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It’s possible -- in fact, likely -- that Honda’s string of eight straight victories at the Indianapolis 500 will end Sunday when the 96th running of the annual classic unfolds.
Rule changes have taken hold in the Indianapolis Racing League, and they appear to favor Chevrolet, either intentionally or unintentionally. With the new rules modernized to call for a limit of 2.2-liter turbocharged V6 engines rather than the traditional V8s, it was anticipated that several manufacturers might enter the series. Instead, only Chevrolet and Lotus joined Honda, which revised its race engine technology to build a V6.
There are only a couple of Lotuses, and they have been uncompetitive, unlike Formula 1, where the new Lotus cars are challenging Renault, Ferrari, and McLaren for superiority.
The Indy 500 will never again reach the level of enthrallment that it once enjoyed, where the race would attract crowds approaching 400,000 for race day, and two weeks earlier 200,000 would show up to watch one-at-a-time qualifying runs. The story is legendary about how Tony George revised rules to basically outlaw the rival CART team cars, which were dominating the 500, so they went off with superior cars and superior drivers to start their own series.
The big crowds and the enthusiasm were drained from Indy, while the CART teams found out soon that their big sponsors cared more about the Indianapolis 500 than about the entirety of either series. CART folded, the IRL sputtered on, and the Indy 500 had to rebuild from the lowest point in its interest.
Various rules came in, and Oldsmobile engines won the upper hand, dominating several races through 2001, then General Motors ended Oldsmobile as an entity. So Chevrolet’s name was emblazoned on the Olds engine, and it won the 2002 race. Toyota came in then, and won the 2003 race, then Honda came into the series in 2004 and not only won, but dominated the race so thoroughly that Chevrolet and Toyota both dropped out of the series the next year.
Honda power then became the engine in every car, and won eight consecutive races. In that span, Honda established another tradition -- there simply were no more blown engines, which had been the sad but true feature of previous races.
Now it’s 2012, and the newest rule change thrusts Chevrolet into the limelight. The engines chosen by the top teams generally win, and Roger Penske’s team chose Chevrolets for its Ilmor Engineering to develop. Michael Andretti’s team also went with Chevrolets, and they proved to be the fastest at last weekend’s qualifying.
Ryan Briscoe, who drives for Penske, won the pole with the fastest qualifying time, and Penske sent his other drivers out onto the track with two minutes remaining, effectively preventing three Andretti drivers from one last crack at the pole. Instead, James Hinchcliffe won the second spot by the closest margin in Indy history, and fellow-Andretti drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti took the third and fourth slots, ahead of Penske pilots Will Power and Helio Castroneves.
Those top six cars are all powered by the new 2.2 Chevrolet V6es, and nine of the top 10 are Chevies. However, after those top 10, six of the next seven and 13 of the next 19 are Honda-powered cars. The two Lotus cars are 32nd and 33rd, and seem to be seriously underpowered compared to the Chevrolet and Honda engines, but the Hondas also seem to be conceding a clearcut edge in speed to the Chevrolets.
My suggestion, however, is when you’re watching the spectacle on television, keep an eye on Scott Dixon, 18th on the grid, and Dario Franchitti, 19th. They are two of four Chip Ganassi drivers in Target-sponsored cars with Honda engines, and the disparity in qualifying set-up speed is what puts them on the outside of Row 6 and the inside of Row 7, respectively.
But on race day, the cars are set up entirely differently, and the difference in speed will be lessened considerably. And whether it is eliminated or not, the ability to run strong for 500 miles may become most important, and Honda has earned the reputation for dependability.
If I were handicapping the 500, I would submit that a duel between Power and Castroneves in Penske Dallara-Chevrolets and the Ganassi Dallara-Hondas of Dixon and Franchitti. I like their chances better than the entire rest of the field, but that might be because I’ve watched the Penske and Ganassi teams succeed for too long.
SAINTS MADE RUN
With apologies to Kyle Jensen, a photo of him pitching St. Scholastica to the UMAC baseball tournament championship was supposed to have run with this column a week ago, but it didn’t make the cut. So we’ll try it again this week, with a shot of him showing the determination that helped him beat Northwestern in a 9-5 finale.
The significance was that Jensen had been knocked out of the final regular-season games by the need for an emergency appendectomy. Obviously, he would be out for the rest of the season. Obvious, except to him. Jensen talked his way back into the lineup and, less than two weeks after his appendix let go, Jensen was back up on the Wade Stadium mound.
More important, the Saints went off to the Whitewater Division III NCAA regional. The Saints weren’t seeded very high, but won their first and second games before running into eventual champion St. Thomas, and then being eliminated a game later. Still, it was a great season for the Saints.
The No. 8 seeded Los Angeles Kings completed their knockout momentum through the entire West Conference by eliminating the Phoenix Coyotes four games to one. Phoenix was the No. 3 finisher, so it was fitting that they lined up behind No. 1 Vancouver and No. 2 St. Louis for LA. The Kings beat Vancouver in five, and St. Louis in four, before taking out the Coyotes in five. That means a playoff record of 12-2 for the Kings, who are a perfect 8-0 on the road against the top three seeds.
In the final, the Kings will face either the New York Rangers, No. 1 seed in the East, or New Jersey, which is still battling in what could well be a seven-game finish.
Meanwhile, over in Helsinki and Stockholm, Russia won the World Championship with a 4-0 victory over Slovakia, as Yevgeni Malkin scored a hat trick in the Gold Medal game, while the Czech Republic won the Bronze by beating Finland.
That was a stunning reversal for Canada and the U.S., which intended to be taking part in that Gold Medal game. But the Russians went undefeated the whole way, and gave solid indication why the Russian players who have come to North America to play in the NHL are usually, if not always, the best players on their NHL teams.
Incidentally, I happened to be in Nashville for a new car introduction last week, and as I was driving along, thinking about what a great season the Nashville Predators had in the NHL, including taking out Detroit in the playoffs. Being in Music City, you’re never far from a song, and “Nashville Cats,” the great old song by the Lovin‘ Spoonful, kept running through my mind. Than it hit me. Why in the world didn’t the Nashville franchise jump at the nickname “Cats?” Their logo, of a Predator, shows a sabre-tooth tiger with an exaggerated fang, so they could have kept the same emblem. But how great would it be for every pregame ceremony, when the arena PA blasted out a recorded version of “Nashville Cats” while the team took the ice?