Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What to Watch For During 102nd Indianapolis 500 Practice Week?

With Indianapolis 500 practice week about to begin there are a lot of questions on our minds. From the manufacture battle between Honda and Chevrolet to the championship battle, new teams to old teams, streak to slumps, rookies to veterans, we have a lot of questions and it appears there will be bumping for this year's race.

This preview of practice week will ask one question about each team. We start with the defending Indianapolis 500 winning team:

Andretti Autosport: Can It Keep Up Its Total Team Assault?
Andretti Autosport was a mess after 2011. It had two cars miss the Indianapolis 500 and very well could have had three cars miss the race. 

Flash forward seven years and the team is looking for its third consecutive Indianapolis 500 victory and fourth in five years. 

We have become accustomed to Andretti Autosport running in a four-car pack or a five-car pack in practice, working on set up and it seems that teamwork has been a rising tide lifting all boats. The team has had three cars in the Fast Nine session every year excluding 2015 when the Fast Nine session was not held and the team has had a car on row four the last four years. 

With the change to the universal aero kit we are all wondering how much will change and what will be the same. Could this be the year where Andretti Autosport's total team assault has to splinter off? And if running in a pack isn't getting the job done, can the team make the necessary change before it is too late? 

This year sees six entries and a line-up that trades Takuma Sato and Fernando Alonso for Zach Veach, Carlos Muñoz and Stefan Wilson. Sato might have won last year's race but prior to that his best finish in the Indianapolis 500 was 13th. Muñoz finished runner-up twice in the Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport. The team should feel confident with the line-up it has and Marco Andretti was third fastest in the April 30th test.

Interesting tidbit: Despite all of Andretti Autosport's Indianapolis 500 success, the team has only won Indianapolis 500 pole position once and that was with Tony Kanaan in 2005.

Team Penske: Will Hélio Castroneves Go Rouge?
We all know about the Penske way and how buttoned up the team is. Nobody steps out of line. The goal is to win the race and then take second, third and fourth but this year sees a new wrinkle with Hélio Castroneves running the Indianapolis races. He is not going for a championship and his shots at a fourth Indianapolis 500 victory are dwindling. When push comes to shove, will he step out of line if he thinks it is best for him?

He has nothing to lose and everything to gain. When Townsend Bell was a one-off with Andretti Autosport two years ago he made an aggressive pit exit and contact between him and Ryan Hunter-Reay took both of them out of the race and significantly reduced the team's shot at victory. Fortunately, it worked out for Andretti Autosport. Castroneves will not be worrying about the championship and could he follow Bell's steps and cut off Josef Newgarden or Will Power exiting the pit lane? Would he throw a block on Simon Pagenaud going into turn one? It would seem out of character but considering all he has done for Team Penske I could see the Captain giving Castroneves leeway.

This could be the case where someone feeling they have something to prove lets ego get in the way.

Dale Coyne Racing: Was Last Year a Fluke?
For two glorious minutes it appeared Dale Coyne Racing was going to be the one everyone would be chasing in Indianapolis 500 qualifying and then Sébastien Bourdais overcorrected in turn two, slammed the wall, broke his lower body and left everyone wondering how good Dale Coyne Racing would have been in the 101st Indianapolis 500. 

Bourdais is healthy and he has started 2018 better than he did in 2017. The team has been competitive at every race this season and he won pole position at Phoenix. Leading the pack might be asking a lot but can Dale Coyne Racing put a car in the Fast Nine and could it get a second one close? Ed Jones was tenth after Saturday qualifying last year. While Bourdais had a rookie with him last year, this year he has Conor Daly and Pippa Mann, two drivers yet to have a competitive month of May and a vacated seat with a substitute still unknown but Zachary Claman De Melo and Sebastián Saavedra are the two drivers linked to that open seat. 

I think Bourdais can carry the torch but he could be a light-year ahead of his teammates. 

Chip Ganassi Racing: Will the Move to Two Work?
After close to a decade of running four full-time cars, Chip Ganassi Racing has downsized to two cars and it will not have any one-off drivers. 

Chip Ganassi Racing has not won the Indianapolis 500 since 2012. Last year, Scott Dixon was taken out in an incident that was not of his making. Tony Kanaan had a good day and Max Chilton worked strategy to get himself into a position where he was CGR's best shot at victory. The team has had two cars finish in the top five each of the last three years but the team has not felt like the team to beat at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for quite some time. 

