Tuesday, May 14, 2024

108th Indianapolis 500 Practice Preview

For 34 drivers, the next week will become the most important of their season. Preparation for the 108th Indianapolis 500 begins with four practice days ahead of an important qualifying weekend where at least one driver will not qualify for this year's race. 

Besides the competition and the racetrack, the teams will be battling the elements and any unfavorable conditions could cause a loss in crucial time to perfect an otherwise finicky race car. 

In this year's race, Honda has the most entries, 18 to Chevrolet's 16. There are seven rookies in this year's field and there are eight past winners. There have been four different winners through the first four races of the 2024 NTT IndyCar Series season. The championship lead has changed after each race. Things are already tight, but the Indianapolis 500 ratchets the pressure even more. 

It all starts with practice.

What is the schedule?
Tuesday May 14 will see three separate practice session beginning at 9:15 a.m. ET with a two-hour session for veterans. After an hour and 45-minute break, practice will resume at 1:00 p.m. ET and run for five hours.

Practice will continue Wednesday, Thursday and Friday with the session running from noon to 6:00 p.m. each day. The qualification draw will be at 6:15 p.m. on Friday May 17. 

The 34 entries will be split into two groups and each will run for 30 minutes on Saturday May 18 over an hour period starting at 8:30 a.m. ET. Qualifying begins at 11:00 a.m. and will continue through 5:50 p.m. 

The fastest 12 cars at the end of Saturday will advance to the Fast 12 session on Sunday. The 13th through 30th qualifiers will be locked into the race and have their starting position secured for the 108th Indianapolis 500. The slowest four qualifiers will run int he Last Chance Qualifying session.

Sunday May 19 will have a two-hour practice from noon to 2:00 p.m. for the 16 cars making qualifying runs that afternoon. Qualifying resumes at 3:00 p.m. for the Fast 12 session. Each team will get one qualifying run. The fastest six teams will advance to the Fast Six to determine pole position and the first two rows for the Indianapolis 500.

At 4:15 p.m., the Last Chance Qualifying session will take place. The four entries will have one hour and can make as many attempts as possible. The slowest car at the end of that session will fail to qualify. 

The Fast Six session will begin at 5:25 p.m. with each entry again having one qualifying run. 

On Monday May 20, a two-hour practice session will be held at 1:00 p.m.

What is the forecast?
We are looking at a rainy forecast again for Tuesday practice. There is a 90% chance of precipitation with thunderstorms throughout the day. The high is set for 72º F with an 8 mph wind from the East Southeast. 

Things should clear up but we could see showers carry into Wednesday morning. There is a 60% chance of precipitation. It drops on Thursday to a 24% chance of precipitation. Temperatures will remain in the low 70s on Wednesday, but the high will creep up to 79º F on Thursday. Winds will be around 10 mph from the North Northeast on Wednesday, and about 6 mph from the South Southeast on Thursday. 

Friday will be iffy. There is a chance of scattered thunderstorms, about 63% chance of precipitation. The high will remain around 76º F with a 9 mph wind from the Southest. 

The weekend is looking good, partly cloudy on each day. On Saturday, there is a 24% chance of precipitation but a high of 81º F with a 6 mph Southeastern wind. Sunday could be the warmest day the teams see all week. The high is forecasted for 85º F with a 15% chance of precipitation. The wind will be 8 mph from the West. 

There is a chance of showers for the Monday practice, 37% chance of precipitation with the high dropping to about 80º F.

Who will participate in Rookie Orientation and the Refresher?
Well... everyone has completed the rookie orientation and refresher program between a test held last October and the Indianapolis 500 test held last month. Because everyone is set, there will be no ROP or refresher session held during practice week. A two-hour window was set aside starting at 1:00 p.m. on Tuesday, but since there are no takers, that time has been converted to extended time for the entire field.

The Rookie Class
Seven rookies are entered in this year's race. 

Five of the rookies are regular participants in the NTT IndyCar Series. Three of those drivers compete for Chip Ganassi Racing: Kyffin Simpson, Linus Lundqvist and Marcus Armstrong. Tom Blomqvist competes full-time with Meyer Shank Racing. Christian Rasmussen is in a third entry for Ed Carpenter Racing, as Rasmussen makes his only oval start of the season while he runs the #20 Chevrolet on road and street courses. 

Kyle Larson and Nolan Siegel are the one-off rookie entries. 

Larson is making an attempt at The Double, competing in the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. He is the first driver to make the attempt since Kurt Busch in 2014. Larson is driving the #17 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren. 

Siegel will drive the #18 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Siegel is full-time in the Indy Lights series, but he is running in the three IndyCar rounds that do not conflict with his Indy Lights responsibilities. 

Who is not there?
The top finisher from last year's Indianapolis 500 not entered in this year's race is Devlin DeFrancesco. The Canadian was 13th last year driving for Andretti Autosport.

Tony Kanaan was 16th in last year's race, which Kanaan has started would be his final IndyCar start. This will be the first time Kanaan is not entered for the Indianapolis 500 since 2001. The Brazilian is working as Arrow McLaren's sporting director, and he is in a reserve roles of sorts in case for any reason Kyle Larson is unable to participate in the Indianapolis 500. 

Another past Indianapolis 500 winner that will not be back will be Simon Pagenaud. Pagenaud, the 2019 "500" winner, has been sidelined since his accident in Mid-Ohio practice last July. He was 25th in last year's race after being caught in an accident on lap 193.

Benjamin Pedersen was the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year in 2023, but Pedersen is not back for 2024. This is the second consecutive year where the reigning Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year is not returning to the race and it is the fourth time in the last seven years the reigning Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year is not returning. 

