It may have been in the mid-60s temperature-wise Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it was pure ice in the final round of qualifying for next Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.
Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, known as “The Iceman” for his ability to stay cool in the most pressure-filled situations, lived up to his nickname by grabbing the pole for the 106th Running of the Indy 500.
Dixon was the only driver to set a four-lap average above 234 mph in Sunday’s Firestone Fast Six, recording a field-best average speed of 234.046 mph, the fastest four-lap pole qualifying speed in Indy 500 history.
Dixon broke Scott Brayton’s previous four-lap average for a pole-sitter in Indy 500 history of 233.718 mph, set in 1996, the first year that the Indy Racing League controlled running of the 500 that also resulted in a boycott of the event by CART teams.
Broken down lap by lap, Dixon’s final qualifying round speeds were 234.437 mph and 234.162 mph in his first two laps, followed by two laps in the 233 mph range of 233.859 mph and 233.726 mph.
It also marked the 41-year-old Dixon’s fifth career pole for the 500, leaving him one pole behind Rick Mears record of six pole positions for a single driver in the biggest race in motorsports.
“That’s what this place is about, it’s so amazing,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “The up and downs you have in just one day is crazy. A massive thank you to all fans for coming out, it’s so great to see all the fans in the grandstands.”
Team owner Chip Ganassi was likely as happy—if not happier—than Dixon, as his organization will fill nearly half of the first 12 starting spots in the 106th Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Four of Ganassi’s drivers will start in the top six: Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson and Tony Kanaan. CGR’s other driver, seven-time NASCAR champion and first-time Indy 500 contestant Jimmie Johnson, will start 12th next Sunday.
“I’m just so happy for everybody. To get five of our cars in the Fast 12 and four in the Fast Six, I hope Chip has a big smile on his face,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “Hard work, man, hard work and people. That’s what it takes.
“The amount of effort that goes into it back at the shop … and all the drivers, huge thanks to all my teammates. We worked real hard to put this team together and try to get the most out of it.”
But at the same time, Dixon, who is seeking his second career win in the Indy 500 (won in 2008), and the other 32 drivers in next Sunday’s field now start from scratch on May 29.
“This is Stage 1, obviously it doesn’t mean nothing come next Sunday,” Dixon said. “We’re starting in the right spot. We haven’t had a good record of keeping it in the right spot but we’ll try maybe come next Sunday.”
Dixon was the odds-on favorite to win the last two 500 races at Indy but fell short. He was asked if he feels he has some unfinished business heading into next Sunday.
“Always unfinished business here,” Dixon told NBC. “I love this place. It can be cruel sometimes, but I feel very privileged and very lucky to be able to drive here, and with a team like this, it makes it so sweet. I don’t know, let’s go, let’s see, man.”
Of all the reactions of fellow drivers and broadcasters, perhaps NBC Sports analyst and former IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe said it the best when he remarked about Dixon’s effort, “That was epic, an unbelievable run.”
Even though he showed great team support by smiling after teammate Dixon took the pole for next Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, you could still see a smidge of disappointment on Alex Palou’s face afterward.
Dixon knocked the defending IndyCar champion off the pole, but Palou (233.499 mph) will still start in a very strong position: in the middle of Row 1. Rounding out the front row will be Rinus VeeKay (233.385 mph).
Jimmie Johnson Flirts with Disaster
Jimmie Johnson had arguably the closest flirt with disaster to date in the first week of practice and qualifying for next Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 when he came off Turn 1 on the first of his four qualifying laps Sunday and just barely missed hitting the wall on his exit out.
Battling a strong crosswind, Johnson’s car began to understeer and the right tire started coming around, just barely missing skimming the concrete wall. It was so close that you probably couldn’t have put a toothpick between Johnson’s car and the wall.
Johnson recovered and found more speed to collect himself, but failed to advance to the Firestone Fast Six with a round of 233.440 mph.
“That was interesting,” Johnson quipped on his team radio after taking the checkered flag.
Later, Johnson told NBC Sports, “The track was a little different than it was this morning (in practice). We certainly were trying for it. … I was committed to run (Turn One) flat and it was so light on the track. I was light on top of the track. It was wide and trying to keep it off the fence at that point.”
So much has been made of the four drivers who are in the “Four-Time 500 Winner’s Club” – A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Rick Mears and defending 500 winner Helio Castroneves. But Johnson is hoping to join an even more exclusive club that currently has just two members: Only two drivers have ever won the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, Foyt and Mario Andretti.
Castroneves said of Johnson’s near scrape of the wall, “Jimmie, first time, no open-wheel background. He comes to a place where he’s raced stock cars but still completely different. It’s a plus that he has amazing teammates and battling with those guys. My hands up for Jimmie, he’s doing a great job.”
Rinus Veekay Turns Heads
Dixon wasn’t the only driver who displayed an air of coolness during Sunday’s two qualifying sessions.
Arguably one of the best efforts of the weekend was that of Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay. The 21-year-old driver of the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Chevrolet shows a lot of similarity to the coolness his idol and fellow countryman from The Netherlands, former two-time Indy 500 winner (1990 and 1997) Arie Luyendyk, displayed during his own IndyCar career.
