Resend: Butch Welsh’s in-depth preview of the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge

Note from Steve: Butch Welsch is a long-time friend and subscriber of TSO, and his Indianapolis 500 thoughts and predictions have become one of our favorite “Month Of May” traditions. He does such a great job of previewing this year’s race, I’m afraid I might find myself replaced on the “preview beat.” 

Note from Tony: We’d originally shipped Butch’s comprehensive preview earlier this week but due to a technical glitch, some of our subscribers may not have received it. So, to ensure we continue one of TSO’s longest standing “Month of May” traditions, and now with Carb Day complete, it’s just as good a time to ensure Butch’s preview hits your inboxes once more just to be safe.

Spoiler Alert! I always wanted to say that, but nothing I have ever written was that noteworthy. However, this spoiler is to protect TSO and the writer. While I do my very best in presenting my opinions of the upcoming 500, these opinions are not being presented to encourage you to bet your hard earned wages on my suggestions. With so many on-line betting options available now, I want you to know that these predictions are for purposes of discussion only. Therefore approach any parlor, bookie or on-line betting service at your own risk.

What makes the above statement even more important is how difficult it is to predict a winner for this 105th running of the race. As previous readers will know, I typically divide the field approximately in thirds. The first group consists of those drivers who are most likely to drink the milk. The second group is those who have a possibility of winning if misfortune befalls several in group one. The last group is those who help make up the field of 33, but for a number of reasons they are very unlikely to be the first to pull into victory lane.

The problem this year is that there seems to be a real “changing of the guard” in Indy Car. In the first races of the season, a number of youngsters have stolen the spotlight from the traditional veterans. There have been three first time winners (Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Rinus Veekay) in the first five races, with 21 year old Colton Herta winning one and the fifth by veteran, Scott Dixon. The question is whether or not these young speedsters will be able to translate their aggressive driving style into an Indy 500 win. To quote four time winner, Rick Mears: “To finish first, you must first finish”. Rick always coaches his drivers to drive conservatively to be around for the last 50 -100 miles. Will the young guns have that patience?

Enough about the excuses as to why this task is going to be difficult. Here are my thoughts on the possibilities of this year’s 33 fastest qualifiers. 

I’m going to cheat slightly on my “groups of three” predictions. This year I am adding a Group 1A. The reason is that one driver stands out from the crowd and appears to be more likely than any of the other 32 to take home the big prize. That is Scott Dixon and his Chip Ganassi entered PNC Bank car. Scott captured his sixth season championship last year and is one of the five winners this year. Perhaps the only minor hole in his resume is that he has “only” one Indy 500 win, that back in 2008. However, he nearly won last year and seems to be getting better with age. I know he would like to add another Baby Borg to his trophy cabinet, and seems to be ready this year. Another stat that might make Scotty more likely to win is that Chip Ganassi’s last win at the Speedway was in 2012. You know that no one would like to take home a bunch of Roger Penske’s money than Chip. Keep an eye on number 9.

Next comes group number 1- those most likely to drink the milk if something happens to Dixon. That group starts with drivers from the Andretti Autosports team. Surprisingly, the most likely from Michael’s team is the youngest, Colton Herta. He already has Indy Car wins in his resume and came within a blink of the eye of being the youngest pole sitter in 500 history last Sunday. There is no doubt he will be fast. If his dad, Bryan, can coach him to control his aggression, it would not be surprising at all to see Colton in victory lane. Michael’s teams have certainly proven that they are capable.

Next from the Andretti stable is 7th starting Ryan Hunter Reay. A previous winner in 2014, and with top-tens in each of the last three years, if this popular driver can find a little more speed at the end, he could challenge for the victory. 

Normally, Alexander Rossi would be higher on the list of likely winners. After his 2016 win, he had finishes of 7th, 4th, 2nd and then last year was battling Scott Dixon for the lead when a pit error relegated him to the back of a pack where passing was nearly impossible. Thus every year he has been competitive at the Speedway. However, this year, in addition to qualifying only 10th fastest in the field, his record in the first five races has given the impression that all is not right in the Rossi camp. His past Speedway record means he has to be considered a favorite, but will his recent record of mistakes take him out of contention as it did in 2020? 

