James Hinchcliffe was a surprising pole winner, but where do you see him ending up as he drives for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports?
Mike Neff: This is the Indianapolis 500. Cinderella stories, surprises and disappointments are strewn across the history like carbon fiber shards after a turn one impact. He has to survive the 200 laps and his crew has to have minimal miscues. While he probably won’t win the race, there is no doubt he can pull off a top 10 run. As much as we’d like to think he can win the race from the point, the odds are pretty steep for that team.
Toni Montgomery: Hinch’s pole win was a great story–the track that nearly killed him a year ago and the little team that slew the giants. However, let’s be realistic. Looking back, this team has never won this race and actually only has a few top 10 finishes to their credit. Granted for many years it was the only race they ran in the series, and that’s a hard thing to do, but they have fielded at least one car full time since 2011 and in that span, their best finish was an 8th with Simon Pagenaud in 2013. I think that makes them a dark horse at best.
Huston Ladner: Simple answer – no. Just having Hinch back in the car is somewhat of a miracle. Him winning the pole just makes that story better. But it’s rather doubtful that he’ll be hoisting the big trophy at the end of the day. What a Disney story it would be if he were, though.
Aaron Bearden: It’s hard to say for sure. The Hondas were surprisingly fast through the first week, but you have to think that Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and others will make their presence known once the green flag flies. Right now Hinchcliffe’s best hopes are to try to stay inside of the top five throughout the first 150 laps of the race. If he’s within sight of the leader in the final 100-125 miles, anything can happen.
Alex Tagliani made the race without posting a qualifying time. With Bump Day already eliminated, is there a chance that this may be one of the last fields with 33 cars?
Neff: It is hard to say. There will most likely always be 33 cars in the field because the series and the engine manufacturers want there to be. The real question is can bumping become relevant again. If the engines and cars were available it could be possible but, at this point, there are only a handful of cars over the 33 total and the big teams have those extra cars as backups. In the end it is whether the sanctioning body wants the 500 to have the intrigue of bumping or if the race itself is good enough.
Toni: We’ve been expecting the short field for years and not seen it yet, although to be honest there has been some scraping going on the last few years to make sure there are 33 cars, let alone any extras to actually have bumping. It’s just not the old days when anyone can toss together a car and come race. We’re talking about a series that fields just over 20 cars most weeks. Adding that to the first point, isn’t it kind of amazing we’ve not had less than 33 yet?
Huston: It could happen. The question really relies on things like the TV contract and what the non-regulars are able to do with regard to putting together a team each year. The first part looks at what ABC sets forth in their language of the contract and what a full field is. That second aspect seems to be becoming more and more difficult, so it might not be too long until it happens.
Aaron: I wouldn’t go that far just yet. Remember that a 34th team – Grace Autosport – also had their eyes on running the event until their plan fell through in the final weeks leading up to the race. There may not be another bump day for a few years to come, but with the prestige surrounding the Indy 500 it’s hard to imagine less than 33 teams showing up for the next few years. In the same way that NASCAR can always count on a full field for the Daytona 500, IndyCar should be able to expect a full 33-car paddock for Indianapolis.
Much has been made of the new aero package in IndyCar. How do you see it playing out during the 500 – more passing, less, none?
Neff: The aero package will be fine for the 500. You’ll see plenty of passing and drivers making moves at different times of the race. As with any 500, you have to balance speed with handling. There will be more downforce on the cars in the race than when they qualified. Teams will tweak the car during the race and, in the end, the cars that handle the best will be at the front. It is like any other race anywhere.
Toni: You know I kind of hate this question because we have to ask it every single year because they always change these things, even if they had a fabulous race the year before. The car has not fundamentally changed so if we hit on a package that works, why don’t we stay with it so we don’t have to keep wondering what kind of race we are going to have? Or for that matter, risk having a package that makes the race a dud.
Huston: Probably about the same. With cars traveling at these speeds there’s just no way that one tailing another doesn’t get a draft advantage at some point and is able to pull around – of course, the trailing car has to be able to keep up. But the package for this race should bring out racing similar to last year’s.
Aaron: There should be less passing overall, through it may not show as much on television. The new aero package has lent itself to issues back in the field. The fear in the paddock is that making passes deep in the field – where turbulence is at its highest – could be a challenge. However, giving how exciting the practice sessions leading up to the race have been, there should be a fair share of passing come Sunday.
