21 May 2009

Moving Throught the Field: Up Front

We've taken a look at the 22 least likely drivers to take home the checkered flag at the 93rd Indianapolis 500. So, with race day less than 4 days from now, it's time to look at the 11 drivers whom I think you may see in Victory Lane on Sunday:

11. Dan Wheldon (Car #4; Outside Row 6) – After Meira’s second-place run at Indy last year, most people assumed that Wheldon could improve upon it when signing with Panther in the offseason. However, the Englishman’s season has not gotten off to the best of starts and it continued into May, with Wheldon backing into the wall at IMS on Pole Day. The wreck cost Wheldon a probable first day qualifying result. The following day, Wheldon was just seventh-quickest among the second-day qualifiers. Panther and Wheldon have not shown the speed most expected them to have in the second half of the month, but they both have solid records at the track. Wheldon is the active leader in laps led at Indianapolis with 234, and with Panther’s background, they cannot be counted out on Sunday.

10. Will Power (Car #12; Outside Row 3) – Just a fantastic name for a racecar driver – straight out of central casting. Power missed the Kansas race because Penske chose not to run three cars, but they are doing so for the 500, giving Verizon Wireless some time on Power’s side pod. The young Australian has been sneaky quick during the month, placing in the top 10 times most of the month. As a rookie last year, Power worked his way up from a 23rd-place start to finish 13th. With Team Penske behind him this year, 13th may be a disappointment for Power in 2009, but a top 10 should be expected.

9. Mario Moraes (Car #5; Inside Row 3) – The second-year driver has been a revelation over the last two to three weeks, impressively qualifying seventh and even leading the speed charts on one occasion. KV Racing seems to have made up substantial ground at Indianapolis and Moraes does not appear to be the rookie who nearly walked away from IndyCar after his first oval test. Last year, Moraes led a lap via pit strategy before finishing 18th after most people pegged him as one of the first drivers out of the race. The biggest question facing Moraes is whether or not he can completely cover the learning gap that occurs at Indianapolis. While I think he can make up a decent amount of ground over his first two years, his best chances at a win may be a year or two away.

8. Danica Patrick (Car #7; Inside Row 4) – Indianapolis has been Danica Patrick’s best track, arguably (she could put Motegi up there, too, since she won); it cannot be denied that the track launched her into another stratosphere of popularity after the 2005 race. While many have surmised that this Indy 500 could be Patrick’s year to break through and win, she has been disappointingly slow for parts of this month. A strong race strategy should put her in line for a top 10 finish and maybe help her contend, but that’s definitely not what Patrick had in mind when she arrived in Indianapolis at the beginning of the month.

7. Graham Rahal (Car #02; Inside Row 2) – Rahal obviously has the pedigree to win the 500, as his father did in 1986. Driving for the late Paul Newman’s team also adds to the storylines around young Rahal. While the youngster certainly has the talent and equipment to win a 500, I wonder if he possesses the focus needed for the race which requires near-perfect execution over 800 corners. Last year, starting 13th, he was the first driver out, finding the wall in finishing 33rd. While his inexperience at the track may not bite him this time, I think he still needs a few years to truly contend with the Penskes, Ganassis and select AGR drivers at IMS.

6. Marco Andretti (Car #26; Middle Row 3) – Andretti is familiar with the third row, starting ninth, ninth and seventh in his three prior starts. And in each of his starts he has led meaningful laps, so the third-generation of Andretti’s at Indianapolis has the talent to win the race. Andretti has finished second, 24th (late wreck but ran up front most of the race) and third. One of these years, he will win the 500. He hasn’t been as quick as expected this month (along with most of AGR), but look for him up front – if he can get into the lead, he’ll be tough to move off, but he will have trouble catching the Penskes and Ganassis.

5. Ryan Briscoe (Car #6; Middle Row 1) – It’s not that I don’t think Briscoe can win – he has been one of the quickest drivers all month and has the right equipment (Penske). I’m just not sure he has the ability to go 200 laps without a mistake at this point in his career. With Luzco Dragon (and Penske backing) in 2007, he was fifth after starting seventh. In 2005, he finished 10th after opening the race 24th. Last year however, he was in the same position as this year but ran into Danica Patrick on pit road, regulating him to a 23rd-place result. Since then, Briscoe has been lights out, but I still question whether he can go 200 incident-free laps. If he can, the Australian could begin to establish a Bledisloe Cup-level rivalry with New Zealander Scott Dixon.

4. Tony Kanaan (Car #11t; Outside Row 2) – Needing to use his teammate Hideki Mutoh’s tub from Kansas just to find speed this month, Kanaan has made the most of the change, often placing among the top five-six times on the Indy speed charts since qualifying sixth on the grid. In each of his first seven Indy 500 starts, Kanaan has led laps, and could have won both the 2004 and 2007 500s, losing both due to rain. If Kanaan can get to the front late in the race, he will be tough to move off the lead; the problem could be getting the chance to lead the race late with the quality of drivers who seem to have slightly better gear right now. A win for Kanaan would help him move towards a second IndyCar Series title, which he won in 2004 – the last two 500 winners have won the points title (Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon), which Kanaan currently leads.

3. Scott Dixon (Car #9; Middle Row 2) – Indianapolis has seen only four repeat winners in the 93 years of racing at the track (Al Unser, Mauri Rose, Helio Castroneves and Bill Vukovich). While Dixon certainly has the backing to win the race again, the amount of good fortune, combined with skill, needed to win in consecutive years is staggering. Dixon will have a chance and will be near the front towards the end, but I see him falling just short of Indianapolis 500 win number two.

2. Dario Franchitti (Car #10; Outside Row 1) – Franchitti’s comeback to IndyCar has been overshadowed by that of Helio Castroneves, but is just as impressive. Franchitti won at Long Beach in his second race back and is among the points leaders coming to IMS. With Ganassi Racing behind him and three top 10 finishes in his last three starts at Indianapolis (including the 2007 500 title), look for Franchitti to be there at the end.

1. Helio Castroneves (Car #3; Inside Row 1) – Castroneves’ return to IndyCar seems to be out of a made-for-tv movie. Win the Indianapolis 500 twice, become a national celebrity on a dancing show, be arrested and tried for tax evasion, receive an acquittal. All that’s left is to find national redemption with his third 500 victory. The pole position has been the ticket to winning on 19 occasions, and when you combine the starting position with Team Penske’s ability to win at Indianapolis (14 times), Castroneves is the man to beat at Indianapolis this year.

So, with all this, I'll post exactly how I see the race unfolding (with results from 1-33) tomorrow, because let's face it - if all these drivers are up front at the end of the race, we will have witnessed one of, if not the greatest Indianapolis 500 ever.

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