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INDYCAR NEWS 

Indianapolis 500 analysis: What we've learned so far

There's no such thing as a 'routine' build-up to the Indianapolis 500, and this year has been no exception.

Heavy rains washed out a large chunk of practice, and then a new qualifying system was rolled out to set a field that includes six former Indy 500 winners and seven rookies. The most experienced driver in the field, Buddy Lazier, has made almost as many Indy starts as Ganassi teenager Sage Karam has had birthdays.

Amid so many random elements, a few main themes have emerged. Sunday's race will provide the final answer to all questions, but here are five things we've learned from the Month of May so far.

CARPENTER IS A SMART TEAM OWNER

Ed Carpenter

Ed Carpenter's decision to share his seat with Mike Conway this year paid off early when Conway won at Long Beach, and Carpenter has done his bit by putting the ECR car on pole for his first start of the season.

But he also showed his smarts by signing JR Hildebrand to drive the team's second second car at Indy. More than that, he signed him early, giving the ex-Panther racer as much time as possible to integrate.

Hildebrand will forever be associated with the manner in which he lost the Indy 500 in 2011, but what's often overlooked is how close he came to winning it.

Plus, his feedback proved to be especially useful for ECR when two days of practice were washed out: Carpenter specifically noted the importance his input had played in helping with the team's preparations. P1 for the biggest race of the year isn't a bad payoff.

GANASSI IS BEING STEALTHY

Tony Kanaan, Ganassi, Indianapolis 500 practice 2014

Chip Ganassi Racing is the most successful team at Indianapolis in recent history, thanks in no small part to Dario Franchitti. It has long made the 500 its priority, and declared its intentions this year by hiring the 2013 winner Tony Kanaan as Franchitti's replacement following the Scot's enforced retirement.

An additional car was added for rookie Karam, and the one thing that they all had in common was that when the cars were trimmed out and the engines turned up for qualifying, none of them looked like a real threat.

It was a different story 24 hours later though, when the cars reverted to race spec for practice on Monday and Scott Dixon and Kanaan went straight into the top five. Their qualifying results kept them out of the headlines, but not out of contention: Kanaan won from 12th last year.

BUSCH IS THE PERFECT NASCAR AMBASSADOR

Kurt Busch, Indianapolis 500 practice

Kurt Busch's attempt to become the fourth driver to complete the Indy 500/Charlotte 600 double was always going to be one of the big stories of this year's race, and interest in the NASCAR star's progress has only snowballed as the extent to which his big-oval skills have transferred to single-seaters has become apparent.

In terms of hooking other NASCAR drivers into following his lead in future, there's a tricky balance to be achieved.

If Busch was too fast, IndyCar risked appearing second-rate to those looking in from the outside. If he got hosed, anyone who might have otherwise be tempted to try it might have written it off as a waste of time.

From a PR point of view, his pace has turned out to be perfect. He narrowly missed making the Fast Nine in qualifying (indeed, there's an excellent chance that he would have made it had he not left the track early to go to Charlotte to prepare for the NASCAR All-Star race), but his starting spot of 12th gives him every opportunity for a strong afternoon on Sunday.

He'll be driving a back-up car as a result of his heavy practice crash, but even that accident could ultimately leave him better equipped for race day.

Juan Pablo Montoya had suggested that knowing how to catch the car when it steps out might have presented Busch with a tripwire, and so it proved.

When years in a heavy stock car have geared your instincts toward man-handling your way out of trouble, it only takes one hard snap into the wall to teach you that the approach doesn't work in an IndyCar. If it was a crash waiting to happen, then he's now got it out of the way.

THE NEW QUALIFYING SYSTEM WAS POPULAR (ISH)

Indianapolis 500 qualifying 2014

IndyCar rolled out a new two-day qualifying system for the 500 this year. All cars made an attempt to qualify last Saturday, with the top 33 securing their place in the field, and the top nine earning the right to fight for pole the following day.

On Sunday, cars in positions between 10th and 33rd made their qualifying attempts, followed by the Fast Nine run-off for pole.

Indy 500 qualifying report

The lack of a potential 34th entrant meant that the stress of being bumped from the field was largely negated, but the demands of having to make repeated four-lap runs on Saturday proved taxing enough for some.

