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

Indianapolis 500 analysis: What we've learned so far

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'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

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'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)

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

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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Author Mark Glendenning
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