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Head Games: Different Thoughts Enter Drivers' Minds When Waking Up on Race Day

When drivers wake up this Sunday morning, what’s the No. 1 factor they’re focused on for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge?

Not counting what’s for breakfast, which Marco Andretti and Josef Newgarden jokingly suggested.

Ed Carpenter always starts this Race Day the same way.

“The first thing I look at is the weather,” he said. “If it’s wet, we can’t go out. I peek out the blinds to see if it’s dry. May in Indianapolis, it doesn’t matter what the forecast is, it could always be wet.”

Based on the temperature and wind, Carpenter adjusts accordingly on the setup for his No. 20 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet.

Three-time Indy 500 pole sitter Carpenter will start in the middle of the front row this year for the race that has been his life ambition to win.

“This isn’t a fun place to be when you don’t have a car that you like to drive,” said Carpenter, 38. “I’m really happy with my car. Hopefully that will still be the case after Sunday.”

Defending race winner Will Power is also worried about weather but says any concerns he has before the “500” won’t last when he climbs into his No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet, which rolls off from the sixth position.

“Obviously you’re nervous,” Power said. “The moment you wake up, you’re going to have butterflies. Then you go about your business and get ready. You just can’t wait to get in that car – then everything else goes away.”

Andretti and five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon say their mornings are all about staying relaxed. Andretti starts 10th in the No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda. He would love to win his first “500” on the 50th anniversary of grandfather Mario’s only win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

"My favorite part is the walkout, when you walk out with the family through Gasoline Alley, that’s when you get hit with the magnitude of the event," Andretti said.

Dixon, who won the 2008 Indy 500, qualified 18th in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

“The biggest thing for me is trying to visualize stops, whether it’s settings or strategies you talked about,” Dixon said. “The focus for me is always making sure I mentally know what I’m meant to be doing and not have that moment where we’re going to do this or do that, and I’m not knowing what I’m meant to be doing. For me, it’s having that clear mind in knowing what the goal is, what we’re set on and understanding what I need to be doing from point A to point B.”

Newgarden, who leads the series points, qualified eighth in the Shell V-Power Nitro Plus Team Penske Chevrolet. The 28-year-old Tennessean has never won this race; his best result was third in 2016 for Ed Carpenter Racing.

“You worry about the unknowns in this race,” he said. “What could happen that’s outside our control that could ruin our day? That’s what you worry about. You try not to think about that too much, but if you’re going to think about anything, that’s what you do. You don’t know until it happens.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay is one of seven previous “500” winners, his memorable moment of glory experienced in 2014. His No. 28 DHL Honda starts on the inside of row eight.

“The No. 1 thing I’m focused on is being smart and being effective in traffic,” Hunter-Reay said. “You have to be good in traffic to win this race, especially starting from where we are in 22nd. I won from 19th, so it’s not much different.

“You have to be smart in traffic, and you have to adapt to your race car as it goes through the race because it’s going to change. It’s going to get hotter, the track temperature is going to come up, wind, who you’re racing with, all that stuff, you just have to be open-minded.”

Four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais has never won this race. The 40-year-old Frenchman’s best result was seventh in 2014 for KV Racing Technology. He’s starting seventh in the No. 18 Sealmaster Honda.

He’s learned from experience that the “500” never seems to go according to plan, which means be prepared to adapt to anything.

“Over the years, if I’ve learned anything it’s just maybe not to worry too much about it,” Bourdais said. “Get in the race car and do my job to the best of my abilities. There’s only so much you can control. Once you’ve done the work, yeah, you go with your instincts. Sometimes you’re right. Sometimes you’re wrong. It’s not worth worrying too much about it. You try not to put yourself in stinky situations.”

Graham Rahal isn’t focusing on the race when he wakes up. He's thinking about pre-race commitments.

“Just get through all my appearances so I can enjoy the rest of my day. They load me up,” Rahal said. “You think about the race enough. You think about it all the time. What else am I going to think about? You can run the race 50 times in your head over the last month. You’ve just got to go out there and do it. There’s not much more reason to sit and think about it.”

Rahal, the son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, always has believed he is destined to one day join his father on the Borg-Warner Trophy. His best finish was third in 2011 for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Graham will make his 12the career “500” start driving for his father’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team. His No. 15 United Rentals Honda qualified 17th.

Teammate Takuma Sato, who starts 14th in the Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda, won the 2017 “500” with Andretti Autosport.

There was a time when the 42-year-old driver from Tokyo suggested he would probably never be comfortable driving at such high speeds on this oval. But when he awakens Sunday, his focus isn’t on anything technical or strategy. No driver in the field will greet this Race Day with more enthusiasm.

“I just want to enjoy it. That’s it,” Sato said with a smile. “It has to be fun. It has to be looking forward to the start. If you get nervous, it is nervous because there’s a lot of pressure. But I don’t want to think about it that way. I want to enjoy it. If you enjoy the race, the result should come together.

“You wake up in the morning,” Sato adds, then claps his hands. “‘Yes, this is the day. I’m ready.’”
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