SO, THE WEEK OF PRACTICE AND QUALIFYING? YEAH, DISREGARD THAT
I could almost do a cut and paste of my notes from Carb Day last year and tell the same story of what took place today during final practice for the Indy 500.
After seven days of practice, followed by two days of qualifying, Chevy owned the rival Honda brand in every way possible. Then, with new race-spec engines fitted for Carb Day, and possibly a more representative level of power unleashed through the ECU, Honda tipped the scales back in their favor.
What looked like a surefire Chevy win through nine total days of running has, once again, been thrown into a tailspin as Hondas took P1, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 10 during the one-hour session, with Simon Pagenaud making the most of the tow to turn a lap of 225.827mph.
"I think we're going to have a really exciting race; looking at the top 10, we're almost 50-50 between the two manufacturers and I think the Honda drivers feel like they have a strong chance this weekend," said Honda Performance Development's Roger Griffiths. "Coming out of qualifying, it was almost déjà vu from last year. None of us are overconfident; we all know it's going to be a long afternoon and the conditions are going to be a lot different than we had last year in the race so there's a lot of variable still to play. But overall, we're encouraged by what we saw this morning.”
More than one Chevy driver mentioned to me that they believed Honda had intentionally dialed down the power through the spec McLaren ECU up until Carb Day, but despite those assertions, the reality was that at least in a big tow – the kind of running most drivers will encounter on Sunday – the Hondas seemed to have a bit more peak speed and stronger midrange to re-accelerate after lifting in a pack while in the corners.
Target Chip Ganassi's Scott Dixon ended the session in fourth with a 224.870 after banging off the rev limiter from the midpoint on the straights and felt there was even more speed to show.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Dixon told RACER of Honda's latest iteration of its 2.2-liter single-turbo V6. “If we had more gear – we were on the limiter the whole time – I think 226s would have been easy.”
So shall we start preparing Honda's second consecutive bottle of milk? Not so fast.
If Carb Day revealed anything new, it was that the 200 laps of racing scheduled for Sunday should be incredibly close. Andretti Autosport's E.J. Viso was only half an mph off of Pagenaud and the Andretti team as a whole looks like one of its five drivers could take the victory. Polesitter Ed Carpenter, Dragon Racing's Sebastien Bourdais and Team Penske's A.J. Allmendinger also appear to have some speed to offer.
And with Ganassi now running closer to what was expected, it's anybody's guess as to who will add their likeness to the BorgWarner trophy.
RETURN OF THE CHAMPION
Friday morning got off to an amazing start when Chip Ganassi held a press conference to honor his former driver Alex Zanardi at the base of the Pagoda, revealing the perfectly restored 1996 Reynard-Honda the three-time CART champion made “The Pass” and drove to victory at Laguna Seca that same year.
The wildly popular Italian, sporting a pair of walking canes after losing both legs in the infamous crash at the Lausitzring in 2001, fought back tears during the unveiling.
"It is really difficult to put it into words,” said the Paralympics gold medalist. “I'm lucky enough to have had a long career, a career with many highlights, along with the two championships we won with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Which were, for sure, amazing accomplishments, I had days of glory which go above.
"Laguna Seca in 1996, of all the highlights of my racing career, was probably the most emotional one and the one that actually changed my life. I was very lucky that day, don't get me wrong, but had I not tried that move, who knows what my racing career would have been?
“For sure, it changed a lot of things. The perception of all the people watching was that, after that day, I was a different guy, I was definitely a guy to keep an eye on. I'm sure I won a lot of fans that day and caused come controversy, as well. But, hey, this is what keeps us alive, and I was definitely alive that day.”
Team owner Ganassi told RACER this was something he'd wanted to do for some time.
“He's such an amazing person – such a big part of this team – that it was the least we could do,” he said.
Zanardi is attending the Indy 500, a race he never competed in, as a guest of Target.
RACER contributor Robin Miller and I hatched a plan after last year's Indy 500 to have some “Job Done” T-shirts made in honor of nearly-Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato and his unforgettable quote after the race when he exclaimed “Job Done” regarding the pass he believed he completed on winner Dario Franchitti. Miller, a man with a steel trap for a mind, followed through with the plan long after I'd forgotten about it and had 30 shirts made for Taku and the A.J. Foyt Racing team which he presented to the Japanese driver on Friday.
“He endeared so many people to himself after the race and his ‘Job Done' line was such a classic that we couldn't let it go,” said Miller. “He's an easy guy to cheer for and the fact that he's driving for Foyt is even better.”
Sato quickly donned a T-shirt and absolutely loved them. Except for one thing.
“I had them made in Large, XL, 2X for A.J…then Taku asks me if I made any in Medium for him…I forgot! I told him, ‘Don't worry Taku, it'll shrink!”
PIT STOP COMP TO HELIO, TEAM PENSKE NO. 3 CAR
The two titans of IndyCar racing met in a dual for pit stop honors to close Friday's events, with team Penske's Helio Castroneves beating Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti by 0.379 second. It marked the 14th win for Team Penske and the sixth for the Brazilian.
“I tell you going against those [Ganassi] guys, they are pros,” said HCN. “These guys are awesome.”
Castroneves got a late start and slid into his box, which looked like a gimme for Franchitti to take the win, but a slow tire change for the Scot allowed the Penske car to streak away first.
“I went for it,” he explained. “I can't believe I screwed up. I saw Dario go up [into the box] and I thought I didn't have a chance. I didn't know who won.”
Driving aside, the $50,000 prize was won Sean Hanrahan on left front tire, Doug Snyder on the right rear tire, Shaun Rinaman on the left rear tire, Mike Brown on airjack and Gary Yingst fueling.
NEW LID FOR JR
Panther Racing's JR Hildebrand traded in the helmet he used through practice and qualifying – a somewhat familiar livery depicting old school hot rod themes and exhaust pipes from a V8 engine exiting both sides of the lid – for one he'll use in the race that's more patriotic and accurate to the powerplant he used in the pack of the No. 4 Dallara DW12.
“I went for the 'Easy Rider' scheme that's just so cool and iconic,” he told RACER. “I also went for six exhaust pipes to match the twin-turbo Chevy V6. I'm really happy with it.”
• Rumors of Ryan Briscoe expanding his schedule to do more races with Chip Ganassi have been making the rounds this week and I've been told it's very likely the Aussie could partake in a few additional events that don't conflict with his full-time duties with the Level 5 American Le Mans Series team.
• Rumors have also circulated that KV Racing could be shutting down early, with Tony Kanaan mentioned as the entry most likely to drop out.
“We've been hearing the same thing and I don't know where it started,” said KV co-owner Jimmy Vasser, “but it's complete garbage. We have some unsponsored races for TK right now, but we'll be at every race this season with both cars.”
• The Panther DRR team, which is scheduled to shut down after Indy, could see some of its employees move over to Chip Ganassi Racing after multiple job interviews have taken place this month.