Fuel & Tires: Hard to bet against Montoya and Penske in this year's Indy 500

 

Michael Conroy

Over 100 years ago, ground was broken for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a 2½-mile racetrack outside of Indianapolis. The first event held at the track did not involve racecars at all; it was a helium gas-filled balloon race, which took place in 1909, before the oval was even completed.

The inaugural Indianapolis 500 was held on Memorial Day, May 30, 1911 and was billed as the “1911 International 500-mile Sweepstakes Race.” Ray Harroun won the nearly seven-hour race driving the No. 32 Marmon Wasp with an average speed of 74.602 miles per hour. Harroun's race-winning car is still on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

Fast-forward 105 years and you have today's 100th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” (no races were held from 1917-1918 or 1942-1945) with average lap speeds reaching 230 mph. I wonder if Harroun (who died in 1968) could have ever imagined the race would still be going after so many years, let alone the speeds that today's drivers reach.

Only since 1986 has the race been broadcast live on ABC, and that tradition continues today. Coverage of the pre-race ceremonies starts at 10 a.m. with the green flag falling at 11 a.m.

Thankfully, it doesn't look like rain is going to spoil the day. It's been nearly 20 years since the race was rained out, the last time coming in 1997 when the race was ultimately finished on Tuesday due to the weather. The last rain-shortened race came in 2007, when it was called after 166 laps.

Today, 33 drivers from 11 countries, including fourteen Americans, six former winners, five former pole sitters and five rookies will race for 200 laps with the goal of adding their likeness to the Borg-Warner trophy.

Chevrolet and Honda supply engines and all cars are equipped with Firestone tires. At the very least, let's hope we have more than 12 cars finish the race, as happened in 1992 when the cold temperatures led to a spate of accidents and 85 laps of yellow.

What's better is that the race will take place in front of a sold-out crowd, the first time in history that the race has sold out of tickets for all suites, reserved seating and infield general admission tickets. While the speedway doesn't release official attendance numbers, total capacity is estimated to be approximately 400,000. It is the largest single-day sporting event in the world.

As I've done the last five years, I'm going to walk you through the Verizon IndyCar Series race field and we'll see whom I think is going to come out on top.

To win the centennial running of this race is probably about as big as it could ever get. To join an amazing list of race winners that includes Foyt, Unser, Mears, Meyer, Rutherford, Franchitti, Shaw, Luyendyk, Vuckovich, Johncock, Wheldon and Andretti is the only preferable outcome for every driver in the field.

Rookie winner? Not this year

Eight times in the 99 previous runnings, a rookie has won but I don't see it happening today. However, this year's rookie crop is pretty stacked with Americans Alexander Rossi, starting eleventh, and Spencer Pigot (29th); Australian Matthew Brabham (27th); and Britons Stefan Wilson (30th), and Max Chilton (22nd).

Pigot has the unfortunate distinction of being the first one to crash during practice earlier this month. Wilson is the brother of Justin Wilson, who competed in eight Indy 500 races before he was killed last season during an IndyCar race at Pocono.

Two other young guns that you won't see in victory lane today are American Sage Karam (23rd) or Colombian Gabby Chaves (21st). Karam, who finished ninth in his rookie year of 2014, should be in the series full-time, but this is his only scheduled race this season. Chaves, the 2014 Indy Lights champion, is also hoping for a good finish that may result in a full-time ride in the series.

Karam is also the only driver in the field who could break Troy Ruttman's record of being the youngest Indy winner ever at age 22, set in 1952. Karam turned 21 on March 5 while Brabham, Pigot and Chaves are all 22, but already older than Ruttman was. In any case, the record will stand for at least another year.

No driver has ever won from the last row, which includes Canadian Alex Tagliani, who sat on the pole in 2011; 1996 winner Buddy Lazier; and Englishman Jack Hawksworth.

You can also count out the other one-off racers, including Britain's Pippa Mann (25th); Spainard Oriol Servia (tenth); and Americans J.R. Hildebrand (15th), Brian Clauson (28th) and Townsend Bell (fourth).

Considering Dan Wheldon won this race in 2011 in a one-off ride, it's not out of the realm of possibility for one of these drivers to surprise everybody and steal the win. If any of them could slip through and do that, I think it'd be either Bell or Servia.

The Dale Coyne Racing stable includes the aforementioned Mann, Clauson and Chaves but also includes American Conor Daly, who starts 24th. Daly has been impressive so far this season and is looking to bounce back from finishing last here in 2015.

The A.J. Foyt Enterprises team of Tagliani, Hawksworth and Japan's Takuma Sato has only one top-ten finish in the race since 2002. Sato nearly pulled off an upset in 2012 driving for another team, but crashed on the last lap trying to get past eventual winner Dario Franchitti. Sato starts twelfth.

France's Sebastien Bourdais returns with KVSH Racing for his sixth race at the Brickyard after winning two races last season, including a dominating performance at The Milwaukee Mile. Bourdais, who starts 19th, has a best finish at Indy of seventh, back in 2014.

