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Sunday’s Indy 500 Features Strongest Field Yet

by Brian Ledford

If a word was to accurately describe the current status of the NTT IndyCar Series as it heads into Sunday’s 105th  running of the Indianapolis 500, it would be “parity.”

Photo Credit: IndyCar – Chris Owens

Through five of sixteen races of the open-wheeled franchise’s 2021 docket, each saw a different driver claim checkered flags and three of those have been first-time winners.

Considering that in this weekend’s 33-car mix are nine active drivers that have previously drank milk at the finish line following victory, this could potentially be its most intriguing one yet.

The green flag for the 200-lap show case at the 2.5-mile oval drops at 11:45 a.m. (St. Louis time) with coverage seen locally on KSDK, Channel 5 beginning at 10 a.m.

Defending series champ and current points leader Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) holds Sunday’s pole after last weekend’s shoot out where he propelled the No. 9 PNC Honda to a top speed of 231.685 MPH.

Photo Credit: IndyCar – Chris Owens

Dixon won the Gensys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month and seeks his second Indy 500 after claiming his first triumph in 2008.

“It’s goal number one,” the 40-year-old Kiwi said. “I think it’s the first goal that we set for the team all year first, then you focus on the championship. Yeah, that’s never changed. I think the first time you step onto this place, come with one of the best teams, that’s the obvious sort of goal for us to try and achieve that.”

The middle of Row 1 finds 21-year-old Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport w/Agajanian), who finished Sunday’s positioning round .020 MPH behind Dixon. He won April’s race in St. Petersburg and seeks his first-ever Indy 500 win.

Just the lone fact that he gets to start in the front row against one of his idols is personal achievement enough.

“I remember when I was eating Cheerios at eight years old and Scott Dixon was winning the Indy 500,” he reminisced. “It is kind of crazy to see the guys you’re watching on TV you get to race against now. It’s incredible. Yeah, just can’t wait for Sunday, to see what we can do.”

Photo Credit: IndyCar – Chris Owens

Outside Row 1 is a pilot that has even less tenure than Herta, 20-year-old Rinus Veekay (Ed Carpenter Racing), who claimed his first-ever IndyCar win at the GMR Grand Prix two weekend’s ago at IMS’ road course configuration.

“I was the fastest teenager in Indy 500 history last year,” he said. “Now I’m the youngest (in) front row. I’m over the moon with front row, super happy. I think we can definitely go for a 500 win from here.”

In the NTT IndyCar Series points standings, Dixon currently sports an 176-163 edge over Ganassi teammate Alex Palou, who starts the No. 10 NTT Data outside Row 2. Palou won the series opener in Alabama, which was his first career victory. His natural talent, alongside his addition this season to the dominant Ganassi camp, makes him a viable favorite Sunday afternoon.

“They’ve been champions,” Palou said of the alliance. “I’m learning a lot from them. It’s been super fun doing some runs together with them, like they are always the fastest cars. I’m able to run with them, to exchange comments with them. It’s been super good for me.”

Finishing out Row 2, veteran Ed Carpenter, who finished runner-up in 2018, sits inside and seeks his first-ever win while Tony Kanaan, who won the 2013 race, starts in the middle in his part-time ride with Chip Ganassi Racing and will be racing in the No. 48 American Legion Honda.

“Every time I’m in that car, I’m proud to represent them,” Kanaan said. “It has our nation’s colors. I’ll be fighting. Trust me, I’ll be fighting with everything I can to give the 48 team and the American Legion a win.”

Another notable to watch Sunday is three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves (Meyer Shank Racing), who starts in the middle of Row 3. The 46-year-old Brazilian that won the 2001, 2002 and 2009 races clocked in at over 230 MPH during qualifications.

Among other returning Indy 500 champions, last year’s winner Takuma Sato (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) starts outside Row 5, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport) starts inside Row 3 and teammate, 2016 winner Alexander Rossi, starts inside Row 4.

Meanwhile, two-time winner (2000, 2015) Juan Pablo Montoya (Arrow McLaren SP) starts outside Row 8 as 2019 winner Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske) starts in the middle of Row 9 while team mate, 2018 winner Will Power, just barely qualified and starts in the middle of the final row.

In the season’s points chase, Josef Newgarden (Team Penske), who currently sits in third place overall (148, -28), starts outside Row 7 while Pato O’Ward (Arrow McLaren SP) currently holds fourth (146, -30) and starts outside Row 4.

For the rookies starting Sunday, Pietro Fittipaldi (Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) starts inside Row 5 while Scott McLaughlin (Team Penske) starts in the middle of Row 6.

One additional driver to watch this is Simona de Silvestro, whose No 16. Paretta Autosport Chevy will start from the back of the pack but will be a crowd favorite as a majority of the pit crew and engineers will be female.

Sunday’s race returns to its traditional Memorial Day Weekend placement in front of spectators after being forced into a pandemic-affected event held last August that was restricted to zero patrons.

In traditional form, the Indy 500 has always been a spectacle. With the event’s return to fans and the talent involved on the track, open-wheeled racing’s shining gem should return to past brightness again.

For more on the NTT IndyCar Series, go their official website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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