Butch Welsch’s annual driver-by-driver preview

Ed note: We’d like to welcome back long-time subscriber Butch Welsch for one our favorite features of the year, his annual driver-by-driver preview and predictions. Butch recently wrote a book commemorating his experiences, which you can purchase here: Indy 500 Memories.

A busy pit road during practice for the 107th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge Photo Courtesy Of Penske Entertainment – Chris Jones)

It’s Indy 500 time. My 76th in a row is as tough to predict as any in recent years. The difference between the pole and second place is six one-thousandths of a second! More telling is that at least 15 or so cars have been running within a mile an hour of each other. Pole day was exhilarating. Not only the most cars to ever qualify in one day, but more interestingly, not one yellow flag, nor were there any gaps for practice. Continuous qualifying the entire day. I realize that each car and driver combination can now make multiple attempts. Still, from a fan’s perspective, it is much more interesting when the runs are real qualifying runs and not just attempted simulations with other cars on the track.

The surprises of qualifying: Both A.J. Foyt cars made the top 12. So happy for A.J. and Larry. Katherine Legge, a one-off run with Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan; she hasn’t driven at the Speedway for ten years and yet she makes the top 30 while her three teammates are relegated to bump day. Finally, R.C. Enerson in an Abel Motorsports car with a deal just finalized a few weeks ago, also a one off deal and he makes the top 30.

You probably think I am stalling before I get to the task of separating the 33 qualified cars into three groups. You are right, this is tough. I have again divided them into three groups of 11. I’m pretty confident about my bottom 11, and several of the first few in group one. It is the lower part of group one and upper part of group two where it really gets fuzzy. I’m sure I will hear some complaints about some of those selections. For all of us fans, part of the difficulty comes in separating those who emotionally we would like to see win(See TK) as opposed to one who should probably have won but hasn’t really proven himself at Indy (See Josef). I’ll go in qualifying order and the positioning within a group doesn’t mean one is favored over the other.

Group 1.

Alex Palou is certainly the closest we have to an odds-on favorite. He has been one of the quickest all month. He had a second in ’21, barely edged out by Castroneves. He has the Ganassi team and Honda engine behind him. The Hondas have proven the fastest at the end in recent years. If Alex doesn’t wear the car out early he could be drinking the milk.

Felix Rosenqvist is the first of the other team which has dominated this May, Arrow McLaren. It appeared Felix, as the last one of the fast 6 to qualify was on his way to the pole position, but something on the last lap cost him a tenth of a second and put him on the outside of row 1. He is fast and maybe more importantly, he is driving for his future. His contract with Arrow McLaren is up this year and with the money Zak Brown and Company have put into this effort, they are looking for wins.

Santino Ferrucci is one of those who I struggled with. I’m not sure the Foyt team can provide the stops and back up for Santino. His finishes the last three years – 4th, 6th and 10th give him the BEST finish average during that time. Also, he has never been with one of the “A” teams. This guy could be the surprise for this year.

Pato O’Ward is one of the most popular drivers at the track. He also makes a great interview. He is teamed with Rosenqvist, Rossi and Kanaan, so there is no lack of experience when it comes to this team. One year soon, Arrow McLaren is going to win the 500, I think Pato will be the guy and this may be his year.

Scott Dixon, is undoubtedly, although quietly, the best Indy Car driver through the last 20 years. Probably the biggest surprise is he only has one Baby Borg. He and his Ganassi teammates have been fast all month. With his driving ability; his fuel saving prowess; a Ganassi team and Honda power, Scott has to be considered one of the top favorites.

Alexander Rossi, newly with Arrow McLaren, seems to have fit in quickly with his new team. Rossi quietly goes about his business. His record since his miracle win in the 2016 500 has been up and down. However, the team seems to be on top of their game and Alexander can be aggressive when necessary. Could this be number two?

Marcus Ericsson needs no introduction this year after last year’s thrilling win. He too has continued to be fast all month. The only negative on the odds sheet for Marcus is that he won last year. Not since Helio in 2001 and 2002 has there been a repeat winner and before that it was Al Unser, Sr. in 1970 and 71. It is very difficult to win two of these in a row. 

Will Power, surprisingly, was the only Penske driver to make the top 12 and after the second round he remained in 12th place. His last three finishes of 15th, 30th and 14th don’t lead one to believe he is close to a second win. However, when your owner has 18 wins, but none since 2019, you know there is a lot of pressure on the senior of the team’s drivers.

Scott McLaughlin is another Penske driver who is certainly driven to win the Borg Warner trophy for his owner. Scott has shown how competitive he is and how fast he is. His surprisingly bad starting spot, as is Josef Newgarden’s, have us wondering where the Penske magic has gone. Given all of the Captain’s wins over the years it is hard to not put his drivers in the top group.

