27 May 2011

Moving Through the Indianapolis 500 Field: 1-11

Four former winners and four part-time or one-off drivers are in the first 11 spots in the field, presenting an interesting mix that is sure to make the start of the Indianapolis 500 quite interesting. With the 500 just over 48 hours away, it is time to look at the front of the field.
1. No. 77 - Alex Tagliani
Tagliani and his owner, Sam Schmidt, have already given the Indianapolis Motor Speedway one of the best story lines of the month by qualifying on the pole. The pole has been the best starting position to win the 500 from, as 21 winners have started on the pole, including four in today's spec car era.
Schmidt has routinely been fast at Indianapolis with his entries. Tagliani started fifth last year, but was never a major factor in the race, finishing 10th. Already the best driver-owner story since Bobby Rahal and Jim Trueman in 1986, it would be appropriate for Schmidt and Tagliani to enter Victory Lane 25 years later.
2. No. 9 - Scott Dixon
The first of the four winners in the top 11, Dixon had just enough fuel to post the provisional pole speed before Tagliani knocked him off. Characteristically quick at Indianapolis, Dixon has not finished worse than sixth in any of the last five years at Indianapolis. 
With Target Chip Ganassi Racing having seemed to figure out Indianapolis, Dixon figures to be a major factor in the race. He and teammate Dario Franchitti should enter the race as favorites, though it should be noted that Dixon could not get to the front in the heat of last year's 500. Quiet and quick all month, expect the Kiwi to be among the contenders at the end.
3. No. 2 - Oriol Servia
Another surprise on the front row, Servia sat on the provisional pole until the last two drivers of the Fast Nine knocked him off. After missing last year's 500, Servia brings a promising sponsor in Telemundo to the front row at Indianapolis. 
Servia's (and his teammate James Hinchcliffe's) qualifying effort seems to reinforce the notion that Newman/Haas Racing is a team on the comeback. In each of the last two years, Newman/Haas had qualified well, only to be disappointed on race day, finishing 28th a year ago due to handling with Hideki Mutoh. Despite leading 791 laps in 28 previous entries at Indianapolis, Newman/Haas Racing has never entered Victory Lane.
4. No. 99 - Townsend Bell
The quickest of the one-off entries in the field, Bell has performed well in recent years at Indianapolis, taking fourth in 2009 and having a chance at a similar result last year before a blocking penalty relegated him to 16th. Running with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Bell has a legitimate chance for a career-best finish.
One of the IZOD IndyCar Series' most outspoken drivers, Bell has strong feelings on the need to bring back speed at IMS, and he is not shy about saying he has to win on Sunday to get a full-time ride for the rest of the year. However, Bell says there is no added pressure on him to perform. Look for the Herbalife car to run near the front for most of the race.
5. No. 12 - Will Power
The lone Team Penske car in the top 11, Indianapolis is the first track this year on which Power did not claim the pole. Leading his first laps at IMS last year, Power appears primed for his first victory on an oval.
The one aspect of the race that concerns Power is the double-file restart, for which he made clear his disdain during Media Day. If Power is up front, look for him to always choose the inside lane, and should he wind up on the outside, look for him to take the first chance to duck low.
6. No. 98 - Dan Wheldon
The 2005 Indianapolis 500 champion, Wheldon has a chance to match Bill Holland for the best three-year run at the 500. After consecutive second-place finishes, all Wheldon has to do is win the 500 in a one-off entry for Bryan Herta Autosport. 
Wheldon clearly is comfortable at IMS, recording five top five finishes at IMS in his eight career starts. Given his knack for finding the front during the 500, the creamsicle No. 98 figures to be in the mix throughout the race.
7. No. 44 - Buddy Rice
The 2003 500 winner returns to Indianapolis after a two-year absence. Running with Panther Racing, who has finished second in each of the last three 500s, Rice should have the chance to get to the front and stay near the front throughout.
However, no driver has missed a 500 (or more) and come back to win in their return to IMS in the rear-engine era. In an odd twist, Rice has only completed 200 laps once in five starts at Indianapolis, coming in his last race here in 2008.
8. No. 67 - Ed Carpenter
One of two local products in the 500, Ed Carpenter and his Sarah Fisher Racing team will be the sentimental favorites on Sunday. Starting eighth for the second straight year, Carpenter will look for the breaks he did not get last year, when he had to pit while the pits were closed, playing a part in his 17th-place finish.
Last year's result seems like an outlier for the Butler University product, as fifth and eighth-place results in the previous two years gave one the impression that Carpenter was figuring out his home track. Carpenter alluded to it yesterday, but after seeing his alma mater finish as the NCAA Basketball runners-up in each of the last two years, he would like to replicate the effort, only bettering the result.
9. No. 10 - Dario Franchitti
Franchitti would likely be on the front row, but a rare mistake from his Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew resulted in Franchitti running out of fuel prior to his fourth qualifying lap. In turn, Franchitti put on a rare show of public anger, storming down pit road following the mishap.
After a near-perfect run at IMS last year, Franchitti was easily fast at IMS this month, which made the mistake that much more surprising. Franchitti has a chance to make history on Sunday - a third win puts him in the company of Louis Meyer, Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Helio Castroneves. Back-to-back victories would make the Scotsman the sixth driver to achieve the feat in 500 history.
10. No. 5 - Takuma Sato
Sato was surprisingly quick on Pole Day, nearly reaching the Fast Nine before settling on the inside of Row 4. Throughout the month, the Tokyo native has raised money and awareness for the earthquake and tsunami victims of Japan, with schools throughout the Indianapolis area chipping in.
In his second start at Indianapolis, it will be interesting to see Sato's strategy on Sunday. Last year, starting 31st, Sato took his time, quietly picking up 11 spots by mainly avoiding attrition on his way to a 20th-place finish. This year, Sato has the option to bide his time or press the issue and try and move to the front as quickly as possible.
11. No. 14 - Vitor Meira
It has been 12 years since A.J. Foyt went to Victory Lane as an owner and on the 50th anniversary of Foyt's first 500 win, Meira represents Foyt's best chance at returning since Kenny Brack brought Foyt there in 1999. Meira's qualifying effort in the middle of Row 4 represents the best by a Foyt team since Eliseo Salazar started third in 2000.
Always a fan favorite, Meira is a two-time runner up at Indianapolis. The last two years, however, have not been kind to Meira at IMS, as he broke his back in 2009 and finished 27th last year due to contact. Foyt has had just one top 10 in the last five years (Darren Manning, 9th, 2008), so if Meira can avoid trouble, he figures to tally a top 10 for Foyt.

No comments:

Post a Comment