Beyond the obvious driver-by-driver preview, part one of RACER.com's Indianapolis 500 preview, here are some of the other elements to watch from what promises to be one of the most unpredictable 500s in years. The fifth round of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series, of course, is also the first oval race of both the season and for the new DW12 chassis and engine formula.
BACK TO BOOST BASICS - Honda's lone saving grace after getting comprehensively waxed in qualifying is that the series has returned to its original turbo boost level of 130 kPa for the race as opposed to the 140-150 kPa boost for Fast Friday and qualifying. The Hondas were certainly closer to the mark in the practices before Friday, in both tow-assisted and solo runs.
In fact, of the best combined practice speeds through Thursday, eight of the top 15 were actually Honda runners – an overlooked statistic given Chevrolet's consistent speed advantage that has seemed to permeate the standings of late.
FUEL MILEAGE DERBY – For a race that was built on the pursuit of speed, it's somewhat ironic the last two years has almost been about seeing “how slow can you go” to make the fuel numbers work. Consider in 2010, after putting on a clinic the first 190 laps, Dario Franchitti recorded some of his slowest laps of the race – barely averaging over 200mph – to hit his number. And last year, had a late caution emerged either Danica Patrick or, more likely, Bertrand Baguette (pitted lap 197) could have stolen the Centennial edition of the "500" purely on strategy.
JR Hildebrand had the numbers to make it work – a full 36 laps from his final stop on lap 164 – and was still set up to be in the position to win based on the combination of strategy and pace. Although eventual winner Dan Wheldon pitted 13 laps later on lap 177, Hildebrand had enough of a cushion to make his strategy work.
Granted, this year compared to last is not an apples-to-apples comparison; we've moved from the 3.5-liter V8 normally aspirated Hondas to the 2.2-liter V6 turbos, Honda's single and Chevrolet and Lotus' twins. The Chevrolets have already shown an advantage in the fuel mileage game thus far – particularly in Long Beach, where Will Power made a two-stop strategy work including a 31-lap final stint – whereas the Hondas have had more issues hitting their targets. Scott Dixon joked Thursday when asked how he thinks the fuel mileage will shake out, "You tell me."
It's always going to be difficult to make an extra stop on an oval given the likelihood of losing a lap on an unscheduled green flag pit stop. That said, it wouldn't surprise me if at some stage, a Honda runner might opt for an alternate strategy to make at least one further pit stop and push harder in the interim. Counting backward, anyone pitting after lap 160 is in with a chance of making it to the finish without another stop to the flag. Likely, strategy will play out depending on how the yellows fall.
KEEPING IT GROUNDED – One similarity in the series of accidents that have happened so far, although the Dallara DW12 has done well in terms of driver protection from injury, has been a tendency for the car to tip up on its left sidepod when contacting the wall. Charlie Kimball's Sunday crash and Ed Carpenter's pole day crash are prime examples.
As a result, the series announced Wednesday it would add three cutouts to the undertray to help prevent the likelihood of additional lift. Just as no one wanted to be the car's “crash test dummy” for the first full DW12 oval shunt, I'm guessing no one wants to volunteer to try out this new adjustment. Still, IndyCar vp of technology Will Phillips wouldn't have approved this adjustment if he didn't think it represented a potential improvement.
THE HEAT INDEX – Depending on where you look, race day temperatures could be as low as 91, or pushing 100 degrees ambient for a potential record high. Add in another 20 to 30 degrees for your track temperature, sprinkle in some humidity, and you have the ingredients for a scorcher come Sunday afternoon.
The track's already become pretty greasy given the amount of running that's taken place this month, with nary a drop of rain thus far limiting track time. IMS is far from a green track – if anything, the amount of grip and rubber buildup is far greater than it's been in many years. Hope IMS has the misters and shady escapes working in full force.