Josef Newgarden, the third Penske jockey, is probably the best driver of recent years who hasn’t won the 500. Two Indy Car championships are something to be proud of, but when your owner only considers it a good year when he has won the 500, there is definitely some added pressure on the team’s shoulders. Josef would be a popular and deserving winner, but can he be the one to right the Penske ship at the Speedway?

Colton Herta is the most likely driver from the Andretti stable to have a legitimate shot at returning Michael’s team to victory lane. For whatever reason, since three winning years in 2014, 2016 and 2017, Andretti Autosport has not been a serious threat at the Speedway. I believe if anyone can turn that around it is Colton Herta.

Group 2

While Group 1 was relatively easy for the first half, there are definitely a few that cause me to second guess myself. When it comes to Group 2, the same kind of uncertainty is present regarding several of these choices. Should they have been in Group 1? I had to draw the line somewhere, so here is my Group 2. Again in qualifying order.

Rinus Veekay is among the most difficult to put in this group. This Dutch driver has won in Indy Car and he has shown great speed. His average finish of 20 in the last three years and the fact that his Carpenter Racing Team has not excelled in the 500 make me concerned that he won’t be there in victory lane.                           

Takuma Sato is the only multi-time 500 champion besides Helio in this year’s field and he is driving for the strong Ganassi team. That would seem to make him a favorite. The field seems to be more competitive now, which makes the odds even greater. Putting him in Group 2 may come to haunt me -but I doubt it.                 

Tony Kanaan is clearly the crowd favorite. Every time introduced, TK receives the loudest response from the crowd. Also, this year he is with the strong Arrow McLaren team. This was my hardest choice, because I would LOVE to see Tony drink the milk. In 5 of the 9 years since he won he has finished in the top 10, including 3rd last year. However two time winners are not very frequent and someone had to be in Group 2.             

Ed Carpenter is one of the most popular drivers behind TK. A win for this Indianapolis native would be wonderful. We know he has speed – his pole wins prove that, but his recent average finish of 16th probably is reflective of a tier 2 team. With 8 or so pit stops, the possibility of Ed beating the tough competition doesn’t seem a good bet.              

Kyle Kirkwood is new with Andretti Autosport. He possesses the qualities to be a star. For whatever reasons Andretti doesn’t seem to be on top of their game. I suspect Kyle to be up there fighting for the lead at sometime. I feel that if the Andretti cars can defy their recent history, Herta and Kirkwood could be fighting it out.     

Conor Daly is the third car in the Ed Carpenter stable. Conor had a strong 5th place finish in 2022 with this team. He is another popular home-town guy. His speed and determination are unquestioned and I would love to see him get a top ten. I don’t feel the pieces are there for him to be considered a potential winner.                       

Ryan Hunter-Reay was available and a good selection by Dennis Reinbold to pilot one of his two entries. Ryan is a former winner who wasn’t in last year’s race and this is a one-off ride for him. Dreyer Reinbold is a local Indy team that has supported the 500 for years. A win would be deserved and popular, but given the circumstances, unlikely. A top ten would be a good day.                                                                 

Romain Grosjean is another Andretti chauffer. He could have had a couple of wins already this year. He is a popular, former Formula 1 driver, who certainly has the skill. He has had limited oval experience and with Andretti’s recent lack of success, I think any upfront finish would be a good day for this Frenchman.                            

Helio Castroneves is the only driver in years to have another chance for a 5th victory at Indy. Experience and crafty driving skills are positives for Helio. He has won with his Meyer Shank Racing team. To me, the vibes are not there for Helio to win. However, if he got that 5th win no telling how high he would climb that fence, with the crowd screaming encouragement.                                                              

Simon Pagenaud is another previous winner. The fourth former champ I have put in Group 2. Simon’s victory came while driving for Team Penske. His record at the Speedway since his win with an average finish of 11th is also good. Simon could be a contender during the race, but I think a win is not in the cards given this field.             

David Malukas is the lead driver for Dale Coyne Racing. At times he has shown some brilliant driving ability and as the youngest driver in the field, I believe may be a future star of the series. A win by the DCR team would certainly be a win for all of those small “wannabe” teams out there. Although not likely this year, watch for David in the future.

To summarize Group 2, I am nervous that I have put Rinus VeeKay, Takuma Sato, Tony Kanaan, Kyle Kirkwood and Helio Castroneves in Group 2. Sometimes you have to make hard choices. We’ll know Sunday evening how right or wrong these decisions have been.

