#3 Scott McLaughlin - Team Penske Pennzoil Chevrolet

Special to TSO: Butch Welsch’s annual driver-by-driver preview for 108th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge

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.

The 108th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is almost here. It seems that the task of handicapping the field gets more difficult each year. That is a good thing from a spectator standpoint. The competition has never been closer and more intense. Essentially the same Dallara chassis has been used since being introduced in 2012. As a result, the mechanics and engineers who prepare these cars have squeezed out about as much speed with stability as is possible. This has naturally bunched up the field and brought more teams and drivers into play for potential wins. If this sounds like a long-winded excuse for how difficult it is to handicap this field – you are right.

Nevertheless, I am going to again tackle the difficult chore of assessing each one of these car and driver teams. As I have in the past, I will be dividing the 33 combinations into three groups. The first group will be those that are most likely to cross the bricks first. The second group are those which have some potential but it would take a number of failures in the first group for one of those in the second group to be victorious. Finally there is the third group who, unfortunately have very little chance of sipping the milk on race day. Most of the last group are there hoping to stay out of trouble, do things right and end up somewhere at the back of the top 10. Within each group my placement of the drivers is random.

Polesitter Scott McLaughlin is one of the favorites. (Photo by Joe Skibinski | IMS Photo)

Group 1

We will start with the group of those that is most likely to be leading after 200 laps.

Scott McLaughlin #3  Scott’s qualifying performance was extraordinary. Any time you can beat Will Power to the pole and in the process be the fastest pole sitter in the history of the Speedway, you have made an accomplishment. The only thing preventing me from recommending you bet the house on Scott is that his finish record of 24th, 29th and 14th at the Speedway makes me question if he can retain that speed and be at the top at the end. The Kiwi would be a popular winner and I feel he has the best chance of the Penske trio.

Will Power #12  Will has already established himself as the greatest qualifier in IndyCar history despite never capturing the pole at the Speedway. Will, like McLaughlin, has the Penske backing and has shown he can be fast. Also like McLaughlin, his recent finishes have not even been in the top 10 (Ed: 14th, 30th, 15th and 23rd in the aeroscreen period from 2020 to 2023). Having been the lead driver for Penske for most of his 16 years with the team, one might say that with just one Indy 500 victory, Will has been an underachiever at the Speedway. He has the speed; he has the team; he needs to again put it all together to repeat his 2018 victory.

Josef Newgarden #2   The third driver in Roger Penske’s arsenal of contenders is last year’s winner, Josef Newgarden. Josef was a deserving winner of last year’s race, dueling the 2022 winner, Marcus Ericsson down to the wire. The elation he showed going right into the stands was something to behold. Josef has all of the pieces in place to win again. The problem is that the Speedway has not really been a place for winners to repeat. The last time it occurred was Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002. Prior to that we have to go back to 1970 and 1971 when Al Unser, Sr. accomplished the feat. Because of his speed, ability and Penske backing we can’t overlook Josef – but the odds are not with him.

Alexander Rossi #7 Alexander has two fifths in the last two 500s. Of course he was the winner in 2016. That shows he knows how to be around at the end. His McLaren team, for which he was new last year, has shown it can keep drivers near the top. Rossi finished fifth last year and in 2022, McLaren’s Pato O’Ward and Felix Rosenqvist finished in the top four. If someone is going to be able overcome the Penske juggernaut, Rossi is one of the most likely. He is also anxious to prove that his fuel saving win wasn’t a fluke.

Scott Dixon #9  Scott’s year at the Speedway has been unusual. Speed has not been easy to find. However, when the race comes around, it is hard to not consider Scott one of the favorites despite his 500 career-worst 21st starting position. Scott is considered the #1 Indy Car driver of this era and his record proves that. He would greatly like another Borg-Warner Trophy to go with his 2008 win. It will take some strategy, fuel savings, etc. for him to move through the field, but don’t be surprised if he is in the top five by lap 175 and then anything can happen.

Santino Ferrucci #14   A trivia question with which you might stump your friends is what driver with five or more starts in the 500 has the best average finish. The surprising answer is Ferrucci. To make it more impressive, he has banked those with four different teams (Ed: Dale Coyne Racing/DCR with Vasser Sullivan, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing). In his five starts at the Speedway he has finished third, 10th, sixth, fourth and seventh. This is his second 500 with A.J. Foyt Racing. If the team can perform its job, it is likely Ferrucci will be around near the end. This kid has shown he can be aggressive, yet decisive. How thrilling it would be for Santino to bring home another win for A.J. Foyt, in Foyt’s 70th year at the Speedway and on the 25th anniversary of his team’s most recent win with Kenny Brack in 1999.