This year has not started well for Chip Ganassi Racing but Scott Dixon has turned poor qualifying results it top five finishes. Ed Jones has been hit or miss but Jones was not spooked in his first year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and he was driving for one of the smaller IndyCar teams last year. The team has sacrificed resources with the reduction of entries but it does have fewer eggs to focus on.  

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Now What?
I got to admit that Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has impressed me this season. This team had a few seasons were results did not match those on paper and James Hinchcliffe was living down to expectations and his personality. I set the bar high consider he got what he wanted in Robert Wickens in a teammate and despite Wickens having been out of single-seaters for over six years he is lapping the rest of the rookie class, which includes Indy Lights race winners.

So now what? Wickens has been in contention for victory in three of five races this season. Hinchcliffe is one of two drivers with a top ten in every race this season. Two years ago Hinchcliffe was on pole position for the Indianapolis 500. Last year, the team was nowhere in sight and was not a threat all month. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has yet to have a bad weekend this season and it is bound to happen. The Indianapolis 500 would be the worst time for it to happen.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Can It Correct Qualifying Woes?
Since returning to full-time IndyCar competition Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's most notable Indianapolis 500 moment was Takuma Sato's dive on the inside of Dario Franchitti on the final lap in 2012 only to not make it through the corner. The team has not had much fortunate at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Since the adoption of the Fast Nine format in 2010 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has only made the Fast Nine once... in 2010. Last year was the first time in the DW12-era that RLLR had cars starting in one of the first five rows when Oriol Serviá started 12th and Graham Rahal started 14th.

But the qualifying woes aren't only at the Speedway. This year has been an abysmal showing when it comes to qualifying. Rahal has an average starting positionof 14.6 and Sato of 13.8. Both drivers have started fifth once this year but outside of that both have started outside the top ten four times. Despite the poor qualifying results, Rahal has finished in the top ten of every race this season and has an average finish of 6.4. Sato has finished in the top ten in the last two races.

Qualifying isn't do-or-die for the Indianapolis 500 but it can be a set back and it puts a driver in greater risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

A.J. Foyt Racing: Is Kanaan Enough?
The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan was fastest in the April 30th test and he was reportedly fastest in the May 2nd manufactures' test. Last year, A.J. Foyt Racing got its first top ten finish in Indianapolis 500 in nine years. The team has not had a top five finish in this race since 2000.

Kanaan has been one of the best drivers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since he made his debut at the track in 2002. He has five top five finishes in the last seven Indianapolis 500s. He has started on one of the first three rows 11 times out of 16 starts. He has led 327 laps in his career in the Indianapolis 500, second most among active drivers and he has led at least one lap in the last six Indianapolis 500s. Kanaan has a chance of matching his own record of most consecutive Indianapolis 500s led and he could break a tie with his car owner for most Indianapolis 500s led as he and A.J. Foyt are tied on 13.

We know what Kanaan can do and none of us would be surprised if he put his seventh on the grid and was in the led before the first round of pit stops but will his two teammates be left in the dust? Matheus Leist has had a bit of a rocky rookie season but he dominated last year's Freedom 100. The bad news for Leist is the Freedom 100 hasn't really meant shit when it comes to the Indianapolis 500. Of the eight previous Freedom 100 winners who made an Indianapolis 500 start none have finished in the top ten as an Indianapolis 500 rookie with the best finish being 16th by Gabby Chaves and the average finish for those eight is 27.625.

James Davison is an additional entry this month and in his previous three Indianapolis 500 starts he has been no stranger to working his way through the field. With Davison getting a full week of practice and with a chance to work with Kanaan I think he could find himself closer to the sharp end of the grid but A.J. Foyt Racing has not been known for putting together stellar one-off entries. The team finds itself balancing the expectations of having a legend behind the wheel with its unfulfilling recent history. 

Ed Carpenter Racing: Is This When the Ship Turns Around?
Second question: If not now, when? Ed Carpenter Racing has been a disaster this season. Not because it is miles off the pace but because it has been competitive only to stub its toe come race time.

At least in qualifying Ed Carpenter Racing has given Team Penske a run for top Chevrolet team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2012. Last year ECR put two cars in the Fast Nine and both out-qualified the top Penske driver. ECR bested Team Penske in qualifying the year before as well. This is without mentioning the team having won pole position for this race in 2013 and 2014. The team has a high bar to live up to.

Ed Carpenter strolls in as the leader of the team, as Spencer Pigot has not been able to recapture any of the flashes we saw over his first two seasons of partial competition. Add to the sinking ship Danica Patrick's return in a farewell to motorsports and the Indianapolis 500.

