Ranking the Indy 500 Field

5/24/12 in IndyCar   |   Eric_   |   7716 respect

Blog Photo - Ranking the Indy 500 FieldYesterday I published a preview of the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500. However, I did not include a race pick. Today I will rank the field from 33 to 1, with my #1 constituting my pick to win the race. This is a very deep field. While the top drivers and the teams will certainly be in the mix, there is no obvious favorite, and a few lesser known drivers on small teams have a reasonable chance to win. Think my rankings are off base? Then take our set of Indy 500 prediction polls to test your predictive skills. With that, on to the rankings (in parenthesis are the driver’s car number, primary sponsor, and colors of the car, in order to help you all figure out who’s who on race day) :
 
The Hopeless Lotuses
 
33. Jean Alesi (No. 64, FP Journe, Black and Gold)
32. Simona de Silvestro (No. 78, Nuclear Clean Air Energy, Green and White)
 
As I’ve mentioned before, the Lotus engine has been well off the pace. Alesi and de Silvestro have done all they can with it, but they’ve been consistently 10-15 mph slower than the rest of the field.  There had been speculation that the Lotuses would be allowed some extra boost for the race, but IndyCar decided against that. As such, these two are more likely to be parked early for being too slow than anything else. Sad for all involved.
 
Looking to Finish
 
This group has a lot of talent, but due to circumstance and/or inexperience, seeing the checkered flag is probably the primary goal. In most cases, you’ve got to walk before you can run here.
 
31. Katherine Legge (No. 6, TRUECar, Blue and White)
 
It’s been a tough season for the ex-Champ Car driver. She hadn’t been in an open wheel car in 5 years, and spent the first part of the season stuck with Lotus. Her team was able to switch to Chevy, but they didn’t get the engines until Thursday, leaving Legge with little time to complete her rookie orientation and get ready for qualifying. This’ll be a learning experience, but at least without the Lotus, she’ll have a fighting chance.
 
30. Michel Jourdain, Jr. (No. 30, Office Depot, Orange, Green, and White)
 
Jourdain first came to the Speedway in 1996 at age 19. Sixteen years later, he makes his second start. Jourdain raced on the CART/Champ Car side of the split, winning twice. He’s a solid professional, but unlikely to be a factor.
 
29. Wade Cunningham (No. 41, ECat/ABC Supply, Red, White, and Blue)
 
Cunningham won the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis, the Freedom 100, three times, and makes his debut in the big race this year. It was long overdue for Wade to get a shot.  Driving for AJ Foyt, the car, and the team, has yet to find a lot of speed. Thus, Wade’s main duty might be not pissing AJ off.
 
28. James Jakes (No. 19, Boy Scouts of America, Red and Blue)
 
Jakes is in his second year in IndyCars, but he’ll be listed as a rookie on race day, as he didn’t make the show last year. Jakes has proven so far in his career to be solid, but results haven’t come. Driving for Dale Coyne Racing, who has never shown much at the Speedway, he’s unlikely to be mentioned much on ABC unless he has an accident.
 
27. Mike Conway (No. 14, ABC Supply, Red, White, and Blue)
 
AJ Foyt’s primary driver, Conway has had rotten luck at Indianapolis. In 2010, he broke his back in this horrific crash at the end of the race, and last year, he didn’t qualify. He’s already improved on last year just by being in the show. For the race, this road course specialist is primarily hoping to avoid a repeat of 2010.
 
26. EJ Viso (No. 5, CITGO, Orange and White)
 
Yes, he’s starting ninth, and yes, so far this year he’s kept it out of the wall, but until Viso proves he can go 500 miles without wrecking himself, this is where he goes.
 
May 12, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series driver Bryan Clauson on pit road during practice for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE25. Bryan Clauson (No. 39, Angie’s List, Green and Black)
 
The two-time USAC National Champion has a grand total of 6 races of formula car experience: all in Indy Lights last year. Despite that, the kid hadn’t turned a wheel wrong all month into Pole Day qualifying, when he stuck it into the wall on the last lap. That turned what looked like a Row 4 or 5 start into a last row start, after the team went very conservative on Bump Day. Clauson’s talent has shown, but given that he has the least experience of anyone in the field, a day like 18th and a lap down will look really good all things considered. This race is very much a building block for the future more than anything else for him.
 
Top Ten is a Victory
 
This group can’t be considered potential winners for one reason or another, but top 10 or even top five are in the realm of possibility.
 
24. Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17, AFS, Yellow and Orange)
 
Saavedra was a rookie at the Speedway in 2010, starting last and finishing 23rd. He was rookie in IndyCar last season and struggled, including missing the 500. Things have looked up this race though, as Saavedra hooked up with Andretti Autosport and has been just as fast as the rest of the team. A blown engine in qualifying is the only reason he’s not up at the front with the rest of them, as he starts 24th. At just 21 years old, a good finish can put Saavedra back on the map.
 