Pato O’Ward #5  This exciting young Mexican driver was near victory in 2021 and 2022 with fourth and second. He has established himself as the leader of Arrow McLaren despite the presence of Alexander Rossi. The McLaren team has upped its game and must be considered in the top four, with Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. They are still very hungry for their first 500 win in this guise (Ed: this year marks 50 years since Johnny Rutherford’s 1974 win in a McLaren) and if Alexander Rossi doesn’t do it, then Pato O’Ward could be the answer.

Felix Rosenqvist #60  When there was no longer a seat for Felix at McLaren, there was a question where he would land. Well, land he did with Meyer Shank Racing. He has taken a leadership position with this team and his results this year of fourth, fifth and ninth show that he and the team are poised to take home a victory. We know the team is capable as it was with this team when Helio Castroneves captured his fourth 500 win in 2021. When you’re within the top ten with 25 laps to go, you have a chance to take the victory. So it wouldn’t be a complete surprise if Felix did it.

Colton Herta #26  It seems hard to believe, but it has been seven years since an Andretti car has won the 500 with Takuma Sato in 2017 being the most recent. Similarly it’s hard to believe this is Herta’s sixth 500 already, now 24 looking even younger. Yet that youth belies his status as the team leader of the Andretti Global entries. His record at the Speedway has not been great, including a ninth last year. However, he seems to have corralled his aggression and in three races this year has finished third, second and eighth. Michael’s team is due, and I believe the most likely to bring home the Borg would be Colton Herta.

Alex Palou #10 Alex has been one of the hottest drivers on the IndyCar scene so far this year. He is considered one of the smoothest drivers on the track and he still has the strength of the Ganassi team behind him. His record of second, ninth and fourth in the last three “500”’s says that he knows how to drive and finish up front. I wish he were starting a little closer to the front than 14th, only because I don’t want something not of his doing to take him out of the race. Of all of the mid-pack starters, I believe he will move to the front the quickest and if he receives the proper pit attention I definitely see him challenging for the lead near the end.

Kyle Larson #17  Kyle Larson’s attempt at the double is one of the more exciting things for this year’s race. Doing the “500” and then flying to Charlotte for the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 is quite an undertaking. But no one is more capable right now than Kyle. Probably the most talented all-around race driver of this time, it will be interesting to see how he can fair with the variations between the Indy Car and Stock Car. For Indy, I would predict a strong showing. He is obviously already comfortable in the car, qualifying fifth. He is not new to lengthy races. The Hendrick-McLaren partnership is strong and while I don’t usually feel a rookie has a chance, this might be the exception.

Is 500 number 5 on the cards for Helio Castroneves? (Photo by Paul Hurley | IMS Photo)

Group 2

In this group there are drivers and teams which, if major issues occurred with the top teams, they might be able to sneak into front running positions. Unfortunately, with the reliability of the cars and the closeness of the field, those major issues are unlikely. But someone has to finish between 10 and 20.

Marcus Ericsson #28 Very seldom would I put a driver who won and finished second the last two years in Group 2. However, Marcus’ year at the Speedway has been strange. An obvious driver error put him into the fourth turn wall during practice and he has never seemed to recover. Whether it is driver or car, it’s difficult to say, but he had to work hard just to be in the top 33. While some have come from this deep to challenge, Mario Andretti and Gary Bettenhausen are examples, the competition wasn’t as close in those days. While reaching the top 10 is likely for Marcus, it would be a miracle for him to again be in the winner’s circle.

Kyle Kirkwood #27  Kyle was a difficult one to put in Group 2. I felt that only one Andretti Global team deserved to be in the first group and that Colton Herta is a little more driven to win the “500.”  Kirkwood has had quiet results this year (Ed: five finishes between seventh and 11th in five races), and his most notable Speedway moment was his accident last year where his car flipped after contacting Felix Rosenqvist. Something has prevented this talented Floridian from having the standout results that we had expected and that he is capable of, since he won two street races in 2023. He is one, like Conor Daly, who I hope proves me wrong and is in the group of 5 -10 who are fighting for the lead near the finish.

Helio Castroveves #06 Helio is back to try again to win that magic #5. He certainly knows how to win and he is back with the Meyer Shank team that helped him to his fourth 500 victory in 2021. Three years later and with the competition even tougher, it is going to take a monumental effort for Helio to win his fifth. If he does, he might just scale up the outside of the Pagoda, as his ultimate fence climb!

