Friday, May 17, 2013

Back Home Again: Indy 500 Qualifications Preview

It’s Fast Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I should be at the track most of the day today, but before we see just how much some of these teams were sandbagging, I wanted to discuss some of the big and emerging stories heading into Qualifying Weekend. Here are some of the main storylines to check out on Pole Day and Bump Day:

Boost: Today, the boost will be turned up on engines, and we’ll see what it yields in terms of overall speed. Last year’s turbo boost yielded about 4 miles per hour, and if that’s the case this year (it's the same level of boost as 2012), we could see 230mph in qualifying. Also impacting those speeds will be…

Weather: The forecast calls for scattered showers over the weekend, but it doesn’t look as if we’ll see anything concrete. Still, we’ll have to see how things progress on both days. If there is bumping, or if teams know showers are coming in, we could see some tough decisions to be made, and some folks trying to work around the forecast. Remember, everyone will get at least one shot at the Pole or Shootout—but if they waive their turn in line, that’s it. As weather predictions appear now, there shouldn’t be too much trouble in getting qualifying in on either day, but this is May in Indiana. For all I know, I could be fleeing a hailstorm tomorrow, wearing a winter coat, or collapsing of heat exhaustion.

The Bump Factor: That seems to be the big question, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to know a) if the #99 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car will run, and b) who will be in that ride. We know it won’t be Buddy Rice, but Katherine Legge and Davey Hamilton are both continually mentioned as possibilities for the seat. As to whether or not the car runs, I think it will, but it also depends if there’s a vulnerable Chevy sitting out there. Will there be a 34th, or even a 35th appear from places unknown? We won’t know that until much later on Bump Day, I suspect, but never say never. Regardless, let’s not forget…

The Importance of Pole Day: Pole Day matters, beyond just the importance of getting those bonus championship points for grabbing a good qualifying spot and the chance at a place in 500 history. Does it really matter if you qualify 24th or 27th? Well, it’s the difference between getting a couple more hours to work on race setup, for one, and not having to worry one more night about getting a qualification run in. In short, getting in on Pole Day this year should be a nice sigh of relief, and a chance to look ahead to the actual race.

The Engine Battle Continues: Although it’s only a last-turn pass from being a tie ballgame, Chevy current is up 3-1 over Honda in the win department this year. Last year, a late Honda upgrade helped pave the way to add another 500 win to the engine manufacturer’s trophy case. We can’t expect the same this year, and Chevy’s teams have looked strong throughout the month. Can a Franchitti, Dixon, or Newgarden give Honda some front role representation, or will it will be a Chevy majority in the Shootout Saturday?

The Little Guys: Of course, Lazier Partners Racing has been the resident underdog since the entry was announced for Indy, and they certainly have plenty of work ahead of them. There are some other one-off entries, part-timers, and the like that are looking at differing expectations this weekend. Lazier’s team will need to find some speed for a decent qualifying result. Pippa Mann has been turning some good no-tow speeds, but teammate Ana Beatriz has been struggling somewhat. 500 specialist Townsend Bell has been downright speedy, while veteran Michel Jourdain, Jr. has apparently not had any success with his car yet. Of course, by 6pm on Sunday, things could look very different. Let’s see who figures it out, and who has issues.

Green, Green, Yellow: Not to jinx it, but this has been a remarkably clean month on-track---or at least it was until Conor Daly's crash Thursday afternoon. There have been a few big wiggles and scary moments, but through the end of practice Thursday, everything had been clean and green, aside from that single incident. Now that I’ve said that, I hope Friday isn’t full of a half-dozen cars walling it.We'll also have to see if Daly can get back in the saddle and find a nice qualifying speed.

Polesitter Returns: We can’t forget about Ryan Briscoe, who’s in what should be an acceptably speedy Ganassi car for qualifying, and is last year’s polesitter. Briscoe has the experience and team to do quite well, and having been released by Penske after last year, might have just a hint more motivation to show just what he can do.

Livery Watch: I’ve refrained from making a call on the best livery among these entries, but there are a few you’ll definitely want to scope out. Of course, everyone’s talked about Sebastien Bourdais’ chrome McAfee #7, and that’s definitely a car folks will be discussing for a good while. Carlos Muñoz’s #26 machine may well be the most colorful entry, with a blending yellow/orangish/reddish car that really needs to be seen in person. The almost day-glo color on EJ Viso’s #5 car is in the same category. Outside of those, I really like the Superman theme worked into JR Hildebrand’s #4 livery, and Josef Newgarden’s Century 21 machine is simple, but very sharp and distinct. I also absolutely love the Sunoco colors and Turbo movie promo on Townsend Bell’s #60 car. There’s definitely a range in this year’s field, from some very busy designs to some rather plain ones. Still, as we always say, any sponsor that pays is a good one—right, Alex Lloyd?

Pole Position Prediction: Those Ganassi boys are tricky, but I think it’s either Helio Castroneves, Marco Andretti, or possibly James Hinchcliffe. My gut says Marco, but we’ll see.

Dark Horse: Carlos Muñoz is a rookie, but he’s been extremely fast so far. If he can hold it together for four laps, he could be at the very least a contender in the Shootout. If that's not Dark Horse enough for you (he has led multiple sessions, after all), how about Oriol Servia? He's been right with the leaders for most of practice, and we know he can qualify up front.

Fantasy Racing: IndyCar Advocate Fantasy Racing is still going strong, and is still very much anyone’s league to win. Added to that is the fact that points will count double for Indy 500 picks. Picks are due by 10am ET today, so if you’re reading this before then, head over and get those picks made!

I'll be out at the track Friday through Sunday, and would love to say hi and talk IndyCar and the Indy 500 with everyone. I'll try to have one of my customary orange polo shirts on, so if you see someone who looks like a portly traffic cone, that could be me.

Have the very best of weekends, and enjoy everything there is to be had from the Greatest Race Course in the World.

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