Photo: Walter G. Arce/ASP, Inc.

‘Indy Chooses You’: Perfect Storm Must Come Together to Win Indianapolis 500

By Kirby Arnold, Special Contributor

SPEEDWAY, Ind. — Dominant as Team Penske’s three drivers have been this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they know it will take a perfect performance to win the Indianapolis 500. 

Success in practice and qualifying doesn’t always carry into a race where anything can happen. And probably will.  

They must hit the right race-day setup, their engines must run without a hiccup, and pit stops must be trouble-free just to get them into a late-race shootout for the lead, which has become common in recent years. 

On top of that, there’s luck. 

Last year, pole-sitter Alex Palou led much of the race before another car collided with his on pit road. He finished fourth. 

“At the end of the day, Indy chooses you,” said Scott McLaughlan, who will start on the pole in his Team Penske Chevrolet. 

McLaughlin, Will Power and defending 500 champion Josef Newgarden comprise an all-Penske front row, only the second time in 500 history three from the same team will start 1-2-3. Rick Mears, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Sr. swept the front row for Team Penske in 1988. 

This is McLaughlin’s fourth 500 and his best starting spot by far – he started 17th, 26th and 14th the past three years. 

“I understand the race a lot more for sure,” he said. “I think you just build a bit of experience every year, and it’s just invaluable, that experience.” 

Few have as much experience at Indy as Power and Newgarden, and each has an Indy 500 ring to show for it. But they also have experienced plenty of frustration. 

Power, the 2018 winner, has finished higher than he has started in only five of his 16 Indy 500s. Newgarden is 7-for-12 after his victory last year, when he passed Marcus Ericsson on the backstretch of a one-lap restart after a late red flag. 

“A big part of me coming to IndyCar was to be a part of this race,” said McLaughlin, a three-time Australian V8 Supercars champion before he joined Team Penske’s IndyCar effort.

“I’m glad I came to IndyCar. I’m loving every minute of it. It’s been a roller coaster, my Indy 500 experience.  I feel like I’ve got a pretty firm understanding of what I want from the car, especially on an oval. It’s just a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and I think I’m in that frame of mind and that experience level where I can really sort of take it to the next level.” 

Team Penske didn’t just make history by sweeping the front row, the organization rebounded from a four-year qualifying slump at Indy. Since Simon Pagenaud won the pole in 2019, Power’s 11th starting position 2022 was the highest of any Penske driver until this year. 

Newgarden said the team poured through every facet of its cars and processes to unlock the missing speed, and this month it shows. 

“When you go that many offseasons combing every detail, they’re bound to add up, and I think we probably were still missing a couple of things this last year,” he said. “It’s hundreds of items. It’s not one magic bullet.” 

Colton Herta will start 13th Sunday but showed speed nearly equal to Newgarden in practice Monday in his Andretti Global Honda. Still, Herta said everyone likely will be chasing the Penskes. 

“I think the guys you would expect to look good — like Newgarden looked good, most of the Penskes,” Herta said, listing those he will need to beat.

Herta added that the quest is to race near the front of the field, where passing will be easier than for those deeper in the pack. 

“It’ll 100 percent be like what we’ve had in the last few years where the top three will pass, and then beyond that it will be a little bit more difficult,” he said. “You’ll need to have a little bit of a pace advantage or a guy (ahead) will have to make a little bit of a mistake. It’s definitely not impossible to pass, but it is difficult in the back of the pack.” 

Because of that, pit strategy and restarts could become critical factors for those hoping to gain track position. 

“Restarts are pretty fair game,” Herta said. “For the first lap, you can pretty much stay almost flat, so there’s some options of going high or laying back and getting a run. Then guys make mistakes all the time. You can see guys drift up a little bit or you can see they’re struggling a little bit and then you can get them on the end of the straight.” 

NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, fast throughout practice and qualifying, will start fifth in his Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. 

Then he will fly to Charlotte, N.C., and race for Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Coca Cola 600 on the second leg of “the double.” 

Weather could put a serious crimp in that plan. As of mid-week, rain chances for Sunday were more than 80 percent, with morning rain and thunderstorms predicted through the day. 

Rick Hendrick, Larson’s NASCAR team owner and a major player in his Indy 500 effort, said it “would be very hard” to pull Larson from the 500 in order to make his Charlotte commitment if there’s a delay at Indy.  

“It would be very disappointing because of all the effort that everyone has put in,” Hendrick said. “We’ve got a tremendous amount of folks there at Indy, and he’s in such a good position, it would be extremely hard.” 

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