The 500 has received its fair share of hype, and deservedly so, yet one aspect not discussed is that field is comprised of open wheel and sports car veterans with nary a NASCAR driver to be seen. Does the series no longer need this kind of crossover or does this have to do with the historic running of the race?
Neff: NASCAR drivers in the 500 has generally been a novelty over the years. Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch were more exceptions to the rule. Just as there were no current IndyCar drivers in the Daytona 500, that is not a need but a luxury for the sport. The 100th running of the race is a milestone event and the crowd that is going to be in the stands will be a flashback to 1995, before the split that ultimately crushed the popularity of the upper echelon of open wheel racing. The hope is that this momentum can carry forward, draw more companies into the sport which translates to more teams, more cars, and a resurgence of open wheel popularity.
Toni: The days of the NASCAR/IndyCar crossover are a long way behind us. There have been those few–most recently Kurt Busch, but it’s the one-off, the rarity, and it’s treated with a circus atmosphere as such. That’s not the way it used to be. Drivers like Foyt and others crossed back and forth, not just at Indy, but at other places too, if the opportunity and a seat presented itself. It’s a different world now. Drivers need to focus on their chosen series, not just racing wherever the opportunity arises. Plus there are corporate relationships involved. It’s just not as simple as it used to be. I don’t think that IndyCar really needs it either. I think there are plenty of good stories to go around without the NASCAR drivers.
Huston: It’s actually a bonus that there are no NASCAR drivers in the field. If there were, they would be stealing some of the headlines and the focus should be on these drivers who don’t compete in the other series. That Brian Vickers couldn’t put together a ride should say something.
Aaron: I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I wanted to Brian Vickers to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports rumors to come true. It’s not that IndyCar needs that level of crossover story for the event to be successful – 350,000 fans prove this to be the case – but a driver doing “The Double” adds an extra layer of excitement that only benefits both series. It would’ve been nice to see a Sprint Cup Series driver make an attempt at it for the 100th running.
Which driver could attract nationwide/worldwide attention with a win? Why?
Neff: Carlos Munoz. Munoz is a young, marketable driver who has a win in IndyCar, albeit a rain shortened road course victory. He was part of the amazing four wide finish in Indy Lights at Indianapolis in 2013. Munoz is Brazilian, and their sport fans are some of the most passionate in the world. A victory for Munoz in this historic event could catapult the young driver to superstardom in his home country and around the world.
Toni: Just one? I have a few actually. Hinchcliffe, of course, for the same reason his pole win was a big story–the accident. Stefan Wilson (who is a really really longshot here) because he is a sentimental favorite because everyone loved his brother. Castroneves because he joins a very small club of four-time winners. I’d toss Graham Rahal in there because his run at the championship last year caused a stir–mostly because he’s American and people seem really drawn to him–he’s popular. Marco Andretti is not going to win so no, not Marco. (I’m just joking with that, sort of.)
Huston: Well, Toni, I was going to go with Marco. The Andretti brand name is still one with a lot of recognition and would bring excitement. Otherwise, Hinchcliffe and Rahal may be two of the others that would be great for the series.
Aaron: I feel like any driver could with the significance of this race. However, if you’re looking for a name that would bring the most buzz, it has to be Marco Andretti. The name Andretti is as symbolic as any in the IndyCar paddock, and their winless “curse” over the last five decades has been well documented. Marco’s failed to measure up to his legendary father and grandfather thus far in his career, but adding his face to the Borg-Warner Trophy would close up a lot of ground quickly, and turn quite a few heads in the process.
Neff: Will Power is finally going to put it all together at Indianapolis and win the 500. After his victory lap he’s going to stop at the yard of bricks and throw the double bird to the sky in the beginning of a new tradition at Indianapolis. Helio Castroneves will finish second, again, by .03 seconds. Graham Rahal rounds out the podium. Spencer Pigot is going to run a smart, clean race and win the Rookie of the Race.
Toni: Scott Dixon. No one is paying any attention to Scott Dixon. He tends to win when that happens.
Huston: Not sure why, but something tells me that Helio Castroneves ekes this one out. As for rookie of the race, why not Alexander Rossi (which means that I’ve now predicted he’ll crash out early).