Friday, April 22, 2022

Ten Overreactions From Indianapolis 500 Testing

This week's Indianapolis 500 testing has gotten the blood flowing. We are over a month from the 105th edition of "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing," and that first on-track session in preparations always has everyone's attention. It has been basically 11 months since an Indianapolis 500-related session took place. The motorsports world is ready for its ready.

However, as we all know, the Indianapolis 500 winner is known on April 21 every year. We all know that. We know everything about the Indianapolis 500 after the first test session of the year. There is no point in even running the race. 

People love taking this session and using it as gospel when it really shouldn't be the case. We need to walk people back from the edge of the cliff. There is still a lot of on-track to come. We truly know nothing, but that isn't stopping some from overreacting.

Here are ten overreactions from the recent two-day test and why they are foolish.

1. Jimmie Johnson is going to win the Indianapolis 500
Oh Jimmie Johnson! IndyCar's messiah has ridden into IndyCar Jerusalem, and he is here to fulfill IndyCar scripture. 

The seven-time NASCAR champion's long-awaited Indianapolis 500 debut is upon us, and testing could not have started much better. Two days, no issues, and Johnson finished the test eighth overall with his fastest lap being at 227.900 mph. 

Johnson has significantly more oval experience than any other driver he will run against in the Indianapolis 500. He has also won four Brickyard 400s, plus an IROC race at Indianapolis. Based on his NASCAR results and his IndyCar oval debut last month at Texas, there is a growing portion of people penciling him for a top ten run. After being eighth through the first two-day test, Johnson will soon creep into the conversation for possible race winner. 

Testing looked good, but it has been two days. There are many other great drivers in the field. Three of his four Chip Ganassi Racing teammates were ahead of him, plus it is only testing. We don't know what every team was working on. The track conditions will be different in May. It should be warmer. It was a good test, but it is early. 

2. Team Penske is going to run away with this season
Josef Newgarden topped the test session with a lap at 229.519 mph. Scott McLaughlin rounded out the top five, just under two-tenths of a second off Newgarden's top time. 

Team Penske is already three-for-three in 2022 and it thoroughly dominated two races. Penske isn't going to lose this season. It is going to win at Barber and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis 500 will surely be their race as well. 

If Penske is this damn good, it is going to win 13 races. Newgarden already has two victories and he will likely end up with six. McLaughlin will pick up another three and Will Power will end up with at least three victories of his own. The championship will be clinched before we even get to the month of September. 

But, again, this was only a test. And Penske did dominate two of the first three races, but Long Beach very well could have been an Andretti Autosport or Chip Ganassi Racing victory. 

Penske had a down year in 2021 with only three victories. It was bound to pick up from that total in 2022. Team Penske struggled at Indianapolis last year, but it doesn't stay down for long at the Speedway. 

Penske will likely end up with the most race victories this season, and it could easily take the Indianapolis 500 and championship, but other teams are going to win. Ganassi will win a few. Andretti Autosport should be able to do enough to get one victory this year. Arrow McLaren SP will have its day. Meyer Shank Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are still around and get put something together. 

We are going to see different winners and it will not be a lost season.

3. Andretti Autosport is in big trouble
Four of five Andretti Autosport cars were outside the top fifteen in the two-day test. The top Andretti Autosport driver was Marco Andretti in fifth. Unfortunately, Andretti isn't the driver you want leading the team leading the speed charts when the rest are struggling. His pole position and subsequently poor race in 2020 is fresh in all our minds. 

This is another case of Andretti Autosport stepping in the wrong direction. After poor strategy choices and a lackluster Indianapolis 500 in 2021, Andretti is going to mirror Penske's 2021 output. It is going to have all the cars in the middle of the field, none are going to be a threat, one might be on the last row. This will be a black eye for the team.

Or, Andretti Autosport wasn't focused on putting up a big lap (sans Marco Andretti, of course), and the team is hoping to have better race pace after last year's race unraveled quickly on the team. 

Many concerns follow Andretti Autosport, and it is likely this will not be an Andretti-dominant month of May with four cars in the Fast Nine and a combined 100 laps led in the race, but someone will be competitive. 