Takuma Sato #75  An interesting fact is that Takuma is the only two-time winner in this year’s field. When you look at some of the names of previous winners in the field, like Dixon and Power, with only one to their credit it gives you an appreciation of Sato. But this year he is in a one-off ride with RLL and despite his prowess at the Speedway, I just don’t think it is likely that Takuma becomes a three-time winner.

Ed Carpenter #20 Ed is back one more time to try and capture this race which means so much to him. Ed has shown time and again that he can turn in exceptionally quick laps at the Speedway. His mid-pack start (17th) perhaps gives an idea that maybe his youthful exuberance has been replaced with a more mature approach to the “500,” his 21st start. Ed would be one of the most popular drivers to drive into victory lane. Unfortunately, just having the thousands rooting for you doesn’t necessarily translate the teams’ effort into a winner. Look for him to be just inside the top 10.

Rinus VeeKay #21 Rinus had an exciting qualifying day. Following an early serious crash, his team managed to rebuild the car and get him back out to not only qualify, but to make the Fast 12. Definitely the Herculean effort of the month. He does have finishes of eighth and 10th in previous 500s. Not sure the Carpenter team is ready to move him up much higher. I could see a fifth through 10th for Rinus on race day.

Romain Grosjean #77  Romain has proven to be a steady campaigner on the IndyCar circuit. The Juncos-Hollinger team is one that is working hard to become one of the top tier teams. Having Grosjean on board is a positive step. However, I don’t feel that this team and driver have everything it takes to secure a win given the level of competition they are facing. Hopefully in the not too distant future Ricardo Juncos, a truly nice guy, will see the rewards of his work move his team up that important notch.

Graham Rahal #15. Graham Rahal’s situation is another surprise. It seemed so unlikely last year when he initially failed to make the field, that to think it would happen again just didn’t seem possible. However, there Graham was, helpless in his car, as young Nolan Siegel went out to qualify. With time expired, all Graham could do was wait and watch. Siegel’s times were not fast enough and eventually he hit the wall making him the odd man out of the 33-car field. Graham will start from the back and if he can end up in the top 15 it will be a good day.

Christian Lundgaard #45 Christian is a second-year driver, driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan. His result in his first year at Indy was 19th and his finishes in 2024 have been similarly mid-pack. I believe there is some potential in this driver, but in the current situation a repeat of last year would be more likely than anything much higher.

Conor Daly #24 Conor is a very hard one for me to put in a slot. That is because I have gotten to know him since we sponsored him in the 2020 COVID race. Therefore, it is hard for me to be objective and realistic because I am pulling so much for him to do well. He has the speed and ability – he has shown that. He is another who would be an extremely popular winner. He is in a one-off ride with Dreyer Reinbold/Don Cusick. The fact is that the competition is so tough in IndyCar these days, that drivers and teams only running at the Speedway are at a distinct disadvantage. All of the hard work prior to the month of May is important, but it just isn’t the same as being out there competing. I am going to be rooting for Conor to come home with a top-ten finish and I think he may have the car to do it.

Ryan Hunter-Reay #23 Ryan is another former winner, who like several is in a one-off ride for the race this year. Dennis Reinbold and Don Cusick have put a great deal of time and effort to try to make their entry equivalent to some of the top teams. Unfortunately, every year as they pick up their efforts, the competitiveness of the field gets tighter and tighter. Ryan is truly one of the nice guys in racing and really deserves to be a full time driver. But the facts are what they are, and it would be nice to see him and the team capture a top-10 finish.

Andretti and Ganassi’s rookie trio of Simpson, Lundqvist and Armstrong slot into Butch’s “Group 3.” Motivation to surprise, perhaps? (Photo by Chris Jones | IMS Photo)

Group 3.

Unfortunately for some of the teams reality has to step in and they have to acknowledge that finishing the 500 miles within the top half would be a good day for them.

Marco Andretti #98  Marco has a great deal of experience at the Speedway and his pole position win a few years ago was very exciting. While the “Andretti Curse” seemed to follow his grandfather, Mario and dad, Michael, I don’t believe we can point to that as a problem this year. Marco has been doing some racing this year, but not in IndyCar. Even with his experience, in a one-off ride, given the level of competition, a top-10 finish would be a very successful day for Marco. 

Agustin Canapino #78, Many of the same things I said about Romain Grosjean’s chances can be said about those of Agustin Canapino. He was a very successful touring car driver in his home of Argentina and he has shown speed and competence since came on the IndyCar scene. But similar to Grosjean, the entire team’s ability to put it all together to beat the top teams doesn’t seem to quite be there yet. I think a top-15 finish for Agustin would be considered a good day.

