18 May 2009

Moving Through the Field

With five days until the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500, it's time to start looking at the field for the race and determining who has a shot at winning the event. And barring a driver change or injury, we can start counting backwards to figure out who is likely to be in Victory Lane around 4:30 on Sunday.

So, without further ado, here goes with the bottom 11 contenders to win:

33. Nelson Philippe (Car #00; Inside Row 11) - The rookie requalified his car on Bump Day, posting an average of 220.754 to hold on to his spot in the field. Philippe crashed on Pole Day and hasn't shown much speed all month.

32. Mike Conway (Car #24; Outside Row 9) – Another rookie, Conway has not finished a race this season due to wrecks at St. Petersburg and Long Beach and a mechanical failure at Kansas. During the month of May, he crashed at IMS, suffering a concussion and a bruised lung. Just as was his goal for the Mini-Marathon at the beginning of the month, if Conway can finish the 500 (maybe even on the lead lap), he should be satisfied.

31. Milka Duno (Car #31; Outside Row 10) – Making her third Indianapolis 500 appearance, most IndyCar fans are not fans of Duno’s, due to her appearance of ride-buying and seemingly lack of skills on oval tracks. Last year, she was a respectable 19th, mainly by not running into anyone. If she can do that again this year, Dreyer and Reinbold Racing should be happy.

30. John Andretti (Car #43; Inside Row 10) – The third Dreyer and Reinbold car in the ‘last four’ (I really don’t mean to pick on this team), Andretti struggled to find speed most of the month, qualifying with 15 minutes to spare on Bump Day after backing his car into the wall a week prior. A fan favorite, Andretti knows how to run at IMS, as this will be his 10th career start in the 500. However, his best finish is 5th, and that came eight years ago. A top 10 at this point would be a major surprise for the Richard Petty Motorsports/D&R collaboration.

29. Ryan Hunter-Reay (Car #21t; Middle Row 11) – I was tempted to swap Andretti and Hunter-Reay, but I think the younger American will try to do more to move up quickly in the race than the veteran Andretti. Hunter-Reay, Izod’s poster boy for the IndyCar Series, was the last driver in the field on Bump Day, qualifying as the gun went off at 6 p.m. He finished sixth in 2008, making him the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year; this month he has never found the right car balance to gain speed. Still, I think he can move up through moxie and attrition to post a decent finish.

28. Alex Tagliani (Car #36; Outside Row 11) – Tagliani will hop in the car that Bruno Junqueira qualified on the outside of row 10; due to the driver swap, the Canadian will start from the rear of the field. While Conquest Racing has shown promise, I put Tagliani here more due to the karmic implications of grabbing Junqueira’s spot in the 500. While I understand the motivation behind it, I think Conquest could have gotten both drivers in the 500 had they played their cards right. The 500 gods will have revenge for their mistake.

27. E.J. Viso (Car #13; Middle Row 10) – After showing plenty of promise in his rookie season, Viso has been a relative disappointment in his sophomore season. The HVM Racing driver was 26th a year ago, going out with a bearing problem after 139 laps. One of the series’ more exciting drivers, due to his penchant for passing in tight spots, Viso will need to be aware of where he is on the track when passing at IMS or face another disappointing finish.

26. Oriol Servia (Car #17; Inside Row 9) – Last year, Servia took a KV Racing machine that qualified 25th and brought it in 11th. Oddly enough, Servia could not find a ride for 2009, eventually coming to Indianapolis as part of a second-week program with Rahal-Letterman Racing. While RLR has one Indianapolis 500 win under their belts (Buddy Rice, 2005), the one-off programs have not traditionally fared well at Indianapolis. Hopefully Servia will perform well enough to let Rahal-Letterman begin preparations for the rest of the year or the 2010 season.

25. Scott Sharp (Car #16; Middle Row 7) – The 2001 pole winner missed the 2008 500 before returning this year in a Panther Racing machine. On a one-weekend deal, Sharp missed prep time last weekend due to ALMS commitments. I question how much that will set him back; while his last three Indy 500 finishes are 7th, 9th and 6th, I think the missed time over the weekend, plus missed time due to a crash earlier this month, will keep Sharp from truly contending.

24. Davey Hamilton (Car #44; Inside Row 8) – Hamilton’s comeback from a broken back is truly inspiring, and he has run at Indianapolis the last three years now. If you’re a team looking for a solid 500 finish, Hamilton is your driver – he may not challenge for the win, but in each of the last two years, he has avoided trouble and finished on the lead lap. Look for more of the same this year.

23. A.J. Foyt IV (Car #41; Inside Row 7) – It’s tough not to like the newest Foyt in IndyCar. I think everyone would agree that it would help the sport regain some national popularity if the name “Foyt” appeared in headlines again. However, it’s tough to see A.J. IV doing well on a one-race program, even if his grandfather is operating the team. With a best finish of 14th in 2007, Foyt will do well to replicate that finish.

The middle 11 will follow tomorrow, and the top 11 on Thursday.

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