4. Santino Ferrucci is going to shock the world
Through three Indianapolis 500 starts, Ferrucci has finishes of seventh, fourth and sixth. In each of those races he has started 19th or worse. He has completed all 600 possible laps in his three starts, and he ended up 12th in testing at 227.489 mph. 

It was a strong test for both Dreyer & Reinbold Racing entries, as Sage Karam was directly behind Ferrucci at 227.425 mph. Only 0.0111 seconds separated the teammate. 

Based on Ferrucci's history, if he has any speed in the car and can start at the front we are looking at a second consecutive year of a part-time entry winning the Indianapolis 500. Ferrucci will stun the world and show he should be full-time in IndyCar.

Although, we aren't sure if Dreyer & Reinbold Racing is the real deal. Recent history points to the team struggling. Last year, Karam ended up in the top ten, but the team regularly does not go the distance at Indianapolis. We are also accustomed to seeing one team look competitive in testing or practice not be in the fight come race day. 

Life is also a number's game. Ferrucci has been strong in each of his first three Indianapolis 500 starts, but eventually one goes against a driver whether the driver likes it or not.

5. Hélio Castroneves is in for a comeback story
The biggest story from this test was the three separate incidents that occurred with cars spinning out in the warm-up lane exiting the pit lane. In two incidents, cars spun onto the racetrack. One of those was Castroneves, who lost it on the access road inside turn two, cut through the grass and smacked the outside barrier. 

Castroneves was the only serious incident at the test, and the day one incident prevented the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner from participating in day two. Adding insult to injury is Castroneves' car was the same one he drove to victory last year. 

But isn't this the story meant for the first five-time Indianapolis 500 winner? Adversity from the start. A rebuild. Proving everyone wrong. Castroneves can turn this around and make history. 

Castroneves is just one of a long list of drivers to have an accident at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The team will repair the car and it will be as good as new. Castroneves could win the race, but he could be in the middle of the field again. This is a tough race to win and there are a lot of drivers out there. Teammate Simon Pagenaud will be a tough intra-team hurdle to clear. Castroneves just got his fourth after 12 years of waiting. Getting his fifth in his first attempt at it is highly unlikely.

6. Hélio Castroneves is done
But Castroneves' accident could be the beginning of the end. The other four-time winners didn't have many great cracks at the fifth. Foyt went over a decade, but his later years were far from his highest level. Al Unser won his fourth as a substitute. Unser's career was already winding down when fate smiled on him in 1987. His fourth victory likely gave his career as second breath of life and an additional two or three Indianapolis 500 starts. Rick Mears only made one attempt at a fifth Indianapolis 500 victory before calling it a career. 

Castroneves does turn 47 years old on May 10. Only Unser was older when he won his fourth. Father Time is undefeated, and just after Castroneves experienced the greatest high of his career, it could be over. This accident could be the sign that a fifth isn't going to happen. He is on borrowed time, and he will spend the next three or four years trying but not quite ascend to a higher level meant exclusively for him. 

Or... Castroneves had one accident. Yes, he is getting older, and he has fewer Indianapolis 500 starts ahead of him than behind him. A fifth will be difficult to achieve, but this doesn't mean it is over. Castroneves could still fight at the front. He showed there is still something there last year. Castroneves will be fine. He could be in the middle of the field this year, but that doesn't mean he is going to be one of the slowest drivers out there.

7. Felix Rosenqvist is going to resurrect his IndyCar career
Leading the Arrow McLaren SP trio during the test was the Swede Felix Rosenqvist, finishing up in ninth and he was one of only three Chevrolets in the top ten along with the two Penske drivers. 

Rosenqvist has been quick in a few races this season, qualifying well at Texas before a botched pit stop took him out of contention for a tremendous finish, and a subsequent mechanical issue was the dagger to end his day. At Long Beach, Rosenqvist was the top AMSP qualifier, making the Fast Six, but his opening stint on the alternate tire was woeful, dropping him down the order. He was able to recover in the latter portion of the race, but the damage had been done and he could only climb to 11th at the checkered flag and after a handful of drivers ahead of him retired from the race. 