VeeKay continued to be one of the biggest stories of the weekend. He was hoping to become the youngest driver to ever win the pole for the 500. While he fell a bit short, he still had nothing to be ashamed of.
In the first 12-driver round, VeeKay was third-fastest at 233.537 mph, prompting him to tell his team over the radio after crossing the finish line, “Pretty good one there, guys.”
It also knocked Pato O’Ward out of Firestone Fast Six contention.
Then, with an equally cool run in the Fast Six, VeeKay was the third-fastest at 233.385 mph.
Castroneves OK with 27th
Defending Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who is attempting to become the first driver to win the Memorial Day Weekend classic for the fifth time, doesn’t feel he’s at a disadvantage even though he’ll start from the 27th position (the outside of Row 9) in the 33-car field
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do the speeds those guys were doing, but at least we’re in the field,” Castroneves told NBC. “Last year everything fell exactly in my place. I’m not a fishing guy, but I was like right here (motioning as if he was reeling in a prize-winning catch, which he ultimately did).”
Castroneves started last year’s 500 from the 11th position in what was his first race for his new team, Meyer Shank Racing. He’ll be joined in this year’s race by new Meyer Shank teammate and former Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud.
Keep your eye on Pagenaud. The 2019 Indy 500 winner has had a VERY quiet first week of practice and qualifying, but will start mid-pack next Sunday from the 16th position. When he won the 2019 500, Pagenaud started from the pole.
Back to Castroneves for a second, he’s not letting the pressure of his bid to win a fifth time get to him.
“I do feel I have a very, very good car,” Castroneves said. “I feel at the end of the day now, we have to play it a little different and it’ll take us a little time to get to the front. I think I know what I need to do.”
Past Winners: How They Fared
While there are eight prior Indy 500 winners in the field, this weekend’s qualifying was not exactly kind for several of them.
Five of the eight are in the top half of the field: Dixon (1st), Kanaan (6th), Sato (10th), Power (11th) and Pagenaud (16th).
But the other three will have a long way to go to get to the front of the pack during the 200-lap event: Alexander Rossi (20th), Castroneves (27th) and Juan Pablo Montoya (30th).
Wilson Backs Into 33rd Spot
Other drivers who will have a long way to go as they once again hope to earn their first Indy 500 win include Graham Rahal (starts from 21st position), Marco Andretti (23rd), arguably the biggest surprising disappointment was Colton Herta (25th) and Jack Harvey (32nd).
One other key surprise that may have gotten past most observers: Stefan Wilson, who is driving the No. 25 Chevy, which was the last car entered for this year’s race—filling out a full 33-car field—never took a qualifying effort Saturday (and was ineligible to make a run Sunday) after a mistake was made by his team in the gear stacking in his transmission (second and third gears were inadvertently inserted in the wrong positions).
Wilson is expected to be back on-track for the week’s second-to-last practice Monday and the final practice on Friday’s Carb Day.
Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
Indy 500 Starting Lineup
Results of PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying Sunday for the 106th 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, 02:33.8162 (234.046 mph)
2. (10) Alex Palou, Honda, 02:34.1761 (233.499)
3. (21) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 02:34.2516 (233.385)
4. (33) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 02:34.4532 (233.080)
5. (8) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 02:34.6630 (232.764)
6. (1) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 02:34.9243 (232.372)
7. (5) Pato O'Ward, Chevrolet, 02:34.7022 (232.705)
8. (7) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 02:35.0506 (232.182)
9. (28) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 02:35.1729 (231.999)
10. (51) Takuma Sato, Honda, 02:35.3935 (231.670)
11. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 02:35.4846 (231.534)
12. (48) Jimmie Johnson, Honda, 02:35.6664 (231.264)
13. (18) David Malukas, Honda, 02:35.4356 (231.607)
14. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 02:35.4541 (231.580)
15. (23) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, 02:35.5019 (231.508)
16. (60) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 02:35.6590 (231.275)
17. (11) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 02:35.7684 (231.112)
18. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 02:35.8451 (230.999)
19. (77) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 02:35.8707 (230.961)
20. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 02:35.9713 (230.812)
21. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 02:36.0022 (230.766)
22. (24) Sage Karam, Chevrolet, 02:36.2064 (230.464)
23. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 02:36.2875 (230.345)
24. (29) Devlin DeFrancesco, Honda, 02:36.3002 (230.326)
25. (26) Colton Herta, Honda, 02:36.3620 (230.235)
26. (3) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 02:36.4167 (230.154)
27. (06) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 02:36.7741 (229.630)
28. (14) Kyle Kirkwood, Chevrolet, 02:36.9269 (229.406)
29. (4) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 02:37.2628 (228.916)
30. (6) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 02:37.4655 (228.622)
31. (30) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 02:38.5531 (227.053)
32. (45) Jack Harvey, Honda, 02:38.6944 (226.851)
33. (25) Stefan Wilson, Chevrolet, no time (no speed)