Ed Carpenter will start on the inside of row 2, on Sunday. He has three pole wins at the Speedway and a second and sixth in 2018 and 2019 respectively. His cars have always had speed but that qualifying speed has not always translated into fast cars in traffic.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      A win by Ed would be extremely popular as he is a hometown boy who is well-liked by fans at the track.  If he can stay in the hunt and get into the lead near the end this could be his year.    

A very popular previous winner with a good shot this year is veteran Tony Kanaan. Tony finally won the Borg Warner trophy in 2013 for KV Racing. While he has moved around since then and has only competed in oval events recently, the fact that he is part of the Chip Ganassi racing team gives him his best chance in years. I can still remember the cheer that erupted when he won 8 years ago. I can only imagine the roar there would be if TK would win in this, what may be his final year in Indy Car. It would be sad to see this popular champion hang up his helmet without another 500 win.  

It seems unusual to see Helio Castroneves in anything but a Penske car. However he has shown real speed in this one off run with Meyer Shank Racing. Helio continues to show the same spirit and enthusiasm he exuded when he first came to the Speedway and won as a rookie in 2001. The fans would be delighted to see “Spiderman” climb the fence a fourth time to join Foyt, Mears and Unser, Sr. in the Four Winner’s Club.

Perhaps a surprise addition to my Likely category is Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward. This youngster has been fast since he first joined Indy Car. After a couple of near misses, he won the only pre-Indy oval race at Texas earlier this May. Arrow McLaren has seemed to turn their program around and appear to be competitive. If Pato can control his aggression and the team gives him the proper pit stops, I know he is fast enough to challenge for the top spot. In any cases I think he will be exciting to watch.

Most surprisingly, the last additions to my Likely group come from Team Penske. Their performance was certainly the surprise of qualifying. The fact that Will Power had to survive the back row shootout is one of the biggest stories of qualifying in recent years.

However, it wasn’t just Will. Josef Newgarden, two time series champion, only managed a 21st starting spot, while 2019 winner, Simon Pagenaud, could do no better than 26th. It is difficult to explain the Penske team’s inability to be near the front this year. While Hondas dominated the top nine, there are two Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolets in the top four. The engine doesn’t seem to be the problem. 

Prior to the month of May, with Newgarden’s known speed and the pedigree of two championships, I would have considered him up there with Dixon as a very likely winner. His average finish record at the Speedway over the last three years of 5.7 is the best of all competitors. Since his win in 2019, Pagenaud has seemed re-invigorated and with an average finish of less than 10 the last three years would normally be considered likely.

For some reason, however, the Penske cars never could find the speed in qualifications. Penske’s record at the Speedway indicates that they can find ways to win. As a result, with some differing race strategies and cars that have race pace, you can never count out a Penske team. Therefore, I have to include Newgarden, Pagenaud, and Power in my Likely group.

It was extremely hard to draw a line between the Likely group and the Possible group this year, so I won’t be surprised if many of you have differing opinions. But after all, this is an exercise in drawing attention to this weekend’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. 

Rinus Veekay from Ed Carpenter Racing was a surprise two weekends in a row. First he won the GMR Race on the Indy road course and then followed that up with a qualifying run on the oval which puts him outside the front row. We know the Ed Carpenter Racing team is fast and if they can provide efficiency in the pits, Rinus could be a surprise winner. 

Also from Ed Carpenter Racing is Conor Daly. Conor was near the top of the speed charts in practice before qualifying and even in the post qualifying practice. He indicated that they made some adjustments which just didn’t work out, which is why he is only starting in 19th position. Conor feels extremely confident in his chances this year and he would be a very popular winner. Not only because of his own popularity but also because of his car owner. In any case it should be very interesting to see Conor and Josef Newgarden moving through the field from their 7th row starting positions.