History points to this team having the speed in qualifying here and I think Carpenter will lead the charge but where the other two drivers fall is a mystery. Pigot needs a confidence boost and Patrick needs a good outing. If the ECR speed carries over to Pigot then it could get him in the right direction for the rest of the season.

Harding Racing: Will There Be a Sophomore Slump?
In the 16 months since this team was first founded it finished ninth on debut in its Indianapolis 500 debut, finished fifth in the team's second race and has expanded to a full-time IndyCar operation. While the results this season have not matched Harding Racing's wondrous start last year the team is back and has a slew of bright minds behind Gabby Chaves' entry.

The team definitely benefited from attrition last year as a few Honda teams dropped out from engine failures and a few notable entries were taken out in accidents. In saying all this Chaves did have good days in practice last year. I think this team will run a similar strategy to last year and aim for the back of that middle third of the field and that should be good enough to comfortably get into the field. 

Carlin: How is The Team's Confidence?
Oh boy, things have not gone Carlin's way through the first five IndyCar races. The team could not have been expecting victories but I bet it thought Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton could produce more than one top ten finish and the drivers 18th and 20th in the championship respectively, both behind Gabby Chaves.

Kimball has had success at Indianapolis in recent years, especially during the aero kit-epoch. Chilton is coming off a year where he found himself in the right position at the right time and finished fourth in the Indianapolis 500. The difference is we now have the universal aero kit and both drivers are back in Chevrolets. Kimball has made a lot of laps around Indianapolis and through two years Chilton has been competent at this place. I think the team has to keep it simple. It has to set the bar low and go from there. 

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: Do Two Entries Bring the Team Closer to the Top?
After withdrawing from full-time IndyCar competition after the 2013 Indianapolis 500 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing has been back each year at the Speedway and has put together some competitive entries. The results haven't been there the last two years as Sage Karam has retired from each race, once because of an accident while working his way into the top five and another when his car died whilst on the edge of the top ten.

Joining Karam is J.R. Hildebrand, who has finished in the top ten in four of seven Indianapolis 500 starts. Both drivers have been quick at the Speedway but Karam's pace has been limited to the race. He has started on row 11, row eight twice and row seven in his four starts. Hildebrand on the other hand has started on one of the first four rows five times with his worst start in this race 18th.

Karam has been flying solo for most of his time at the Speedway with no one to bounce information off of. Now he has the technically minded Hildebrand to work with. Neither driver is full-time. Neither has any time with the universal aero kit. This could be a year where D&R struggles and both drivers have below average Mays. 

Juncos Racing: Is Kyle Kaiser Hung Out to Dry on His Own?
The team had two cars last year and while Sebastián Saavedra and Spencer Pigot weren't threats for the victory they knew all the team wanted was to complete all 200 laps and see where it got them. Both cars got to the end of the race and the team got a 15th place finish and an 18th place to show from its first Indianapolis 500.

This year Kyle Kaiser flies solo and he doesn't have a veteran to lean on. The good news is Kaiser seemed confident after his rookie orientation program. It doesn't mean he is going to be in the Fast Nine and it doesn't mean he will not be broken if he has a spin in the middle of turn one during a practice lap during the week. I think Kaiser will be fine and the team will do enough to get him in field but I am concerned the support system isn't there in case it does start to get tough for Kaiser. 

Meyer Shank Racing: What Improvements Are Made From Year One?
Last year, Michael Shank's Indianapolis 500 debut started with a head scratcher when a steering column failure sent Jack Harvey across the racetrack from the warm up lane in turn two. Harvey never really got into the thick of the pack and was in the wrong place after Conor Daly had his accident and was forced out of the race after a spin from hitting debris.

The good news is this team has two races under its belt this season heading into Indianapolis 500 practice and Harvey had good outings at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. Unfortunately, St. Petersburg ended after a hard accident but Long Beach was a really good race and he was fighting for a top ten finish. Add to the two outings a partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and MSR has all the pieces to make a leap forward from 27th on the grid last year. Harvey might not be contending for the Fast Nine but we see part-time entries put up respectable times and he could end up on one of the first five rows.

Practice Schedule
Practice begins today at 11:00 a.m. ET with a veteran session for two hours. From 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. will be a rookie orientation with a three-hour session for all competitors closing the day.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will all have practice from 11:00 a.m. ET to 6:00 p.m. ET. The teams will get the additional ten kPa of boost for the Fast Friday practice and that additional boost will also carry over to qualifying weekend.