Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Indy 500 Countdown: 10 Days to Opening Day

With his dominating win on the 1.5 mile Kansas oval, Scott Dixon has thrown down the gauntlet for his Indycar competitiors. Not only did the Target Ganassi gang have something up their sleeve (as I suspected) for the first oval race of the 2010 IZOD Indycar Series, they blew everyone away taking the top two steps on the podium with Dario Franchitti claiming second. Dixon leading an IRL oval race is nothing new, nor is leading the vast majority of race laps (167 of 200) a new experience for him. He and Dario have consistently been pack leaders with everyone else chasing on oval tracks. With eight days of practice leading up to Pole Day at Indy May 22nd, Dixon and Dario will be tough to beat. Season points leader Will Power finished two laps down in 12th at Kansas, although his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves ran strong to finish fourth. With all eyes on Indy beginning May 15th, a spirited battle for pole position between the Ganassi and Penske teams is virtually assured. With 40 entrants going for the first 24 spots on Pole Day, competition will be fierce, especially for the top 9 spots on the Indy scoring pylon: those drivers will have two shots at the pole between 4:30 and 6:00 p.m. that day.
Kansas began a string of four straight oval races for the IRL, and it remains to be seen if Will Power can hold onto his series points lead. Dixon is nipping at his heels now in second, with Helio third and Andretti Autosports' Ryan Hunter-Reay in fourth. By the time the IRL has finished this run of oval tracks in June, the season will be nearly half over and questions remain for many of the regulars. Can Power maintain his points lead or will he change his focus to the new road/street circuit championship? And what will happen to Hunter-Reay after his IZOD money dries up following Texas? If he is still in the top five in points and outrunning his other Andretti teammates, how in the world can the team realistically park him over funding? Tony Kanaan had a solid run to third at Kansas, his best finish in quite some time, and RHR was right there in fifth behind Helio. So perhaps TK is about to turn the corner, but his luck has never been very good at Indianapolis. Justice would be served if RHR qualifies for the 500 in the top 9 and finishes strongly in the race; IZOD surely would see the light and come up with a way for their man to continue and fight for the season championship. He appears to be one of the most confident drivers out there now, and May 2010 should have a whole different feel for him than last year when he barely made the show.
And where the heck is Danica? Nowhere near the front is the answer. The darling of the IRL has been outclassed everywhere so far this season with dismal results for the Go Daddy girl. A crash at Brazil on slicks when rain tires were needed, poor starts (and finishes) on the other road courses, and a distant 11th at Kansas two laps down don't bode well for Indy. Perhaps the extra track time at the Speedway will help her find her way again, but my guess is the struggle will continue. Look for the surly girl more often than not along pit lane and in Gasoline Alley this May. I'll be watching Indy's other lady racers Simona De Silvestro and Ana Beatriz to see if they outshine their more famous colleague. The only good news for Danica is she still has fight in her, evidenced by her Kansas dice with Helio while being lapped.
As for Pole Position, don't count Helio out. He has shown the ability to be fastest when four laps are needed at Indy. He will also be going for a fourth Indy 500 win this year to join Indycar legends AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Sr. and Rick Mears in that elite group. These and other great stories remain to be told this May and there is always a surprise or two that comes from the month. As a 500 Oldtimer, I look forward to more surprises this year at 16th & Georgetown. I'll be there most every day to cover the activity on the track, on pit lane and in the garage area with daily blog posts and photo galleries, both here and on American Motor Journal's website.
The Speedway continues its Centennial Celebration this year pointing towards 2011 which will mark the 100th year since the first 500 in 1911. While Tony Hulman has been gone for quite awhile now, you wonder how he would view the current state of affairs in Indycars. With a shorter "Month of May" than in recent years, new Pole Day qualifying rules, perhaps as many as five women starting the 500, new oval and road/street course awards, and a host of other changes in the IRL for 2010, many Indy "traditions" have fallen by the wayside in an effort to recoup lost ground with fans. There is still nothing better than going into the track race day before dawn, hearing the bomb go off when the gates open, and seeing those balloons drift skyward before the racers are unleashed into Turn 1 for the first time. Praying for some "Tony Hulman" race day weather is one tradition that will continue as long as they turn left 800 times to find victory at Indianapolis. See you at the track!

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