Back Home Again, finally.
After two years of pandemic-related attendance restrictions for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, Indianapolis Motor Speedway is set to host “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with no limits Sunday.
This will be the first time Roger Penske has seen a crowd estimated at more than 300,000 since he purchased the Racing Capital of the World and the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in January 2020. Penske also owns three cars competing in Sunday’s 500-Mile Race in a bid to win for a record-extending 19th time.
The 33-car field is brimming with intriguing storylines, with eight former winners, seven rookies, the first Danish driver and 15 nationalities represented in the fastest field ever at IMS. And all eyes will be on reigning champion Helio Castroneves in his first bid for a record-setting fifth “500” victory.
Six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon will lead the field to the green flag for the fifth time in his career. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has qualified on the pole more times than all but one driver in event history -- Rick Mears won six – and Dixon won from that starting position in 2008.
Last weekend, Dixon posted the fastest four-lap qualifying run ever for a pole winner with an average speed of 234.046 mph. The previous record was 233.718 mph set by Scott Brayton in 1996. Arie Luyendyk set the all-time speed record in 1996, but his run came on the second day of qualifications and wasn’t eligible for the pole.
NBC will broadcast the “500” for the second time beginning at 11 a.m. (ET), with the green flag for the flying start at approximately 12:45 p.m. The race can be seen live on Telemundo Deportes on Universo and heard on the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Here are five things to watch for:
Dixon, Ganassi Teammates Lead the Way
The speed that defines this Indianapolis 500 begins with Dixon, but Chip Ganassi’s Indianapolis-based organization has a host of hot rods in the front part of the field.
Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda) and last year’s race runner-up, Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda) earned the first 1-2 start for Chip Ganassi Racing since 2008 when Dan Wheldon qualified second next to Dixon. Dixon’s four-lap run of 234.046 mph was the second-fastest average in “500” history, behind only Luyendyk’s 236.986 on the second day of qualifying in 1996.
While Dixon and Palou carry CGR’s fastest flags, all five of the team’s Hondas qualified in the Top 12 round. Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) will line up directly behind Palou in the fifth starting position while 2013 Indy winner Tony Kanaan (No. 1 The American Legion Honda) starts sixth and race rookie Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda) 12th.
“Pumps you up for at least this week,” Dixon said of the CGR qualifying efforts. “Hopefully we’re this happy (Sunday), as well, and one of us is lucky enough to be drinking milk. Then that’s job well done.”
Dixon has won poles for the team in 2008, 2015, 2017, 2021 and 2022. Luyendyk won CGR’s first pole, in 1993, and Bruno Junqueira won the pole for the team in 2002.
Said Dixon, “A pole is fantastic, and it is a privilege, but everybody wants to win, man.”
Ganassi is seeking his first “500” win since Dario Franchitti in 2012. Ganassi has been a team owner of Indy-winning cars five times, the first in partnership with Patrick Racing in 1989 when Emerson Fittipaldi won.
Dixon has a chance to break one of the oldest records in “500” history. He has led 570 laps and needs to lead 75 more to break Al Unser’s mark of 644. Unser led his last Indy lap in 1993.
Dixon has led more laps than any other driver in this year’s field. Tony Kanaan (346) and Helio Castroneves (325) are the only other drivers to have led more than 200 laps in this event. Twenty-two drivers in this field have led at least one lap in previous races.
Castroneves’ First Drive for Five
It took 61 years for a driver to win the “500” for a fourth time, and A.J. Foyt’s 1977 victory was celebrated with a ride around the track with Tony Hulman, who had been IMS’ owner since 1945.
Ten years later, Al Unser won for the fourth time, in 1987, and four years thereafter Mears won his fourth. Then, the most prestigious club in “500” history waited 30 years for its newest member. Welcome, Castroneves.
Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing) enters this race with the first chance for a driver’s fifth win since Unser’s last race in 1993. Interestingly, Foyt, Unser and Mears were all aiming for a fifth in the 1992 race. Unser came the closest, finishing third. Foyt’s best chance at a fifth victory came in 1979, when he finished second to Mears.
The four-time winners were gathered last summer to film a documentary, “Pennzoil presents The Club,” which aired May 14 on NBC. Mears jokingly said Castroneves will forfeit his membership if he wins again.
Should Castroneves win Sunday from the 27th starting position, he will collect a bonus from BorgWarner of $400,000. The prize for back-to-back winners of the “500” has been rolling over since Castroneves’ victory in 2002 when he collected an additional $160,000.