Fifteen with legitimate shot

That leaves us with fifteen drivers; any of who could win the race and it would not really be that huge of a surprise.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing must be scratching their heads after last weekend's qualifying sessions. American Graham Rahal has consistently been the fastest Honda driver in the field so far this season, but they just couldn't find the speed in qualifying. He finished fifth last season, but will have a lot of ground to make up, as he starts 26th. However, he may surprise everybody and pull off the win 30 years after his father Bobby won.

The Ed Carpenter Racing duo of Americans Josef Newgarden and Ed Carpenter has been fast all month. Newgarden, who broke through last season with two wins, nearly won the pole and starts second while Carpenter, a two-time pole sitter, rolls off in 20th. Watch out for these guys.

The best story of the month is probably the success of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports who is starting all three drivers in the top ten. We already mentioned Servia, and Russia's Mikhail Aleshin is back for the first time since his rookie year of 2014 and starts seventh.

The big story is James Hinchcliffe, who missed last year's Indy 500 after suffering a near-fatal practice crash. The Canadian missed the remainder of the season and vowed to return and team owner Sam Schmidt, a former racer himself, saved Hinch's seat for him. Hinchcliffe starts on the pole today and while he has only one top-ten finish in four starts at Indy, the pole sitter has gone on to win the race 20 times. A win here would complete his comeback and the fan favorite would be a worthy champion.

Andretti Autosport has not had a very good season thus far. With only five top-ten finishes among four drivers through five races, the team needs a boost and it looks like it will be possible today. Besides Bell and Rossi who we already covered, Carlos Munoz starts fifth, Marco Andretti starts 14th and Ryan Hunter-Reay starts third.

Colombian Munoz finished second in his rookie year of 2013 and won a race last season. Pennsylvania native Andretti has an amazing record at Indy with five top-five finishes in ten starts and wants nothing more to avenge his second place finish as a rookie ten years ago when race winner Sam Hornish Jr. passed Andretti just a couple hundred yards from the finish.

Hunter-Reay, the 2014 race winner and 2012 IndyCar champion, is probably the team's best shot to win. The American has only led laps in two of his eight starts at Indy, but one of those is the race he won.

Chip Ganassi Racing brings Charlie Kimball, 2013 race winner Tony Kanaan and 2008 winner Scott Dixon in addition to the rookie Chilton. The team was surprised by its lack of speed in qualifying, but I'm certain they will be contending for the win today.

California native Kimball, who starts 16th, has three top-ten finishes in five starts at Indy and finished third here last year. Kanaan, who could very well be starting his last Indy 500, has led 286 laps in his career at Indy but has only one win. The Brazilian, who starts 18th, would probably be the most popular winner if he were to pull it off for a second time.

Dixon's lucky number today seems to be four. The four-time series champion has led the most laps of any active driver at Indy with 434 while four times in his career has the New Zealander led the most laps. Dixon starts 13th today, a starting position from which the winner has come from four times.

And now we get to the four-car juggernaut of Team Penske, made up of Australia's Will Power (best name ever), Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, Brazilian Helio Castroneves and Colombia's Juan Pablo Montoya.

Team Penske's first Indy 500 win was with Mark Donohue in 1972 and the team won for the 16th time last year with Montoya. To put that in perspective, the only active teams with multiple Indy 500 wins are Foyt, Andretti and Ganassi, who have each won four. To say Penske is head and shoulders above his competition at Indianapolis is an understatement.

Power, the 2014 series champion, hasn't won a race in over a year but does have four top-ten finishes in eight starts at Indy. Last year, Power finished second behind teammate Montoya in one of the closest finishes ever. Power starts sixth.

Pagenaud is the man of the hour right now, having won the last three IndyCar races and is the current points leader. However, those races were on street or road courses, so it's not quite a fair comparison. On the other hand, Pagenaud has the momentum and is starting eighth, so he'll certainly be one to watch.

Castroneves, who starts ninth, is still looking to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as a four-time winner of the race. In fifteen starts, Castroneves has seven finishes in the top five and has only finished outside of the top ten twice. He's also driving the “Yellow Submarine” livery made famous by Johnny Rutherford and Mears as Indy winners. Seven years ago, Castroneves got his third win, which came seven years after his second win. Coincidence?

Montoya's victory in last year's race came 15 years after he won as a rookie, which is a record for years between wins. Looking to add a third Indy win to his resume is not off to a great start, as Montoya qualified 17th. But anybody who watched last year's race saw Montoya fall back to 30th place early in the race only the roar back and take the victory.

It would be just about perfect to see a battle arise within the Penske stronghold between Montoya and teammate Castroneves in the closing laps of the 100th running of the greatest race in the world. Just like last year, when the battle was between Montoya and Power, team owner Roger Penske will let them race. Also like last year, Montoya will beat his teammate to the yard of bricks.

Dave von Falkenstein is a digital content coordinator for The Gazette and an auto racing fan. His auto racing column “Fuel & Tires” publishes once a week on GazetteXtra.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @achtungvon.

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