Indianapolis 500 preview: It's anyone's race, but Scott Dixon looks poised to take the checkered flag
INDIANAPOLIS — Predicting who will win the Indianapolis 500, which airs Sunday at noon ET on ABC, is not like picking the Super Bowl, the World Series or the NBA Finals. There are few trends that inspire conjecture, few performances from the past that inform the present and absolutely nothing is a sure thing. There is just 200 laps of anything can happen: a phantom mechanical failure that drops a front-running car to the back of the pack, a heroic pit stop that gives a middling car a sudden turbo boost of life, a daring moment from a driver not generally known for sterner stuff. Only a fool would think he could extract something resembling clairvoyance from this murky mess of tea leaves.
And yet … Scott Dixon sure looks awfully good, doesn’t he? In uncertain times—and these last two weeks, which have seen five spectacular crashes and a ninth-hour tweak to the qualifying format, surely count—you could do worse than bet on the 34-year-old Ganassi pilot, previously recognized in this space as the Berkshire Hathaway of drivers.
At the Brickyard, Dixon has made a compelling case for a loftier distinction: another Indy 500 championship to go with the one he captured seven years ago. The last two weeks have seen him lord over the practice charts and grab the pole position. While many of his peers on the grid have struggled to adapt to the new oval aero kit, Dixon, an Aussie by way of New Zealand, has taken to it like a koala to eucalyptus. That’s quite a development, considering Dixon spent a chunk of the past two years battling a change in Ganassi’s manufacturing allegiances (Chevrolet from Honda). As recently as last summer, he was venting about the decision, which left him grasping for a familiar feel for his car.
Now? He has no complaints about his ride or its new aero kit. Chevy’s configurations, he said on Friday, “have worked flawlessly. It’s a lot more adjustable in finer areas [in terms of] getting the balance how you like it.”
He’s even comfortable in the lead, even though Will Power, the Penske driver who will start right alongside Dixon in second place, can think of better places to be during the early stages of the race. It’s a curious bit strategy coming from a guy who is the second-highest rated driver on the Verizon IndyCar Series standings (or the top-rated Australian, depending on your perspective) and who just won its most recent race, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Power’s deference isn’t so much a product of good Commonwealth manners as his eighth-place finish in last year’s race, a result he nonetheless achieved after leading the fourth-most laps of the race. “Leading felt like one of the biggest mistakes of the race,” he said while recalling his ’14 run. “You had to pit earlier. You get shuffled back. It’s a real pity because [the race] used to be about car speed and driving well. Now, you’re a sitting duck if you’re leading.”
The rest of the field might as well be a bunch of dogs lying in the tall grass, he reckons, and this asks an obvious question: Which of those dogs can stay in the hunt? Well, there’s Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy winner; he’ll start fourth. There’s Simon Pagenaud, arguably the biggest free agent signing of the ’14 offseason; he’ll start third. And last but certainly not least, there’s our own Helio Castroneves, a three-time 500 champion who shrugged off a scary practice session crash on the way to winning the pit stop contest; he’ll start fifth.
The fact that those three drivers compete for Ganassi (Kanaan) and Penske (Pagenaud and Castroneves) only figures to make Dixon and Power that much more vulnerable as they run up front. On top of that, Penske and Ganassi also field, respectively, points leader Juan Pablo Montoya, a former 500 winner who qualified 15th, and Charlie Kimball, another talented driver who qualified one spot higher, on the fifth row.
Andretti Autosport is another formidable operation that’s expected to make a lot of noise on Sunday, but its association with Honda is cause for pause. While Honda’s revision of the aero kit appears to be the least flight prone of the two manufacturer offerings, it has yet to consistently deliver in the speed department, which is not a problem you want to have going into the most significant race of the season. All week, Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Andretti driver who won last year’s 500-mile race, had been less than optimistic about his Honda’s ability to mix it up with the Chevys, whether they’re steered by big-box drivers or much, much smaller-time ones like that of Ed Carpenter, a repeat Indy 500 pole sitter who’ll start this year’s race in 12th place. But Hunter-Reay and other Honda pilots did draw a measure of encouragement from the gains their cars seemed to make while traveling in packs.
If that setup holds, then collaboration will be key, which means you could see Andretti drivers like Hunter-Reay (a 16th-place qualifier) and Marco Andretti (an eighth-place qualifier) working with the likes of Justin Wilson (a sixth-place qualifier) or Graham Rahal (a 17th-place qualifier). Imagine that, an Andretti and a Rahal forming an alliance.
Of course, stranger things have happened at the Brickyard, like a long shot going the distance. Come to think of it, that happens a lot. This year’s grid is stacked with dark horses: 29th-place qualifier Gabby Chaves, a 21-year-old Colombian who has been the fastest of the rookies; 19th-place qualifier Oriol Servià, an open-wheel veteran with a reputation for adjusting on the fly. Even Ryan Briscoe, the IndyCar castoff who was called back into action after a devastating accident involving James Hinchcliffe (who’s doing much better, by the way), is capable of pulling a rabbit out of his helmet. Not included in this group is Sage Karam, Ganassi’s 19-year-old newbie. It’s not that he isn’t capable of a surprise performance. It’s just that there isn’t a soul who won’t see him coming after the way he rallied from the back row to a ninth-place finish last May.
So who will prevail in the end? When in doubt, again, go with Dixon. He knows how to tangle with traffic, hit his marks on pit road and get up front and stay there. It’s been six years since the 500 last toasted a wire-to-wire winner, who, more than likely, will have a different opinion about how things will play out after the green flag flies. No, Dixon isn’t the sexiest 500 pick, but you can count on him. That’s more than can be said for just about everything else in this race.