Monday, May 19, 2014

The Field is Set

What a weekend, wasn't it? Both on-track and off, the new qualifying format added excitement a new buzz within the media. I think even the most cynical types will have to admit that Mark Miles and Company have stumbled on to something they can build on, and with that crew I expect that to happen.

I don't know about you, but I held my breath as each driver headed out on their Fast Nine runs. That was some high drama, and to be truthful, it was kind of scary. Those guys were hung so far over the edge of what those cars can do it wasn't even funny. But at the same time, when a car is THAT trimmed out we get what we want, and that is the skill (and bravery) of the driver is brought into the equation.

To a man, all of them said yesterday was one of the hardest things they have ever done. Good! It should be hard, in fact winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500 should be the second hardest thing a driver does in his/her lives, and the hardest should be winning the race itself.

I'm going to run through the Fast Nine participants and highlight a couple of other things I observed this weekend.

Pole winner: Ed Carpenter. Say it with me...Ed's the man. Only a handful of drivers have won consecutive pole positions at IMS, and Ed joins a list that includes AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, Tom Sneva, Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves. What do all of them have in common? They have all won the race too. You have to take your hat off to the job Ed has done with his team. I think he has a lot more he will accomplish in his driving career, but when we look back at things 20-25 years from now, he's going to be like Michael Andretti in that his career as an owner will probably surpass what he does as a driver.

Front row (Middle): James Hinchcliffe. As with his near pole run two years ago, Hinch dropped a huge lap out of the gate at 231.6, but a bobble in T3 on his final lap scrubbed him down to 229 and left him in the second starting position again. What separated Carpenter's run from Hinch's is that Ed ran four consistent laps, in fact he was P4 after one lap but didn't suffer the same kind of dropoff the others did. But all the credit goes to Hinch for working his way back from his concussion in the GP. He didn't even get into the car until Thursday but was fast all weekend.

Front row (Outside): Will Power. WP has been relatively good at qualifying at Indy, yet that hasn't translated into race success over the last few years. He hasn't had a Top 5 since 2009, and in the last three years has gone P14, P28 and P19. Does he have some more confidence after his breakthrough win at Fontana last year?

Row two (Inside): Helio Castroneves. Helio usually lives for the spotlight, so you would think the Fast Nine is right up his alley. But surprisingly enough he's fallen flat the last three years, and starts in Row 2 for the fourth time in his career. Although he scores major points with me for rocking the back-in-the-day Pennzoil paint scheme with the Rick Mears helmet livery, and seeing that car pull into Victory Lane on Sunday would be pretty sweet.

Row two (Middle): Simon Pagenaud. So far Simon has had a great month and after starting P23 and P21 in his first two 500s he moves way up the grid for Sunday. After winning the GP last week he was at the top of the speed chart one day last week and seemed genuinely happy with his effort over the weekend. Speaking of liveries, Simon will be sporting the Ayrton Senna scheme on his helmet, then is auctioning off the helmet to benefit Senna's foundation in Brazil that helps disadvantaged children. Solid.

Row two (Outside): Marco Andretti. This year Marco will be making his ninth career start and given his performance the last two years, where he's led a combined 90 laps, you have to wonder if this race is starting to come to him. He just needs to stop putting so much pressure on himself, especially in qualifying.

Row three (Inside): Carlos Munoz. I felt like Carlos' qualifying effort was a bit of a letdown, but only because he's raised the bar pretty high in just a handful of IndyCar races, and it's kind of a bummer if we aren't entertained. If last year was any indication, he won't be in his starting spot long. He wants to get to the front, and isn't at all scared to do so.

Row three (Middle): Josef Newgarden. Like Pagenaud, Josef moved waaayyyy up the grid this year, having been in Row 9 (P25) in 2012 and Row 10 (P28) last year. What a great month for Newgarden and his Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team. They took a huge step forward here this year, but I have to wonder if Sunday will be an audition of sorts for Newgarden. He's in a contract year, after all.

