Simon Pagenaud runs away from the field in the latter stages of the 3rd running of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 14, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. File photo by Amy Frederick/UPI | License Photo
INDIANAPOLIS -- Familiar track, different direction. Different stakes, too.
Welcome to May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where, before the pursuit of motorsports immortality at the Indianapolis 500, there is the IndyCar Grand Prix on the track's clockwise-running road course.
Rather than 200 traditional laps in the 500 on May 28, there are 85 laps on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit through the IMS infield. There still are valuable Verizon IndyCar Series points to be won in this race, but the spoils of a forever spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy are reserved for the end of the month.
The IndyCar Grand Prix will be held for the fourth time Saturday, with Simon Pagenaud (twice) and Will Power the only race winners. Each has won from the pole the past two years, so qualifying obviously is important. Pagenaud will try to become the season's first two-time winner.
Pagenaud won the most recent race at Phoenix Raceway, and he enters this weekend with the series lead by 18 points over Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion. Pagenaud won last year's IMS road race in a stretch that catapulted him to the series title.
The interesting part of this season is that four races have seen four different winners: Sebastien Bourdais won in St. Petersburg, Fla.; James Hinchcliffe in Long Beach, Calif.; Josef Newgarden at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama and Pagenaud in Phoenix. Since 2012, the series has averaged 8.75 race winners per season, including a record-tying 11 winners in 2014.
If Power isn't a co-favorite to win this race, Dixon is. Dixon has won at least two races each year since 2006. Other top contenders to break through with their first win this season: Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya, who will be competing in his first race of 2017.
Montoya was replaced after last season in Roger Penske's No. 2 car by Newgarden, and so far, the move looks wise for the team. Montoya might not have raced in eight months, but he is hungry heading to a location where he has won a pair of 500s (in 2000 and '15).
"I guess I should feel a little behind, but I don't," he said after completing a pair of spring tests. "The guys on the (Penske) team have been in tune and mixed in with the other (Penske) teams all season, so we have all the data, and the tests went really well. I'm definitely looking forward to it."
Sixteen of the 22 drivers in this week's field, including Montoya, have competed in all three IndyCar races on the IMS road circuit, so experience here doesn't favor one driver over another. Even series rookie Ed Jones, last year's Indy Lights champion, has a race win on this course.
Most of all, the drivers are looking at this race as a springboard to the 500, although at this point no grand prix winner has gone on to win the 500. But, who cares, right?
"It's May," Hinchcliffe said. "What's not to be happy about at this point?"
Said Kanaan, who won the 500 in 2013: "I can't believe it's May already. This is definitely my favorite part of the season."
May also presents a significant number of points toward the championship pursuit. In addition to the 53 points available to a winning driver, 500 qualifying offers nearly as many points, and the 500 itself is worth double the usual amount given to a race winner. Then, the series moves on to June, where there are three races, and July, which has two more. August and September each have two races, the latter offering the season finale at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway.
The point: It's time to get busy scoring points.
On Friday, there are a pair of 45-minute practices, a short pit stop practice and afternoon qualifying. The pre-race warmup is Saturday at 11 a.m. ET.
It's May in Indianapolis.