VICS: Indy 500 Grid-a-tology, Version 3.0

Photo Credit: IndyCar

Not much involving what has happened so far since the conclusion of the Phoenix Grand Prix in March has influenced any significant changes on the Indy 500 Grid-a-tology list. With road and street circuit competition being the top concerns instead of oval-related action and with major questions still to be addressed on the level of Honda’s challenge at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the fact that the projected battle for the Firestone Fast Nine remains an all-Chevy affair is unaltered as of this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. While Honda did indeed top the timing charts on Friday in both sessions, the result of that could be due to some bias toward quicker bursts as opposed to all out top end power. Unlike at Long Beach, Barber Motorsports Park does not feature any straightaway of any significant length, except maybe the run to the Charlotte’s Web hairpin, the circuit’s chief passing zone opportunity. Of course, the Brickyard’s two and a half mile oval does not feature that factor as the circuit should be able to be run flat out without any lifting of the throttle, despite concerns raised about the new skids on the cars during recent testing at IMS.

The biggest change involves the selection by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports of veteran Oriol Servia on Saturday to drive their third entry at the Indianapolis 500, as opposed to last year’s event Rookie of the Year Gabby Chaves, who had been projected as the possible driver selection in the first two versions of Grid-a-tology. Although Chaves did appear to have some financial support as opposed to Servia, the deal also includes backing from Will Marotti, who according to multiple sources has had a major interest in backing an entry for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. While on paper, the initial comparison between both drivers in question appears nearly equal, there is one key factor that could allow Servia to achieve a better spot on the grid. The seven-time Indy 500 starter last year as a second driver for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, managed to out-qualify his full-time teammate Graham Rahal by four positions, and prior to his in-race accident with Ed Carpenter in turn one, he was comparable in terms of running position with a driver that was a serious challenger for the Verizon IndyCar Series title just one year ago, a fact that cannot be ignored. So based on that, in my only major change this week, I have moved the newly confirmed Schmidt Peterson Marotti Racing No. 77 Honda up a full row from where I had the entry projected with Chaves as the pilot.

Keep in mind, until the full field is set projected, the unconfirmed drivers for this grid forecast will be listed in parentheses. All confirmed driver and sponsor information is accurate as of Tiesday, May 3rd, 2016.

FRONT ROW

Will Power, No. 12 Verizon Wireless Chevrolet, Team Penske: While the Australian has indeed struggled on road and street circuits, his pace in qualifying mode should re-manifest itself during the run up to Indy 500 Time Trials. No change here, he’s still the early pole position favorite.

Scott Dixon, No. 9 Target Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing: The Phoenix results and consistent pace entering the month of May certainly keep the New Zealander within reason of making the front row for the second straight Indy 500.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Pennzoil Chevrolet, Team Penske: As Roger Penske said back in 2010, Castroneves always seems to find that little bit extra at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Certain drivers perform best at certain circuits and the Helio-IMS combination is a potent one.

ROW 2

Simon Pagenaud, No. 22 Menards Chevrolet, Team Penske: A front row starter at Indy last year and currently the hottest driver on the circuit finishing no worse than second in the first four races. Still though, need to see more at Indy itself in terms of potential before he joins the ranks as a front row favorite.

Juan Pablo Montoya, No. 2 Verizon Wireless Chevrolet, Team Penske: Solid qualifying numbers at Phoenix, now the big question: can he back them up when we get to Indy. Jury is still out, but the effort will keep his position unchanged for now.

Ed Carpenter, No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter Racing: Pace in practice and qualifying at Phoenix showed that ECR is capable of getting further into the conversation for the pole position at Indy. While not enough to make the owner/driver the so-called favorite, it does not exclude him from challenging for his third pole at Indy in four years.

ROW 3

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 NTT Data Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing: TK fared well in qualifying at Phoenix, but has remained relatively quiet so far in the 2016 season. Don’t worry folks, that will change once the 2013 Indy 500 champion fires up his engine at the Brickyard.

Josef Newgarden, No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter Racing: ECR’s showing at Phoenix, proved that Newgarden has at least a car equal to the one he put in the shootout two years ago. This time though, a top nine effort in pre-qualifying would be tough to call an upset for the Tennessee-native.

