Sunday, May 20, 2018

First Impressions: 102nd Indianapolis 500 Pole Day

1. Ed Carpenter. He good. This shouldn't surprise you. How many times has Carpenter answered the call at Indianapolis Motor Speedway? He has something that is worth an extra MPH. Today it paid off greatly. He was the only one to have a lap break the 230 MPH average, he was the only driver with a four-lap average over 229 MPH. He is the one guy ahead of Team Penske... at least when it comes to Indianapolis 500 qualifying. How many more years can he be this fast and not have it work out during the race? Time is ticking away and it isn't getting easier for Carpenter.

2. Next to Carpenter on row one will be Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Neither have an Indianapolis 500 victory. All the Penske drivers have been strong but can one take control of the race and make it theirs? On the inside of row two will be Josef Newgarden. Once again, he doesn't have his work cut out for himself. It feels like this could be a case of Penske could beat itself.

3. Sébastien Bourdais will start fifth, the best Honda on the grid. He is carrying the flag and he appears up for the task. If there is anything we have learned from the first five races this season is this little team has a cool head and it will make sure it is there at the end.

4. Spencer Pigot had not started better than 13th in his first 26 IndyCar starts. In his last start he rolled off from ninth on the grid for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. For his third Indianapolis 500 he will start sixth. This will only be Pigot's fourth oval start. His starting positions in the other three were 29th, 29th and 15th. This could be a big boost for his season but he has to remain calm. This is a long race. He is in a great position but he could throw it away.

5. Danica Patrick will start seventh for her eighth Indianapolis 500. I thought she would be solidly in the middle of the field, say 18th, but the combination of Ed Carpenter Racing and Chevrolet's advantage was in her favor. She knows this race. She can win it.

6. Hélio Castroneves didn't have the legs on Sunday and how the conditions turned against the Brazilian moments after Carpenter laid down the run of the day. To Castroneves' right will be Scott Dixon. Two veterans, two of the most successful drivers in the last twenty years in IndyCar. We may never these two on the same row again.

7. Quick round down of the final eight rows of the grid:

A.J. Foyt Racing looked good. Tony Kanaan is tenth with Matheus Leist the top rookie in 11th and James Davison went from the bubble yesterday to 19th today. No one would be surprised if Kanaan was in the top five with five to go. We have seen rookies do well in qualifying and get caught out in the race so Leist might fall back but every time Davison has started this race he has started deep in the field and made a lot of passes. Now he is in the middle of the grid. I think Davison could be a sleeper for a top ten finish.

Andretti Autosport looked good with Marco Andretti 12th and Ryan Hunter-Reay 14th but Alexander Rossi was going to be amidst these two before his qualifying went to hell and he will start 32nd. I think Andretti and Hunter-Reay will get into the discussion. Carlos Muñoz is starting 21st but we know what he can do. Stefan Wilson is two positions behind Muñoz with Veach two spots behind Wilson. I think Rossi can work his way to the front. The team just got the set up wrong for that qualifying run. If we have learned anything from two and a quarter seasons watching Rossi is he is methodical. This is a setback for him but he can overcome it.

Zachary Claman De Melo qualified 13th and that is great for him. Once again, the race is another animal but he wasn't supposed to be in this car 14 days ago. This was an impressive outing.

Charlie Kimball qualified 15th and Max Chilton qualified 20th in what has to be a confidence-building weekend for Carlin.

Takuma Sato ended up 16th but Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was still off with Oriol Servià in 26th and Graham Rahal in 30th. Maybe this team will race better but it has to questioning itself.

Kyle Kaiser had another positive day in 17th.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has hit its first bad weekend of the season. The best Robert Wickens could do was 18th. Jay Howard dropped to 28th. Jack Harvey was 31st in the Meyer Shank Racing entry that is partnered with SPM. It has all gone wrong at an inopportune time but the good news is, while this was a terrible weekend and a bad weekend for it to go wrong, the team has a chance to turn it around in the race.

8. It appears more and more likely James Hinchcliffe will not be in the 102nd Indianapolis 500. Jay Howard isn't budging. Sam Schmidt talked to Dale Coyne about opening a seat but neither Zachary Claman De Melo nor Conor Daly are moving. Oriol Servià is set in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan/Scuderia Corsa entry. The week is still young. Maybe some money will appear and a spot will open but if it doesn't, the Indianapolis 500 will live without Hinchcliffe. If this race can survive Bobby Rahal, Al Unser, Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and 12 years of the split then it can live without the driver Honda selected to be its poster boy.

9. However, if James Hinchcliffe does get a spot on the grid it will no be the end of the world, Bump Day would not have been invalidated and life would go on. Remember how upset people were when Ryan Hunter-Reay replaced Bruno Junqueira? IndyCar didn't collapse after that. People didn't stop going to the Indianapolis 500. It isn't the end of the world and instead of trying to legislate out any possible driver changes let's let it be. If a team wants to change its driver and thinks it can put a better driver in the field then so be it. And there is no need to change the rule and pay points to the driver that qualified the car. What happens if a driver is too ill to qualify? Or a driver has a death in the family and has to miss qualifying weekend? Remember a few years ago at Pocono when Ryan Briscoe didn't qualify the car because he had to race at Lime Rock Park in the American Le Mans Series and he started at the back of the field the following day at Pocono. Who would get the points then? Trying to fix a problem that doesn't exist only creates more problems.

10. Let's talk about aero kits. Everybody seemed happy with the look of the universal aero kit. But as we have learned this aero kit is different than the aero kits of the last three seasons and while creating a big tow for cars far back, the cars now experience a big wash when trying to make a pass and it unsettles drivers. People are worried that the race has been ruined. First, relax. When the last six Indianapolis 500s each had more lead changes than the prior 95 you are playing with house money. This race could have 20 lead changes, well off the average for the DW12-era but it would still be a great number and probably a fantastic race.

However, people will still be pissed even if they despised the aero kits only because of its looks? So was the change worth it? Are the instability, extra difficulty and lower speeds worth it?

11. One final thing when it comes to qualifying format and the two qualifying lanes: If we are going to have this format I can live with two qualifying lanes. I would prefer one lane and simplifying it but if you are 12th after your first run and you know there is no chance to get back into the field tomorrow, why go out and try to make the Fast Nine if it meant risking your time? The non-withdrawal line promotes teams taking the racetrack, which provides more action and keeps the track busy. People want cars on track. They get antsy over an empty racetrack.

Yesterday was a bit of a cluttered day and the fight to get into the field took all attention away from the fight to get into the Fast Nine. I think we will see a change to qualifying format next year. Mostly because I think IndyCar is going to make sure it covers its ass and does all it can to make sure someone the likes of Hinchcliffe does not fail to make the race again. I was thinking about this today but instead of making everyone 33rd to 10th re-qualify to set the grid, what if Saturday went along and decided the Fast Nine and set the field and on Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m. was for filling whatever positions remained opened and bumping with the Fast Nine starting at 5:00 p.m. ET? I am just throwing something at the wall.

Whether it reverts to Pole Day/Bump Day or another new format I expect something different for 2019.

12. Practice tomorrow and then a week full of media obligations before Carb Day on Friday. One week boys and girls. One week.