They don’t call it “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for nothing.
There are newfound benchmarks recorded for the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500 well before the first green flag flies Sunday afternoon.
For starters, the crown jewel of the NTT IndyCar Series will be raced outside the traditional Memorial Day Weekend, a direct result of reshuffling a 2020 schedule that currently reaches the back half of an adjusted 12-race docket.
Also, and for the second time at an IndyCar race this season, the feature at the 2.5-mile historical oval will be held in front of no spectators. The series, along with officials from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced the pandemic-affected restriction on August 4.
This setback was nothing new for the open-wheeled series as their early-June opener at Texas Motor Speedway recorded an identical turnout of zero.
Finally, with the switch on the calendar to a late-summer start, the Indy 500’s first lap is set for 1:30 p.m. St. Louis time, which is 150 minutes later than normal.
Even with these new COVID-parameters in place, the 33 talented drivers manning machines that push speeds past 225 mph are ready to put on a show. Plus, there are plenty of individual narratives to watch for.
Marco Andretti (Andretti Herta Autosport w/ Marco & Curb-Agajanian) propelled the No. 98 Honda this past Sunday to his first-ever Indy 500 pole position with a top speed of 231.068 mph.
The family’s namesake is synonymous with the open-wheeled sport. His grandfather, racing legend Mario Andretti, won the Indy 500 pole in 1966, 1967 and 1987 and claimed the family’s lone victory at the Brickyard in 1969.
Marco’s father (and car co-owner) Michael holds the current benchmark for the most Indy 500 laps led without achieving victory.
On an emotional side, Marco’s cousin John, who passed away this past January due to colon cancer, competed at twelve Indy 500s.
Marco’s highest career finish at Indy was a runner-up spot charted during his 2006 rookie season. If the third-generation pilot snares checkered flags Sunday, it would be his first IndyCar victory since 2011’s Iowa Corn Indy 250 and will etch his third overall.
“This place means so much to us as a family,” said Andretti of the track. “We’ve just been through so many ups and downs at this place. Obviously, my cousin John is riding with me, my grandfather from home. We know family is pulling for us. We live and breathe this sport, this race in particular.”
Andretti, whose highest finish this season was tenth at the series’ last race in Iowa July 18, currently sits 21st in the current points standings.
Meanwhile, current series points leader Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) starts in the middle of the front row.
The defending series champ, whose only career Indy 500 victory was twelve years ago, has claimed checkered flags at half of the six races held this season and currently holds a 49-point lead (244-195) over last year’s Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske).
“It’s going to be a tough race,” Dixon said. “I think, as always, it’s not just of the driver, but strategy is going to have to be on point. The pit stops, everything, is going to be extremely tight. It’s never one thing. It’s a multiple of many that gets you the victory. Plus you always want a little bit of luck on your side, too.”
Filling out Sunday’s front row is 2017 Indy 500 champ Takuma Sato (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), who won the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 last August in Madison. He currently sits 17th in points as has yet to record a podium finish this season.
“We appreciate that the Speedway and IndyCar made this 500 happen even without spectators,” Sato said. “I think all over the world (fans) will be excited to watch the race.”
Pagenaud, last season’s Indy 500 winner, claimed the series title in 2016 and was runner-up in 2019. He’s been steady in 2020 with one victory and three trips to the podium.
“I think to me obviously my number one goal is Indy every year,” said Pagenaud. “Now that we’re in that month, all I think about is Indy. I don’t really think championship any more. I did think championship in the first few races, but at this point Indy is my main goal.”
The veteran Team Penske four-car field this Sunday looks to dominate the Hoosier State. Josef Newgarden closely sits third in the standings (191) and has one win on the season while Will Power currently stands fifth (142) thanks to a pair of second place finishes.
“Well, I’m confident,” Newgarden said. “Every race I go into, I feel like we can win it. You always got to have that attitude. The 500 is no different.”
Other potential winners in the field is paced by Former Indy Lights champ Pato O’ Ward (Arrow McLaren SP), who currently sits fourth in the standings (162), Felix Rosenqvist (Chip Ganassi Racing), who claimed checkered flags in Wisconsin earlier this season, and Colton Herta (Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport), who has netted five Top Tens during his sophomore season.
“It’s very humbling, to be honest,” said O’Ward. “I think it’s a really cool opportunity to be able to try and do the best for my country (Mexico), for my people, as I’ve always tried in every single race that I compete.”
“The depth of the field, it’s just so high,” added Rosenqvist.
Five Indy 500 rookies will be a part of the 11-row field but some familiar IndyCar faces that have not tasted current success are primed to reach the winner’s circle.
At the forefront are full-time racers that ceremoniously drank milk at the conclusion of the 200-lap sprint: Alexander Rossi (2016) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (2014).
Whoever claims victory Sunday will surely be an odds-on favorite heading into the next set of races that takes place at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway the following weekend.
Sunday’s coverage on NBC begins at noon.
The twin-billed Bommarito Automotive Group 500 races in Madison, Illinois Saturday and Sunday, August 29 & 30.
Arch City Media will have a recap of the Indy 500 on late-Sunday.