Iindy Countdown:/I Watch For
May 27, 2001 | 7:00 A.M. EST
Here are 10 things to keep your eyes on during the 85th running of the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Weather Conditions: If there’s a rain delay of any sort, one of the favorites, NASCAR Winston Cup driver Tony Stewart, is already out of the running. He is scheduled to compete in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, and the Indy 500 is scheduled to start at noon ET, leaving little margin of error. Sunday’s preliminary weather forecast calls for cloudy and cool conditions in Indy, which would throw the race wide open considering most of May has been sunny and warm. Drivers have set up their cars for the warm conditions and driven under those conditions for a couple of weeks. It’ll be back to square one if the weather forecast is correct, putting most of the drivers on a level playing field.
Kelley Racing: As they were on Pole Day, Kelley Racing drivers Scott Sharp and Mark Dismore should be factors on race day for two main reasons. First of all, they are one of three teams using Ilmor Engineering-built Aurora engines (Penske Racing and Sam Schmidt Motorsports being the others). Ilmor has thrown a lot of money into its Indy Racing Northern Light Series program in a short period of time and the results are starting to show. The engine gets great fuel mileage, which could be a big advantage at Indy, and its reliability is stout. In 11 starts this season, Ilmor-built engines have failed just twice. Secondly, Tim Bumps is on board as Kelley’s team manager, and he has five Indianapolis 500 victories, 49 CART FedEx Championship Series wins and one CART title to his credit. From top to bottom, the well-funded Kelley Racing team should be a threat on race day.
Penske Racing: Roger Penske. Gil de Ferran. Helio Castroneves. Not much more needs to be said about the Penske juggernaut. At Indy, Penske’s teams have won a record 10 times. De Ferran is coming off a CART title-winning season, and Castroneves is routinely competitive. Like Kelley Racing, Penske’s team utilizes an Aurora engine built by Ilmor, and the team showed what it can do at the IRNLS season-opener at Phoenix. Both de Ferran and Castroneves were among the leaders until they dropped out of the race, and they got the best fuel mileage of anyone at the 1-mile track. They have raced the best in CART and the IRNLS, and they will be well-prepared to give The Captain Indy win No. 11.
Target Chip Ganassi Racing Pit Stops: On the track, Tony Stewart, Jimmy Vasser, Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian shouldn’t have much of a problem going fast. All four of Ganassi’s cars qualified at more than 223 mph. Ganassi’s pit stops are where the team really shines. In last year’s Indy 500, Juan Montoya spent the least amount of time in the pits, and he went on to win handily. Last season, however, Ganassi fielded two cars. This year he’s got four in the field, and that could stretch his over-the-wall crew thin. If he loses his advantage on pit road, Ganassi loses his ace-in-the-hole.
Leaders Lapping the Field: Because of the unique qualifying format of the Indy 500, the fastest qualifiers do not always start up front. Where they start depends on what day they qualified. That means there are many strong cars and drivers near the back of the starting lineup. Eddie Cheever Jr., Michael Andretti, Donnie Beechler and Eliseo Salazar are among them. Because passing is fairly difficult on Indy’s flat, 2.5-mile oval, it may be hard for these contenders to make their way to the front of the field. And, if the leaders can lap them early, it’s lights out for some big names.
Jeff Ward: He’s got the same engine as second-place starter Greg Ray and has a solid record in the Indy 500, making Jeff Ward a threat to win his first Indy title. With a Menard-built Aurora engine powering him, Ward won the pole at Homestead in March and has finishes of seventh, fifth and seventh in the first three IRNLS races. His record is even better at Indy. In four appearances, Ward has placed second, third, fourth and 13th. He’ll start the race in the middle of the third row.
Arie Luyendyk: The Flying Dutchman has 15 Indy starts under his belt, and he’s a two-time winner with a knack for being up front if he’s still around at the end. Arie Luyendyk last raced at Indy in 1999, but he’s reunited with the team – Treadway-Hubbard Racing - that helped him win his second Indy 500 in 1997. He’s been strong in practice and qualifications – he’ll start the race sixth – and the Treadway team is in the Top 5 in the points standings this season with rookie Felipe Giaffone. Look for Luyendyk to challenge for the win if his car holds up and he stays out of trouble.
Caution Periods: Multiple caution periods, either for wrecks or mechanical failures, could wipe out any advantage teams such as Kelley, Penske and Menard have with their engines for two reasons. First of all, fuel mileage will not become an issue, and the field will remain close. In 1992, there was caution after caution for wrecks because it was a cool, cloudy day, meaning the track had less grip and tires took longer to warm up. Four cars stayed on the lead lap that day and two others were a lap down. If many of the contenders had not wrecked, many others would have been on the lead lap. The weather forecast calls for a similar day on Sunday.
Rookie Mistakes: Rookies can, unfortunately, make mistakes on Indy’s tricky, 2.5-mile flat oval. This year’s field has six first-timers spread throughout the field. It’s not unlikely that a favorite or two will be taken out by a rookie’s miscue. Bear in mind, mistakes not only include accidents, but also problems adjusting to Indy’s pit road; unfamiliarity with a three-abreast start; restarting; etc. The rookies this year are Helio Castroneves, Jon Herb, Bruno Junqueira, Nicolas Minassian, Cory Witherill and Felipe Giaffone.
The Darkhorse: With such a strong field, chances are a driver will be among the leaders that has been overlooked during the month. This year’s candidates include Sam Hornish Jr., the winner of the first two IRNLS races and the points leader; Mark Dismore of Kelley Racing; Robbie Buhl, starting ninth; Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner and the defending IRNLS champion; and Scott Goodyear, runner-up twice at Indy. Don’t be surprised if one of these drivers is around at the end.