PREVIEW: Track temps, unpredictability set to define 100th Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – The story of the Indianapolis 500 largely revolves around Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, who have won 10 of the last 16 ‘500s dating to the year 2000.

That year, 2000, was the year Ganassi returned to the Brickyard, the first team to break ranks with CART at the time.

The driver who won in 2000 for Ganassi – Juan Pablo Montoya – is also the driver who won in 2015 – then with Penske. He’s the only driver to have won the race for both teams. He set the longest gap in-between wins in the process.

And it’s with this as a preamble that we now say this about the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing:

It ain’t gonna be a straight Penske and Ganassi show.

And for the betterment of the race and the Verizon IndyCar Series, that is the best possible story line heading into the event.

Consider just some of the possibilities at play:

  • Either of the first two starters, James Hinchcliffe and Josef Newgarden, would be a popular first-time winner. Hinchcliffe completes his would-be movie script or Newgarden fulfills his undoubted promise as America’s next great hope.
  • Other past one-time winners – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan – enter the two-timer club. Or Montoya wins his third, to go three in four attempts.
  • Helio Castroneves finally fulfills his destiny as the fourth member of Indy’s four-timer club.
  • Legacy names Marco Andretti or Graham Rahal get their overdue first ‘500 win, Andretti 47 years after Mario in 1969 or Rahal, 30 years after Bobby in 1986 (he has a thing for winning things, 30 years after his dad).
  • Points leader Simon Pagenaud carries his ridiculous, bonkers, start to 2016 into his first ‘500 win after a strangely anonymous time on the oval.
  • NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, 2011’s almost man JR Hildebrand, popular Catalan Oriol Servia or wild but talented kid Sage Karam wins one for the one-offers.
  • Perhaps one of the five talented rookies steals the race. At the very least, there’s an intriguing subplot of who wins that.
  • Honda bounces back from its disastrous 2015 race and lives up to the hype and promise it’s shown thus far.
  • The “infamous” domed skids accomplish their goal of making cars harder to drive.
  • And more than any of those particular driver angles comes another two words: track temperature. Track temperature calls the shots, because if it’s hot and sunny it’s gonna be slick out and the Firestone tires will go off. Versus if it’s cooler, cloudy and overcast, it’ll change the game entirely.

If you think about who could win it, there’s not one clear-cut name.

Even the Penske guys aren’t particularly pleased with how things have shaken out thus far.

Says Power, who will start sixth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet: “Yeah I guess it’s been a slow year you could say for me. I am flying under the radar a little bit.

“But I’ve felt pretty good. If you stack on too much drag, you’ll be slow. The tough thing is picking the right amount and not being too slow.”

Adds Pagenaud, who rolls off eighth in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet: “It’s not as good as I wanted to be honest. We’re not as dominant as we were last year. It’s been tough. Not easy to get speed out of the car.”

Meanwhile Charlie Kimball finished third last year but has, along with the rest of the Ganassi team, not fully seemed to hit their stride either. But there’s sneaky good potential here based on how he, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan were in the last two practice sessions.

“The competition is deeper than it’s been,” explains Kimball, who starts 16th in the No. 42 Tresiba Chevrolet. “When faced with that challenge, it’s an opportunity to succeed and stand out. With a field as deep as this year, the opportunity is there to overachieve.”

What are the some of the others drivers saying heading into the race? Unpredictability may be the norm.

“I honestly don’t know (about passing),” says Newgarden, who will start second in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet.

“Monday we could pass fine. I don’t think you’ll see a worse race. It depends on track temperatures. If it’s cool out, I think it’ll be a lot of passing.”

“It’s a lot about your timing,” adds Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda, who starts 12th. “It’s particularly hard now because the competition level is so high. Imagine, it’s still very difficult to overtake. Both are very close to each other.

“And it depends on what amount of downforce you have. It’s more setup-related. Honda had a difficult year last year, but it’s more positive now.”

Need an engineering minded perspective? Talk to Oriol Servia, who’s Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin’s teammate at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and starts 10th in the No. 77 Lucas Oil Special Honda. The Catalan makes his 199thh career start on Sunday and explained why the cars have been so much more difficult to drive this year.

“With the domed skid it doesn’t feel good!” he admits. “The cars are quite a bit higher. These cars are better, closer to the ground. Up, it doesn’t work well at all. It feels like it’s sliding all the time. I think we figured it out a bit better than others. All of a sudden when you see the speed, in race day, we’ll show well.

“Comfortable is the wrong word! No one is. But around other guys, others have more trouble compared to us. I think we’ll be good. But it’s all about Sunday getting it right for the temperature and wind conditions. From Monday to next Sunday, it won’t work the same.”

A guy who will need to pass early and often is Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan with Theodore Racing. He’ll start 26th and if he makes hay early, could well be in prime contention for the win. He’s incredibly happy with his car in race trim.

