NBCSports.com - ‘The track will choose you’: Drivers on why winning Indy is so difficult

May 26, 2019

INDIANAPOLIS – It took a dozen tries for Tony Kanaan to win the Indianapolis 500, leaving the Brazilian with nearly too much emptiness, frustration and heartache to bear at times.

If only he knew from the outset what he and so many other IndyCar drivers have come to learn about winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the world-famous 500-Mile Race that the 2.5-mile oval has hosted for more than a century.

“The track will choose you,” said Kanaan, who led eight races and probably had the best car three or four times before finally tasting the Winner’s Circle milk in 2013. “If she picks the winner, that’s the guy who’s going to win.

“There’s something magical about this place that you can’t explain. When people think they have it figured out, the place goes, ‘No you haven’t. I own this thing. And I will decide.’ ”

There could be more worthy candidates desperate to be tapped Sunday than ever.

A scant 1.8932 seconds separates pole-sitter Simon Pagenaud from Pippa Mann, breaking the previous mark of 2.1509 seconds in 2014 (which featured the race’s second-closest finish with Ryan Hunter-Reay holding off three-time winner Helio Castroneves by 0.6 seconds).

The 2019 race occurs with the NTT IndyCar Series enjoying a major renaissance with many proclaiming it’s depth of talent and teams is at a high-water mark since 1995, the last year before racing’s worst civil war split IndyCar into two rival series that diluted the competition and desecrated the Greatest Spectacle in Racing for several years.

A decade past reunification, a new era is under way in which IndyCar again has become a destination for world-class drivers, and its biggest race will be the benefactor Sunday.

“It’s the most competitive field I’ve ever seen in my 18 years here,” Kanaan said. “Qualifying was extremely hard, and it’s really tight. So yeah, I think it’s going to be a difficult race. I do strongly believe that everybody, every single guy starting this race, and girl, they think they can win this race, which is true.”

But there still is that matter of having good fortune smile upon you, as it has for 70 of the 777 drivers who have started at Indy (six for the first time this year).

It happened in 2016 for rookie Alexander Rossi, who was running in the top 10 but didn’t have “a race-winning car by any stretch of the imagination.” Two mediocre pit stops put him off sequence from the rest of the field … and on the path to victory lane on fuel mileage.

“We found a strategy that was the right one,” Rossi said. “Whereas in 2017, I feel I had the most dominant car, and then I end up finishing seventh and were nowhere close at the end.

“It is impossible to know who’s going to win this one, which is what makes it what it is. You can go to a Road America or even an Iowa and the guy on pole, he’s probably got it locked up. Whereas here, it can be 33 guys who can win this race.

“That’s why we all have such an obsession with it because it’s not necessarily the guy who does the best job. It’s just the guy that the track chooses. I think there’s a lot of merit to that.”

If the outcome does come down to the best driver and fastest car, many are pointing at Rossi’s No. 27 Dallara-Honda. The Andretti Autosport ace has had the fastest car for much of the past two weeks, and he left no doubt about his ability to manage traffic last year when he started 32nd and finished fourth with a blinding array of brilliant passes on restarts.

Rossi and others complained that passing was too difficult in 2018 (after a string of Indy 500s in which lead changes seemingly were nonstop), and IndyCar officials responded by tweaking this year’s cars to enhance front grip.

Because Sunday’s temperatures are expected to be in the 70s, the ambient track temperature should be low enough to engender more action than last year.

“I think they made a step,” Rossi said. “I don’t know it’s completely all the way to get back to the race we’ve had in ’14 through 2017. Because the issue last year was if you were behind one car, it was easy to follow, and you could get around someone. If you were two to three cars back, it was really, really challenging. Now you can be three to four cars back and be OK.

“The short answer is it’ll definitely be a more interesting race than last year. And that’s a good thing, for sure.”

As always, the key to winning will be positioning – particularly with a well-executed final pit stop and accompanying handling adjustments to the car. Drivers want that, plus a top-five spot with 75 to 100 miles remaining to have a legitimate shot at winning.

“You have to put yourself in position every single year, and hopefully one of the years, it just kind of falls your way and works out,” said Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who will make his eighth Indy start in search of his first win. “A lot of people say the track chooses you, and I think to some degree that’s true. You have 10 races there, and you could put yourself in position all 10 races, and maybe none of them choose you. It’s just such a hard race to win.

“The best thing you can do is put yourself in position. Being in that top three right at the very end and hoping you had the right car, the right trim level, you made the right decision. You had the best final pit stop. All those things line up, and I think you can win the event. So the more times you give yourself that opportunity, I think the more likely it is that one of those years is going to pan out.”

Graham Rahal, who will be trying to join his father, Bobby, as one of 70 Indy 500 winners, will be making his dozenth attempt at the Brickyard. He was stunned to learn that Rick Mears, one of three four-time Indy 500 winners, collected all of his wins over a period of 13 starts.

“This place is so elusive,” Rahal said. “When it’s your opportunity, you have to take advantage of it. When you’re a kid, you don’t think about things like that. This is my 12th. You start to think about that. What am I doing wrong? Every opportunity you get, you have to make the most out of it because for me, God knows how many more there are. There aren’t many opportunities to maximize that.

“It’s easy not to think that way when you first come around this place. It’s easy to take it for granted and think some day it’ll be your turn. It’s just going to happen. It isn’t just going to happen. You have to put it all together. It’s hard to do.”

Said Rossi: “It’s a part of the addiction. It’s why as soon as Sunday at 4 o’clock rolls around, and you haven’t one, you’re immediately thinking about the next year’s race. And you don’t have that at other events. If you have another event and finish third and on the podium, that’s pretty cool, that’s a good result. Whatever. Here if you’re third, you’re angry. Nothing else matters. You either win or you might as well as go home.”

It’s a feeling Kanaan knows well, though the A.J. Foyt Racing driver said his long wait never was tinged by bitterness but instead full of respect for a track with 110 years of history.

“I remember the worst days of my life were the Mondays after this race when you don’t win,” he said. “You feel like extremely empty. It’s like a hangover. Not to get affected by it and say, ‘I’d never do this again.’ It just took all my power away.

“So, for me, it was always Monday I’d wake up if I hadn’t won and think about what’s going to happen 364 days from then.”



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