After Looking Into the Past, the Indy 500 Looks to the Future [Indianapolis 500 Preview]
Last year, Indy was a disaster for the Andretti Autosport team. Two of their drivers barely made the field, while their other two didn’t. This year though it’s been a complete 180 for the team at the Speedway. James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified on the front row, with Marco Andretti right behind them in the 4th starting position. Their two part-time drivers, Ana Beatriz and Sebastian Saavedra, also qualified well. While many teams have spent time at the top this month, Andretti has been the most consistent team.
They are joined by Team Penske at the front of the field. Both teams combine for the entire first two runs, led by Ryan Briscoe on the pole. For Briscoe, this week is his time to shine after many years of being the forgotten man at Team Penske. He can definitely win this race, as could his teammate Will Power, who has dominated the road and street courses recently, but hasn’t seen that kind of oval success.
Add Dixon and Franchitti to these six and you’ve got your primary contenders to win.
An Intriguing Rookie Class
There are seven rookies this year, most with impressive credentials. However, three stand out. The first, Josef Newgarden, I profiled last week, and he has continued to impress. He was the only Honda to qualify in the top nine, and he’ll start 7th. While we all know how difficult it is for a rookie to win this race (see: 2006 and 2011), Newgarden has to be considered at least a second-tier contender, and to see a young American win for a popular American owner (Sarah Fisher) would be huge for the race and the sport.
Going into the season, the rookie that commanded all the attention was 19 year Formula One veteran Rubens Barrichello. It’s been a transition period for Barrichello at the start of his IndyCar career, including at Indy practice, where he was near the bottom of the speed charts. However, Rubens rebounded in qualifying and will start 10th. Barrichello has never run an oval race before, and has never run a race this long. Still, he’s as professional as they come, and while winning is probably too much to ask, don’t be surprised if Rubens is a factor late.
The other major rookie starter is Bryan Clauson, the two time USAC National Champion. In the old days, there was a very rich pipeline from sprint car racing to the Indy 500. Recently though, that pipeline has dried up, and any sprint cars racers wanting to graduate to bigger cars have gone to NASCAR. IndyCar is trying to buck that trend, and Clauson is the first one up, driving the 500 for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing as a teammate of Newgarden. Clauson has impressed most of the month, but made his first mistake on Pole Day, when he crashed on his qualifying run. The mistake meant he had to qualify Sunday, an intentionally conservative run that leaves him starting in the last row. Of course, for a guy coming from sprint cars, a solid, finishing run is what he’ll be looking good. It could be the start of a renewal of a long dormant relationship.
The Missing Drivers
While it’s a deep field this year, it must be noted the two high profile drivers that are not in Indianapolis, Danica Patrick, of course, left for NASCAR’s cash. In the short term, that will certain hurt the buzz of the 500, but long term, the race and the series needed to get out of Danica’s shadow. It’s still a loss though, don’t let anyone tell you different. The bigger and more tragic loss though is of Dan Wheldon. IndyCar is still reeling from the death of Wheldon last October. He is the first Indy 500 champion in 66 years who could not defend their title due to being killed in a racing accident. Dan will be honored during the race, as a champion like him deserves, but the hole in the heart of IndyCar is not filled and will not for a long time, if ever.
So, Who’s Going to Win?
This is a deep field, and while the usual suspects at Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti are the primary factors, there are another six to eight drivers that could conceivably win. The rest of the field, meanwhile, are not slouches and can easily end up with a good finish (well, if they don’t drive a Lotus that is). The tightness of the field and the raciness of the new cars should mean that Sunday’s race will be live up to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Who am I picking to win? Turn in tomorrow, when I rank the whole field from 33 to 1.