Danica Patrick picks her 2023 Indy 500 favorites and sleeper, talks speedy qualifying

To win the Indianapolis 500, just about everything needs to happen perfectly — a perfect 200-lap run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a perfect race strategy, perfect pit stop execution, perfect everything.

Plus a little luck.

Alex Palou enters Sunday’s 107th Indy 500 in an ideal position after winning the pole in record-breaking fashion last weekend.

So naturally, he’s the favorite to win and a “pretty easy one to pick” because he’s “in a good groove,” said Danica Patrick, who retired from racing in 2018 after her final Indy 500 and, for the fifth straight year, is returning to NBC Sports’ race day broadcast Sunday with Mike Tirico, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and James Hinchcliffe, among others.

Patrick shared another top pick: Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward, who will start fifth.

“Pato O’Ward keeps sticking out to me in my mind,” Patrick told For The Win on Thursday. “I get a good energy [from him. I think he’s super fast, so I get a good feeling about him.”

Scott Dixon is almost always an Indy 500 contender as well, and Patrick noted he’s usually a solid go-to pick for her. Despite Dixon starting sixth, “he just doesn’t seem to have quite the all-out speed that he had” in previous years, she said.

RELATED:2023 Indy 500 drivers’ choice of celebratory milk should they win

Along with Palou and O’Ward, Patrick also shared Team Penske driver Josef Newdarden is her dark-horse pick.

“I mean, how dark could it be when you’re talking about a Penske driver?” she said chuckling.

“If I’m going to pick someone that is going to come from further back and have a good day, maybe Newgarden. He qualified 17th. But he has a lot of experience at this point in time, and he’s such a solid driver. And he’s obviously driving for one of the best teams in history of Indy. I’ve got a feeling that he’ll probably make his way up. …

“It’s gonna be pretty tough to beat Palou, but I think Pato O’Ward is in the running there. And I think Newgarden is someone that I look to, to come through the field.”

Alex Palou sprays Pato O’Ward with champagne after winning the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course earlier this month. (Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)

While it might not be easy, passing on the track Sunday will be pretty common, Palou told For The Win earlier this week. His prediction is the result of tremendous speed during qualifying last week.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver and 2021 IndyCar Series champ broke the record for fastest pole speed in Indy 500 history with a four-lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour. He’ll lead the fastest Indy 500 front row (234.181 mph average) and the fastest field in Indy 500 history (232.184 mph average) to green.

RELATED:2023 Indy 500 starting grid and odds

All three of those records were previously set ahead of the 2022 Indy 500, as the field seems to be getting faster and faster. But there’s a limit, Patrick said.

“It kind of goes in waves, and then they go, ‘Whoa, OK, 240 [miles an hour] is too fast; let’s slow them down,'” she said. “It could come from a repave, it could come from tires, it could come from engines, it could come from spec changes. …

“There’s a certain speed that just gets recklessly ridiculous. But yes, they are fast this year. And usually, as teams get a chance to work with an engine, a package of car, all those things, they fine tune it more and more and more, and the nature of a team is to find speed every year. So it’s usually when they come with a reset on some of that stuff that kind of goes back to a lower baseline.”

Scott Dixon drives into Turn 4 during 2023 Indy 500 practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports)

So what does all that speed mean for Sunday’s Indy 500?

Patrick said it highlights the intensity of the competition for one of motorsports’ biggest prizes, along with the technological advancements with the cars as teams search for the tiniest ways to go just a little bit faster.

“What that says is that the cars are comfortable,” she noted. “The speeds are coming up, and the cars are comfortable going that fast. And so given the fact that the front row is as close as it’s ever been … that’s just a good indication that the competition is tight.

“And that’s what we want to see as fans, as analysts, announcers. We want to see a great race, and so I think that’s what we’re in for.”

Gannett may earn revenue from sports betting operators for audience referrals to betting services. Sports betting operators have no influence over nor are any such revenues in any way dependent on or linked to the newsrooms or news coverage. Terms apply, see operator site for Terms and Conditions. If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, help is available. Call the National Council on Problem Gambling 24/7 at 1-800-GAMBLER (NJ, OH), 1-800-522-4700 (CO), 1-800-BETS-OFF (IA), 1-800-9-WITH-IT (IN). Must be 21 or older to gamble. Sports betting and gambling are not legal in all locations. Be sure to comply with laws applicable where you reside.

More MotorSports