“I’d like some long runs. I think my car is really good at end of run,” Rahal explained. “When others struggle is when mine is pretty good.

“I’m trying to not be overconfident. But the other day on long runs, I had no problem passing. And I had no one get by me. I feel good about that. An extended run to start would be pretty good. We take care of our tires. This is how I am on road courses too. I’m thinking about lap 20. You see at Barber I don’t have ultimate pace on first 2 laps. But when they come back 12 seconds, that’s where I’m strong.

“The biggest key is not to lose the draft. It should stay in a big group is my gut. But with groups of cars, if you’re the front guy in a group, it might be tough to catch up. You’ll try to stay right with however you’re with.”

Passing might be tough but judging by the frenetic pace in practice, particularly on Monday and Friday, it’s certainly possible.

Have Penske and Ganassi shown their full hand? It’s feasible they haven’t. But, as several competitors have told me throughout the month, why would you be dumb enough to have not shown your hand at least once?

Kimball’s summation probably works best – it’s not just the competition that has a hand in picking the winner – it’s the track, too.

“Tony and Scott have said this, and I believe it, that she (this track) has a hand in picking the winner,” he said.

“I’d love to be able to write the script and have the final page be me drinking milk, but there’s a lot of blanks in that script I can’t fill in until Sunday night.”

2023 SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Anaheim 2: Ken Roczen is consistency’s king

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Strength is found not only in outright wins, but also through consistency, which contributed to the rise of Ken Roczen in the SuperMotocross Rankings after Anaheim 2.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with the knowledge that he urgently needed change, so he declared himself a free agent, signed with Suzuki during the offseason and set upon 2023 with renewed determination. It worked. Roczen is one of three riders in the 450 class with a sweep of the top five and that consistency has given him the lead in the NBC SuperMotocross Power Rankings.

SuperMotocross Rankings Anaheim 2
Like Babe Ruth pointing to the outfield wall, Ken Roczen pointed his way to the Power Rankings lead. – Feld Motor Sports

This formula rewards riders who compete at the front of the pack at the end of the Mains, in their heats, or in last week’s case, the three motos that make up the Triple Crown. Roczen has improved his overall performance each week with a fifth in Anaheim 1, a fourth in San Diego and his first podium of 2023 in Anaheim 2. Can he keep the trend alive with a first- or second-place finish in Houston?

A fall is all it takes sometimes. Last week, Eli Tomac tumbled hard when he pushed wide on the exit of a turn and jumped on top of a Tuff Blox. He remounted after that incident in Race 3 of the Triple Crown, but could only manage a 13th-place result in the moto. It could have been much worse and resulted in an injury, but coupled with a sixth in the overall standings at Anaheim 2, it pushed him down a spot in the SuperMotocross Ranking.

Along with Roczen (and Chase Sexton), Cooper Webb swept the top five in Supercross’ first three rounds. He is knocking on the door of a win and it won’t take long for him to ascend to the top of the box. Webb has two victories in Houston and each of them came during a championship season.

If there is a more determined rider than Jason Anderson, get out of his way. His path to the front of the pack is not always lined with primroses since he often has to pass multiple riders with whom he has had a run-in during his path, but the SuperMotocross Power Rankings are concerned only with raw results – not intention – and Anaheim 2 was Anderson’s best race of the season. He earned his first top-five and first podium with a second-place finish that was aided by a moto win.

MORE: Triple Crown format shakes up A2’s finishing order

Dylan Ferrandis has also been a model of consistency. Last week his Triple Crown effort of 4-6-5 gave him an overall finish of fifth. That came on the heels of a fourth-place result in the season opener and a sixth in San Diego. With no result worse than sixth this season, the numbers add up quite well.

Sexton’s position just outside the top five this week is entirely attributable to his last-place result in the San Diego heat. The SuperMotocross Rankings looks at the past 45 days, so that will affect him for a while, but if he continues to ride like he did in Anaheim 2, he’s going to climb quickly despite that albatross around his neck.

450 Rankings

This
Week
Driver Power
Avg.
Last
Week
Diff.
1. Ken Roczen 84.63 3 2
2. Eli Tomac
[2 Main; 2 Heat wins]
83.25 1 -1
3. Cooper Webb 82.25 2 -1
4. Jason Anderson
[1 Heat win]
80.63 5 1
5. Dylan Ferrandis 78.75 4 -1
6. Chase Sexton
[1 Main; 3 Heat wins]
77.75 9 3
7. Justin Barcia 67.88 6 -1
8. Aaron Plessinger 67.63 8 0
9. Adam Cianciarulo 67.25 7 -2
10. Joey Savatgy 61.00 11 1
10. Marvin Musquin 61.00 12 2
12. Malcolm Stewart
[1 Heat win]
58.75 13 1
13. Christian Craig 56.13 14 1
14. Colt Nichols 56.00 10 -4
15. Dean Wilson 47.50 15 0
16. Tristan Lane 41.00 18 2
17. Grant Harlan 40.67 19 2
18. Justin Hill 40.57 16 -2
19. Logan Karnow 36.50 20 1
20. Alex Ray 36.00 21 1

Supercross Points


The 250 West riders get a couple of weeks off before heading to Oakland for the rescheduled Round 2 and several of them need the rest. Tough weeks for Cameron McAdoo and RJ Hampshire forced them to lose ground in the SuperMotocross points to Jett Lawrence at a time that could prove to play mental games.

