Look for Castroneves to make history in Indianapolis 500
Like any holiday or observance, the Indianapolis 500 comes only once a year. That's a double-edged sword. While the race retains its anticipation and excitement for that reason, it's awfully hard to see the checkered flag wave and then have to wait 364 days for the next one.
While the Verizon IndyCar Series this year runs 18 races between March 30 and Aug. 30 on street courses, road courses and ovals—including the Milwaukee Mile on Aug. 17—nothing compares to the Indy 500.
In terms of size, scope and importance, no other race even comes close. If you took a poll of drivers in the series, nearly all of them would rather win this race than anything else, including the season championship.
It's hard to put into words what the race means to me, but I look forward to it more than just about any other day of the year. It's a day for my dad and me to rekindle the memories of races past, see our excitement level peak—usually several times throughout the race—and sometimes completely lose it at the finish.
The green flag drops on this year's 98th running at 11 a.m. on ABC, with pre-race coverage beginning at 10 a.m. The race promises to be highly competitive with more than half the field having a realistic shot at winning. It also marks the first Indy 500 with new series title sponsor Verizon Wireless, which signed on before the beginning of the season and also sponsors cars for Roger Penske's team.
Sadly, this will be the last year that Jim Nabors sings the traditional pre-race favorite “Back Home Again in Indiana,” which he's done nearly every year since 1972. The 83-year-old Nabors believes his health limits his travel from his Hawaii home.
It also should be remembered that this year marks 50 years since drivers Dave MacDonald and Eddie Sachs were killed in a fiery crash on the first lap. Thankfully, track and car safety have come light years from where it was then. No one has died at the speedway in the month of May since Scott Brayton was killed during practice in 1996.
As far as the race itself, 33 drivers will fight for 200 laps to see who gets to kiss the yard of bricks and have his or her likeness added to the Borg-Warner trophy. The engine competition is between Chevrolet and Honda, with Chevy the defending race-winning engine.
So are we going to see a repeat winner? Will Penske driver Helio Castroneves take his fourth win at the track, tying the record held by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears? Or will everyone be completely surprised by a dark horse?
After last year's record-setting 68 lead changes, anything can happen. It will no doubt live up to its billing as “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The drivers in the field hail from 11 countries and include six former race winners, including 1995 winner Jacques Villeneuve, who makes his first start in this race since that win.
The Canadian, driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, left IndyCar before the 1996 season to join Formula 1 and won the F1 World Championship in 1997. He left that series in 2006 after nine winless seasons.
For local race fans, the '95 race is generally remembered for the horrific crash involving Janesville's Stan Fox, who was critically injured on the first lap. The crash ended his racing career.
Another former winner returning to the Brickyard after a long absence is Juan Pablo Montoya, who has competed in Formula 1 and NASCAR since his race win in 2000. One of four Colombian drivers in the field, Montoya is driving for car owner Roger Penske.
Three-time race winner Dario Franchitti retired after suffering injuries in a crash at Houston last October. Though the Scot won't be competing, he will drive the Chevrolet Camaro pace car.
NASCAR driver Kurt Busch is attempting to race in both the Indy 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 in the same day. The Las Vegas native will be the first driver to attempt this feat since Robby Gordon in 2004, the same year Busch won the championship in NASCAR's top series. This is Busch's first career IndyCar race.
While I was nearly thwarted last year when then-rookie Carlos Munoz finished second and nearly won the race, I don't count on any rookies being in victory lane this year. That means we can exclude Britain's Martin Plowman and Jack Hawksworth, Pennsylvania native Sage Karam (who, incidentally, was 3 months old when Villeneuve won the race and is the youngest in the field), Colombia's Carlos Huertas, Australian James Davison and Russian Mikhail Aleshin. Busch is technically a rookie, too, but we'll get to him a bit later.
As always, there are the also-rans who likely will not finish the race. These include Britain's Pippa Mann, the only woman in the field; American Buddy Lazier; and Colombia's Sebastian Saavedra. With the reliability of the cars and engines rising over the past few years, this list isn't as long as it once might have been. Of the seven cars not running at the end of last year's race, only one had a mechanical failure. The others didn't finish due to contact.
I don't expect Villeneuve to set the world on fire in this race. While he's a talented driver, he's been out of the game too long to make a big impact, and starting 27th won't help. If he were to return for a full season, he would stand a better chance, but that's not going to happen.
Villeneuve's teammate Simon Pagenaud could be one to watch. The Frenchman, who scored two series wins last season, got his month off to a good start by winning the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, run on the speedway's road course. I would not be surprised if he pulled off the win. He will roll off in the fifth starting spot.
American Josef Newgarden, starting eighth, and Canada's Alex Tagliani, starting 24th, are representing former driver Sarah Fisher's team, though Newgarden is the team's only full-time driver.
Tagliani has only one top-10 finish in his five starts, while Newgarden has not finished higher than 25th in his two starts. While it would be great in so many ways for Newgarden to win, the best he can likely hope for is to grab his highest finish yet in this race.
Racing legend A.J. Foyt's team has primary sponsorship from Beloit-based ABC Supply, so while there would be some local pride should Foyt get his second win as an owner at the track, don't bet on it happening.
While Japan's Takuma Sato nearly pulled off an upset win in 2012, he still seems too erratic to pull off a win here. Sato starts 23rd.