"I held my breath for six hours in qualifying," said Simon Pagenaud. "I went to bed as soon as I could after that because I was so stressed."

Josef Newgarden who, like Pagenaud, qualified in the top nine, is a fan.

"Whenever you have a new format, it can always seem confusing at first when you're trying to learn the ropes of it, all the little details," he said.

"To me it's simple. Two days of qualifying. You want to be in the Fast Nine on Saturday and the Fast Nine qualifies again on Sunday. I loved it - thought it was a blast."

THERE'S NO EXCESS BALLAST IN THE ENTRY

Josef Newgarden and Jacques Villeneuve, Indianapolis 500 practice 2014

For anyone who has followed IndyCar over the past couple of years, this is a bit like stating that kitten videos are popular online. But it's worth saying again.

The time difference between first and last on the grid is the closest in Indy 500 history, and it's the second-tightest grid ever if measured by speed.

If you're a neutral observer, or a quick guy driving for a small, smart team like Josef Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, this is a beautiful thing. If you're a powerhouse looking to capitalise on your advantage, less so.

"There isn't a car out there that can't win it," said Penske's Will Power. "That's the big difference now. The whole field is going to start on the front stretch and the whole field is going to finish on the front stretch. On the last laps they're all going to be there because no one can get away.

"I would rather it be the old way where if you had a good car, and you wanted to take a risk in trim, you could pull away from the field.

"To me, that's more putting the driver back into it. Now, you have to be able to run close and run in traffic well, which is very difficult. It's become harder than ever to win, I'd say."

Follow the Indianapolis 500 with AUTOSPORT Race Centre Live from 5pm UK time on Sunday May 25

INDY 500 GRID LINE-UP

Pos  Driver              Team/Engine      Speed
 1.  Ed Carpenter        Carpenter/Chevy  231.067  Fast nine
 2.  James Hinchcliffe   Andretti/Honda   230.839  Fast nine
 3.  Will Power          Penske/Chevy     230.697  Fast nine
 4.  Helio Castroneves   Penske/Chevy     230.649  Fast nine
 5.  Simon Pagenaud      Schmidt/Honda    230.614  Fast nine
 6.  Marco Andretti      Andretti/Honda   230.544  Fast nine
 7.  Carlos Munoz        Andretti/Honda   230.146  Fast nine
 8.  Josef Newgarden     Fisher/Honda     229.893  Fast nine
 9.  JR Hildebrand       Carpenter/Chevy  228.726  Fast nine
10.  Juan Pablo Montoya  Penske/Chevy     231.007
11.  Scott Dixon         Ganassi/Chevy    230.928
12.  Kurt Busch          Andretti/Honda   230.782
13.  Jack Hawksworth     Herta/Honda      230.506
14.  Justin Wilson       Coyne/Honda      230.256
15.  Mikhail Aleshin     Schmidt/Honda    230.049
16.  Tony Kanaan         Ganassi/Chevy    229.922
17.  Sebastien Bourdais  KV/Chevy         229.847
18.  Oriol Servia        Rahal/Honda      229.752
19.  Ryan Hunter-Reay    Andretti/Honda   229.719
20.  Graham Rahal        Rahal/Honda      229.628
21.  Carlos Huertas      Coyne/Honda      229.251
22.  Pippa Mann          Coyne/Honda      229.223
23.  Takuma Sato         Foyt/Honda       229.201
24.  Alex Tagliani       Fisher/Honda     229.148
25.  Townsend Bell       KV/Chevy         229.009
26.  Charlie Kimball     Ganassi/Chevy    228.953
27.  Jacques Villeneuve  Schmidt/Honda    228.949
28.  James Davison       KV/Chevy         228.865
29.  Martin Plowman      Foyt/Honda       228.814
30.  Ryan Briscoe        Ganassi/Chevy    228.713
31.  Sage Karam          Ganassi/Chevy    228.436
32.  Sebastian Saavedra  KV/Chevy         228.088
33.  Buddy Lazier        Lazier/Chevy     227.920

Speeds set over four-lap average
All drivers use Dallara chassis
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