Callum Ilott #6 Callum lost his ride at Juncos Hollinger, yet emerges in this seat as what was initially a injury fill-in role for David Malukas and secondary an experience fill-in role for rookie Theo Pourchaire, who will take over the car the rest of the season. He has been quiet so far this month. I think this young man has the capabilities to succeed and just needs the proper steady environment to be able to hone his skills. A McLaren ride is one of the top rides, yet it is hard enough being a fill-in, and perhaps even harder also knowing that this is his last scheduled IndyCar start of the season.

Marcus Armstrong #11 Marcus is a rookie in the Ganassi stable. He has shown some promise in earlier races this year, with ninth and 12th place finishes. This doesn’t hide the fact that he is a rookie on the toughest oval on the circuit. He certainly has good backing with the Ganassi team waiting in the pits. He has shown promise and Chip Ganassi made a good move signing him, so I’d say a 10th to 20th place finish should be good for him.

Kyffin Simpson #4 Kyffin did a nice job putting his car into a solid 18th position. For a rookie that was an impressive effort. He is fortunate to be part of the Chip Ganassi stable where there is a lot of experience on which for him to draw. He has shown that he is learning the ropes with three solid mid-pack finishes in three pre-Indy races. However, Indy is a different ball game and he is still a rookie on this tough oval. He is another for whom a 10th to 20th place finish would be an excellent day.

Sting Ray Robb #41. Sting Ray is driving for the legend A.J. Foyt. If just some of that Foyt talent can carry over to him then he has a great chance at future success. His finishes in the first races this season have not shown a great deal of promise. He obviously is in need of more seasoning. Hopefully he will learn a lot from this experience on the Foyt team and we can look for him to move up in the standings in the future. Finishing the 500 miles in 10th to 20th would be a great learning experience for Sting Ray.

Christian Rasmussen #33 Christian is the third driver in Ed Carpenter’s stable for the 500. He like several of the other rookies is learning the trade with baptism by fire. He, like several others, has had only mid-field results in the early 2024 events. He has a great deal of experience to drawn on in Ed Carpenter. And his other teammate, Rinus VeeKay has proven himself to be capable of finishing near the front. A top 10 is not likely but he should be happy within the next group of finishers.

Tom Blomqvist #66 Tom is a newcomer who comes having had a great deal of success in the sports car ranks. There, he is considered one of the best. As a result, he had some nice mid-pack finishes in the road/street course races which have made up the first part of the Indy Car season. As those will tell you who have come from the sports car ranks, the Speedway oval is a different ball game. I anticipate that with the coaching he has from the four-time winner Castroneves and fellow IndyCar veteran Rosenqvist, his time at the Speedway will be a wonderful learning experience for him. But he is still a rookie on an oval with 32 others on that same oval. A mid-pack finish would be ideal.

Linus Lundqvist #8 Linus is taking over the seat at Ganassi Racing previously held by Marcus Ericsson. He, along with Kyffin Simpson and Marcus Armstrong gives Chip Ganassi three rookies in his stable this month. Linus had a great third place finish in the race at Barber and established himself as a rookie to watch. Unfortunately he had a rough beginning of the month by being the first driver to encounter the safer barrier. This incident was in Turn 2. There is a saying at the Speedway that there are two types of Indy Car drivers: those that have hit the wall and those that are about to hit the wall. Well, Linus got that second one out of the way already. In the team he obviously has a lot of experience to draw on and Chip Ganassi has shown an ability to find young talent who become successful. I’d say a finish just behind the top 10 would be impressive.

Katherine Legge #51  It is great to have Katherine back in the field and thanks to Dale Coyne and Rick Ware for joining forces to make it happen. Katherine was one of those in the group of four who had to sweat through that last day of qualifying. She will start 31st and this is a one-off ride, the only one she has lined up so far. Dale’s teams are not funded like some of the major teams, but they put their heart and soul into the effort of getting a car in the field. A top-15 finish would be a great result for Katherine.

Pietro Fittipaldi #30. It is good to see a Fittipaldi back in the field at the Speedway. Pietro is new with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team. He is starting three positions in front of his teammate, Graham Rahal. His lack of overall experience and the difficulty the team has had getting up to speed make it seem unlikely that this driver will be anywhere near the top after 200 laps.

There you have it. One individual’s attempt to handicap the extremely competitive field for the 2024 Indianapolis 500. Although this will be my 77th Indy 500 in a row, I will tell you it hasn’t gotten easier through the years and is, in fact, more difficult now than ever.

Not everyone will agree with my assessments – in fact – no one may agree with them. However, my goal is for you to read and make your own assessments of the cars and drivers of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.