We are just a few hours away from the utterance of the most famous words in racing “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines.” Jim Neighbors is in a secret location somewhere warming up his pipes. And a huge tanker is parked somewhere on the IMS grounds filled with helium, waiting for race morning. This year we will even get treated to a flyover by vintage WWII bombers.
The anticipation has reached a fevered pitch this week as advertising campaigns put the field of the Indy 500 in Times Square for their traditional photo opp. IndyCar drivers have been appearing all week on nationally televised shows, not the least of which is Sarah Fisher’s introduction of a showcase today on The Price is Right.
Looking at the participants in this year’s event, it is hard to look far past Team Penske when considering potential winners. Helio Castroneves has lead a charmed life this month. He has lead in almost all practice sessions. He put up quick time on Pole Day. It was announced today that the government is not going to pursue a new trial on the tax conspiracy charge. Helio put up quick time in today’s final practice session. And if that is not enough, his team won the pit stop competition today. Also, throw in the fact that he already holds two wins at Indy and his team has posted 14 Indy wins.
Helio sounds like a shoe-in for milk on Sunday, but anything can happen and usually does. Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe (starting 2nd) and Will Power (starting 9th) have also shown good pace as well. Will Power probably is the most motivated driver on the track as a win or good run at Indy might help persuade Roger to get him in a 3rd car or help land him a full time gig for the rest of the season with someone else.
The Target boys also clearly have something to prove this May. Dario won the 2007 Indy 500 and IndyCar championship. Scott won the same honors in 2008. They have been fast this May and clearly will be contending for the win.
The Newman Haas Lanigan team has surprised this year with their newfound pace on ovals, starting with a front row sweep in qualifying at Kansas and a strong 4th place start for Graham Rahal. Robert Doornbos was showing similar quickness, but was kept from participating in the first weekend of qualifying by a couple of bad wrecks in practice which prompted an equipment shortage for the team.
Andretti Green cannot be discounted either starting 6th, 8th, 10th & 16th with Tony Kanaan having the highest start position. That said, Andretti Green has not shown the pace of the Penske/Ganassi boys this month, but they always have good cars on race day.
But going back through the field we also have guys like Mario Moraes who put in an amazing effort for KV racing this month. Paul Tracy, who returns to Indy after almost winning in 2002. Scott Sharp returning to Indy after falling out with the Rahal team and spending a year in hiatus in ALMS. Davey Hamilton running his 2nd IndyCar race since his accident and immediately making himself indispensable to the Dreyer & Reinbold team. And John Andretti putting a valiant bump day effort to get himself into the show.
500 miles at Indy are different than anywhere else. The track itself breathes the history of the last 100 years. It changes constantly throughout the day as clouds pass over, the sun angle changes and temperatures rise. It doesn’t matter if you have the fastest car at the beginning of the race. The winner will be the one who is able to keep their car fast all day long. Who is able to adjust their car to the ever changing conditions. And who’s team is able to get them out before everybody else.
My money is on Helio.