Lawrence also had his share of issues at Anaheim 2, but overcame early falls in the first two motos and finished no worse than sixth. Considering that he dropped to the tail of the field in Race 2, that was a remarkable accomplishment and he entered the final race with a shot at the overall win. He narrowly missed that mark, but still has not finished worse than second in three rounds. His lead in the SuperMotocross Power Rankings is safe.

Cameron McAdoo rode with injury in all three Triple Crown motos, so his sixth-place finish was a moral victory. Cameron McAdoo, Instagram

McAdoo said it best in an Instagram post this week: “Woke up feeling grateful that I’m relatively healthy after my big mistake during qualifying yesterday. We made the decision that it would be safe for me to race so I did everything I possibly could to get through the night ending up [sixth overall]. We will work on getting healed up in these few weeks off to come back strong for Oakland!”

With results of 8-7-5 in the Triple Crown and his combined sixth-place result, McAdoo lost significant ground to Lawrence in both the points’ standings and our Power formula. The Oakland race is going to be critical if he wants to stay in the championship hunt because the series will have a long break before returning in Seattle for Round 11. No one wants to sit with negative feelings for that long.

Mitchell Oldenburg has quietly amassed some impressive numbers. His name has not been called a lot during broadcasts, but he has not finished worse than seventh in any of the first three rounds. Themes develop during a season and weekend – and for the moment, this one revolves around reliability. Oldenburg finished 5-4-6 in Anaheim 2 which means he has consistently amassed SuperMotocross Power Rankings points.

Stilez Robertson won his first race of the season in Moto 2 of the Triple Crown. Coupled with a third-place finish in the final race, he leapfrogged Hampshire and Enzo Lopes, both of whom had disappointing outings. He stands fifth in the points’ standing mostly due to a ninth-place finish in the season opener, but each race has been progressively better and that is a good sign.

Sometimes, all it takes is a taste of success. Prior to Anaheim 2, Levi Kitchen’s best Supercross finish was a seventh earned in this year’s season opener. He scored a ninth at Minneapolis last year, but that was not enough to put him on the radar. This early in the season, one strong run can sway the SuperMotocross Power Ranking significantly, but Robertson has earned his way into the top five. More importantly, he’s going to be the object of interest when the West series returns to Oakland.

Next week the 250 East riders mount up in Houston, Texas before they head to Tampa, Florida. The Power Rankings will combine the two divisions, so the riders below are likely to shift dramatically.

250 Rankings

This
Week
Driver Power
Avg.
Last
Week
Diff.
1. Jett Lawrence – W
[2 Main; 2 Heat wins]
89.13 1 0
2. Cameron McAdoo – W
[1 Heat Win]
77.63 3 1
3. Mitchell Oldenburg – W 77.00 5 2
4. Stilez Robertson – W
[1 Heat win]
76.75 6 2
5. Levi Kitchen – W
[1 Main win]
73.75 12 7
6. RJ Hampshire – W
[3 Heat wins]
70.00 2 -4
7. Max Vohland – W 69.29 8 1
8. Derek Kelley – W 63.75 10 2
9. Enzo Lopes – W 63.25 4 -5
10. Pierce Brown – W 61.29 13 3
11. Phil Nicoletti – W 59.25 7 -4
12. Dylan Walsh – W 56.00 9 -3
13. Cole Thompson – W 51.00 11 -2
14. Robbie Wageman – W 50.75 15 1
15. Anthony Rodriguez – W 49.00 14 -1
16. Ty Masterpool – W 47.50 16 0
17. Kaeden Amerine – W 47.50 16 -1
18. Dominique Thury – W 47.00 18 0
19. Austin Forkner – W 43.00 20 1
20. Derek Drake – W 42.33 21 1

* The NBC Power Rankings assign 100 points to a Main event winner and 90 points for each Heat and Triple Crown win, (Triple Crown wins are included with heat wins below the rider’s name). The points decrement by a percentage equal to the number of riders in the field until the last place rider in each event receives five points. The Power Ranking is the average of these percentage points over the past 45 days.

POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 2 AT SAN DIEGO: Ken Roczen moves up, Chase Sexton falls
POWER RANKINGS AFTER WEEK 1 AT ANAHEIM: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence gain an early advantage