Six to watch in the battle for the Indy 500 pole

Six to watch in the battle for the Indy 500 pole

With 40mph gusts on Fast Friday – the day when the boost is cranked up and the downforce is shaved off in preparation for the battle for the Indianapolis 500 pole – qualifying for the 106th Running could be a 230mph-plus journey into the unknown.

There’s a new format for qualifying this year, with Saturday’s session deciding which 12 drivers will head into Sunday with a shot at the pole, and which 21 drivers are locked into rows five to 11.

Sunday’s action sees the Fast 12 all making a four-lap run to determine the Fast 6 – the six drivers who’ll shoot it out for the pole with one final four-lap run each.

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Which drivers are looking like they’re a lock-in for the Fast 12? Who’s throwing out clues that they’ll be Fast 6 contenders? There’s a lot of questions still to be answered, but here are six guys to watch…

TONY KANAAN, No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

This will be Kanaan’s (below) 21st Indy 500 qualifying attempt, and he knows every nuance of how to find speed and – crucially – four-lap consistency. The 106th Indy 500 is a one-off return to Chip Ganassi Racing for the 2005 pole winner and 2013 race winner, but TK’s already back in the groove, posting Fast Friday’s best four-lap average speed (230.517mph) and looking like a full-on pole contender.

Chris Jones/Penske Entertainment

TAKUMA SATO, No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda

From the moment Indy 500 practice began, Sato (lead) and DCR have been the little team that could. The two-time Indy 500 winner topped the timesheets on Tuesday and Thursday running and posted the fastest single lap (232.789mph) in Fast Friday’s high-boost qualifying trim. Putting together a convincing four-lap average proved a little trickier, with the No. 51 only fifth fastest (229.680mph) – “We got a little greedy,” noted Sato, “and I think we carried too little downforce” – but teammate David Malukas proved DCR has the in-house chops to dial in a more consistent setup. Sato’s never started higher than third at Indy, but in his 13th attempt, could this be the year he puts in on the pole?

SCOTT DIXON, No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

No, he hasn’t topped a session this week, or posted an earth-shattering Fast Friday four-lap average, but Chip Ganassi Racing is dialed in across the board, Dixon (below) is always a factor in Brickyard qualifying, and the four-time Indy 500 pole winner (including last year’s) is exuding a quiet confidence. From finishing quickest in both days of April’s Indy Open Test, through his methodical and unflustered week of practice so far, the 2008 Indy winner is set on a trajectory that points to pole contention once again.

Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

PATO O’WARD, No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy

O’Ward’s been creeping up the speed charts as the week’s progressed – ninth quickest on Tuesday, sixth on Thursday, and third with the wicks turned up on Fast Friday. And it’s not just on a single lap where he’s delivered – his 230.111mph four-lap average on Fast Friday was good enough for fourth overall, with the No. 5 Chevy looking like it has more to bring yet. A pole-earning weekend isn’t out of the question – and fastest Chevy tag could be a no-brainer.

DAVID MALUKAS, No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports Honda

Where’d this guy come from? DCR’s rookie was fast out of the chute on Tuesday, posting seventh quickest time, and as his comfort level has increased, so has the speed. After finishing third on Thursday, Malukas (below) was seventh quickest in Fast Friday single-lap pace, but a staggering second-best on the all-important four-lap average speeds (230.287mph), showing a consistency that teammate Sato wasn’t quite able to match. Could Dale Coyne Racing have two dogs in the fight for the front row? Sure looks like it…

Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

And for the sixth one to watch, how about we make it two, with a couple of other possible surprise packages?

SAGE KARAM, No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevy
JIMMIE JOHNSON, No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Karam (below) didn’t set the Speedway alight in Tuesday and Thursday running, but when the extra power went in and the drag came off, he was a revelation in Fast Friday running. An OK 13th in the single-lap speeds, it was his incredible consistency over a four-lap run – third quickest at 230.114mph – that’s put him on the radar to pull off a shock. Is pole a shot too far? Maybe. But a front-row slot, and vying with the likes of O’Ward for best of the Chevrolets? That’s not beyond the realm of possibilities.

And how about Jimmie Johnson? His road- and street-course learning curve remains steep, but the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champ has taken to ovals, IndyCar-style, like a fish to water. Sixth quickest among Fast Friday’s four-lap runs, averaging 229.094mph, put him down as a Fast 12 shoo-in and let’s see what else. And he’s even rubbed the Brickyard wall for the first time in an IndyCar, which is all part of knowing when enough is too much. The cream always rises to the top, and Johnson is definitely getting there.

Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

Saturday’s schedule begins with a final practice session (8:30-9:30am ET, Peacock) to dial out those final counts of downforce and drag – or dial them back in if you’ve scared yourself silly – followed by qualifying (11:00am-5:50pm ET, Peacock) to set the Fast 12 and lock in rows five to 11.

Sunday has Fast 12 practice from 12:30-2:00pm ET on Peacock, followed by Fast 12 qualifying at 4:00pm ET on NBC, and Fast 6 qualifying – the final shootout for the Indy 500 pole – at 5:10pm ET on NBC.

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