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100 days out from Indy 500, questions abound to get to 33 cars

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Today marks 100 days until the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

In those 100 days, there’s going to be a heck of a lot of questions and documenting exactly how the field will get to 33 cars this year.

It will, as it always has, but for the first time since the North American open-wheel merger in 2008 there seems to be fewer confirmed cars for this time of year.

Here’s what we know will be happening from what we’ve gathered and what’s already been announced:

You can count 21 expected full-season cars:

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (4): Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, Max Chilton
  • Team Penske (4): Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud
  • Andretti Autosport (4): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, TBA
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2): James Hinchcliffe, Mikhail Aleshin
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2): Takuma Sato, Jack Hawksworth
  • Dale Coyne Racing (2): Conor Daly, TBA
  • KVSH Racing (1): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1): Graham Rahal
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (1): Josef Newgarden

Then we factor in the cars that have already been announced as extras for either the month of May only or selected races:

  • Dale Coyne Racing (1): Bryan Clauson
  • PIRTEK Team Murray (KVRT technical alliance) (1): Matthew Brabham
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1): Spencer Pigot
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (1): Ed Carpenter
  • Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (1): Sage Karam
  • Grace Autosport (1): Katherine Legge

Grace, as we noted last week in an interview with team principal Beth Paretta, is at an important stage in its race to make the field – it will need a team technical partnership and an engine partner to be determined probably by early next month.

From the aforementioned 27 cars, the six extras joining the 21 full-season, here’s the projected engine breakdown:

  • Honda (13): Andretti 4, Coyne 3, SPM 2, Foyt 2, RLL 2
  • Chevrolet (13): Ganassi 4, Penske 4, Carpenter 2, KVSH 1, PIRTEK 1, DRR 1
  • TBD (1): Grace

The engine numbers are vitally important here. If Honda and Chevrolet can provide up to a total of 17 engine leases apiece – Honda’s Steve Eriksen has already told MotorSportsTalk that’s it’s likely target – that means there’s only four remaining engine leases per manufacturer still available.

For it being only February 19, Honda’s four “extras” as you were beyond the 13 that we know are confirmed could already be accounted for.

In recent years, Andretti, Schmidt Peterson and Foyt have each run an extra car at the Indianapolis 500. Even with Thursday’s news that Andretti Autosport and Bryan Herta Autosport have partnered, Andretti still has the capabilities to add a fifth car.

It’s a de facto net loss of one potential extra car between the two of them. Andretti accounted for five cars in 2015 (Hunter-Reay, Andretti, Munoz, Simona de Silvestro and the late Justin Wilson) and Herta one (Gabby Chaves).

Then, if you factor in a potential fourth Coyne entry for Pippa Mann, as was not-quite-confirmed-but-strongly-suggested in December, that coupled with the same three teams adding one car each would take Honda up to 17, and its potential limit.

The Chevrolet teams tend to keep their cards closer to their vest. Ganassi has added an extra car each of the last three years, for Ryan Briscoe (2013), Karam (2014, DRR with Ganassi technical support) and Sebastian Saavedra (2015). Carpenter, KV and DRR could have the potential to add extras as well. But whether Ganassi goes to five and/or Carpenter and KV goes to three this year remains to be seen. Buddy Lazier’s family-run team has been present at each of the last three Indianapolis 500s, but failed to qualify last year.

Assuming Grace Autosport secures its lease and a team partnership, that removes one extra spot at either manufacturer and limits the number to three remaining leases, again if 17 is what we’re going for to make 34 cars and thus one over the limit of 33.

Then you get to the drivers who could be in the frame for seats, again, based on past history.

  • 2015 Indianapolis 500 drivers not currently announced (13): JR Hildebrand, Ryan Briscoe, Townsend Bell, Gabby Chaves, Alex Tagliani, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro, Pippa Mann, Sebastian Saavedra, Stefano Coletti, James Davison, Tristan Vautier, Oriol Servia
  • Young guns of note seeking to make their way in (3-plus): Stefan Wilson, Jack Harvey, Alexander Rossi, others TBD
  • Other veterans who’d be keen to race: TBD, but they’re out there

Bell, Mann and Saavedra have generally, consistently assembled programs to make their Indianapolis 500 dreams come true.

Of the others in that 2015 range, Tagliani or Servia are solid veterans who can help a team, Chaves is a rising talent now left sidelined, Vautier impressed in limited running last year at the Speedway and Hildebrand could well be in the frame too.

Where they fit is the question, and where the other cars come from for the race is also a question.

It’s going to likely be an interesting next 30 days, as the countdown to the 100th hits 100 today.

Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”