Charlie Kimball, No. 83 Tresiba Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing: From potential to probable third CGR member in terms of shootout qualifying potential. Still has work to do on time trials weekend to punch his ticket to Sunday’s big bucks session, but the progress is more on the side of a Bull market than a Bear one at this point.

ROW 4

Carlos Munoz, No. 26 PintPharma.com Honda, Andretti Autosport: Honda was second-fiddle alright to Chevrolet, just a much weaker one than was initially forecast. Still with Munoz’s go for it all style, the Colombian still could make the shootout, but the odds certainly took a hit across the bow.

Marco Andretti, No. 27 Snapple Honda, Andretti Autosport: The third-generation driver was quick to share his disgust and frustration after qualifying on Friday. Andretti has been touted as the pole favorite on more than a few occasions at Indy, yet has only one front row start so far in ten previous tries, ironically the same number that his father managed at the Brickyard.

J.R. Hildebrand, No. 6 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet, Ed Carpenter Racing: Like his two ECR teammates, the prospects are improving for Hildebrand, who just sneaked his way into the shootout phase of qualifying two years ago. Not convinced yet to move him ahead of the two vulnerable Andretti Autosport Hondas, but the pace scenarios indicate the team could be on the right track to further promotion up the list.

ROW 5

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 DHL Honda, Andretti Autosport: The 2014 Indy 500 champion perhaps had the worst luck in race trim at Phoenix and he also was a non-factor at Long Beach, yet those concerns do not equate to much in terms of this projection. Like his teammates, pace was lacking from RHR and company. Add in a mediocre run last year at Indy and the news is not promising.

James Hinchcliffe, No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Tough to drop the Mayor of Hinchtown too far down the pecking order since a pre-qualifying practice crash prevented him from making an attempt at Phoenix. Still like with the other Honda runners, the jury is out.

Townsend Bell, No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen-Robert Graham Honda, Andretti Autosport: The Indy specialist provides one of the interesting stories on the qualifying tree. While Andretti’s team provides Bell with perhaps the best ride of his career, his record in qualifying has been hit or miss. Bell was able to qualify fourth in 2011, but he has a knack for being unable to match the pace he shows in practice. For example, in 2014 he was one of the fastest cars in practice, but he only qualified 25th.

ROW 6

Max Chilton, No. 8 Gallagher Investments Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing: As mentioned above, Chilton is the heir to the fastest rookie throne at this point. Not only will CGR give him the car to do it, but Chilton showed enough good vibes at Phoenix (scratch the post race comments of course) to get at least to this point next month.

Sebastien Bourdais, No. 11 Hydroxycut Chevrolet, KV Racing: The Frenchmen was the slowest of the Chevrolet runners in qualifying at Phoenix, a potential iffy scenario looking ahead to next month, so Grid-a-tology was quick to mark a big downward red arrow on this entry after qualifying concluded on Friday.

Sage Karam, No. 24 Gas Monkey Garage Chevrolet, Dreyer-Reinbold-Kingdom Racing: Well maybe this the source of the young Pennsylvanian’s confidence on Twitter. While DRKR is not known as a qualifying threat at Indy, the proper engine choice certainly raises their previously scheduled hopes.

ROW 7

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Steak N’ Shake Restaurants Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Although the second-generation driver from Ohio qualified fourth in 2009, last year’s California 500 winner has struggled for pace over the last few go-arounds in Indy 500 time trials. While last year’s late race charge managed to net a fifth place finish at Indy, a mid-pack qualifying run may be the best case scenario for the world’s fastest steakburger this year.

Mikhail Aleshin, No. 7 SMP Racing Honda, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: The Russian second-year IndyCar entrant posted the fastest lap of the month at nearly 233 mph during 2014’s month of May festivities, however do not expect Aleshin to out-qualify his SPM teammate James Hinchcliffe. Expect a fight to avoid being the slowest of the SPM cars with Oriol Servia added to the fold.

Takuma Sato, No. 14 ABC Supply Company Honda, AJ Foyt Racing: Showed some signs of life in practice at Barber, but there are still lingering questions heading to Indy next month. Not only has Sato disappointed in Indy time trials of the past, Foyt’s performance in qualifications last Friday at Phoenix provided a double whammy of sorts for the hopes of a high grid placing.

ROW 8

Alexander Rossi, No. 98 Castrol Edge Honda, Andretti Herta Autosport: Although Herta’s rookie drivers have fared well recently in time trial mode at Indianapolis, Rossi’s prospects are tough to judge with little to no high speed oval track experience on his resume. If he shows promise this weekend at Phoenix, it may merit a small rise on his projection, but not yet to the levels achieved by Jack Hawksworth in 2014.

