INDIANAPOLIS – The biggest race in the entire world will contest on Sunday, as thousands of spectators and millions of viewers on TV will witness the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET/ABC/INDYCAR Radio Network). For 11 months, we anxiously await the arrival of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. Now, the day is upon us.
Here are the top five storylines to keep an eye out on for Sunday’s 200 Lap race.
Danica’s Last Ride
Last year was “Alonso Mania” in Indy. Now, it’s Danica’s turn. Sunday, will mark the iconic drivers’ final start in any form or motorsports. Last November, Danica announced that she’d race two more races during her career, the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Daytona is behind her. Now, she will embark on one final try on the world’s largest stage.
Patrick, 36, will be making her 116th and final INDYCAR start on Sunday and will be doing so from the seventh starting position. She’s got a relatively decent shot of finishing well too. While she hasn’t raced an INDYCAR in seven years, she’s had plenty of practice to prepare. Plus, out of her previous seven ‘500 starts, Danica has finished in the top 10 in six of them. In fact, three of those were in the top six, including a career best finish of third in 2009.
This is arguably one of the biggest storylines this year.
Helio’s Drive For No. 4
Another popular driver returns to Indy in a one-off effort. Yes, Castroneves raced in the INDYCAR Grand Prix two weeks ago, but this is basically a combined one-off entry for the month. This car wasn’t on track before the Month of May and won’t be on track after May 27. See, Castroneves made 340 career open wheel starts before being told at the end of last season that he won’t have a spot back with Penske for this season. The team offered him a full time ride in their new IMSA program and a shot to win a record tying fourth Indy 500 crown too.
While the passion still burns inside of the popular Brazilian to be a full-time INDYCAR driver, he knows that if he ever wants to tie Rick Mears, AJ Foyt and Al Unser for Indy 500 supremacy, Penske gives him the best shot to do so.
Castroneves, 43, will be eyeing a fourth time to climb the fencing at the famed 2.5-mile oval on Sunday, a feat that would be so popular in many fans’ eyes. It’s been 27 years since we saw a four-time winner. But, maybe Helio just needed to step out of a full-time seat for it to happen. His numbers are lining up exactly with Unser’s.
See Unser won in 1970 and 1971. Helio won in 2001 and 2002. Unser won his third seven years later in 1978. Castroneves won his third seven years later in 2009. Unser won his fourth eight years after that in 1987. Well, eight years after Castroneves’ win in 2009 is…2018.
It’s not like the spiderman hasn’t been close either. In 2014, he lost to Ryan Hunter-Reay by just 0.600-seconds. Last year, Takuma Sato beat him to the yard of bricks by just 0.2011-seconds. Combined, Castroneves is 0.8011-seconds away from fifth Indy 500 wins.
He’d be happy just to get his fourth this weekend.
What Kind Of Race Will We See?
There was a lot of uncertainty with this new car and how it would race in 2018. The goal was improvement. So far, it’s exceeded expectations. We’ve seen over 1,200 passes in five races already. That’s well over a 110-percent increase from 2017. What happens now that we’re heading to a race that’s produced 34 or more lead changes in six straight years?
Some drivers say we will see a quote on quote pack race. INDYCAR officials say otherwise, as they didn’t look to change anything from the past six Indy 500’s to this one. The slingshot passing is what they were after. They’ve been right about everything else, so why would this year be any different?
The car has more drag, which is supposed to slow the car down in front. The cars behind don’t have as much dirty air in wake anymore, which means they can close up to the car in front, who is much slower now, easier than ever before. So, if a car can follow closer and not have dirty air to deal with, but also be faster due to not having as much drag in tow, shouldn’t it equal a ton of passing?
That’s normally a resounding YES. But, drivers have since said after all the practice sessions that this car is more difficult to pass due to a big washout in the corners. The first few cars can pass with ease, the ones further back, well not so much.
We saw 34 lead changes in 2012 and again in 2014. We saw 37 more in 2015. Last year, there was 35. In 2013 and 2016, there were 68 and 54 lead changes respectively. I have a feeling we will be in the 30-50 range this weekend.
Honda vs. Chevy
The last few years, Honda has had the preferred aerokit on superspeedways. In 2016, Honda drivers combined to lead 129 out of the 200 laps that year. In 2017, they led 181 out of 200. That’s 78-percent of the overall laps run over the last two years that Honda drivers have been out front. Andretti Autosport has been the biggest beneficiary out of that as they’ve won three out of the last four.
But, gone are the aerokits. New is a universal kit with the only major differences now being engine power and any other minor advancements teams can find.
In 2015, Chevrolet let 193 out of the 200 laps that day.
So, as you can see, since 2015, the year these kits were introduced, we’ve seen split fields. Will that happen this weekend?
In qualifying it did. Chevrolet put seven cars in the Firestone Fast Nine and it appears that they have the cars to beat. But, qualifying and race trim are two separate entities.
Final ABC Race
Sunday will mark the 54th and final time that the Indianapolis 500 will air on ABC. The network started covering the big race annually in 1965 and has been back every year since. Starting in 1986, the race was aired flag to flag for the first time ever. It’s remained that way since too. But, NBC now has the right from the 2019 race and beyond, meaning this is an end of an era.
ABC will still air next weekend’s races in Belle Isle, but those will be the final two ever for the network with the series. Sunday, is their final with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It will certainly be emotional.