Row three (Outside): J.R. Hildebrand. Please no one take this the wrong way, but I wasn't quite sure what to take of the "vindication!" screams when Hildebrand qualified this weekend. Yes, we all hate John Barnes, but you have a guy who wrecked out of  two of his three 500 starts (including in the final corner with the checkered flag in sight to win in 2011) and has one podium in his IndyCar career, so I don't think he was screwed over in any sense of the word. Still, he's a nice guy, he's good for IndyCar and  I like it when nice things happen to good people. So in that sense I'm glad he's back. Vindication doesn't come from qualifying well, it comes from racing well, and with the resources he has for Sunday's race he has a chance to exorcise a few demons, big time.

Juan Pablo Montoya (Starting P10). When JP headed back to IndyCar over the winter, some wonder if he still "had it". After he qualified tenth Sunday faster than eight of the Fast Nine participants (231.007) wonder no more. He's driven with a lot of passion all season, and this means something. Fourteen years ago, when he came, saw, kicked ass and bucket listed the 500 before heading to greener pastures, I'm guessing it didn't. But time and age changes everyone, doesn't it?

Kurt Busch (P12). The Outlaw met the Turn 2 wall earlier today in practice, but that doesn't take away the month that he is having. I still think a Top 10 will be a great accomplishment, but I would love to see him drive more IndyCar races someday. One thing that I think is great about having him at IMS is the fact that by all accounts he has been gracious and accommodating to almost everyone, and has been honest and forthcoming in his interviews. I think he's made a few fans the last couple of weeks.

Scott Dixon/Tony Kanaan (P11 and P16). Both of the Ganassi drivers -- the defending IndyCar and 500 champions, respectively -- struggled on Saturday but dug deep on Sunday to put in some solid runs. I don't think we have to worry about either of these two, Dixon has finished P6 or better in seven of the last eight years, and Kanaan won from the 12th starting spot last year. And besides, the way TK is on restarts, its like he's starting in the Top 10 anyway.

Ryan Hunter-Reay. I'm trying to act surprised about his P19 starting spot, but outside of 2012 when he started on the outside of the front row he's never qualified that well at IMS. I'm a little mixed on RHR at Indy, past history shows that compared to many tracks he's really underachieved here, but at the same time over the last couple of years he's driving with a confidence that he didn't have in his first few efforts at the Speedway.

A couple of other things...

Dario Franchitti. First of all, Happy Birthday to the champ. But second, was he amazing in the booth Sunday or what? I learned so much from listening to him, and it gave some really good insight as to what made him such a good driver -- his technical knowledge and attention to detail are amazing. I know I'm probably one of the few people who saw this fascinating, but one point I thought he pointed out that was cool was how hard Simon Pagenaud was breathing while he was trying to qualify, which is a huge indicator of the stress he was under while he was driving.

I would love to see him in the booth, and hopefully that will happen because he and Allen Bestwick had instant chemistry. Seriously, Bestwick is showing he's one of the best. But I think Dario's love is the action of the race and his involvement with TCGR, though he's not driving you have to bet that he is heavily involved with everything from setup to race tactics. He's not ready to give that up yet.

Jack Brabham. Racing lost a true legend when the three-time F1 World Champion passed away over the weekend at age 88. Though he only competed at Indy four times and had a best finish of P9, he drove the rear-engined car at Indianapolis in 1961 and helped start a true revolution. In 1966 he won the F1 title in a car that he designed, engineered and built himself. Racing in the same era as giants of the sport like Graham Hill and Jim Clark meant he didn't get a lot of headlines, but he left a legacy on the sport that is undeniable. His son Geoff made ten starts in the 500 from 1981-93 and his grandson Matthew won the Indy Lights race at the Speedway last weekend and looks to someday become a third-generation driver in the 500.

Got a big week ahead, but look for my 500 preview this weekend!

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