23. Charlie Kimball (No. 83, Novo Nordisk, Orange and Blue)
 
Kimball has looked much improved in this, his second year in IndyCars. That improvement has continued here at Indy, as he qualified a solid 14th, ahead of his two championship winning teammates. However, Kimball crashed during practice the next day, so his car is a bit of unknown going into Carb Day on Friday and the race. No matter what happens, if Kimball is slow late in the race, hopefully he knows now to head for the warm up lane.

May 15, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar series driver Ana Beatriz is seen in the pits during practice for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Mandatory Credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE22. Ana Beatriz (No. 25, Ipiranga, Yellow and Blue)
 
Beatriz is in a similar situation as Saavedra: a rookie in the series last year who didn’t particularly impress, but has signed with Andretti Autosport for the month and looked good. Also like Saavedra, Bia is also looking to stay on the radar of IndyCar teams with a good performance. The word is she’s impressed Michael Andretti, so she looks on her way.
 
21. Justin Wilson (No. 18, Sonny’s BBQ, Red and White)
 
Wilson is among the best on road and street courses, but he’s not at that level on ovals, and thus won’t contend for the win. He’s as professional as they come though, and can be counted on to run a solid race.
 
20. Takuma Sato (No. 15, MiJack, White and Blue)
 
Very similar to Wilson, in that they’re both ex-F1 drivers who are more at home on road courses. Sato, though, has been much more inconsistent in his IndyCar career. This year though Sato has been steadier than in the past, so it’s not out of the question he could surprise.
 
19. Townsend Bell (No. 99, BraunAbility, Blue and White)
 
Bell has had a fine career at Indy, which unfortunately is about the only time he can get an IndyCar ride. He’d be higher if it weren’t for him having a pretty difficult month. He’s been near the bottom of the speed charts most of the month, and his whirlwind schedule of ALMS driving, Indy 500 driving, and pit reporting for NBC Sports Network might be catching up to him. He was complaining of vertigo in the car last Sunday, and has to get an IV due to dehydration. Still, I fear I’ve underrated him.
 
The Darkhorses
 
Just as it says. Are these guys likely to win? No. Could they if things go their way? Absolutely.
 
18. Simon Pagenaud (No. 77, HP, Blue and White)
 
Pagenaud may be a rookie, but he hasn’t driven like one this season, sitting fifth at points and first among the Honda drivers. This May though, has been much different. His team, Sam Schmidt Motorsports, hasn’t shown the speed they did last year and thus he’ll start a disappointing 23rd. However, Pagenaud has done nothing but impress this year, and thus he can’t be counted out completely.
 
17. Oriol Servia (No. 22, Unsponsored, Black)
 
Servia is the long-time veteran who always gets the most of the car. He’s the key on a team that only recently ditched the Lotus and suffered a crash in qualifying. On paper, his team, Dreyer & Reinbold, shouldn’t be anywhere close to winning, and even with Servia will need a lot to go their way. With Servia though, it’s still a possibility.
 
16. Sebastien Bourdais (No. 7, McAfee, Black and Chrome)May 17, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar series driver Sebastien Bourdais pulls into his pit stall during practice for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Mandatory Credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE
 
Bourdais is Katherine Legge’s teammate at Dragon Racing, and thus also didn’t get into a car this month until two days before qualifying. Of course, Bourdais is the four time Champ Car champion, and is as talented as anyone else in the paddock.  Now that he has a real engine, he immediately becomes a factor, both here and especially the rest of the season.
 
15. Ed Carpenter (No. 20, Fuzzy’s Vodka, Green and White)
 
Carpenter has a good record at Indianapolis, the track he may one day run, and is the most recent winner on an oval. I expected before the month to have him even higher on this list, but it’s been a difficult time for Ed in his first 500 as an owner/driver. He hasn’t been particularly fast and suffered a wicked crash on Pole Day. The team had to qualify their backup car, but if they can finally hit the setup, Ed will move up from his 28th starting position and move up quickly.
 
The Wild Card
 
14. Rubens Barrichello (No. 8, BMC, Blue)
 
No one in the field is more experienced in high level racing than Barrichello and his 322 career F1 starts. However, his number of starts on an oval? Zero. His IndyCar career has been more OK than anything else so far, and he wasn’t exactly lighting it up during practice here. On Pole Day though, the team figured something out and Barrichello qualified 10th. I don’t really know how this is going to play for Rubens, and I doubt anyone really does either, but he’s too talented and has enough car under him for me to rank him any lower.
 
The Hot Shot Rookie
 
13. Josef Newgarden (No. 67, Dollar General, Yellow and Black)
 
Newgarden has been the talk of the season, and the Month of May. Everyone is impressed with this kid, and IndyCar fans are dreaming big things. However, the Indy 500 is a completely different animal than anything else, and as we’ve seen, it’s very hard for a rookie to win. Newgarden certainly has the talent though, and what a story it would be if the young American could win while driving for Sarah Fisher.
 
May 15, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar series driver JR Hildebrand pulls out of his pit stall during practice for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Mandatory Credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIREThe Redemption Story
 
12. JR Hildebrand (No. 4, National Guard, Camouflage)
 
One corner away. That’s what separated JR Hildebrand from immortality last year. This year, he’s been about mid pack most of the month, and qualified a disappointing 18th. The momentum doesn’t seem there, but this is a team that has finished second four times in a row. They can’t be counted, and JR has the ability to find the ultimate redemption.

