- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
INDIANAPOLIS — Puzzled by this uber-deep Indy 500 field in making your pick for who will win? Maybe you’re betting hard-earned cash or just looking to be the smartest person in your group when the checkered flag falls.
We so often hear the mantra “the track picks the winner” because of how much luck is involved in taking the checkered flag. The best car hasn't won this race numerous times.
So why not look at who the track has “picked” the most, in other words, a driver who best fits that profile? I’ll give you one better; you don’t even have to do the work.
I’ve pored over stats, records and history so you don’t have to. Here’s my argument why, according to recent and long-standing history, Alexander Rossi will win this year’s Indy 500:
GOOD LUCK BEING NEAR THE BACK: There’s a reason qualifying for the Indy 500 is so important. In the 104 previous runnings, the winner has come from outside a top-20 spot seven times. The most recent? 1974 when Johnny Rutherford won his first 500 from 25th.
Only nine times has the winner come between 16th-20th, but two of those have come this millennium, so we don’t want to chop off too big a group at the start. But for this exercise, goodbye starters No. 21-33.
YOUTH DOESN’T ALWAYS HELP: There’s a reason Troy Ruttman’s “youngest Indy 500 winner” record of 22 years and 80 days has lasted nearly 70 years. It’s really, really hard to win this race without experience.
Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward or Rinus VeeKay winning would break that mark, and Alex Palou comes in younger than Rossi, the modern-day youngest winner, who was 24 years and 247 days old when he won in 2016. To get younger without including Ruttman, the 1952 winner, you have to go back to 1930.
ROUGH ROAD FOR ROOKIES: Only four times since the late ‘20s has a rookie won the 500. Two of them came with prior Formula 1 stints (Graham Hill, 1966; and Rossi, 2016), and Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya raced at least one year in CART before hopping into the 500. This year’s rookies — Scott McLaughlin and Pietro Fittipaldi — are no slouches in terms of prior experience, but it would be awfully rare to see them win Sunday.
YOU ONLY NEED SO MUCH EXPERIENCE: Being a veteran is one thing, but winning this race at 44-years-old or older has only happened four times. Not to say Takuma Sato (44), Castroneves (46) and Tony Kanaan (46) are over-the-hill, but it's not probable. And what’s more, all three have other history against them: Sato as a potential repeat-winner (only happened five times), and Castroneves and Kanaan would either nearly break or shatter the record for races in between 500 wins. Kanaan won his lone Indy 500 in 2013, while Castroneves won the last of his three 500s in 2009.
IS IT EVER GOING TO HAPPEN?: The current mark for Indy 500s run before a driver’s first win stands at 13. Graham Rahal (entering his 14th) and Ed Carpenter (18th) have always seemed like they’ll win this at some point, but history says they won't. And with that, we’re down to nine drivers left.
ARE YOU READY YET?: According to research done by Indy 500 stats guru Bob Watson, only 18 Indy 500 winners have made the Greatest Spectacle in Racing their first North American open-wheel racing victory (AAA, USAC, CART, IRL, IndyCar). That’s not too bad a number, except only four have come since Neil Armstrong took his steps on the moon in 1969.
That’s not a great track record for Marcus Ericsson, Ed Jones, Conor Daly and Jack Harvey. And given the others remaining (Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe) have at least six wins, we’re going to go ahead and toss out Felix Rosenqvist (one career win) too.
UNLUCKY NO. 29: This may see arbitrary (okay, it definitely is), but a driver in the No. 29 car has never won the Indy 500. In fact, it’s never been 2nd and was last 3rd in 1946. Sorry, Hinchcliffe.
IT’S BEEN A WHILE: It’s tough now, but you have to trust the numbers. Dixon last won here 13 years ago. Only Montoya’s 15 years between 2000 and 2015 (which included full-time stints in F1 and NASCAR and just one non-victorious 500) has had a longer streak. We’re down to two.
THE EYE TEST: We got down this far, and frankly, it’s tough to distinguish between Hunter-Reay and Rossi. Neither has won the 500 super-recently (Hunter-Reay in 2014 and Rossi 2016), neither has been lighting up the series in other races(Hunter-Reay last won the 2018 IndyCar Series finale; Rossi midway through 2019), but both start in the top-10 (Hunter-Reay seventh and Rossi 10th).
I have to trust my gut with this one: Despite his rough results this year and inability to break into the Fast Nine, Rossi has shown good raw pace all year. His racecar looked strong during practice last week, and outside of Sato, you could argue no one has run stronger here consistently the previous five years.
So that’s where I land: Rossi will be your 2021 Indy 500 winner.
9 former winners rivals ’92 for record
Would you believe it if I said this year’s Indy 500 has a chance to go down as the most decorated field of all-time when we look back at it 20 or 30 years from now? That’s no hyperbole. It’s been well-documented that this year’s field, with nine former Indy 500 winners, is second in that category to 1992, when an astounding 10 former winners took the grid.
SPECTACULAR: The greatest starting field in Indy 500 history
Legends like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr., Tom Sneva and Gordon Johncock were winding down their careers as the next generation of Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Al Unser Jr., Arie Luyendyk and Rick Mears was either hitting their stride or as strong as ever. Formula 1 stalwart Emerson Fittipaldi had already won one 500 and would win one more.
