Despite its tinkering, Indianapolis 500 qualifying format looks great this Monday


Whether it’s been one weekend, two weekends, different days, different formats or different point systems, there has been one part of Indianapolis 500 qualifying that has remained entirely intact:

One driver. Four laps. And pure courage.

And in the wake of Sunday’s – at best, controversial until the end – new Daytona 500 group qualifying format, Indy’s qualifying format looks way better than the other marquee 500-mile race in this country.

Single-car qualifying may not be the most exciting thing to watch in this fast-paced, quick-cut day and age.

But when single-car runs represent the tradition and the story of the event, when the drama is associated with one car making the most of its effort for the pole position or even just to make the race, it’s somewhat baffling to change that format to something different.

For Indy qualifying, there are few things more exciting or dramatic to watch than one driver, working in tandem with his or her crew, hanging it all out on the line over four laps, at more than 225 or 230 mph.

The palpable sense of anxiousness permeates the stands – even if the crowds aren’t what they once were –  when it comes to wondering whether a car or driver will be able to pull out “the run.”

The single-car, “all eyes on you” format gives the driver the full stage, the team the full stage and the sponsor – the entity (or entities) paying for the opportunity – the full stage.

To quote Eminem, you have one shot, one opportunity to seek everything you ever wanted.

For qualifying, it’s about nailing that run. You step out of your car after four laps in Indy, knowing you either gave it everything you had or left tenths of seconds – and extra mph – on the table.

You rue every missed moment. You kick yourself and hope you can step it up for your next shot, given that there are multiple attempts per car.

The Indy 500 qualifying format of single driver and four laps was so popular at one point it was adopted for all IndyCar oval races… and it flopped.

Traditions remain traditions because they stand the test of time. Change is needed only when staleness and blandness sets in, or when something is deemed “not exciting enough” for the sake of entertainment.

NASCAR was bold enough to try a different qualifying format Sunday for the Daytona 500, and you do have to give them credit for thinking it could be more entertaining. To some, it was.

But between the slingshot effects, waiting until the last minutes to run, the speed differential, crashes and almost universally unpopular opinions coming in from its own drivers, it was obvious to see it was not a step in the right direction.

Daytona 500 qualifying used to be about horsepower… crews… and which engine shop did the best work in the winter. Sunday’s session was Russian Roulette, almost all about luck rather than outright pace.

If the Indianapolis 500 qualifying format was to go in a similar direction, I’m sure there’d be a similar uprising and outrage.

I’ll leave it to Dale Earnhardt Jr. to sum things up:

IndyCar Power Rankings: Pato O’Ward moves to the top entering Texas Motor Speedway


The NBC Sports IndyCar power rankings naturally were as jumbled as the action on the streets of St. Petersburg after a chaotic opener to the 2023 season.

Pato O’Ward, who finished second because of an engine blip that cost him the lead with a few laps remaining, moves into the top spot ahead of St. Pete winner Marcus Ericsson and Alexander Rossi, who finished fourth in his Arrow McLaren debut. Scott Dixon and St. Pete pole-sitter Romain Grosjean (who led 31 laps) rounded out the top five.

St. Pete pole-sitter Romain Grosjean (who started first at St. Pete after capturing his second career pole position) Callum Ilott (a career-best fifth) and Graham Rahal entered the power rankings entering the season’s second race.

Three drivers fell out of the preseason top 10 after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – including previously top-ranked Josef Newgarden, who finished 17th after qualifying 14th.

Heading into Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, here’s NBC Sports’ assessment of the current top 10 drivers through the first of 17 races this year (with previous preseason rankings in parenthesis):

NBC Sports’ IndyCar Power Rankings

1. Pato O’Ward (5) – If not for the dreaded “plenum event” in the No. 5 Chevrolet, the Arrow McLaren driver is opening the season with a victory capping a strong race weekend.

2. Marcus Ericsson (7) – He might be the most opportunistic driver in IndyCar, but that’s because the 2022 Indy 500 winner has become one of the series’ fastest and most consistent stars.

3. Alexander Rossi (10) – He overcame a frustrating Friday and mediocre qualifying to open his Arrow McLaren career with the sort of hard-earned top five missing in his last years at Andretti.

4. Scott Dixon (3) – Put aside his opening-lap skirmish with former teammate Felix Rosenqvist, and it was a typically stealthily good result for the six-time champion.

5. Romain Grosjean (NR) – The St. Petersburg pole-sitter consistently was fastest on the streets of St. Petersburg over the course of the race weekend, which he couldn’t say once last year.

6. Scott McLaughlin (6) – Easily the best of the Team Penske drivers before his crash with Grosjean, McLaughlin drove like a legitimate 2023 championship contender.

7. Callum Ilott (NR) – A quietly impressive top five for the confident Brit in Juncos Hollinger Racing’s first race as a two-car team. Texas will be a big oval litmus test.

8. Graham Rahal (NR) – Sixth at St. Pete, Rahal still has the goods on street courses, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan remains headed in the right direction.

9. Alex Palou (4) – He seemed a step behind Ericsson and Dixon in the race after just missing the Fast Six in qualifying, but this was a solid start for Palou.

10. Will Power (2) – An uncharacteristic mistake that crashed Colton Herta put a blemish on the type of steady weekend that helped him win the 2022 title.

Falling out (last week): Josef Newgarden (1), Colton Herta (8), Christian Lundgaard (9)