Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy winner, knew Friday night where they would be starting the Indianapolis 500. Will Power, the 2018 Indy winner, had a pretty good sense, too.
None expected to be competing in Sunday’s nine-car pole shootout. None did.
After two years of chasing the powerful Chevrolet-powered cars at Indianapolis, Honda finally came up with a package that caught and surged past its rival manufacturer with a disparity so wide only four Chevy drivers qualified in the first 17 spots on the 33-car starting grid.
“It wasn’t hard,” Kanaan said Sunday. “You know what you’ve got, so you can’t be surprised by it. We saw the signs on Friday and you can’t stress about things you can’t control. It’s like trying to predict the weather. Someone asks you if it’s going to rain tomorrow? I don’t know. The weatherman doesn’t know half the time.”
What was readily apparent at the Brickyard this weekend, though, was the wide advantage Honda had when series officials cranked up the horsepower Friday.
Honda drivers held 13 of the top 15 spots in practice that day, prompting questions about whether some traditionally strong teams at Indy, such as Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing, might be holding back.
Saturday’s results rebuffed any such notion. Honda driers claimed the top five seeds and eight of the nine spots in the shootout, and nearly swept the first 12 starting spots.
Rinus VeeKay, a 19-year-old rookie from the Netherlands, was the only Chevy driver to qualify in the first four three-car rows. The Carpenter driver qualified fourth, the inside of Row 2, with a four-lap average of 230.704.
Nobody was immune from the struggles.
Two-time series champ Josef Newgarden, the lone Penske driver still seeking an Indy win, he second fastest Chevy. He starts 13th, the inside of Row 5, after posting a 230.296.
Power, the Australian who is Newgarden’s teammate, qualified 22nd at 229.701. Carpenter a three-time pole winner was 16th at 230.211.
Kanaan, a Brazilian who drives for A.J. Foyt Racing, will start from the middle of Row 8 after going 229.154 while Alonso, of Spain, qualified 26th in the McLaren Arrow SP No. 66 car at 228.768.
“I think we are better for the race than in qualifying pace,” Alonso said. “Ideally, you would like to start in the front, but we don’t have the pace so let’s see what we have.”
They weren’t alone.
Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves couldn’t find speed, either. Pagenaud, the defending winner from France, will start 25th after going 228.836. Castroneves, the three-time race winner from Brazil, qualified a career-worst 28th at 228.373.
But most drivers expect the disparity to close significantly on race day.
“Honda seemed to have the advantage in qualifying trim but in race trim, I don’t think the edge is as evident as it’s looked the last two days,” said Colton Herta, a Honda driver who will start 10th for Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport.
The Chevy drivers certainly hope that’s the case.
They were more competitive before the power boost and held the top five practice spots early in practice after it was turned off, too. Plus, racing conditions could help.
“We think we’ve got a great race car underneath us though we weren’t where we wanted to be yesterday,” Newgarden said before the shootout. “But 13th is not too far toward the back and now we can focus on the race.”
The recent results aren’t encouraging for a quick turnaround, though.
When Chevy swept the front row each of the last two years, it won both races with Power and Pagenaud. When Honda took four of the top five starting spots the previous two years, it also reached victory lane twice — with Alexander Rossi in 2016 and Takuma Sato, of Japan, in 2017.
The bigger challenge may be attempting to make up for what’s already been lost, track position.
In a race most drivers believe will be difficult to pass, the Chevy teams may have to rely on strategy, pit stops and timely cautions to close the gap — or Honda could dominate again.
“When we ran race setup, everybody was pretty similar,” Kanaan said. “You look at the past when Chevy was dominating, it was still competitive. But you never like being in the other situation.”