26 May 2011

Moving Through the Indianapolis 500 Field: 12-22

Three rookies, two would-be winners and a three-time champion are among the 11 drivers in the middle of the field for the 100th anniversary running of the Indianapolis 500.  With the 500 just three days away, it's time to focus on the drivers, and see if any of these drivers can become the 20th in 500 history to win between Row 4 and the inside of Row 8.
12. No. 4 - JR Hildebrand (R)Hildebrand was labeled 'Captain America' as he rose through the IndyCar ranks, on one hand for his solid driving (he was the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion), and on the other because he appeared to represent the limited number of young, talented American drivers in the open-wheel ranks. Driving the National Guard car for Panther Racing certainly does nothing to change the monicker, nor does Hildebrand's ability to get up to speed quickly at IMS, qualifying 12th, the best among any rookie drivers.
The car Hildebrand will pilot on Sunday is a known commodity at Indianapolis; Dan Wheldon and Vitor Meira have brought it to second place finishes in each of the last three years.  Expecting Hildebrand to continue that streak, or even to improve upon it may be asking a lot of the Californian, but he appears more than up for the challenge.
13. No. 06 - James Hinchcliffe (R)The Canadian was a scant .0047 second away from being the top rookie in the field. Another product of the Firestone Indy Lights, Hinchcliffe has been a godsend during the rainy days at Indianapolis, conducting numerous interviews with drivers and sharing the lighter side of Gasoline Alley with fans. Plus, he gave IMS planking, which managed not only to kill a rainy Wednesday, but also gave the news media something to talk about when they did exposés on the dangers of planking (seriously).
Regardless, Hinchcliffe and his Newman/Haas Racing team have been quick and relatively under the radar (as much as you can be when planking). With car coloring similar to that of Scott Goodyear's in 1992, Hinchcliffe will be looking for a similar result, albeit crossing the finish line first this time.
14. No. 30 - Bertrand BaguetteBaguette showed well as a rookie last year for Conquest racing, showing some surprising skills on the ovals given his road and street course background. The Belgian did not stay with Conquest, however, but upgraded his ride for the 500, signing on with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, where he has continued to demonstrate his talent on the most prestigious course in the world, qualifying in the middle of Row 5.
Last year, Rahal Letterman delivered a car that appeared to have a chance at winning before a black flag took the legs out from under the team; Baguette will have to make some moves to get to the front, but a top 10 or top five finish is not out of the question for this team.
15. No. 11 - Davey HamiltonHamilton was the first driver out in the 2010 500, with the Idahoan finding the wall on the opening lap. In his fifth consecutive 500 since missing five in a row due to devastating leg injuries suffered in 2001, Hamilton is starting in a nearly identical place to last year, the outside of Row 5 (in 2010, he was in the middle of the same row).
The highest-qualifying Dreyer & Reinbold car on the grid, avoiding trouble is a must if Hamilton wants to replicate his career-best finish at IMS, fourth in 1998. His his four races back at Indianapolis, Hamilton has completed all 200 laps just once, tallying a ninth-place finish in 2007, his first race at IMS since the 2001 edition of the 500.
16. No. 3 - Helio CastronevesThe three-time Indianapolis 500 champion has never started the race so low in the field, surprising many with a qualifying effort that left him on the outside of Row 6. There is good fortune for the Brazilian, however: in his first two wins at IMS, Castroneves did have qualifying runs that left him in Row 4 and Row 5, where he was able to navigate through the field.
Castroneves' modus operandi at Indianapolis has been to largely bide his time, work his way towards the front and then seize control of the race in the final 125 miles. Starting 16th will allow for plenty of time for this strategy to play out, so keep an eye out on the Shell V-Power/Pennzoil No. 3.
17. No. 43 - John AndrettiThe only Andretti Autosport car to make the field of 33 on Saturday, the local product is making his 12th career start at Indianapolis (in the 500). However, since coming back to IMS in 2007, Andretti has yet to record a finish better than 16th, completing 200 laps only once.
Still, Andretti Autosport has been fairly spot on with its setups for the 500, and Andretti figures to have the easiest route to the front, given that three of his teammates start in the last three rows. Asking for a top 10 from the Ritter H.S.-product does not seem out of the question for this team.
18. No. 59 - E.J. VisoThe only thing possibly complicated matters for Andretti (or those in Row 7) may be E.J. Viso, the talented but erratic young Venezuelan.  At times, Viso can be more pinball on the track than car, racking up incidents in two of the first races of the year.  Still, the talented youngster is also capable of running up front, as he did at Sao Paulo this year.
Having never finished better than 24th in three runnings of the Indianapolis 500, the pressure is beginning to amount on Viso to deliver results, rather than repair bills.  Oddly enough, Viso's 500s have all ended after 139 laps; getting past that mark would be the first step in achieving a solid result.
19. No. 22 - Justin WilsonLooking back at last year's 500, it is easy to forget that for a time, it was Justin Wilson who was leading the race. Dreyer & Reinbold's decision to stay out with 39 laps to go in the race came up one more yellow flag shy of potentially putting the Englishman in Victory Lane. A solid, if unspectacular qualifying effort puts Wilson on the outside of Row 7 this year.
2010 marked Wilson's first top 10 finish at Indianapolis. Traditionally a strong performer on the road and street courses, Wilson has not been up to his usual strong standards thus far. However, in his fourth run at Indianapolis, Wilson may be primed for a breakout on an oval, especially one where he could nearly taste Victory last year.
20. No. 20 - Jay Howard (R)Howard is in his first 500 in three attempts at qualifying for the 500. Perhaps the most veteran of the rookies at Indianapolis, Howard first arrived at the track in 2008, only to have his ride taken by John Andretti, who brought sponsorship to Roth Racing. Returning in 2010, Howard put his Sarah Fisher Racing car in the field, only to withdraw the time and fail to bump his way back into the field.
The Englishman left no doubts this time, sticking in the middle of Row 7 in a partnership between Sam Schmidt Motorsports and Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Having achieved his goal of running at Indianapolis, it will be interesting to see how Howard performs; given the pedigree of the teams he has partnered with, he should have a solid car on Sunday, putting him in contention for Rookie of the Year honors.
21. No. 07 - Tomas ScheckterIt has been a career of almosts for the South African. Controlling the 2002 Indianapolis 500, the rookie got high in Turn 4 with 27 laps separating him and a visit with the Borg-Warner Trophy. Consistently fast, Scheckter has never been able to consistently find a ride for more than a year or for one-off deals, bouncing from team to team in a nine-year IndyCar career.
Still, Scheckter remains one of the drivers called when a team wants to put a car in the 500 field, and this year was no exception when he hooked up with KV Racing Technology. Scheckter ran near the front for most of the 2010 500, eventually taking 15th, and KV would certainly be happy with any place above that for Scheckter.
22. No. 82 - Tony KanaanNearly without a ride in the season-opening race, Kanaan was thrown a lifeline by KV Racing Technology, Geico and Lotus. That Kanaan was able to muster a podium finish in his first start with the team shows both the talent of the driver and the potential of the team. Figuring out Indianapolis may present a bigger challenge, but Kanaan knows how to navigate traffic.
Last year, after a hellish weekend saw him start 33rd on the grid, Kanaan nearly pulled off the comeback, sitting in second place before a late pit stop was needed. Frequently one of the hardest chargers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, watching the green and yellow No. 82 (a tribute to Jim Clark's 1965 winning Lotus), will be a treat for fans. Always a fan favorite, sentiment will be with Kanaan to finally collect his first Borg-Warner Trophy.

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