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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Indy 500: To Lead or Not to Lead?

Want to win the Indianapolis 500?

The best strategy may be to lead as few laps as possible. While that might sound unconventional from the accepted norms of racing, staying in the draft and conserving fuel might be the key to winning The Greatest Spectacle in Racing on Sunday afternoon.

Those who lead laps and stay in clean air face stronger wind resistance, and thus, burn more fuel during the course of a green-flag run. Recent Indianapolis 500s have been decided on a series of late-race restarts and pit stops, but the race is traditionally contested with minimal cautions, providing the chance to save fuel at the possible cost of track position.

That may be the best bet for Honda who can’t match Chevrolet in pure speed but hopes that lack of horsepower may result in increased fuel mileage, according to Indy vet Alex Tagliani.

“Chevy has created this aero kit that seems to work well without too much wing and Honda has to work with a car that carries more wing above the car, which decreases speed and creates more drag but there are a lot of positives with the Honda package as well,” he said. “You have to get the most out of it, we have a good car and in traffic I was really happy with it and maybe we have better mileage too.

“At the end of the day, this is 8-9 stop race and if you have good fuel mileage we can make things happen. Don’t underestimate that you’re only going to see who can win this race until the final handful of laps.”

The other problem with leading at Indianapolis is that the DW12 chassis punches such a huge hole in the air that it’s been easier to pass in recent years with the lead change number ranging from 32 to 68 to 34 over the past three seasons.

The introduction of aero kits hasn’t drastically changed that perception according to defending IndyCar Series champion Will Power.

“If you lead, anyone can pass you,” Power said. “It’s not until lap 150 that you start to turn it up. When there’s one [pit] stop left to go, that’s when it’s time to go.”

His teammate, Helio Castroneves, says warmer weather may make it more difficult to pass with decreased grip offsetting the draft.

“Right now the weather is becoming a very sensitive with these aero kits, more than usual,” he said.

At the end of the day, the honor of leading the Indianapolis 500 may negate any strategy concerns – at least in the first half of the race when it hasn’t been made clear how the remainder of the race may play out.

“I’ll gladly sit out front and lead,” defending winner Ryan Hunter-Reay added. “That’s no problem.

“The air coming off the back of the car is cleaner this year. It is taking these cars a lot longer to pick up the draft. Before, if you saw another car in the same short chute as you, you’d be under his gearbox in one lap. If you had a car on the same straightaway as you, you’d be able to pull in the draft. Now, it takes three to four times as long to pull that same gap.”

No one in the recent history of the 500-Mile Race has led more laps than Marco Andretti. Should he lead 126 laps on Sunday without winning, he will move into second all-time for the most laps led without winning the Borg-Warner Trophy.

The leader of that distinctive group? His father and team owner Mario Andretti. With that said, the younger Andretti will try to lead laps because ultimately, he’s a racecar driver and that’s what he (and his grandfather, Mario) is want to do.

“If you have a good car you should stay at the front, you should want to be at the front,” Andretti said. “My grandfather goes absolutely nuts when he sees we have to back off and give up the lead.

“That’s his biggest thing. He says, ‘If you can lead this thing, you lead.’ And I agree.”