Continuing the Possibility group, we are back to the Chip Ganassi Racing team. With Dixon and Kanaan in the top group, it is not surprising that Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson would be in group 2. Palou, who won the opening race of the season at Barber is starting on the outside of row #2. The fact he took that spot after pancaking the wall near the end of the day on Saturday says a lot about this young man. Chip, like Roger Penske, has always had an eye for talent. The fact that Chip plucked him after just one year in the series, is an indication of the confidence the team has in this young driver.

Finally, the fourth driver in the Chip Ganassi stable is Marcus Ericsson. He rather quietly managed to make the fast nine and with the Ganassi team backing could be a surprise top finisher on race day.

It may seem surprising for me to move last year’s winner and 2017 champion only in the Possible group. The reason is that except for his wins, Takuma Sato’s results at the Speedway have not been all that impressive. In addition we have to take into consideration the likelihood of ANYONE having back-to -back wins at the Speedway. The last time it happened was Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002. From there you have to go all the way to 1970 and 1971 when Al Unser, Sr. captured back–to-back wins. A Sato win, while not impossible would be a real surprise. 

A more likely probability is Sato’s teammate at Rahal Letterman Racing. That is Graham Rahal. Graham has a decent 13.3 average finish the last three years and seems to have matured into a good, steady driver. So far he seems to be one of those drivers whom bad luck seems to follow. If this is the year when everything falls into place, then Graham could easily find himself in victory lane. 

James Hinchcliffe falls into the Possible group not only because he is fast and would be a popular winner, but also because this year he has a full time ride with Andretti Autosports. If the Andretti pedigree and not the curse follow Hinch, then there would be a gigantic roar from the crowd if he crossed the line first. 

It was difficult to not put Rookie Scott McLaughlin in the Likely group. Scott has shown speed since he first entered Indy Car and has been quick all month. In fact, he was the highest qualifying of all of the Penske drivers. However, rookies, especially those with very little experience in the series, are not usually able to do everything it takes to finish first after 500 miles. Alexander Rossi was in a similar role and did it in 2016, so it isn’t’ impossible, however I’ll stick with Possible as opposed to Likely despite the Penske backing.

There are two “sleepers” in this field, either one of which could be a big surprise on race day. The first is Juan Pablo Montoya. He already has two Indy wins to his credit separated by 15 years (2000 – 2015) which in itself is amazing. It proves he knows how to be around at the end. This time he is with Arrow McLaren, and their ability to compete for 500 miles with Ganassi, Andretti and Penske comes in question. If you are looking for a dark horse, Juan just might be your choice. 

The second sleeper is Sebastien Bourdais, driving for A.J. Foyt racing. Sebastien’s record of CART Championships is amazing so he definitely is familiar with winning. Whether the Foyt team can provide him with the car and the timely pitstops will determine whether or not Likely would have been more appropriate for him.

Next we come to the group which for a number of reasons is very unlikely to be the first one to victory lane. The major obstacle this year is the depth of the field and the extremely strong list of both Likely and Possible teams. The fact that there is so little difference in times and speeds, means that everything has to be perfectly in place for a top finish. With so many teams excelling in so many areas, those top finishes are that much more difficult. So here is the remainder of the field.

We will start with Ed Jones and Pietro Fittipaldi. Ed Jones has driven quickly enough that he might have been included in the Possible category, however, while Dale Coyne’s team has had some success in Indy Car, the ability to perform 8 – 10 pit stops flawlessly and to keep up with the changing track conditions is very difficult for a small team. As a result, I believe a top-ten finish for Ed would be a good result. The situation is similar for Pietro Fitipaldi, the other Dale Coyne entry. He has the extra handicap of being an oval-only driver for the team. There is so much to be said for the establishment of team chemistry and consistency which goes along with not only a full time ride, but a multi-year ride as well. Hopefully Pietro can keep it clean and end up in the top 20.

