Based on what we saw in qualifying last weekend this year’s Indy 500 will witness a titanic battle between Roger Penske’s and Michael Andretti’s Chevrolet-powered multi-car teams.

The Penske and Andretti cars swept the front two rows for next Sunday’s 96th Indianapolis 500 with Ryan Briscoe taking pole for Penske and James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay completing the front row in two of Andretti’s five cars. Marco Andretti starts from the inside of row two with Penske men Will Power and Helio Castroneves beside him.

This is Penske’s fifth straight pole this year and the team’s 17th at Indianapolis. Roger Penske dedicated Briscoe’s pole with the new turbo Chevrolet V6 engine to Ilmor co-founder Paul Morgan who was killed 11 years ago this month when his vintage Hawker Sea Fury flipped while landing. Morgan founded Ilmor Engineering in 1983 in partnership with Penske and Mario Illien to design and build the turbo Chevy Indy V8 that raced successfully from 1986-93.

This year’s turbo Chevy V6 Indy engine was designed and built at Ilmor with Steve Miller leading the design team. With Penske’s team the new Ilmor/Chevy has dominated this year’s opening IndyCar races and looks likely to rule the roost at Indianapolis next Sunday.

Briscoe is in his fifth year with Penske and will start the 500 from pole for the first time. The amiable Australian has been considered more a solid journeyman than a potential champion or 500 winner, but clearly he has the equipment to make a break-through this year. Team-mate Castroneves is going after his fourth win in his 12 year with Penske while championship leader Power will be trying to score his first 500 win in his fifth start at the Speedway. Based on his experience Castroneves must be the favourite but his pair of Australian team-mates are equally capable and both will be trying hard to earn their places on the Borg-Warner trophy.

Michael Andretti’s team rebounded from a miserable month of May last year when two of the team’s four drivers failed to qualify for the 500. This year each of Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti were at, or near, the top of the speed chart through the week of practice and all five Andretti Autosports drivers (Ana Beatriz and Sebastien Saavedra drive the team’s other two cars) qualified for this year’s race.

indycar  Penske vs Andretti at Indianapolis

Honda’s best qualifier was rookie Josef Newgarden (above) who qualified one of Sarah Fisher’s two cars on the inside of the third row. Only 21, Newgarden won last year’s Indy Lights championship and raced Formula Ford in the UK in 2009 and GP3 in 2010. One of the most promising American open-wheel drivers to come along in some time Newgarden has looked good this year, running near the front in most races and qualifying on the front at Long Beach last month.

Defending IndyCar Champion Dario Franchitti and team-mate Scott Dixon struggled to match the pace of the leading Chevrolet cars, qualifying their Honda-powered Ganassi cars a disappointing 15th and 16th. Meanwhile Rubens Barrichello starts his first Indy 500 from 10th on the grid after making steady progress up the speed chart all week. Barrichello enjoys Chevrolet power and has a chance of finishing well if he can stay out of trouble. Last year’s almost-winner JR Hildebrand starts his Chevy-powered Panther Racing Dallara from 18th.

Everyone agrees the new Dallara DW12 creates a bigger draft than the old car and the expectation is that this year’s 500 will feature plenty of ‘pack racing’ with nobody able to break away on their own. “I think you can run closer with this car than with the old car,” Will Power remarked. “It punches a massive hole in the air so the tow effect is huge, but it’s hard to say if you can put a move on. It will be a very tight race because I don’t think anyone will get left behind.

“As far as driving [is concerned], it’s been a bit easier,” Power added. “It’s got more grip and less power, so it’s stuck to the road. You have less chance of making a mistake. The car is pretty forgiving, it’s stuck [to the road]. But you get a big draft and lose some grip. I think it will be a good race and once it’s said and done it will be like last year.”

Michael Andretti added his observations. “It definitely pokes a bigger hole,” Michael said. “It’s funny, you can pick up a draft from further back but the real effect comes from the last five or six car lengths. All of a sudden the car just accelerates. It’s very similar to what the Handford device did in 2000 or 2001. I think it’s going to make for some exciting racing because I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to stay out front. I think there’s going to be a lot of back and forth.

“The thing I’m worried about is when you start to get that suction you get it late at the end of the straight. All of a sudden you’ll get a huge run on somebody and the guy in the lead might not realise the other guy is there when you get to the apex of the corner because he had such a run on you. So I’m a little worried about some of that happening into turn one and turn three.”

As always we hope for a safe race and a clean, exciting finish.