The Indy 500 is ready for its dramatic makeover, with a revamped two-day show loaded with points incentives that makes one of IndyCar’s signature weekends relevant again, and throws a significant wrinkle in the championship chase.
Gone are Saturday’s traditional Pole Day and Sunday’s Bump Day.
In their place, a new format that locks the fastest 33 drivers in the field Saturday, then sets the top nine Sunday.
“Do I want to qualify twice in two days? Not really,” reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan said. “But I think it will bring a lot more excitement.”
IndyCar wanted to shake up its staid way of four-lap qualifying runs that had set the field since 1939, in part because the last two years have lacked a 34th entrant and there was no bumping on Bump Day. So all entries this year will be guaranteed at least one four-lap attempt to qualify, and the fastest nine drivers will move into the shootout.
The previous days’ times will be erased on Sunday and entries 10 through 33 will complete another four-lap qualifying attempt to determine their starting position. The fastest nine drivers from Saturday will then make one four-lap attempt to determine the prestigious pole winner and starting front row.
For the first time, IndyCar is awarding points based on qualifying runs. The top qualifier on Saturday earns 33 points, second place gets 32 and so on, all the way to one point for the 33rd-place entrant.
The pole winner earns another nine points Sunday, decreasing to one point for the ninth-place starter.
Will Power holds a one-point edge over Ryan Hunter-Reay (149-148) in the standings entering the weekend, a lead in theory he could surrender before the green flag drops for the May 25 Indianapolis 500.
“I’m sure if you’re one of the fast cars at the front competing for the championship, you would definitely go back out to gain some points,” Power said.
The Indianapolis 500, the Pocono IndyCar 500, and the 500-mile season finale race at Fontana, California all award double points.
That setup could give a huge boost to oval aces like Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti. In theory, an oval racer could win the championship on three or four weekends. But should a more versatile driver like Scott Dixon - who has won everywhere from Indy’s oval to Pocono’s triangle - swig the winner’s milk in Victory Lane, he could emerge as a heavy favorite to defend his series championship.
Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi expect their cars to load up the Fast Nine field. Penske’s three entries include three-time Indy 500 winner Castroneves, former Indy winner Juan Pablo Montoya and Power. Ganassi boasts Kanaan, Dixon, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball.
“We have to be in that top nine,” Penske said. “I think that’s going to be critical to get three cars in that Fast Nine, Fast 10.”