Quiet, But Lurking
 
11. Alex Tagliani (No. 98, Barracuda Networks, Blue and Black)
 
Last year’s pole winner in a car owned by last year’s winning team, yet nobody is talking about Alex Tagliani or Bryan Herta Autosport. They qualified a good 11th, the second highest Honda car on the grid. Nobody’s talking about this team, but then again, nobody really was last year either.
 
10. Graham Rahal (No. 38, Service Central, Blue and Red)
 
Many predicted this would be Graham’s breakout year, but it hasn’t happened yet. He’s starting 12th, which seems OK, but was actually the third best Honda and the best of the entire Ganassi team. If Honda can get back to where they were in practice compared to Chevy, Graham should be right in the thick of it.
 
The Sentimental Favorite
 
9. Tony Kanaan (No. 11, GEICO/Mouser, Blue and White)May 19, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan poses for a photo after qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE
 
Ask IndyCar fans who they most want to see win and Kanaan will likely get the most votes. TK has run the Indy 500 ten times, has led in seven of those races, but every year has suffered some misfortunate. He is up there with Ted Horn, Lloyd Ruby, Michael Andretti, and others among the best never to have won the race. This year, Chevy’s dominance in qualifying helped TK to an 8th starting spot. If Chevy remains the engine with the advantage on race day, he should be right there. The question really is will the luck finally be there.
 
The Top-Tier Contenders
 
8. Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28, DHL/SunDrop, Yellow and White)
 
Hunter-Reay finally didn’t have to sweat making the race, putting it on the outside of the front row. His overall record at the 500 though is very spotty, with one top ten and three races as a complete non-factor. His car is obviously fast, and he’s too good to not be considered a top contender, but his 500 record is just about the weakest of those contenders, and thus he slots here.
 
7. James Hinchcliffe (No. 27, GoDaddy, Green)
 
He’s not just Danica’s replacement anymore. Hinchcliffe had already been having a breakout season, and this month it has more than continued. He missed the pole by .003 mph, or 9.1 inches. With his talent and personality, Hinchcliffe will be a star. That said, this is only his second 500, and his first ended ignominiously in the wall halfway. He also has yet to win an IndyCar race at all. It doesn’t disqualify him from winning in the least, but it’s a factor against the experience drivers he’s up against.
 
6. Scott Dixon (No. 9, Target, Red and White)
 
The 2008 winner looked like he’d right there during practice. Then qualifying happen, Honda got their butt kicked, and thus Dixon starts 15th. Being mid pack at the start is dangerous. Get through that, and expect the Iceman to have his say in the proceedings.
 
5. Will Power (No. 12, Verizon, Black and White)
 
On road and street courses, Will Power is on another planet from everyone else right now. On ovals though, something always seems to go wrong. In the 2010 Indy 500, his crew left part of his fuel hose in, getting him black flagged. Last year, a tire fell off after Power left the pits. There’s still a question of whether Power even has the racing ability to win at Indy, but first he has to avoid the bad luck that kept him from being able to answer the question in the first place.

4. Dario Franchitti (No. 50, Target, Red and White)
 
So far, it hasn’t been Dario’s year. He hasn’t gotten the hang of the DW12 yet, and Honda being a step behind Chevy hasn’t helped. Of course, Honda’s woes compared to Chevy continued in qualifying, and thus Franchitti starts an unheard of 16th. All that said, can you really count out a two time Indy 500 winner and a championship team like Ganassi Racing? Of course not. You know Dario will be ready when the green flag waves.
 
3. Marco Andretti (No. 26, RC Cola, Blue and Red)
 
Marco’s career has been considered a disappointment so far, but he shines at Indy, with a second and two thirds in just six starts. With Andretti Autosport finally getting it together, Marco finds himself right there, starting 4th. Amazingly enough, Mario’s win in 1969 is still the only win for the Andretti family as drivers. This year is looking like Marco’s best chance thus far in his career to break the famous Andretti Curse.
 
2. Ryan Briscoe (No. 2, IZOD, Red and Black)
 
The pole sitter has been the forgotten man at Team Penske these last few years. Without the 500 wins of Castroneves or the championship aspirations of Power, most of the talk about Briscoe was speculation as to when he’s been replaced. Needless to say, no one’s saying that this week. The elements are there for Briscoe to win this race: He has what appears to be the right engine. He’s on the most successful team in IndyCar history. Is he the right driver?
 
May 19, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar series driver Helio Castroneves waves to the crowd during qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.  Mandatory Credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIREThe Favorite
 
1. Helio Castroneves (No. 3, Shell, Orange and White)
 
In the end though, my pick has to be Helio. He’s looked rejuvenated this year with the new car, and unlike his teammates, has three wins at Indianapolis. Starting 6th, he’ll be right in the hunt from the drop of the green flag. As I said before, this is a wide open race, and roughly half the field could win, but in the end, I like Helio to take his 4th Indianapolis 500 title and march into the history books.
 
Who is your pick to win the 96th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing?
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