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Expect the unexpected at the 106th Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS — If last week’s pole qualifiers were a show of speed, Sunday’s 106th Indianapolis 500 will be determined by the drivers and teams best able to adapt to the changing conditions.

Race day temperature on Sunday is expected to be in the mid to high 80s meaning the dark black tarmac will be greasy and slippery. Teams must consider how much downforce is needed early in the race and then either add more or release the car later in the race when the surface changes.

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Castroneves will attempt to complete the Drive For Five campaign on Sunday. (Penske Entertainment/Joe Skibinski)

“With the sealant they put on the track this year, it increased the speed and grip level for tire management and it has definitely changed,” said defending champion and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Meyer -Shank Racing. “At this point there are many details that are known and unknown.

“The speeds are faster, but in the race you slow down from training. A hot track will be more slippery and we will have that. When those conditions hit, anyone with a good set-up will be outstanding out there.”

According to Castroneves’ teammate, 2019 Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenaud, chasing track conditions is key.

“It’s been a week of changeable weather and very difficult to understand,” said Pagenaud. “When the track reaches a certain temperature, the car starts to slide. You saw that in qualifying when the tires started to slip after two or three laps.

“We need to push that threshold as far as we can and be prepared for that point. Race day will be 85 degrees with track temperatures in the 120’s. It will be an interesting choice and game because it is very important to be fast at the end of the race.

“It was a mind game trying to figure out all those temperatures.”

Although qualifying speeds included the fastest Indy 500 pole speed in history, with Scott Dixon’s four-lap average of 234.046 mph, an extra boost was given to the car for Fast Friday and qualifying weekend.

Dixon’s speed broke the Indianapolis 500 pole record of 233.718 mph set by Scott Brayton in 1996. Arie Luyendyk’s all-time 4-lap qualifying average speed of 236.986 mph in 1996 came on day two of qualifying and did not qualify for pole.

Qualifying setup has little to do with race setup other than determining the starting position of the 33-car grid.

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The crowd at IMS was packed for Friday’s Carb Day. (Penske Entertainment/Chris Owens)

Castroneves and his “Drive for Five” are just one of many storylines at the 106th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday. It will be the first time the race will be held at full capacity since 2019 and is expected to be the largest crowd since the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.

Spectators were not allowed at the facility in 2020 due to COVID-19 and last year’s attendance was capped at 137,000.

According to Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles, there are only a few thousand tickets left for sale, mostly in the north short chute. Indianapolis Motor Speedway has 238,000 grandstand seats with an additional 5,000 fans allowed in the infield.

Dixon won his fifth career pole last Sunday and is attempting to win the Indianapolis 500 for the second time. In 2008 he drove from pole to victory.

“I’m as determined as ever,” Dixon said. “The longer you get in this place and you have four or five second places and three of them got booked, those are the ones that hurt the most because you couldn’t even fight for it. One of these was given when it had run its full course.

“They suck.

“But that’s also what keeps the fire really strong. Those narrow failures keep you up at night and also annoy you.

“This place owes me nothing. I like coming here. It’s a privilege to come here and I’m very lucky to be here with one of the best teams in the sport.

“We’ll keep digging. We will keep knocking on the door and hopefully one day it will open.

“Maybe someday, maybe someday I’ll get my second.”

Dixon leads a five-rider team for Chip Ganassi Racing at this year’s Indianapolis 500. Teammate and defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou will start second in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda. Marcus Ericsson starts fifth in the #8 Huski Chocolate Honda, Tony Kanaan is sixth in the #1 American Legion Honda and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, and Indy 500 rookie Jimmie Johnson starts 12th in the #48 Carvana/ American Legion Honda.

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Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series Champion Jimmie Johnson will drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in his first Indy 500. (IndyCar photo)

Johnson is an important story because the four-time Brickyard 400 winner at NASCAR’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway was very impressive in practice and qualifying on the IMS oval.

“I’m really looking forward to it,” Johnson said. “When I was here last year watching as a fan, absorbing everything, the energy I experienced wasn’t like I’ve seen before. It was only half full. I can’t wait for race day to feel it with full energy.

“Every day as we get closer to the 500, it gets crowded. The pressure increases. I think the weekend was pretty busy with qualifying. I did not expect that; the stress demands that any driver would endure.

“Some of that is predictable with the media and trying to promote this great race is part of that. It’s weird to have tomorrow off and not be in the car at all and then just get in on Sunday.

“Again, just roll with it and soak up all I can.”

Another fast rookie is Andretti Autosport’s Roman Grosjean. The former Formula 1 driver starts in ninth place in the No. 28 DHL Honda.

“My children come on Saturday night,” Grosjean said. “I want them to be here for my first 500. In fact, on Monday, they can skip school on Tuesday. At least we can spend some time together before we go to Detroit. That’s cool.”

Rinus VeeKay will start outside the front row and the 21-year-old has a chance to break a 70-year record held by Troy Ruttman as the youngest Indianapolis 500 winner. Ruttman was 22 years old when he won in 1952.

Two-time Indianapolis 500 winners include Juan Pablo Montoya (2000 and 2015) and Takuma Sato (2017 and 2020). If either rider wins on Sunday, they will be the first triple winners to have claimed each of their three victories with three different teams.

There are many, many more storylines at Sunday’s 106th Indianapolis 500, and by the end of the race, some will potentially come to fruition.

Or a completely unexpected plot could unfold out of nowhere.

This is what makes the Indianapolis 500 so unique and so dramatic.

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