Felix Rosenquist is with Arrow McLaren this year in a move from Ganassi. Unfortunately, Felix has not seemed to live up to his original potential as emphasized by the fact that he was replaced at Ganassi. While Arrow McLaren definitely seems to be improved and on the upswing, it is hard to imagine that someone who couldn’t make the top ten with Ganassi is going to fare very much better with Arrow McLaren.

I had some trouble making a decision with regard to Jack Harvey. Although he has seemed to pick up his game this year and show more speed, his record of 16th, 21st, and 9th in the last 3 years does not send a message that this is someone who is ready to land on the podium. While he might be a surprise, I believe a 9th place finish similar to last year would be a good outcome for Jack and his Meyer Shank Racing team. 

Santonio Ferrucci is making this start with Team Rahal. Santonio showed some promise with Dale Coyne racing, but once released decided to try a full time ride in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Therefore, this ride in the 500 is just a one-off ride for him and the team. It would have been interesting to see how Santonio progressed in Indy Cars given a more extended training period and perhaps a more seasoned crew. One-off rides typically do not end up being very successful in the 500, so he is another that should  probably be pleased with a top 15 finish and a car in one piece.

Two cars from the A.J. Foyt stable are, unfortunately, ones destined for 10th to 20th place finishes. J.R. Hildebrand is driving a beautiful #1 patterned after the car A.J. drove to his first 500 victory in 1961. There are many fans who would love to see J.R. enjoy a successful day at the Speedway. Those of us who remember him standing alongside his wrecked car in turn #1 after hitting the wall less than a mile away from victory in 2011, will not soon forget him looking to the sky apparently saying, “Why me?”

Unfortunately he is not likely to be in that position this year.

The other A.J. Foyt entry is Dalton Kellett. He is in his second year with Foyt Racing and managed to squeeze into the field on Saturday and thus avoid the pressure cooker of the last row shootout. This youngster has potential but given that he has only one race, finishing 31st last year and given the team’s recent lack of success, I would think he should be very happy with a top 20 and a car which could be driven onto the hauler.

It seems unusual that I am this far along before getting to the 2020 pole sitter, Marco Andretti. However, Marco is only doing the 500 this year. Given his average finish of 18 the last three years as a full time driver for Andretti Autosports, it is very hard to imagine that this third generation driver can be near the front at the end. A top 10 wouldn’t be out of the question, but much higher is unlikely.

The final driver from the Andretti stable is Stefan Wilson. This is another one-off ride and it is very hard to accomplish much from the 28th starting position, especially without a lot of seat time. I am hopeful that Stefan will have a steady safe day and should be proud to be in the top 20 at the end.

Next comes 29th starter Max Chilton with Carlin Racing. In all honesty, it has been surprising that, given Carlin’s success in Europe, that they have not progressed further up the Indy Car ladder. Max seems to be a steady driver, but for whatever reason the team has not achieved the same level of success to which they had been accustomed. Probably a top 15 is the best that Max can hope to achieve.

Sage Karam is again back with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Hats off to Dennis Reinbold for his continuing support of the 500. It is local 500 enthusiasts, like him, which help insure that we have a 33 car starting field. Sage’s recent 3 year average finish of 23rd probably indicates that this team would be delighted with a top 15 result.

Finally there is Simona de Silvestro, back for her sixth start at Indy after being away since 2015. She is driving for the mostly female Paretta Autosport Team and the fan enthusiasm for her participation has been amazing. She managed to beat out veteran Charlie Kimball and rookie R.C. Enerson to take a pressure filled 33rd starting position. Many fans, both male and female are going to be watching to see Simona progress from that last row starting spot. I would think that a top 20 for this new team would seem like a podium.

There you have it. This is one fan’s predictions/guesses for a race which is virtually impossible to handicap. Hopefully I have given you some food for thought and fodder for discussion with your fellow race fans.

Mainly we are all wishing for a safe and exciting race on Sunday. Enjoy this year’s version of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”