Oriol Servia, No. 77 Marotti Racing Honda, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: As mentioned in the opening, Servia managed to out-qualify several full time runners last year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and showed well at the St. Petersberg opener when called upon to replace Will Power. Whilst snatching a race result could be held back by the progress of Honda’s engine program, the Catalonian could still top several fellow Honda runners when time trial weekend is reached once again.

Matthew Brabham, No. 61 Pirtek Chevrolet, KV Racing: Brabham has made progress so far in 2016, in Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Truck Series however. The hiring of long time Indy 500 race engineer Andy Brown though could allow the third-generation pilot to challenge his fellow Rookie of the Year candidates for the fastest in the field, especially tied with on paper a more competitive Chevrolet engine and aero package.

ROW 9

Alex Tagliani, No. 35 Al-Fe Heat Treatment Honda, AJ Foyt Racing: Lack of pace from the Foyt team at Phoenix, that a bit of a damper on Tag’s chances. However, 25th is a position that could be easily exceeded on time trials weekend.

Conor Daly, No. 18 Honda, Dale Coyne Racing: Although the Indiana-native is technically a series rookie, he already has two month of May appearances under his belt, with unfortunately last year’s cut down before the race even began due to a fire. Still, the opener at St. Petersburg showed that if the equipment is good, he could push a DCR entry further up on the grid than has been the norm.

Stefan Wilson, No. 25 Indiana Donors Association Chevrolet, KV Racing: Great to see the younger brother of the late IndyCar Series veteran get a chance to prove himself at Indy, however he will face a stiff learning curve and an early handicap agreeing to a deal this late in the game. Despite having a Chevrolet engine and kit, he drops down the list as opposed to original projected driver Sebastian Saavedra.

ROW 10

Jack Hawksworth, No. 41 ABC Supply Honda, AJ Foyt Racing: Will the real Jack Hawksworth please stand up? The question of which driver we will get at Indy will greatly influence his movement on the projected grid. If we get the Phoenix version of course, he may stay put in this part of the lineup.

Pippa Mann, No. 63 Komen For The Cure Honda, Dale Coyne Racing: The very popular English-based driver is likely to give it another go in the 100th Indy 500, with her fourth straight effort for DCR. Even though she struggled mightily in the race itself a year ago, she has shown some flashes of talents in time trial mode, avoiding the elimination session last year and posted an impressive 229 mph plus average run in 2014. Beyond qualifying, don’t expect too much in terms of fireworks in the race ahead.

Spencer Pigot, No. 16 Mi-Jack Honda, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: The Mazda Road to Indy graduate made a decent debut run at St. Petersburg in March, prior to the big accident that derailed the race for several runners. While rookies have qualified well in the past for RLLR at Indy, the limited amount of high speed oval track experience could make garnering a high grid position difficult for the newcomer.

ROW 11

(Luca Filippi), No. 19 Sonny’s BBQ/Boy Scouts of America Honda, Dale Coyne Racing: Still unknown as to whom Coyne will tap for the No. 19 Honda, however the odds could rise slightly forward if one of the remaining Indy specialists is snatched up. Filippi did fare well at Phoenix, but he is still raw in terms of running a car flat out at over 200 miles per hour.

Bryan Clauson, No. 88 Jonathan Byrd’s Honda, Dale Coyne Racing: The USAC and World of Outlaws sprint car racing star returns after just sneaking into the field a year ago. After showing pace prior to a pole day crash in his rookie attempt in 2012, the Indiana-native was less of a factor in the week leading up to qualifications last year and unless a major improvement in performance occurs, one can expect a similar outcome in 2016. Could struggle to make field as new players are joining the game late.

Buddy Lazier, No. 91 Wynn Vision Research Chevrolet, Lazier Partners Racing: Just enough to get in, that is if only 33 cars show up this month. More than that and the nerves will certainly increase a bit for the family-run operation and the 1996 Indy 500 champion.

Stay tuned for further news, updates, and analysis from OnPitRoad.com on the Road to the Indianapolis 500.

Disclaimer: Projection and thoughts on drivers and teams potential for this article are strictly those of the author and may not reflect views of others tied to OnPitRoad.com