INDYCAR Preview: 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500

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It’s finally upon us. After a month of build-up, featuring testing in early May, the INDYCAR Grand Prix in the middle of May, and then two weeks of practice, qualifying, and media promotions, it’s time for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

The 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 features a number of high-profile storylines. It’s Danica Patrick’s final car race. Ed Carpenter upset the Team Penske apple-cart by qualifying on the pole, stopping a Penske front row lockout.

Helio Castroneves is looking for his fourth Indy 500 triumph. Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal are still looking for their first “500” victories, ones that would add new chapters to their families’ legacies.

IndyCar champions Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Simon Pagenaud all look to add Indy crowns to their championships for Team Penske.

A.J. Foyt Racing could see a return to glory with Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist. And Dale Coyne Racing could complete its transition from underdog to full-fledged powerhouse with an Indy crown.

And, bumping was back…and claimed the hard-working and likeable Pippa Mann along with perhaps the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most popular driver James Hinchcliffe.

In short, the month has already been packed with drama and storylines…and the race hasn’t even been run yet.

All those talking points, and more, have been elaborated on in detail in the run up to the Indy 500. But, there may yet be more factors in play on Sunday.

A look at additional talking points for Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 are below.

If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

Sunday’s race could be a record-setting day for heat. The hottest “500” on record was in 1937, with an ambient of 92 degrees. The 1953 and 2012 races were just shy of that mark, at 91 degrees ambient.

Sunday’s forcast calls for temperatures of above 90 degrees, putting it well within reach of becoming the hottest “500” ever.

Regardless of whether or not it does hit that number, it will be incredibly hot, meaning the track will be incredibly slick. Expect handling to be at a premium all day, with drivers wrestling their cars at all times.

This fact is not lost on the drivers, as Scott helped explain following Carb Day practice. Dixon also mentioned that the heat means it’s hard to read just how strong of a car he’ll have in relation to others.

“I don’t really know if (Carb Day) told us too much about what the race will bring in the PNC Bank car,” Dixon detailed. “(It was really warm) and we think it could be even warmer on race day. The track temp was way up there as well. I’m not really sure what you can learn from the times. There were a lot of people throwing tires at it out there. Overall, the car felt good and we were comfortable. You just never know exactly what you’re going to have until you get into the race.”

The 2012 race, also above 90 degrees and the first one in the DW-12 era, saw 34 lead changes in a thriller of a race. But how the new aero package reacts to such heat remains a bit of an unknown.

Chevy With an Upperhand on Honda?

The 2018 Indy 500 front row features all Chevrolets. Photo: IndyCar

For the last two years, Honda has had a pace advantage over Chevrolet, thanks to both its engine and aero package.

This year, the tide seems to have turned in the favor of Chevrolet. Chevy-powered cars swept the front row, and seven qualified inside the top nine – Sebastien Bourdais (fifth) and Scott Dixon (ninth) were the only Hondas to make the Fast Nine Pole Shootout.

However, several Hondas, notably from the Andretti Autosport camp along with Bourdais’ No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing entry, have shown very strong race pace, and have looked particularly strong running in traffic. That much will be vital, as passing could be more difficult with the 2018 universal aero kits.

In terms of outright pace, though, Chevy may have the advantage.

Impact of the Aero Kits on the Show

Just how closely cars will be able to follow each other through corners will be critical in if we’ll see the amount of passing we’ve seen in recent years. Photo: IndyCar

Speaking of the aero kits, the introduction of the Dallara DW-12 in 2012 brought with it an annual slip-streaming shootout that made each year’s Indy 500 seemingly better than the previous.

However, the new universal aero kits for 2018 could see a drastic change in how the racing looks. While the downforce levels are roughly the same as they were last year, drag has increased, and many have experienced a great amount of turbulence as they run behind more cars.

And a number of drivers have said as much through practice.

“I think (running) first and second (in a group) is awesome. Anything beyond that is tough, tough,” said Graham Rahal after Day 3 of practice on May 17.

Marco Andretti and Scott Dixon discussed also discussed as much on the previous day.

“If you’re third or back in line, it’s going to be very tough. It’s going to take discipline to wait for the guy to have a go and have a big wash-up, then you get him. It will be tougher to pass. But I prefer that,” Marco Andretti detailed.

Dixon echoed similar sentiments. “The first two cars seem to be able to swap back and forth pretty easily. As Marco said, once you get third and back, especially if you’re fifth and back, the wash-out seems to be a lot more this year, which is kind of interesting,” said the 2008 Indy 500 winner.

As a result, passing on Sunday’s race could be full of intrigue, and it may require more work to set up a pass than in previous years.

Misc.

