal race day capacity, with precautions in place.
Coverage of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” starts at 10 a.m. on NBC and you can bet my dad and I will be sipping a mai tai by the time the green flag falls around 11:45 a.m. This is the biggest event of the year for us, and after the last 12 months or so, we are probably more ready for it than ever before.
The fastest field in race history features 33 drivers from 15 countries, including nine former race winners and two rookies. Honda and Chevrolet supply the engines and all competitors use Firestone tires.
There are several drivers in the field who I think won’t even make it to the checkered flag, though there are far more drivers that could realistically win this race. Let’s focus on the ones who I think have the best chance of drinking the milk in victory lane and adding their likeness to the Borg-Warner trophy.
Helio Castroneves—the only driver in the field that could join the four-time winners club that includes A.J. Foyt, Bobby Unser and Rick Mears—teams with Michael Shank Racing.
In the Brazilian’s 21st Indy 500, and first not driving for Team Penske, the three-time winner starts eighth.
It might be a long shot for one of the A.J. Foyt Enterprises drivers to win, but don’t count out Sebastien Bourdais. The Frenchman, who starts 27th, has only two top-10 finishes in eight starts, but is the team’s best shot at getting to victory lane. That is a place a Foyt Enterprises driver has not been since 1999 when Kenny Brack won the race.
I’m picking Bourdais as my dark horse winner.
The three-car stable at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing includes Japan’s Takuma Sato, the two-time and defending race winner who starts 15th and has proven that he’s a force to be reckoned with. Ohio native Graham Rahal, son of team co-owner and 1986 race winner Bobby Rahal, starts 18th while Connecticut’s Santino Ferrucci starts 23rd. The team has been fast all month but it takes more than speed to win this race.
In a return to the Brickyard for the first time since 2017, two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya starts 24th for Arrow McLaren SP. In five starts, the Colombian has only one finish outside of the top six. Montoya’s teammates include Mexico’s Pato O’Ward, who won his first career race earlier this month at Texas, starting 12th, and Sweden’s Felix Rosenqvist, a winner at Road America last season, starting 14th. The team is unproven at this track, but watch out for these guys, especially Montoya.
The Ed Carpenter Racing team is consistently fast at Indy and that’s been no different this year. Dutchman Rinus Veekay, who won the road course race at the speedway earlier this month, qualified third and is one to watch. Team owner Ed Carpenter and Conor Daly qualified fourth and 19th, respectively. Carpenter has sat on the pole three times in 17 starts. Daly has been near the top of the time sheets all month. Either Indiana native would be a popular winner.
Team Penske has won the Indy 500 a record 18 times but will face an uphill battle this year after having uncharacteristically bad qualifying runs.
Australian Will Power, the 2014 series champ and 2018 race winner, starts 32nd; France’s Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 series champ and 2019 race winner, starts 26th; Tennessee native and two-time series champion Josef Newgarden starts 21st, and Australian rookie Scott McLaughlin starts 17th. Only 14 times in 104 runnings has the winner come from starting 17th or worse, but if any team can do it, it’s Team Penske.
I think this year’s battle for supremacy at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is going to come down to Chip Ganassi Racing vs. Andretti Autosport. Both teams are always a threat and have a combined nine Indy wins since 2000.
The stable of Andretti drivers features an abundance of talent. Pennsylvania native and last year’s pole sitter Marco Andretti starts 25th; Canadian James Hinchcliffe, the 2016 pole sitter, starts 16th; Californian Alexander Rossi starts 10th; Texas native Ryan Hunter-Reay starts seventh; and California’s Colton Herta starts second.
Both Rossi, the 2016 winner, and Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champ and 2014 race winner, would love nothing more than to grab their second Indy victory.
All four of the Chip Ganassi Racing drivers qualified in the top nine, which is an incredible feat, considering how close the competition is in this series. Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson starts his third Indy 500 in ninth; Spaniard Alex Palou, who won the season-opening race, starts sixth, and perennial favorite Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champ and 2013 race winner from Brazil, starts fifth in his 20th Indy start.
Then there’s six-time series champion and 2008 race winner Scott Dixon. The New Zealand native sits on the Indy pole for the fourth time in his career and has eight top-five finishes in 18 previous race starts. He’s also one win away from tying the legendary Mario Andretti for most wins (52) in NTT IndyCar Series history.
As much as I would love to see Dixon win his second Indy 500, this season has really been about the young guns with four of the first five races having been won by drivers 24 years old or younger. Dixon, 40, won the other, which is not surprising considering he’s arguably the best driver of his generation.
Barring any unavoidable incidents, Dixon will most certainly be there at the end, duking it out around the 2½-mile speedway.
However, I’m taking 21-year-old wunderkind Herta, who lost out on the pole by 0.03 of a second, to grab his fifth career win and become the youngest Indy 500 winner in history.