Callum Ilott

Juncos Hollinger Racing (JHR) have opted to swap to a backup car for Callum Ilott ahead of PPG Presents Armed Forced Qualifying for the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

The primary car that was unloaded earlier this week was Ilott’s purpose-built challenger for the Indy 500. Now, team is hard at work on the change during Fast Friday, and co-team owner Ricardo Juncos is hopeful the car, which Agustín Canapino drove at the Open Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway last month, will be ready in time for qualifying practice at 8:30 a.m. ET Saturday. There is a possibility, though, that the car won’t be ready until the Last Chance Qualifying on Sunday, which will see four cars battle for positions 31-33 – the final row – with one driver going home.

“Well, we considered in the beginning, but we lost (Tuesday) because it rained,” Juncos said. “So, when we lost (Tuesday), we were thinking, 'OK, we cannot now be forced to lose another day.' You know how it is: You keep trying things, and it seems to be better and now you keep going. Certainly, here we are Friday and it's not good, so we have to (switch cars), unfortunately. I think we are doing the right thing, and sometimes it happens.”

Overall, Ilott needed more comfort in his No. 77 JHR Chevrolet. His top speed this week in the car is 228.942 mph, last overall on the 34-entry speed chart.

“I know what the car should feel like, and it doesn't feel like that,” Ilott said. “At the end of the day, I wasn't happy to continue working with it, but I was working with it, and I have more confidence to qualify with something different than what I was running with. I don't think we would've made the race with the car that we're running with, which is why I'm not stressing right now about the change that we're doing.”

While it is tough to lose invaluable track time, Ilott also mentioned “this is kind of a bit of a relief to be able to just start from scratch again.”

Juncos admitted the team has yet to figure out the issue on the primary car, and said the team changed everything but the chassis.

It is far from ideal, but Juncos has been here before. In 2019, then-driver Kyle Kaiser crashed in practice, and the team was pushing in overtime to get the car prepared, which they did as Kaiser and Co. were able to bump two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren making the field of 33 for the Indy 500. There are still three crew members on the squad that were part of that comeback.

Although faced with another obstacle, Juncos vows to overcome it.

“Now, it's actually not that bad, but it's kind of the same thing,” Juncos said. “This situation that is not nice to be in and there is only one option, just to take it and just to move forward and try it. And we are going to make it happen because we did before, and we will do it again.”

If the car is ready by Saturday morning, Ilott will go out 23rd in qualifying.

Andretti with ‘Playable’ Challenger

Marco Andretti comes into this year’s edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with an edge.

The reason for that isn’t because the third-generation driver gained confidence by becoming the SRX champion last year, it’s due to the raw pace he feels in his No. 98 KULR/Curb Honda for Andretti Herta w/ Marco & Curb-Agajanian.

“Honestly, I have more of a change this year not because of the SRX championship, but because the car speed is, call it playable,” Andretti said. “I think if we execute, we're a third-row car, which now I know we have a shot at playing and being able to hound the fast guys and be able to try to win the race.

“The last two years was almost demoralizing; broken floor, which we weren't even going to make the race if I didn't identify that. So at least we got in the race, but the car speed when it was wrung out the last two years was just demoralizing. It's such a track position-dependent situation now that I knew where we were going to qualify. It’s so hard to make that up, even though you have 500 miles, once you're fourth or further, back in the pack, it’s very, very hard.”

Andretti, the pole-sitter for the 2020 Indy 500 and runner-up as a rookie in the 2006 Indy 500, was hit with an issue during Wednesday's practice, but the team returned and has shown speed. Andretti set the second-fastest time in “Fast Friday” practice with a flying lap of 234.202 mph and will roll off fifth in line for qualifying on Saturday.

Despite being an Indy-only driver now, Andretti remains keen to his instincts around the 2.5-mile superspeedway.

“I knew what the feeling was, I’ve had it before,” Andretti said. “I said, ‘We're still on the floor, we're still on the floor.’ … This place you have to trust your butt. You know, I looked at the data, the tough part about that and the good thing about having experience is it doesn't show up on the data. So, I said: ‘All right. I know this feeling. I know the car is totally detached from the track. It's not talking to me.’ And we were supposed to be on our test setup, which was very good.

“So, I said, ‘It's not the test setup,’ and they're like, ‘Yes it is.’ I go, ‘No, it's not.’ So, we found what it what it was, and we just went out and backed it up.”

Cindric Pours Cool Water on Ganassi Pace

Team Penske President Tim Cindric watched rival Chip Ganassi Racing win the Indianapolis 500 last year and look a juggernaut, with Marcus Ericsson earning a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy and Scott Dixon leading a race-high 95 laps from pole.

That was last year. Cindric wasn’t too concerned about the early pace put up this week by Ganassi, which placed 1-2 in practices Wednesday and Thursday, while a lone Penske driver found the top five in each of the two days.

“It’s so close right now,” Cindric said. “Draft speeds, we can go do a 229 (mph lap) if we hang back far enough the past two days, so I think that's circumstantial in the past few days. I don't really think that it's a big indicator until you get to Friday. Today you'll start to see a bit more of that and then over the weekend, obviously.

“I think it's early days. Certainly, they're going to be tough, without a doubt, but as far as assessing where we are, I think the past couple days are more about getting the confidence for these three guys in race trim and being able to actually pass the cars that probably aren't as fast as you.

“I think here it's really, really difficult to pass the fast cars unless they're leading. But the key for the race really is to be able to get by the ones that are struggling a couple miles an hour slower than you are, and we couldn't do that the past couple years confidently.

“I think they can talk to that a bit, but that's kind of where our focus has been as far as how you can follow and how you can pass rather than kind of what the overall lap time is. I think most cars out here, given the right tow, can go 229 in the past couple days.”

Sato put Ganassi on top again at the end of Friday’s practice, rolling to a single lap best of 234.753 mph in the No. 11 Deloitte Honda. Ganassi also had Ericsson in fourth at 234.029 in the No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda. The top Team Penske driver was Josef Newgarden in sixth at 233.767 in the No. 2 Shell Powering Progress Team Penske Chevrolet.

Odds & Ends

  • A trio of engineers – Selda Gunsel, Ph.D., Bassem Kheireddin, Ph.D. and Jung Fang, Ph.D. – were honored with the Louis Schwitzer Award for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ Shell 100% Renewable Race Fuel. In addition to the award, BorgWarner and the Indiana Section of the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International presented the three Shell representatives with a $10,000 prize, which will be donated to a charitable organization.
  • During the post practice press conference, both Pato O’Ward and Kyle Kirkwood looked at a nearby TV as the qualifying draw took place. O’Ward had a “little Pato fan” pull 22nd, which wasn’t ideal, but the Arrow McLaren driver yelled out, “I still love you, buddy,” at the TV. An Andretti Autosport team member drew 30th for Kirkwood, which left him saying, “C’mon, Dave,” before remaining upbeat despite the lackluster number as he walked out of the DEX Imaging Media Center.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay brought his sons – Ryden, Rocsen and Rhodes – to the qualifying draw stage, with Rhodes drawing the preferred No. 1 before being hoisted in the air in celebration by his 2014 Indy 500-winning father.