Justin Wilson is always lurking in the shadows and has amassed three top-10 finishes in six starts at Indy. The Briton, starting 14th, is a huge talent, and his Dale Coyne racing team does seem to be gelling. Look for Wilson to run strong and probably factor in at the end.
The pole sitter for the second year in a row, Indiana's own Ed Carpenter, certainly knows his way around this track and oval tracks in general. Carpenter's pole-winning four-lap average speed of 231.067 was the fastest qualifying speed since 2003. Though he finished 10th last year, he is usually a constant threat. If he can take the win, he'll be the first owner/driver to do so since Eddie Cheever in 1998.
Carpenter is also running Californian J.R. Hildebrand, who famously crashed in the final turn on the last lap of this race in 2011. This is the only race Hildebrand is scheduled to run this season, but hopefully he can better his last-place finishing spot a year ago. He's starting ninth, so he has already surprised many.
Defending race-winning team KV Racing is running four cars, but we've already eliminated three of them from winning, so let's look at Sebastien Bourdais. The French driver, starting 17th, won four Champ Car titles between 2004 and 2007 but has not had great finishes in his three starts at the Brickyard. This could be his year, and he certainly would be deserving.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will field Spaniard Oriol Servia (in the second of only three races for him this season) and Ohio native Graham Rahal. Servia, who starts 18th, has one top-five finish in five starts here, and while I'd love to see him end up the victor, I don't see it happening.
The jury is still out on why Rahal and the team partly owned by his Indy-winning father hasn't clicked, but he needs to start winning races. There would be no better place than Indy to start. With only one top-10 finish in six starts, it's a longshot. Starting 20th doesn't help, either.
The likely winner
As has been the case the last umpteen years, the three heavyweight teams have the odds in their favor. Between Team Ganassi, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport, they have 13 drivers in the race, though not all will factor at the end.
We'll start with Team Ganassi, which, in addition to rookie Karam, is running Aussie Ryan Briscoe, English-born/American-raised Charlie Kimball, New Zealand's Scott Dixon and Brazil's defending race winner Tony Kanaan.
Kimball has a pair of top-10 finishes in three races here and recorded his first IndyCar series win last season at the Mid-Ohio road course. He will have a lot of ground to make up from the 26th starting spot.
Briscoe, who starts 30th, has had a mixed bag at the Brickyard, pulling in only two top-5 finishes in eight starts, so I don't expect him to be much of a factor.
Dixon has a stellar record at the speedway, with eight top-10 finishes in eleven starts, including a win in 2008. You should never bet against the Kiwi, especially since winning his third IndyCar series championship last season. Dixon rolls off in the 11th spot.
Kanaan is Dixon's newest teammate, taking over for Franchitti before the start of the season. This will be his 13th Indy 500 start, and he'll be looking to become the first back-to-back winner since 2002. His starting spot of 16th likely won't be an issue since Kanaan is well known for making up spots in the early laps.
Andretti Autosport has Americans Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, Canadian James Hinchcliffe and Colombia's Munoz.
They are also fielding the aforementioned Busch, who was the fastest qualifying rookie and will start 12th. He was also the first one to crash and wreck his primary car. Busch will likely run well and could finish in front of many of the favorites.
Munoz, who starts seventh, surprised everybody last year and earned Rookie of the Year honors. I don't expect him to be that lucky this year, though stranger things have happened.
Hinchcliffe got an unwelcome surprise during the road course race at Indy two weeks ago when debris flew into his cockpit, hit him in the head and gave him a concussion. His season isn't off to a great start, but the best remedy for that is to win here. Hinchcliffe starts from the second spot for the second time in his career.
Hunter-Reay, the 2012 IndyCar Series champion, took a third-place finish at this race last year, but he's otherwise had a tough go of it at the track. Unless his luck improves, I don't see him being victorious. Hunter-Reay starts 19th.
Andretti always runs well here, with five top-10 finishes in eight starts including four top-5 finishes. I picked him to win the last two years, but I can't go for three, even though he starts sixth. Still, don't be surprised if he finally breaks through with a win and smashes the “Andretti curse.”
And now for Penske Racing, which has an amazing lineup of drivers in today's race. The team has won this race 15 times since 1972, and team owner Roger Penske has the Midas touch when it comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Besides returning winners Castroneves and Montoya, Australian Will Power completes the Penske trifecta. Power, who starts on the front row in third, captured his first career oval win at last year's season finale at Fontana. He has top-10 finishes in all four races so far this season, including a win at the season opener at St. Petersburg. With his newfound oval confidence, Power can't be counted out.
Montoya, who recorded the fastest lap time all month, knows this track well and starts 10th. Along with his win 14 years ago in this race, he nearly won twice at this track in NASCAR. I have no doubt that the 1999 CART champion will run well today. It's just going to be tough for him to get by his Brazilian teammate.
Aside from looking for his fourth win in this race, Castroneves is driving what is undoubtedly a favorite among IndyCar fans. The retro yellow Pennzoil paint scheme has seen victory lane at Indy three times in years past, first with Johnny Rutherford in 1980, then with Rick Mears in 1984 and 1988.
Castroneves, who starts fourth (foreshadowing?), would love nothing more than to add to Team Penske's legacy, as well as his own, by drinking the milk in victory lane with this historic livery on his car. That's what I expect to happen.
Dave von Falkenstein is a digital content coordinator for The Gazette and an auto-racing fan. You can email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @achtungvon.