David Malukas was supposed to be the driver of the #6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, but his wrist injury caused him to be released from his contract as Malukas is still recovering from his injury.

R.C. Enerson will not be back as he was unable to secure funding to bring Abel Motorsports back to the Speedway. Also missing is Stefan Wilson, who qualified for last year's race with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing before suffering a broken vertebra in a Monday post-qualifying practice accident. 

What trends should we know for the Fast 12 and the race?
No tow report speed matters. Last year, all three drivers that top the no tow report during practice made the Fast 12. Rinus VeeKay topped Wednesday and started second. Marcus Ericsson topped Thursday and qualified tenth. Takuma Sato topped Friday and started eighth. 

Since 2016, only once has a driver topped a no tow report and not started in the top 12. That was Jack Harvey in 2020, who topped the no tow report in Thursday practice that year. 

Will Power had the best average no tow report position over the three practice days last year, averaging third, and Power qualified 12th. VeeKay was second-best having an average of fourth but Josef Newgarden was third-best at 6.333 and Newgarden started 17th. Scott McLaughlin had the fifth-best at 6.667, and he started 14th. Kyle Kirkwood and Colton Herta were in the top ten of the no tow report all three days last year, and those two started 15th and 21st respectively. 

After being the overall fastest driver in all three practice days in 2022, Takuma Sato was overall fastest on Wednesday and Friday last year. Ericsson was fastest on Thursday. 

Seven of the top ten cars in average overall practice result made the Fast 12 last year, including six of the best seven. The other five cars ranked 14th (Alexander Rossi), 16th (Rinus VeeKay), 18th (Tony Kanaan), 19th (Felix Rosenqvist) and 22nd (Benjamin Pedersen).

Chevrolet took eight Fast 12 spots last year, the first time Chevrolet has taken majority of the Fast Nine/Fast 12 spots since 2016 when Chevrolet took six of the Fast Nine. All four Honda cars last year were Chip Ganassi Racing's entries. Ganassi took pole position with Álex Palou, put Dixon on row two, had Takuma Sato on row three, and Marcus Ericsson took a spot on row four.

There were four different teams in the Fast Six last year. Ganassi and Arrow McLaren each had two entries while Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing took the final two spots. In 2022, Ganassi and ECR swept the Fast Six with Ganassi holding a 4-2 edge.

Last year, Josef Newgarden's practice results were ninth, 20th and sixth. It was only the fourth time since 2012 that the Indianapolis 500 winners was not in the top five overall on any practice days. The others were Tony Kanaan, Juan Pablo Montoya and Hélio Castroneves. Since 2012, only twice has the Indianapolis 500 not been in the top ten for multiple practice days (Power and Castroneves).

Only once in the last 12 years has an Indianapolis 500 winner topped a pre-qualifying practice session. That was Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, who topped the Monday pre-qualifying practice day.

Who should be nervous about bumping?
Until proven otherwise, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing should be nervous about having one of its entries bumped from the race. RLLR took three of the bottom four spots last year, and its fourth entry qualified 30th. All three full-time cars were in the Last Chance Qualifying session, and Graham Rahal ended up being on the outside looking in.

With the April test significantly shortened due to rain, there is not a clear indication of where all the teams stand. During testing, the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing cars of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Conor Daly only ran a combined 29 laps. Juncos Hollinger Racing only completed 44 laps. The cars at the bottom were not necessarily an accurate representation of how the field shakes out. 

Going off of last year, Both Juncos Hollinger Racing cars were toward the bottom. Agustín Canapino qualified 27th and Callum Ilott was 28th. Ilott called an audible and switched to his backup car ahead of Friday practice, a move that likely prevented him from at least being in the last chance qualifying session. Dale Coyne Racing had Sting Ray Robb in the Last Chance Qualifying session, and DCR will have rookie Nolan Siegel and Katherine Legge, who has made one IndyCar start in the last ten years, as its drivers this year.

This will also be the first oval weekend for Tom Blomqvist, who has shown improvement on road and street courses this year, but will be diving into an entirely different animal in the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

What will this race mean for the championship?
This is the second consecutive year the Indianapolis 500 will not pay double points to the drivers, but with the additional points for qualifying, 12 points for pole position descending by one point through the remaining Fast 12 qualifiers, the most points a driver can earn from this race is 65 points. 

Entering this year's Indianapolis 500, seven drivers are within 65 points of the championship lead. If Álex Palou qualifies for the race, only one of the top five in the championship could leave this race as the points leader. Palou is 12 points ahead of Will Power while Scott Dixon are Colton Herta are 25 points back. Felix Rosenqvist trails Palou by 45 points. 

In the outside chance Palou does not make the Indianapolis 500, Scott McLaughlin and Patricio O'Ward have a chance of leaving as the championship leader. Both McLaughlin and O'Ward are 64 points behind Palou, meaning the only way either could be the championship leader is if they won the race from pole position with the most laps led. 

The Indianapolis 500 winner has not won the championship since Dario Franchitti in 2010. In two of the years since the Indianapolis 500 winner was a part-time driver. In the last 13 seasons, the eventual champion has been runner-up in the "500" twice, had five top five finishes and seven top ten finishes. The average Indianapolis 500 finish for the last 13 champions is 10.692. Those five top five finishes have come in the last six seasons.

The average championship finish for the Indianapolis 500 winner since 2005 is 6.6842. If you remove the two cases of when a part-time driver won the race, the average championship finish for the "500" improves to 4.529.

The current 13-year streak without an Indianapolis 500 winner going on to win the championship is the longest since the 15-year streak from 1940 to 1954. However, the Indianapolis 500 was not run in four of those years due to World War II.