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PREVIEW: Reliability, turning page of history set for 101st Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – History is both the Indianapolis 500’s greatest asset, and perhaps, its greatest crutch.

Come today though, it’s the start of a new chapter that ends a near decade-long embrace of history and actually has the excitement of a forward-thinking future for both the Verizon IndyCar Series’ marquee race, and the series itself.

From the moment the “Centennial Era” was announced at the 2008 Indianapolis 500 – my first on-site and first covering – the allure of the buildup of history, it could be argued, hamstrung the event.

2009 marked 100 years since competition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened, with, of all things, a balloon race.

Two years later was 100 years since the first running of the ‘500 miler itself. Ray Harroun is forever etched in the history books from 1911’s win, and in 2011, one of Indy’s most famous finishes occurred with JR Hildebrand’s fateful slide into the Turn 4 wall and Dan Wheldon’s run through the debris to steal his second ‘500 win.

In 2012, it began the countdown of five years until the 100th running of the race, culminating with last year’s hundredth-palooza ultimately won by Alexander Rossi in similar, “how the hell did he pull that off?” fashion. Strategist and team co-owner Bryan Herta and the No. 98 are the common denominators between those two fantastic finishes.

In-between, Dario Franchitti etched his name into lore with his second and third wins in 2010 and 2012. Tony Kanaan finally broke through in 2013. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya emerged from fantastic duels with Helio Castroneves and Will Power, respectively, to nab the 2014 and 2015 wins.

All of those winners were precursors to the 100th, but the 101st is a chance for both the race and the series to break free with the newness looming on the horizon.

To wit, there are these items to look forward to in the immediate future, starting with today’s race:

NEW COMMON AERO KIT IN 2018

This year will be the last for the manufacturer designed aero kits from Honda and Chevrolet, which have proven positive for both manufacturers and set a number of IndyCar race track records. They’ve also been expensive engineering exercises that team owners have publicly grumbled about, although less so in the last year and a half.

IndyCar, the series, produced even more parity with a common kit – renderings of both the speedway and road and street course package have now been revealed – from 2012 through 2014. The hope is those days can come back with next year’s new kit, the sleek look of which recalls IndyCar’s past while also being confident in crafting a new future.

NEW DRIVER CROP READY TO TAKE OVER

The balance between the 30-plus-year-old veterans and the emerging 20-something young guns is in a perpetual state of flux. For a second straight year though, a chance for a young driver to break through at Indy will give him or her a chance to star beyond the inner sphere of influence.

The veterans of note who do not have an Indy 500 on their resume include Team Penske’s trio of Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden; famous sons Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti have been around more than a decade in search of their first victories here; James Hinchcliffe has reached that 30-year-old threshold and having established his national presence last fall on Dancing with the Stars, has the cache to add this race to his record.

Then there are the under-30 drivers with lesser experience but enough to be considered stars of the future who could break through a la Rossi last year: a JR Hildebrand, Ed Jones or Sage Karam for instance. All three have looked excellent in race running in traffic and could well break through today. The Mazda Road to Indy has fed a large number of drivers into the field – 24 of 33 to be exact – and a win for one of them today would be the latest in its “proof of concept.”

NEW TEAMS MAKING THEIR DEBUTS

Beyond Penske, Ganassi and Andretti and the remaining five full-time teams, today marks the series debuts for new entrants Juncos Racing, Harding Racing and Michael Shank Racing (in partnership with Andretti Autosport), as well as the return of the iconic McLaren name to the Speedway in a potential preview of a fuller comeback itself.

You may not know these teams now, but how they expand for the rest of their IndyCar ownership careers may rest in large part on how well they do today. With a big race comes a big opportunity, and so too does the shot to grow their teams and their status beyond just one Sunday in May.

NEW WINNER?

The Indianapolis 500 has, in recent years, produced a number of first-time winners. Since 1996, the year Buddy Lazier won in the first IRL ‘500 (and 80th running), and as the last active link to that bygone era, there has been this balance of first-timers versus encore winners:

  • New winners (14): Rossi (2016), Hunter-Reay (2014), Kanaan (2013), Scott Dixon (2008), Franchitti (2007), Sam Hornish Jr. (2006), Wheldon (2005), Buddy Rice (2004), Gil de Ferran (2003), Castroneves (2001), Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Kenny Brack (1999), Eddie Cheever Jr. (1998), Lazier (1996)
  • Repeat winners (5): Montoya (2015), Franchitti (2012, 2010), Wheldon (2011), Castroneves (2009, 2002), Arie Luyendyk (1997)

There’s only seven past winners in the field of 33, so the odds are better for a first-timer than a repeat one.

But importantly, there are two new – or refreshed – story lines that will define the day:

NEW STORY LINES: WEATHER RELIABILITY

Fernando Alonso has grabbed the headlines all month, but heading into race day it’s not Alonso that will dominate the discussion.

It’s likely to be these two words: weather and reliability.

Weather, first. Rain is the ultimate word no one likes writing about, but a distinct possibility today. Heavy rains hit Indianapolis both late Friday night and again Saturday night into Sunday, making a washout for today a topic of conversation.

INDYCAR has one benefit in that Indianapolis stays light until 8 p.m. or later, which could make a start time as late as 5 p.m. possible, but hopefully something that won’t be needed.

The other option, of course, is that it’s a consistent drizzle all day – we lose the track – and we race on Monday.

A one day-delay hasn’t happened since 1997, 20 years ago, and that one wound up running on Tuesday in an anomaly. The 2004 and 2007 races were rain-shortened. Any delay this year would be most challenging for the crews, who already face a compressed window to convert and/or prep their street course cars before heading to Detroit mid-week for the doubleheader there next weekend.

On-track, the story of the race will revolve around reliability, in the Chevrolet vs. Honda battle. From most competitors we’ve talked to, the acknowledgement is Honda has the edge on power, while Chevrolet has the edge on both aero and most notably – reliability.

There’s the likelihood at least one and potentially more Hondas will blow, and while that sucks, it’s also sort of cool that Honda is pushing the envelope to where if they pop, they pop.

“It’s part of life. These things happen,” Graham Rahal said Saturday. “Honda is pushing these engines as hard as they possibly can. I’m not going to sit and worry about it. I hope it doesn’t happen right away; I think we’ll be OK. Is there a risk? Sure, we’ve lost an engine last week too.

“I believe in Honda. I know they’re trying hard. I know we’re pushing hard. That’s why you’re seeing what you’re seeing. They told us Friday in a meeting they’re not going to hold back, and they’re going to race it to win it. I like that mentality. If that means failures, it means some failures. But I like that mentality. Let’s see what happens. If it happens, we’re back in 2018.”

Chevrolet drivers aren’t saying much publicly but the Team Penske quintet, Ed Carpenter Racing’s pair and Sage Karam of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing stand as that manufacturer’s best bets on Sunday, all of whom having exuded a quiet confidence both about their reliability and their cars in race trim. There is something to be said for Penske drivers not feeling “off” despite four of them starting 18th or worse – and Roger Penske is renowned for noting the unpredictability of Indianapolis, even as he and his team have won here 16 times.

Who lasts longest will likely stand strongest today.

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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