IndyCar Veteran Dixon Says 500 Qualifying Is Still A Big Deal

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 22 2021

Scott Dixon topped the speed charts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Saturday’s qualifying session. (Chris Owens photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

INDYCAR superstar Scott Dixon says he begins every qualifying attempt around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a simple, sobering soliloquy.

“It’s a big deal, right?” Dixon said after Saturday’s opening session of time trials for the 105th Indianapolis 500 on May 30. “You’re rolling out, the first time you go into Turn 1 at 240 miles an hour, you’re hoping you’re going to come out the other side in one piece.”

Dixon successfully did so during his four-lap/10-mile qualifying attempt en route to earning P1 for Sunday’s Firestone Fast Nine Shootout. Dixon, the six-time/reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion, was the first driver on track when qualifying started at noon (EDT), and he delivered during the best tarmac and air conditions of the five-hour, 50-minute session.

The result was a four-lap average of 231.828 mph in the No. 9 Honda fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon stoically remained atop the track’s Scoring Pylon despite 58 attempts to unseat him.

“You forget how stressful this is,” said Dixon, the series point-leader. “It’s the first time I’ve ever gone first. It’s pretty interesting. Huge credit to everyone on the PNC Bank Grow Up Great car. It was a fairly smooth run. I made a mistake on Lap 2, which probably cost us a tenth or two from the average.”

While Dixon has emerged as the pole-favorite, the 2008 Indy 500 champion will have to contend with three CGR teammates in the Fast Nine lineup. Popular Brazilian Tony Kanaan (third, 231.639 mph, No. 48 The American Legion Honda); Spain’s Alex Palou (seventh, 231.145, No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson (ninth, 231.104, No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) also advanced.

“Huge credit to the team,” said Dixon, a native of New Zealand and recent recipient of the Jim Clark Award. “To have all four cars in the Fast Nine is pretty massive, especially with the competition level we have these days. Obviously, a huge shout-out to Honda for bringing the performance that they have.

“Hopefully we can have the first four spots. Might be getting greedy, but, yeah, that would be fantastic.”

Ganassi’s day lost some of its sparkle, however, at 3:35 p.m., when Palou crashed in Turn 2 while making his second qualifying attempt. Palou did not withdraw his first run, preserving his spot in the Shootout, but still was trying to improve his position when the rear end of his car got loose and made heavy right-side contact with the SAFER Barrier, inflicting significant damage. Palou climbed from his car without injury, but the Ganassi team faced a long night repairing the Dallara chassis for the Shootout.

“I think he’ll shrug it off. Seems like he’s in good spirits,” Dixon said Palou, winner of the season-opener on the Barber Motorsports Park road-course in Birmingham, Ala. “The team will give him a good car. He’ll be super-fast. Unfortunately, it’s part of the business, right?”

Kanaan also tried to lift Palou’s deflated spirit. “I gave him a couple of examples of mine, what not to do,” said Kanaan, who is competing in the series’ four oval races in place of seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champ/INDYCAR rookie Jimmie Johnson. “I had the same issue back in ’11, then repeated it again. Obviously, he’s taking it very hard on himself. We tried to say, ‘Look, man, you’re in. They’re going to fix the car. The car is going to be perfect. Don’t worry about it.’ I think he’s OK now.”

Other drivers participating in the Shootout are Colton Herta (second, 231.648, No. 26 Gainbridge Honda); Ed Carpenter (fourth, 231.616, No. 20 SONAX Chevrolet); Rinus VeeKay (fifth, 231.483, No. 21 Bitcoin Chevrolet); three-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil (sixth, 231.164, No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) and 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay (ninth, 231.139, No. 28 DHL Honda).

Team-owner/driver Carpenter and teammate VeeKay of The Netherlands have emerged as the fastest Chevrolet-powered contenders during a week dominated by Dixon, CGR and Honda’s twin-turbocharged V-6. VeeKay won the series’ most recent event last weekend, the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road-course, to kick-off the Month of May. 

“I mean, yeah. We have two cars in the top nine,” Carpenter said. “I think we have just as good of a shot at winning a pole as any of these guys. I’ve been in this position enough times before.

“That’s the beauty of qualifying here, you have to go out and do four laps. We only get one chance at it (Sunday). That amps up the pressure again. Everyone has to make what they think is the best decision. After we all run four laps, we’ll find out who is the best.

“For me, we have everything we need to go fight for it. That’s what we’ll do.”

