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Opinion
IndyCar Indy 500

Why Dixon isn't taking Indy 500 pole "bragging rights" too seriously

There was drama aplenty as Scott Dixon topped Indianapolis 500 qualifying at a record speed, but Chip Ganassi Racing's six-time IndyCar champion knows that the real work is just beginning.

Pole award winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda celebrates his pole award

After the thrill of seeing the 2008 Indy 500 winner nail a record-breaking lap to take his fifth pole position for the championship's most famous event, it’s time for the main business to begin.

If that sounds like it’s trivialising the efforts of all the teams last week, it isn’t: the thing is, it’s almost like the battle for pole position is a whole separate event in itself, 1) because the cars are so radically different – minimal downforce and 1.5-bar turbo boost instead of the race day 1.3-bar – and 2) because the 500 itself dwarfs every other race on the schedule, let alone the fight to lead the 11 rows of three to the green flag.

It’s hugely important for a couple of days, but is swiftly subsumed by the focus on the race. If you’re served an entree that tastes like garbage, you don’t leave the restaurant talking about the delicious hors d’oeuvre. 

Or as Dixon put it after his stunning 234.046mph four-lap average for pole: “Step one. Doesn’t guarantee you anything. Pumps you up for at least this week. Hopefully we’re this happy come next Sunday as well, and one of us is lucky enough to be drinking milk. Then that’s job well done. It’s some bragging rights for a few days, but that’s all this means, man.” 

Whoever crosses the line first this Sunday can expect to hear a roar from up to 300,000 people. With the disappearance of the COVID-19 regulations – zero crowd in 2020, 40% crowd in 2021 – Penske Entertainment is expecting the Speedway’s biggest crowd since the capacity 100th running of the 500 back in 2016. Those who have not attended IMS since Roger Penske took over the track and the IndyCar Series at the start of 2020 may not notice the neat (and expensive) upgrades. It’s amazing what a lick of paint, fresh turf, new asphalt and smoother operational procedures can do.  

What fans will notice is the Indy 500’s capacity to astound with the uncertainty that hangs over the outcome of the race. Until Pole Day, we expected a Chevrolet driver to take P1 and maybe the Bowtie would even lock out the front row of the grid. Then Honda took the first two slots thanks to Dixon and Alex Palou, and four of the top six spots.  

“We feel like the competition [Chevy] has definitely brought some speed this year,” says Dixon, and not just here at the Speedway, but at the road courses, too… It looked like yesterday that they were pretty even, actually, and today I think the others have caught up a little bit to what we had last year and the year before. 

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“You know what it comes down to now is raceability and how the cars are. I think the Ganassi cars are strong, but so are these guys [Ed Carpenter Racing]. The Penskes are very strong. The Andrettis through portions of the day looked very strong.  

“It’s tight, man. The competition is just so damn tough in IndyCar right now.” 

It is, but some of the expected tougher opposition shot itself in the foot in qualifying and have given themselves some excessive work to do, over and above the mental strain of running a 500.

Romain Grosjean is the only one of the Andretti Autosport drivers starting inside the top 20 and the team looks somewhat flaky in race trim. Scott McLaughlin’s third of the Penske team made a bad tactical call on day one of qualifying and dumped the sophomore down to 26th on the grid. Two of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s cars are starting from the back row…  

“It’s not like we have no chance,” said one disgruntled driver who will start from the final third of the field. “If that was true, why would we put ourselves through this, right? But we need a ton of things to go our way. 

“When was the last time the 500’s running order got totally turned on its head because of a caution period that totally suits the guys who went off-strategy early on? It just doesn’t happen as often as you think. And if you go off-strategy, you actually need more than one caution at the perfect time to make the race fall your way.  

“So if you don’t want to take that risk of pitting way early, then you’ve got to do your passes on track and in the pitlane, and that isn’t happening – not from where we are. Maybe if it was the Indy 700! It would be nice to do what [Simon] Pagenaud did last year [26th on grid to third] but I doubt our car is that good.” 

That being the case, look to the first five rows for the winner. Bearing in mind the weather forecast for Sunday is 86F and the Speedway’s track surface – coated in penetrant last autumn and therefore darker than ever – has become more sensitive to changes in ambient conditions, it should favour the more experienced drivers with long-standing and/or strong rapports with experienced race engineers who know exactly how to fine-tune a car for difficult or changing conditions, and who have super-swift pitcrews.

We’ll go for a Dixon-Rinus VeeKay-Will Power top three.

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