Why Pole Day at Indianapolis is still one of racing’s greatest days

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So, you’re wondering if Indianapolis 500 Pole Day still registers? Let me explain the ways it does.

  • Pole at Indy gets you a week’s worth of media attention and spotlight usually reserved only for race winners. In some respects, pole at Indy gets more attention than some race wins over the course of the season.
  • The format has changed to where you need to register not one, but at least two perfect runs to score the pole position.
  • Every starting position pays points, which could make the difference at the end of the season.
  • It’s the toughest 4 laps and 2 minutes, 40 seconds an IndyCar driver will do all year.

Here’s what you can see, with qualifying on Saturday on the NBC Sports Network at 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. ET, and Sunday at noon ET. Qualifying will also be live streamed both days on NBC Sports Live Extra for mobile devices.

The build-up to Pole Day at Indy has been reduced in recent years, but come today, it’s all out preparation. One day of dialing in qualifying setups, thanks to the extra boost provided by IndyCar to the two engine manufacturers, will see the field truly “on it” for the first time all week.

The format of qualifying has evolved from where each car only had three attempts total for the month, to having multiple attempts per day. That may make it seem like there’s less pressure in that if you screw up, you have more chances to redeem yourself. But what it can do is amplify the pressure because you can take multiple shots at the pole, if you and the team so desire.

Qualifying begins Saturday morning and after several hours, the top 24 on the grid will be set and the fastest nine advance to a 90-minute shootout. There, all nine cars will have at least one attempt for the pole, slotted from slowest to fastest. And once they’re all through, if anyone cares to have a crack at P1, they can go for it.

And to explain the magnitude, again, of an Indy pole, look no further than last year’s polesitter, Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe almost certainly earned more attention on a national level for taking the pole here than he did for winning the race at Sonoma at August, which strangely, marks the last race a Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing-entered car won in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Briscoe should be among those with a chance on Saturday. He has the motivation of wanting to beat Penske, his former team, as he’s back in the Ganassi stable this month.

But when you factor in the quintet of Andretti Autosport drivers, the veterans from Penske and Ganassi, the rising stars of the sport like Takuma Sato, JR Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden or veterans like Tony Kanaan, Alex Tagliani and Oriol Servia, you suddenly have anywhere from 15 to 20 drivers who could contend for the fast nine. And from there, you have to boil it down even further to find a possible polesitter.

There are no guarantees. But there is prestige for whoever secures the top spot.

Rick Mears is perhaps the Speedway’s greatest master. He’s one of three four-time race winners, and a legend alone in qualifying as the only driver in history with six poles. In an interview he did with the IMS website in 2011 for its list of “The Greatest 33” in Indy history, he explained the magnitude of pole at Indianapolis.

“Qualifying at Indy is the pressure cooker of anything I’ve ever done,” he said at the time. “The race is 500 miles to get it sorted. But qualifying is intense – that is, if you’re in the hunt. You have to run four laps – not just the best of two. You’ve got four laps and there’s no doing it over. If you blow one corner, you’ve blown all four laps. That’s the pressure cooker, but I loved it. It’s the most pressure but the most fun. In the race, you just see what you have and then dial it from there.”

Mears is a champion, a gentleman, and perhaps the greatest sage when it comes to those four laps on Pole Day. Nail it right this year, and you’ll be entered into history among the greats on Saturday at Indianapolis.

NBC Sports Network’s Indy 500 Qualifying Coverage (subject to change, all times ET):

Date Coverage Time Commentators
Sat., May 18 Qualifying 11 a.m. Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton
Sat., May 18 Qualifying 4:30 p.m. Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton
Sun., May 19 Qualifying Noon Leigh Diffey, Gil de Ferran, Jon Beekhuis, Kevin Lee, Marty Snider, Robin Miller, Will Buxton

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.