By: Tanner Watkins
May 25, 2019 | 1:30 PM
The Indianapolis 500 is annually one of the most difficult motorsport events to predict, and the 2019 edition will be no different.
Starting the month with 36 driver and car combinations, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway whittled three competitors away last weekend during a dramatic two-day qualifications extravaganza.
Two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren were bumped from the show, along with a pair of Carlin drivers in rookie Patricio O’Ward and veteran Max Chilton. Pippa Mann squeaked into the field on Saturday and James Hinchcliffe poured in a clutch effort during Sunday’s Last Row Shootout to get both of last year’s “bumped” drivers into the 2019 show.
During the Fast Nine Shootout that followed the run for the final row, Ed Carpenter Racing was incredibly strong. For much of the nine-car battle it looked like and ECR Chevrolet would finish a rain-soaked Sunday at the top of the scoring pylon – that is, before Simon Pagenaud came along to snatch Team Penske’s 18th Indy 500 pole.
By taking the top spot at a speed of 229.992 mph, Pagenaud led a top six that featured five Chevrolet entries to one Honda driver – rookie Colton Herta, who qualified fifth in his maiden Indianapolis 500 effort.
Sunday’s race will feature a diverse arsenal of drivers, including seven former winners, six rookies, 15 Americans and 18 international drivers. Two rows are completely international (Row 5 and Row 9) while there aren’t any rows composed of only American drivers.
This year’s field has a slew of legitimate contenders. With Pagenaud on the pole, he is looking to one-up his teammate Will Power’s effort in 2018 by not only winning both month of May races, but also winning the Indianapolis 500 pole in the process.
Power, the defending champion, will look to go back-to-back on Sunday after qualifying sixth.
Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi will have an easier path to the front in the race’s early going this year after qualifying in the last row in 2018. Rossi’s heroic drive to the pointy end of the grid in last year’s “500” was one of the few shining moments in a race where passing was at a premium.
If the Honda driver can keep his nose clean, Rossi has another great shot at his second Indianapolis 500 crown on Sunday after a strong May to this point.
Speaking of multi-Indianapolis 500 winners, again we will see Helio Castroneves attempt to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of this race when he lines up 12th on Sunday.
Castroneves has been unspectacular this year at Indianapolis, but anything can happen over the course of 500 miles and it would be surprising to see Helio outside of the top ten with 50 laps to go. He will be around.
A few one-off drivers are having strong May’s to this point and could challenge for a top five finish if things go well for them – that is James Davison, Oriol Servia, Conor Daly and J.R. Hildebrand.
Davison qualified 15th in his Dale Coyne Racing with Byrd and Belardi entry last weekend while Servia placed 19th in the MotoGator Team Stange Racing with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports car. Hildebrand is rolling off 21st, but he has looked better than Dreyer & Reinbold Racing teammate Sage Karam so don’t be surprised to see both of those drivers pushing hard early.
For Daly, the chance to race at an Indianapolis 500 with Andretti Autosport support is too good of an opportunity to let slide. The Noblesville native will start 11th on Sunday and he needs a strong run into the top five to show that he can excel in superior equipment.
A DNF or finish outside of the top-15 will certainly hurt the Indiana driver’s chances at another “500” start in the future.
And last but not least, who could forget DragonSpeed and Juncos Racing? The two little teams that could, DragonSpeed made it safely into the show last Saturday by qualifying 27th with Ben Hanley as their driver. For Juncos, driver Kyle Kaiser crashed on Fast Friday and made a bad week (where they lost two primary sponsors) worse in the blink of an eye.
Remarkably, Juncos brought in each employee in their organization to work on the car and had it ready for qualifications on Saturday. While Kaiser did not lock himself into the top-30 on day one, the California native posted a clutch four-lap dash as the final Last Row Shootout driver during qualifying to bump Alonso out of the field.
There are tons of storylines out there ahead of the 103rd Running, but only one can come true.
Can Ed Carpenter Racing finally translate their qualifying speed into an Indianapolis 500 victory? Will Colton Herta become the second rookie winner in the last four years? Is it in the cards for Marco Andretti to win on the 50th anniversary of his grandfather’s victory, or Helio Castroneves becoming a four-time winner?
By approximately 4:00 PM Eastern (weather pending), we will have yet another winner crowned at the World’s Greatest Race Course. Let’s just hope Mother Nature plays nice and lets us safely get all 500 miles in on Sunday.
Header image by Chris Owens/INDYCAR.
Open-Wheels coverage of the 2019 month of May at Indianapolis is presented by Driven 2 Save Lives. Driven 2 Save Lives, an entity of the Indiana Donor Network, is a program that utilizes motorsports as a platform to encourage race fans to become organ donors. Currently, there are 114,000 individuals that are waiting for a life-saving organ transplant. Register as an organ, tissue, and eye donor at Driven2SaveLives.org/register and follow Driven2SaveLives on Facebook and Twitter.