Castroneves also is the most experienced driver in the field with 21 previous starts. He made his first in 2001, where he won for the first time.
Johnson, Grosjean Grabbing Headlines
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, who won four Brickyard 400s at IMS, had always wanted to experience the “500” from the cockpit of a race car. He will get his first opportunity Sunday from the 12th starting position.
Johnson has enjoyed a terrific month. Along with his teammates, he has consistently been near the top of the speed charts, and he might have qualified in the Firestone Fast Six had his car not significantly wiggled in the first corner of last Sunday’s four-lap run. Nonetheless, Johnson will take the green flag ahead of six former “500” winners.
“The experience itself has been so cool,” Johnson said. “My dad is here (spotting in Turn 3). My wife and kids came (to qualifying). There are all these moments that just make this experience very special to me … to gain that confidence, feel good about things, it’s just been a lot of fun.”
Like Johnson, Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport) has earned much attention as a race rookie. A 10-year veteran of Formula One, Grosjean has a massive global fan base, and a recent survey conducted by the NTT INDYCAR SERIES found him to be the sport’s most popular driver.
Also like Johnson, Grosjean has had a clean month and surprised many by qualifying in the ninth position, the highest of Michael Andretti’s five drivers and the only one to reach the Top 12 round. He also was the fastest rookie to qualify for Sunday’s race.
Grosjean said running well is only part of what makes competing at Indy special.
“I think it’s all the rituals and traditions around here,” he said.
Veterans, Rookies Provide Field Mix
This might be the most unique field in “500” history.
It is collectively the fastest ever, with an average speed of 231.023 mph, a mark which broke the previous fastest, set in 2021 with an average speed of 230.294 mph.
This group of drivers features an age spread of nearly 27 years, with Kanaan the oldest at 47 years, 149 days on Race Day. The youngest driver is David Malukas at 20 years, 244 days on Race Day. Malukas drives the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD.
The field features eight drivers in their 40s: Kanaan, Castroneves, Johnson, Dixon, Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 6 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet), Takuma Sato (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR), Ed Carpenter (No. 33 Alzamend Neuro Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing) and Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet).
Conversely, there are 10 drivers who are 25 or younger: Palou, Malukas, Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Bitcoin Racing Team with BitNile Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing), Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet), Santino Ferrucci (No. 23 Palermo’s Screamin Sicilian DRR Chevrolet of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet), Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 PowerTap Honda of Andretti Autosport), Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian), Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) and Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 PeopleReady Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).
While seven drivers will make their first “500” start, eight others are former winners. Castroneves (four), Montoya (two) and Sato (two) have multiple wins. Dixon, Kanaan, Alexander Rossi, Power and Pagenaud are single winners. The record for most former winners in the field is 10, in 1992.
Having seven rookies in the field is the most since 2014. Grosjean is the highest-starting first-timer in ninth, but Johnson (12th) and Malukas (13th) are not far behind, and Ilott (19th) has produced a strong month. The other rookies are Kirkwood, DeFrancesco and Lundgaard.
Kirkwood is the reigning champion of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. He is one of the 20 veterans of that series in this year’s field.
VeeKay, Herta, Malukas and Lundgaard all have a chance to break Troy Ruttman’s record as the youngest “500” winner. Ruttman was 22 years, 80 days when he won the 1952 race. Malukas and Lundgaard were both after Montoya (2000) and Castroneves (2001) won their first Indy races.
A Championship To Be Won
No driver begins the “500” thinking about how many NTT INDYCAR SERIES points he can earn in the race, but totals will be important come Monday.
The 12 drivers at the top of the starting lineup have already accumulated points based on PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying, with Dixon receiving 12 points for winning the NTT P1 Award for pole. Johnson earned one point for the 12th position. More points are up for grabs Sunday.
The “500” is the only event on the 17-race NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule distributing double points. Scoring a minimum of 101 points for the victory could go a long way to determining which driver hoists the Astor Challenge Cup for 2022.
Last season, Palou won three races, but it was the 85 points he earned for finishing second in the “500” that separated him from runner-up Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Shell Team Penske Chevrolet). Palou won by 38 points by gaining 49 on Newgarden at Indy. Newgarden finished 12th in the “500.”
Eleven drivers are currently within 61 points of the series lead, paced by Power. The next three weekends will go a long way to shaping the points race. After Indy, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES heads to Detroit’s Belle Isle Park for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on Sunday, June 5 followed by the Sonsio Grand Prix presented by AMR on Sunday, June 12 at Road America.