Marco Andretti sits in his 98 car

Track Talk: Indy 500 Qualifying Preview

It’s the month of May, and Indy 500 qualifying is right around the corner. We preview qualifying, review the first week of practice, and look at some of things making news for the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. 

Another rookie added to the entry list: Zachary Claman De Melo got the call this week to substitute for his teammate, Pietro Fittipaldi, who was injured in a World Endurance Championship race in Belgium a couple of weeks back. Not only is he Claman De Melo an IndyCar and Indy 500 rookie, but he’ll also attempt to qualify for his first ever-oval race.

When is a rookie, not a rookie? The Indy 500 has its own rookie designation & award, one that operates outside of the parameters of an IndyCar rookie. Even if you’re an IndyCar rookie, you’re technically not an Indy 500 rookie if you’ve previously started the race. Zach Veach, is an example. This year’s Indy 500 has four rookies attempting to qualify. Claman De Melo, Matheus Leist, Kyle Kaiser, and Robert Wickens will all try to snag one of the 33 starting positions, and based on practice speeds- all of them should make the field.

Can the Indy 500 produce another first time winner? In a pre-season edition of #TrackTalk I noted that Alexander Rossi’s 2016 Indy 500 victory was the last time IndyCar had a first-time winner. Ironically, this record still stands thanks to Rossi punting Wickens out of the lead in St. Petersburg. If Indy is going to produce a first time winner then it’s likely that this could come from our rookie field. 

Will we see a first-time Indy 500 winner? Watching a rookie take their first Indy 500 win in their first start is spectacular, but when you look through the field there are a number of veteran drivers yet to kiss the bricks. Team Penske’s Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and reigning series champion, Josef Newgarden are all favorites to break through, while James Hinchcliffe is always fast in both qualifying and the race. I’d encourage you to keep an eye on both Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones. Bourdais has a score to settle with the track after last years season-interrupting crash, and many feel that Jones’ third-place in 2017 should have netted him Indy 500 rookie-of-the-year honours over Fernando Alonso.

Will a past winner repeat? Here’s a fun fact: Only six past winners will attempt to qualify, and of those six, Helio Castroneves is the only multiple winner with three wins. Can Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, or Takuma Sato get their second win? Better yet, can Castroneves notch his fourth victor, putting himself in the same class as Al Unser, AJ Foyt, and Rick Mears?

Who will be on pole? It’s really hard to tell the favorite, as teams usually wait until the final practice sessions before Pole Day to show their true speed. You might want to put your money on either an Andretti Autosport car. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking Hunter-Reay or Rossi, but at time of writing Marco Andretti posted the fastest speed of 2018 at 227.053 MPH.

Victor Genova is the host of the Media People Podcast and a freelance racing writer. You can follow him on Instagram at @VicGenova