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.”