Group 3

While I had some hesitation on some of the picks in Group 2, I don’t have as much apprehension regarding Group 3. I believe the reason is the amazing depth of the field, with 15-18 having a real chance to win. That makes it less likely that a back marker will sneak though into winner’s circle. Again in qualifying order except the last one.

Benjamin Pedersen’s 11th place qualifying run was one of the more amazing stories in recent qualifying history. He out qualified the all time Indy Car Pole winning leader, Will Power, and he did it with AJ Foyt Racing who hasn’t recently been a contender. That was four laps and now comes 200 laps and 8 or so pit stops. A top ten finish would be a wonderful finish for this talented rookie.                                          

Marco Andretti is back for his 18th Indy 500. Following his “oh-so-close” second place to Sam Hornish in 2006, he had several good finishes. However, the last five years have not been kind. If you take all of the Mario Andretti family driver starts at Indy: Mario, Michael and Marco, the fact that there is only one win is amazing. I don’t think that this year Marco will break the “Andretti curse”.                                

Devlin DeFrancesco is another of the Andretti drivers. He has shown speed, but his 26th starting position is probably appropriate. Unfortunately, with none of the Andretti cars running or qualifying particularly well, he doesn’t receive a lot of usable information to rely on. He is one that a top 15 would have to be considered a good day.                           

Agustin Canapino is an Argentinian driver with many championships in closed wheel cars in his native country. He is adapting well to Indy Car and Ricardo Juncos made a good find. Here’s hoping he will avoid early trouble and turn a number of laps in order to gain experience at the Speedway.                                              

Callum Ilott is the other Juncos driver and is starting on the inside of the row behind his teammate. Ricardo Juncos is working to develop a top tier team. A look at his garages gives an idea as to how much he is dedicated to orderliness and cleanliness. One of these days he will get there. Callum is an intelligent and quick British driver who may be the one to bring Ricardo his dream – just not this year.                                                                      

RC Enerson was certainly one of the other surprises in qualifying. A rookie driver with a team put together late in the game by Abel Motorsports and he made it into the top 30. That in itself is a good accomplishment it would be good to see RC get some laps in at the brickyard with, hopefully, a top 20 finish.                                       

Katherine Legge surprised everyone by being the fastest of the 4 RLL teams and the only one to make the safety of the top 30, It has been 10 years since this well-spoken British lady has run at the Speedway so her accomplishment was even more impressive. Her unfortunate accident in practice the day after qualifying will require some late nights by her crew. Hopefully she will have a safe, long day on Sunday.           

Christian Lungaard was the second highest qualifier in the RLL camp. He can be very quick, but he’ll need to be patient to work his way up from the outside of row 10. Hopefully the RLL team has found some tricks to add speed and he will be comfortable as he navigates through the traffic. Anything near the front would be a victory.                                                                       

Sting Ray Robb is a rookie and the second Dale Coyne Racing driver, joining David Malukas. Sting Ray had some success in the lower Road to Indy series and is happy to be part of the “big show” this year. As a rookie starting in the last row, he will be wise to take his time and like other rookies, get as many laps in as possible at the Speedway.         

Jack Harvey barely made it into the field as the last qualifier, and in the process bumped his teammate, Graham Rahal. Jack has had middle of the pack finishes in his previous 500’s and his biggest hope should be that the RLL team can make the car comfortable enough for him to run some decent laps. The speed was missing in practice and qualifying so I believe anything in the top 20 would be a good finish for Harvey.           

Graham Rahal is back in the show. As I was writing this piece on Tuesday morning the news came through that Graham Rahal had been named to replace Stephan Wilson. Wilson suffered a back injury when Katherine Legge ran into the back of his car in the practice on Monday following qualifying. A great choice by Dennis Reinbold as Graham was undoubtedly the best driver, who unfortunately was available. Undoubtedly a lot of strings had to be pulled to make this happen because Rahal has been a Honda driver while Dreyer Reinbold uses Chevys. I’m delighted that all the parties involved were able to work to put Graham in this car. Due to the damage Wilson’s car sustained, they are assembling a complete new car. Graham will likely be one of the busiest on Carb day. It would be cool and a great accomplishment if he could get a top ten.

Graham Rahal during a special instal session (Photo Courtesy of Penske Entertainment- Joe Skibinski)

Well, there you have it. One man’s thoughts on this year’s “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”. I truly believe this will be a great spectacle. There are so many drivers and teams with an excellent chance to win. I think the team and driver that conserves the most during the first 175 laps will be the one who will have that little something extra going for him(her) to take them to the finish line first. Let’s all enjoy a fast, safe race!!