Unser Jr. would win his first that year and add to it in 1994, and Buddy Lazier and Eddie Cheever would also win later that decade, giving that grid 13 drivers who either had won a 500 or would win one at some point.
If that’s not a record, it certainly has to be close. Among the 10 that had already won, they accounted for 20 Indy 500 victories. The 13 that would win at some point make up 26 of the victories.
MORE INDY 500 COVERAGE
This year’s group is far less accomplished in terms of total wins (part of what you get without all three four-time winners). Among the nine, they’ve won on the famous oval 13 times. Can this group double that? It seems a tall mountain to climb, though you have to imagine at least the next few will almost certainly come from someone already in the series now.
Depending on how young guns like Herta, VeeKay, O’Ward and McLaughlin progress, and what success veterans like Carpenter, Josef Newgarden and Rahal achieve – not to mention those who have already won the 500 – it’s certainly conceivable that the record of 13 winners could fall before the end of this decade.
Legacies could be changed with a win
All nine of the former winners could use this year’s Indy 500 to elevate themselves to a different level.
Castroneves can vault himself into a class only three drivers currently can lay claim to. His three 500s are already supremely special, but folks who want to can always poke holes in the fact that he never won an IndyCar championship. Become a four-time winner? I think you see that start to wane.
Montoya and Sato are in different parts of their careers, but going from two-time winners to three takes them from a class of 20 to a group of just 10. It would give Montoya an astounding three wins in six tries and perhaps lengthens his part-time career as he tries to get to No. 4. For Sato, it makes him one of the premier Indy 500 drivers of his generation.
And for those that have won it once – Dixon, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, Kanaan, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud – will attempt to join the group of 20 multi-timers. Five of these six — all but Rossi — have won at least one IndyCar title, but no matter how many more they claim, a multi-time 500 winner may always be more important.
Outside that group, someone like Carpenter would reach the career Mt. Everest he’s been so tantalizingly close to for nearly two decades. And for all Newgarden has achieved with two championships in his four seasons with Team Penske, his lack of a 500 will continue to be questioned as his career continues.
Only four other full-time drivers have ever raced for Team Penske in IndyCar (while they were entering 500s) and not won at least once: Ryan Briscoe, Paul Tracy, Kevin Cogan and Gary Bettenhausen.
Indy 500 records could be broken
Not only could this Indy 500 field go down in history for its depth, but it could also end up being remembered for records broken by its champion. The field already is the fastest by average qualifying speed (230.294 mph, breaking the 2014 mark of 229.382 mph), and it’s tied for fourth for the youngest front row in history (27 years old) despite including a 40-year-old Dixon.
VeeKay is also the youngest driver to end up on the front row a year after he became the fastest teenager in Indy 500 history.
Marks that could be eclipsed this year include:
>>Youngest winner: The current mark is Troy Ruttman in 1952 at 22 years and 80 days and it could be broken by three drivers – all start in the top-12 and two on the front row. VeeKay (20 years and 261 days by race day) and Herta (21 years and 61 days) can snap the record this year and next, while O’Ward (22 years and 24 days) has one more opportunity to do so.
>>Most years between 500 wins: The way this could be worded, Dixon could still have a couple empty years needed to pass Montoya, who went 15 years between wins in 2000 and 2015, but he participated in just one 500 in that time-span. A.J. Foyt went 10 years between his wins in 1967 and ’77, and he ran in all those races. This will be the 13th 500 Dixon’s run since his victory in 2008, shattering that mark Montoya may technically hold, but arguably belongs to Foyt.
>>Most Indy 500s run before first win: By technicality, Sam Hanks is credited with having competed in the most Indy 500s before he won his first (13), though that includes 1941 where he crashed in practice after qualifying and was unable to start. Rather than replacing him, he was granted 33rd-place and didn’t complete a lap. Not counting that would leave him tied with Kanaan at 12. Three drivers – Rahal (14), Marco Andretti (16) and Carpenter (18) would beat them with wins Sunday.
>>Most Indy 500 laps led: Dixon enters this year’s race at 563, needing to lead 82 on Sunday to edge Al Unser Sr. (644). He passes Ralph DePalma for 2nd-place with 50 laps led. Dixon led 111 a year ago when he finished 2nd.
>>Most American open-wheel racing wins: Dixon still has a ways to go to catch A.J. Foyt (67), but with a 500 win Sunday, he would tie Mario Andretti for 2nd-all-time at 52.
Where is Team Penske?
Only three times before this year – 2020, 2002 and 1995 – has Team Penske participated in qualifying for the Indy 500 and not landed at least one driver in the first three rows. 2021 makes four.
We all know what happened in 1995 – Penske drivers missed the race altogether – and in 2002, Castroneves defended his 2001 500 title from the 13th starting position, with teammate Gil de Ferran beside him in 14th. Last year, Newgarden started 13th among the highest-qualifying Penske driver, with Power (22nd), Pagenaud (25th) and Castroneves (28th) quite a ways further back. In that order, Penske’s four drivers finished 5th, 14th, 22nd and 11th.
This year, 500 rookie McLaughlin leads the quartet in 17th, with Newgarden 21st, Pagenaud 26th and Power narrowly making the field in 32nd.
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: 2021 Indy 500: Who will win, what to watch in Sunday's IndyCar race