Tomorrow’s Indy 500 looks to be the most wide-open in years, and it is easy to see why.
Not only is it the first oval race of the season, it is also a venture into the unknown with the new turbocharged engine formula and DW12 chassis, which should – in theory – create greater closing speeds and promote more passing than in recent years.
But perhaps the single biggest contributing factor to the unpredictability of tomorrow’s race is the weather, which, with searing heat and humidity forecast, looks like being a true test of (wo)man and machine.
So, despite the front of the grid being stacked with drivers from Penske Racing and Andretti Autosport, there is every chance that someone from another outfit could be visiting Victory Lane come the end of the race. And I predict that person to be Josef Newgarden.
Remarkably, the highest-qualifying rookie has failed to receive much in the way of respect from the bookmakers – with baffling odds of 22/1 doing the rounds at Bet365 and the like – but their short-sightedness could well be your gain.
Looking at the current standings, it is perhaps easy to see why the 21-year-old is rather low in the bookies’ estimations for Indy 500 glory, as he currently lies in 22nd position in the points table and has yet to finish in the top 10.
But that is almost inconsequential, because thus far, the IndyCar Series has been played out on road courses which are not his strong suit. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, however, with its massive 2.5-mile oval track should favour the rookie. After all, he won three of the six oval track races during his championship-winning season in Indy Lights last year.
He has shown in the past week or so that he still has the knack for ovals, having made the top-three on the speed charts in several practice sessions, before emerging as the quickest Honda-powered driver in qualifying for this year’s race, starting in seventh for local favourite Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
This should stand him in good stead, as it allows him to remain close enough to the front runners without having to abuse his equipment and guzzle fuel in an attempt to keep touch with them, while not having to set the pace may have the added benefit of allowing him to come to terms with making his Indy 500 debut and settle his nerves.
Don’t think a rookie has the ability to win it? Well Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves accomplished the feat several years ago, and lest we forget that J.R. Hildebrand came agonisingly close to becoming the ninth rookie to win the race last year. So discount Newgarden at your peril.
He is clearly very quick and suited to oval racing, and with the Honda engine looking competitive in race trim, the young charger has an excellent chance of being the first to cross the ‘yard of bricks’ tomorrow.
It confuses me, therefore, that the odds of him doing so are quite high. Not that I’m complaining of course, because at 22/1, there is an opportunity for a rather large payout and, with Newgarden possessing everything needed to win the big event, makes it worth betting on him this weekend.