The Swede has been there in this crucial season for his IndyCar future. A top result at Indianapolis, leading AMSP at Indianapolis and possibly contending for victory would save his career. A victory could secure his future for the next ten years. It could be to Rosenqvist's career what Simon Pagenaud's 2019 Indianapolis 500 meant to the Frenchman's future. If Rosenqvist can get that second breakthrough, he could finally see the driver we have all been waiting for.

However, this doesn't feel likely. Rosenqvist has two top ten oval finishes in his IndyCar career, both at Gateway in 2020. His Indianapolis 500 finishes have been 28th, 12th and 27th. He has started 14th the last two years, but I don't see Rosenqvist being the guy this year. He could have a good day and could finish in the top ten, but that isn't going to necessarily change minds.

8. Tony Kanaan is going to be this year's notable old guy
Back with Chip Ganassi Racing for the second consecutive year, Tony Kanaan shows he still has it. The 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner wrapped up the test third quickest at 228.767 mph, the top Ganassi driver, directly ahead of Scott Dixon and with some daylight between him and defending champion Álex Palou as well as the previously mentioned IndyCar messiah. 

Kanaan has been one of the best drivers at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the turn of the 21st century. He could have been a multi-time Indianapolis 500 winner if it weren't for bad weather, mechanical failures or accidents, and while that pace has not dropped as Kanaan has gotten older, his last few years have not been in the best equipment. He made the most of his few years at A.J. Foyt Racing. 

But back with Ganassi, Kanaan has one final shot to prove he is one of the top drivers all-time in this race. We are in a stretch of veteran triumph. Takuma Sato picked up his second Indianapolis 500 victory in 2020. Last year, Hélio Castroneves won his fourth Indianapolis 500 at 46 years old, and as a part-time driver. Kanaan is 47 years old, and an Indianapolis one-off. If Castroneves can do, Kanaan can do it as well.

Kanaan could have a good day, but victory? It is possible. He is with a proper team, but the part-time winners are infrequent, in fact, the hit-rate is about one in ten because before Castroneves' victory in 2021 the last Indianapolis one-off to win was Dan Wheldon in 2011. Before Wheldon, the next part-time driver to win at Indianapolis was Castroneves in 2001, albeit Castroneves was full-time in CART, but no the Indy Racing League. 

It is rare, not impossible, but not in Kanaan's favor either. 

9. We are going to see some of the fastest qualifying speeds ever
The top speed from the opening test was 229.519 mph in April. We haven't even started thinking about the turbo boost going up for qualifying and we are already flirting with 230 mph. If that is the case, we must be thinking we could see 234 or 235-mph laps during qualifying. 

Not so fast my friend. Yes, Newgarden topped the overall timesheet with a lap at 229.519 mph, but that came with a draft and if you look at the no-tow report the top lap was 221.314 mph, which Rinus VeeKay set.

You can hold off on expecting anyone challenging Arie Luyendyk's track record. We could see some big qualifying speeds and pole position being over 230 mph, but we aren't going to witness history this qualifying weekend.

10. There isn't going to be a 33rd entry
Thirty-two cars were able to participate in the Indianapolis 500 test. That 33rd entry still isn't close to getting off the ground. Considering the advantage the first 32 teams have gotten, does any 33rd entry stand a chance? Is any driver really going to be interested in such a seat? 

Taking into consideration all the uncertainty over driver, team and funding a month out and with 32 cars accounted for, this could be a tradition in jeopardy of not happening in 2022. 

But there is going to be a 33rd entry. It doesn't matter that Ryan Hunter-Reay said no and we could see some three-headed monster entry with three different teams pitching together to get that final car on the grid, we are going to get a 33rd entry. 

It will not be competitive. It will likely not be memorable, but it will be there. Even if it is only a glorified start-and-park car. 

There you have it. Everyone can calm down now. These testing results will mean nothing once actual practice starts in May, and then we will have another set of overreactions to deal with.