First, I apologize for not completing this yesterday. Between a baseball practice, the end of Carb Day, an extended happy hour and the Burger Bash, I ran out of time in the day. In any case, here is my breakdown of the front of the Indianapolis 500 field, with some award predictions, as well.
# 3 Helio Castroneves - Inside Row 1
He's had one of the three best cars all month. Gave the figurative backhand to the field on Pole Day. Three-time champion at Indianapolis. Won the race back-to-back and has a chance to do so again. Barring any in-race setbacks, I anticipate him joining Foyt, Unser and Mears. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? By any means necessary.
#12 Will Power - Middle Row 1
Proof that Rick Mears is a genius when it comes to coaching drivers. Power, in two short years with Penske (and around three years oval racing experience), damn near pulled off the pole at Indianapolis. The series points leader, he has a chance to grab his first oval win, at the world's biggest race. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? At the beginning of the month, I might have said differently, but he's a true contender to win on Sunday.
#10 Dario Franchitti - Outside Row 1
Sideburns had the best speed on Carb Day. He's won the race from the third starting spot before. A pit stop error last year cost him a potential win. I don't see that happening this year. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? Yes. After Castroneves, he's the odds-on-favorite.
#6 Ryan Briscoe - Inside Row 2
If the fourth-fastest qualifier and third Penske driver can be quiet, then Briscoe has definitely been that this month. In that sense, he's a sneaky pick to win the race. Briscoe has had some untimely luck at IMS: there was the pit snafu with Danica in 2008, and last year, a bad set of tires did him in midway through the race. I still question whether or not he can fully focus and avoid a mistake for 3 hours. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? Yes, but at the same time, I think you'll wind up disappointed.
#77 Alex Tagliani - Middle Row 2
Where did this guy come from? I mean, he's driving cars previously owned by back-marker Marty Roth. Early in the month, I questioned his speed, chalking it up to favorable tows. Then he pulled off some 225 mph speed on his own, and led most of Pole Day, until Castroneves knocked him to second late in the day. The Shootout format got the best of him in the afternoon, relegating him to fifth. In any case, he may have the best shot of anyone not driving a red or Penske car on Sunday. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? After what he's shown all month, I'd say so.
#9 Scott Dixon - Outside Row 2
Dixon looked great on Carb Day. Really, the only day he seemed to struggle for speed was on Pole Day. He's been up on the speed charts next to, or in front of, Castroneves and Franchitti, all month. Starting sixth, I feel like he's a bit overlooked, but I can easily see him becoming a two-time winner on Sunday. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? Of course, he is the Haast Eagle, after all.
#30 Graham Rahal - Inside Row 3
Rahal is the top one-off qualifier, and has a solid team behind him. He should - it's his father's squad, largely composed of the people who helped Buddy Rice to a 500 win and vaulted Danica to stardom in 2005. The 500 hasn't been Graham's cup of tea so far in his young career, as turn 4 has bitten him twice in two years. If he can avoid washing up when other cars dive down to pit road, he can be there at the end of the race. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? His qualifying run says yes, but I'm not sure the experience is there to help Graham win his first 500. But coming close would probably help in the sponsorship search.
#20 Ed Carpenter - Middle Row 3
An American driver and a liquor sponsor. I'm sold. Carpenter was quicker than his full-time teammate, Dan Wheldon, sneaking into the fast nine on Pole Day and improving his spot. Plus, a win for Carpenter would make for an Al Davis-Pete Rozelle situation when Tony George received winners' money from his sisters, who deposed him a year ago. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? If a Pesnke or Ganassi don't win, why not Carpenter?
#06 Hideki Mutoh - Outside Row 3
Newman-Haas is making their 450th start on Sunday. Still, they've never won at Indianapolis, despite having victory in their grasp a few times. I don't think Mutoh is going to the be the one who brings them that win. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? I don't see it happening.
#99 Townsend Bell - Inside Row 4
Among the one-offs (Rahal, Carpenter) in the first few rows, I like Bell's chances the best. Not necessarily because I was a defacto-sponsor of his two weeks ago. With his Schmidt-Ganassi partnership, Bell has a superb crew with which to work. Last year, he was one of the major movers during the race, picking up 20 spots en route to a fourth-place finish. He doesn't have to make up as many this year to win the 500. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? Yes. If not a win, I see another top 5 finish for Bell. Now, if only he could get a full-time gig.
#22 Justin Wilson - Middle Row 4
It wasn't that Wilson's run was unexpected. I think everyone knew that Dreyer & Reinbold Racing was quick. I just think people had penciled in some Andretti Autosport cars in these spots, too. Wilson has been quiet all month. Which isn't to say that he can't win, but it would be a major surprise if one of the series' most talented road racers pulled off the Indianapolis 500 victory. Do I Want to Pull His Name in the Pool? I can't fully endorse it. But possibly in a year or two.