  • No driver has ever won the Indy 500 from the last row, but that’s the exact challenge facing Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. Fast practice speeds went for naught in qualifying when a punctured tire hampered his run, and saw him qualify 32nd. But, his No. 98 Napa Auto Parts Honda has plenty of speed, so he should be someone to watch in the early laps.
  • Four rookies are entered: Robert Wickens, Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman De Melo, and Kyle Kaiser. Wickens has been the best of the 2018 rookies, which makes him likely the early favorite for Rookie of the Year honors, but all four of them have impressed all month long. Solid runs for Claman De Melp, Leist, and Kaiser in particular would do their young careers a world of good, while Wickens looks to help Schmidt Peterson Motorsports move past the difficulty of seeing star driver James Hinchcliffe fail to qualify.
  • As a double-points race, the Indy 500 can have an enormous impact on the championship standings. Case and point, last year, Takuma Sato entered Indy sitting 10th in the championship, and vaulted all the way up to third after winning the “500.” A race victory is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, but championship implications abound as well.

Coverage begins at 11:00 a.m. ET, with “Drivers Start Your Engines” set for 12:14 p.m. ET, and the green flag falling at 12:21.

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Formula One: Haas fighting for ‘best of the rest’ in Year 3

Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images
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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The third season for Haas F1 has been its best, even if it’s been a bit bizarre.

Formula One’s only U.S.-based team has scored the most points in its young history and overcome some serious bumbles early to compete with – and beat – some of the legacy team names in F1.

Haas heads into this week’s U.S. Grand Prix in a tough season-ending fight with Renault for the “best of the rest” title among the teams outside of the Big Three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

“It’s the best battle of the field. It’s very tight. It’s going to go to the last lap of the race in Abu Dhabi, while I think the world championship is probably going to go this weekend,” said Haas’ French driver Romain Grosjean, who signed with the team before their first season.

“To rise as quickly as we’ve done hasn’t been seen in Formula One, I don’t think,” said his Danish teammate Kevin Magnussen.

Haas launched with a surprise in 2016 and has been rising ever since.

Haas scored points in its first race in 2016, and in 2017 had both cars finish in the top 10 for the first time at Monte Carlo, the biggest race on the annual calendar. A strong run over the last 10 races of this season has Haas just eight points behind Renault in the race for fourth place with four races left.

The 2018 season looks to finish better than it started.

After Haas scored the team’s best-ever qualifying at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, neither car finished the race. Magnussen and Grosjean both left pit stops on consecutive laps with unsecured wheels and had to stop. The team was fined for sending the cars out in unsafe conditions.

“That was extremely, extremely disappointing” Magnussen said “We are still showing signs of immaturity at certain moments.”

Other problems followed. A month later in Azerbaijan, Grosjean fought his way from the back row into sixth before he drove straight into the wall while following a safety car. Grosjean felt horrible, but blamed one of the season’s most bizarre incidents on an errant flip of a steering wheel switch that he said upset the car’s brake balance and sent him spinning into the barrier.

More valuable points were lost in Italy when the floor of Grosjean’s car was deemed illegal and he was disqualified from sixth place. Haas appealed and is awaiting a decision on points that would close the gap with Renault with a stroke of a pen. Despite the gaffes, Grosjean has finished in the top 10 four times in the last seven races.

“I got eight points stolen in Monza,” Grosjean said. “The results are coming with the kind of performance Haas signed me for in the first place.”

After the problems, Grosjean admitted it was a relief to extend his contract with Haas for 2019. He and Magnussen will be teammates again.

“When I joined, I didn’t know what Haas was going to be. I think they gave me some credit for that when I had a tough time earlier this year and turned things around, Grosjean said.

Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner said he and team owner Gene Haas saw value in staying with drivers who knew the Haas cars.

“Just to change a driver for the same level of skill, you go backward,” Steiner said. “There’s not a lot of better drivers out there, so why should we change them? Stay the same and mature quicker.”

The question now is how high can Haas go?

The Haas business model – which has drawn complaints from its middle-of-the-pack rivals – has it buying parts and engines, most notably from Ferrari. It keeps costs down but creates a performance ceiling that Haas is unlikely to break through.

“We are not developing parts for our car,” Grosjean said. “So far it hasn’t been a problem. If one day we start to beat Ferrari, it’s not going to work.”

Steiner said a top three finish isn’t realistic, not against teams with much bigger budgets, development and staff.

“The first year we didn’t finish last, the second year we didn’t finish last and now we are fighting for fourth. We must be doing something right,” Steiner said. “How do we get to that next step? Where do we go from here? Right now, there is no answer.”

That can be the frustrating part of an otherwise very good season.

A taste of success begs for more. For the 26-year-old Magnussen, he can be good with Haas, maybe even the “best of the rest.” But that’s a career definition no driver wants.

“It’s been six years since I won a race in motorsport,” Magnussen said. “I miss winning. Badly.”