Carpenter said he couldn’t pinpoint why his team was out-performing Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered juggernaut. Indy 500 rookie Scott McLaughlin of Australia posted the top Penske lap at 230.557 mph in the No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevy, good for 17th in the lineup. Two-time series champion Josef Newgarden was 21st (230.071, No. 2 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevy) and 2019 Indy 500 champ Simon Pagenaud of France was 26th (229.778, No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevy).

Meanwhile, a puzzled Will Power was relegated to Last Chance Qualifying on Sunday after his two runs were too slow to crack the top 30. Power’s first attempt, at 1:21 p.m., averaged 229.052 mph. But he withdrew that attempt to jump a long line of cars in the “normal” lane and make his second attempt from the “fast” lane, ensuring he got another shot. That run, at 5:33 p.m., 17 minutes before the end of qualifying, averaged 229.228 mph and also wasn’t fast enough.

“You need to be scientist to work this one out,” said Power, a native of Australia and driver of the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevy. “I guess we have to go (Sunday). We gave it our best shot today. I think if we just do a conservative run, we should be OK.”

Carpenter, who only competes on ovals, noted his Indianapolis-based team specializes in prepping for the 500. “Days like today, when it goes well, the driving part is easier than kind of the years where you qualify middle of the pack around here,” Carpenter said. “I don’t know what we found that other guys didn’t just because you don’t ever know that. But I’m thankful that we do have a good team and people that have done a good job to put us in this position.”

Cloud cover broke shortly after the first trip through the original 35-car qualifying draw, and the sunshine raised track temperatures nearly 25 degrees, decreasing traction and engine efficiency. That prevented any successful attempts at bumping into the Fast Nine from multiple drivers after the first run through the draw, but there was plenty of tension at the back end of the grid in the final hour.

Power _ winner of 62 poles in his INDYCAR career _ will be one of the five drivers trying to take one of the three Row 11 spots during Last Chance Qualifying, which takes place from 1:15-2:30 p.m. and will be televised on NBC Sports Network and Peacock.

Joining Power in Last Chance Qualifying will be Sage Karam (No. 24 DRR-AES INDIANA Chevrolet); Charlie Kimball (No. 11 Tresiba/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet); Simona De Silvestro (No. 16 Rocket Pro TPO/Paretta Autosport Chevrolet) and RC Enerson (No. 75 Top Gun Racing Chevrolet).

Canadian Dalton Kellett avoided the Last Row Shootout and will start 30th in the No. 4 K-Line Insulators/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.

Dixon will make the last attempt for the NTT P1 Award during the Fast Nine, which determines the starting order for the first three rows. The nine fastest cars from Saturday start in inverse order in the one-shot format. The Shootout will take place from 3-3:45 p.m. (EDT) and will be televised live on NBC and Peacock.

Results of qualifying Saturday for the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge NTT IndyCar Series event on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with rank, car number in parentheses, driver, engine, time and speed in parentheses:

  1. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 2:35.2874 (231.828 mph)
    2. (26) Colton Herta, Honda, 2:35.4081 (231.648)
    3. (48) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 2:35.4140 (231.639)
    4. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 2:35.4294 (231.616)
    5. (21) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 2:35.5192 (231.483)
    6. (06) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 2:35.7334 (231.164)
    7. (10) Alex Palou, Honda, 2:35.7461 (231.145)
    8. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 2:35.7501 (231.139)
    9. (8) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 2:35.7739 (231.104)
    10. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 2:35.8132 (231.046)
    11. (18) Ed Jones, Honda, 2:35.8148 (231.044)
    12. (5) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 2:35.9360 (230.864)
    13. (51) Pietro Fittipaldi, Honda, 2:35.9481 (230.846)
    14. (7) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 2:36.0168 (230.744)
    15. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, 2:36.0417 (230.708)
    16. (29) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 2:36.1395 (230.563)
    17. (3) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 2:36.1435 (230.557)
    18. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 2:36.1680 (230.521)
    19. (47) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 2:36.2314 (230.427)
    20. (60) Jack Harvey, Honda, 2:36.3922 (230.191)
    21. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 2:36.4735 (230.071)
    22. (1) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 2:36.5354 (229.980)
    23. (45) Santino Ferrucci, Honda, 2:36.5563 (229.949)
    24. (86) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 2:36.5961 (229.891)
    25. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 2:36.6089 (229.872)
    26. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 2:36.6732 (229.778)
    27. (14) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 2:36.6964 (229.744)
    28. (25) Stefan Wilson, Honda, 2:36.7166 (229.714)
    29. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 2:36.9195 (229.417)
    30. (4) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 2:37.6717 (228.323)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 22 2021
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