Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY: Indy 500 Grid-a-tology Version 1.0

With 30 confirmations and at least two more likely soon, it is time to rate the 101st Indianapolis 500 field.
The purpose of Indianapolis 500 Grid-a-tology is to give an idea on who’s trending upward in the battle for being Firestone Fast Nine eligible.
One month out from opening weekend at Indy, there is an increasing bias toward anyone featuring a Honda engine and aero kit. Although Chevrolet has normally trumped Honda since Dallara’s DW12 debuted in 2012, Honda took pole position last year with James Hinchcliffe. Add to that, HPD has opened 2017’s Verizon IndyCar Series season with two victories.
So as you will notice, the upper half of list number one is full of Hondas. Chevrolet still could be heard from, yet most of the burden could be placed on Team Penske’s quintet, unless former back-to-back pole winners Ed Carpenter Racing make some progress at the Phoenix Grand Prix later this month.
NOTE: Drivers yet to be officially confirmed, are listed in parentheses.
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing: It is almost laughable to consider that Dixon and CGR have failed to advance to Pole Day Shootout phase of qualifying at Indy in two of last three years. The Iceman did win the 500 pole two years ago, but remember that due to a safety concern, the cars were run in race trim. The resume does not release confidence, but Honda’s early wins are enough to place the New Zealander in P1 for now.
James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Hinch unleashed required pace when it mattered in 2016 and the gap between Honda and Chevrolet seems to be widening further from last year’s perceived edge. While odds are stacked against his teammates’ chances to join him in Firestone Fast Nine, the Mayor should play a role when the shootout begins.
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske: When practice opens, Newgarden will have had five starts with Penske under his belt, enough to remove nerves and gain a necessary focus. The Dallara he will use this year should be better than what ECR gave him a year ago when he qualified second. The key factor, will be whether Chevrolet can hold a candle to Honda.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport: Hard to fathom how Andretti Autosport has been unable to earn a pole position at Indy since 2005. RHR has made front row twice during the DW12 era and probably rates as best chance to challenge for pole position.
Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing: TK was a regular front two rows qualifier for several years at Indy, but has struggled to regain his magic touch during the current decade. Could be projecting him a little high here, but we will see things play out during practice week.
Helio Castroneves, Team Penske: The most successful pole day among active drivers, yet three-time Indy 500 champion has struggled to make front row recently. Always a factor during qualifying weekend, so it is impossible to ignore him.
Alexander Rossi, Andretti Herta Autosport: Defending Indianapolis 500 champion should have made Firestone Fast Nine last year. Early fast run, plus an extension of Saturday qualifying by one hour knocked him out in final moments. Should be a greater threat with one year of experience.
Will Power, Team Penske: Lack of pace from Chevrolet, coupled with bad returns at Long Beach raise some concerns. Scratch latter issue and Power would be Penske’s best chance to win pole position next month.
Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport: 2006 Indy 500 runner-up fought hard to earn a Firestone Fast Nine spot last year but ultimately fell short. More muscle under cowling could be what is needed to make the shootout.
Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske: Pagenaud sneaked into final qualifying phase last year, but may not be as fortunate with Chevrolet more vulnerable in the speed department. Regardless, it is tough to get five or six cars from one team in the shootout.
Takuma Sato, Andretti Autosport: Few get as close to touching the wall as this Japanese veteran does. However, he now has a car capable of reaching Firestone Fast Nine. That at least puts him in range.
Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Last second run put him in position for the pole last year, but stronger challenges from both Ganassi and Andretti once again makes a first three rows appearance a long shot.
ROW 5:
Fernando Alonso, Andretti Autosport: It is unfair to expect a top-nine effort from someone who has never driven an IndyCar this close to pole day. Even though Nigel Mansell managed to qualify eighth as a 500 rookie in 1993, the British Lion had more oval track testing miles than Alonso will have. This is around where Kurt Busch ended up three years ago and should be a realistic target for the McLaren F1 pilot.
Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing: In 2013 and 2014, this guy was a top-nine lock. However, since his accident on pole day two years ago, Carpenter has failed to make an impact. While ECR gets most of its results on ovals, Chevrolet’s current handicap makes the task even tougher next month.
Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing: Unless Coyne makes a dent in qualifying for Phoenix, this is as good as it will get for Bourdais and DCR in time trial mode. If Bruno Junqueira and Justin Wilson could do no better than this, why will Bourdais?
ROW 6:
Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske: Unlike his teammates, qualifying has been an oil and water exercise for the Colombian. Inconsistent pace dashed hopes to make Firestone Fast Nine last year, and that was before a trash bag messed up his decent run one day later.
Carlos Munoz, A.J. Foyt Racing: Qualifying was kryptonite for Super Tex and company during the DW12 era and despite a go for broke style of Munoz, pieces are missing to allow for a realistic chance to make the top-nine cut.
Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing: Has been a consistent top-ten finisher at Indy for CGR, but form has not transferred to qualifications. Despite featuring Honda power, a mid-field effort is expected.
Oriol Servia, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: 2011 Indy 500 front row starter has consistently outpaced his full-time teammate in qualifying and stands a good chance of doing so next month.
J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing: Hand injury aside, it has been a rough return to full-time service for this Indy-specialist. Generally projects higher than here, but unknowns of Chevrolet’s pace are concerning.
Sage Karam, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: Not a strong qualifier; however, Karam’s stock could rise with semi-teammate to compare information with. Would match qualifying run from 2015.
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: The son of 1986 Indy 500 champion has yet to master four-lap qualifying and has wound up in the bottom of the starting grid as a result. At this point, out-running his teammate Servia would be a success.
Jack Harvey, Andretti Autosport: Good to see 2015 Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires runner-up in a car this month. While Andretti is a solid car provider, Harvey’s limited race participation will make it difficult to reach the top half.
Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing: Situation for the Dubai-based rookie is similar to Bourdais’. If DCR shows potential at Phoenix, row eight will not be Jones’ likely home. A spot higher up will be.
Max Chilton, Chip Ganassi Racing: Pole day accident last year, prevented him a chance to experience the full qualifying weekend. That could negatively impact his output in 2017.
Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Racing: Does not have momentum on his side as was present last year. Early struggles with Foyt may continue into Indy 500 festivities.
Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing: Alliance with DRR and presence of team manager Larry Curry are nice to have, but low expectations are reasonable for any new team.
ROW 10
Pippa Mann, Dale Coyne Racing: If indeed DCR has upped its game, 2017 could be Mann’s best chance to line up higher on the starting grid, than she ever has before. Phoenix efforts from Bourdais and Jones will significantly influence thinking here.
Zach Veach, A.J. Foyt Racing: Indy Lights veteran finally gets a chance to race in IndyCar. Foyt’s early performances predict a tough road ahead though.
Jay Howard, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Long layoff for Howard regarding Indy 500 participation means he will likely be playing catch-up once practice opens next month.
ROW 11
(Kyle Kaiser), Juncos Racing: New team, plus a young driver. Cannot be expected to be a winning combination right out of the starting gate.
Buddy Lazier, Lazier Partners Racing: Loss of Larry Curry makes mission impossible even harder for family-run operation. Will be tough to avoid back of starting grid.
The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

By Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad.

A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory.

Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.