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Could it be Andretti in victory lane today?

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Dave von Falkenstein
May 27, 2012

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day to remember those who have given their lives in service of our country. Today, however, is a day of racing and a different kind of remembrance.


If you’re as big a racing fan as my dad and I, you will start your day with the Formula One Grand Prix of Monaco (airing at 7 a.m. on Speed) and end it with the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race in Charlotte, North Carolina (airing at 5 p.m. on FOX). Odds are that you’ll fall asleep before the end of the NASCAR race.


In between, you will tune to ABC at 10 a.m. for the pre-race festivities leading up to the 96th Indianapolis 500. You will talk about races past, recall victorious drivers who have long since retired and recollect race moments that could stop your heart.


Unfortunately, Jim Nabors won’t be there to sing “Back Home Again in Indiana,” which he’s done during the pre-race nearly every year since 1972. The 81-year-old, who was also absent in 2007, is recovering from heart surgery.


When the green flag drops just after 11 a.m., 33 drivers and their cars will scream into turn one for the first of 800 left turns over 200 laps on the 2½-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. Each driver will hope to add his or her likeness to the Borg-Warner Trophy and take home a sizable check.


This year’s “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” marks a return to turbocharged engines among three manufacturers, beginning a new chapter in an already amazing 101-year history of the race. It’s the first time since 1996 that turbos will echo throughout the hallowed ground.


Chevrolet has won all four IndyCar races this season, while Honda seems to have lost the plot. If Chevy can pull off a win, it will be its first at the speedway since 2002, though Honda was the sole supplier for the series from 2006-2011.


The third engine supplier, Lotus, has struggled mightily so far this season. The manufacturer went so far as to release two of its four teams from engine contracts late last month and was sued by a third team in early May, leaving only two Lotus-powered cars on the grid.


Sadly, last year’s race winner won’t be there to defend his title. Two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon of England was killed in a crash during the IndyCar season finale last October in Las Vegas. While it’s not completely unusual for the defending race winner to not race the next year, this is the first time since 1947 that it’s due to a fatality. George Robson won Indy in 1946 and was killed four months later at Atlanta. Wheldon will be on a lot of minds today and will play a big part in the pre-race ceremonies.


I suppose I should also mention the absence of Danica Patrick. The Roscoe, Ill., native fled to NASCAR after last season and won’t compete in this year’s race. Maybe this means that the ABC television crew will focus on who is running up front as opposed to pandering to “Danicamania” and covering her as she runs mid-pack. With any luck, her name won’t even be mentioned, save for explaining why she’s not there.


Today’s field brings together drivers from 12 different countries, including three former race winners. Let’s find out who will be drinking the milk in victory lane today in what should be the wildest race in many years.


No rookie winner

A rookie hasn’t won the race since Helio Castroneves in 2001, and it won’t happen this year. Among the rookie crop this year are Brits Katherine Legge and James Jakes, New Zealand’s Wade Cunningham, and Americans Bryan Clauson and Josef Newgarden.


Frenchman Simon Pagenaud is one of two rookies who have the best chance of pulling off an upset win. He has been strong so far this season, but he has never raced on an oval and starting 23rd won’t make it any easier.


The same goes for Brazilian Rubens Barrichello, a 19-year Formula One veteran. While Barrichello has more racing experience than probably any driver in the field, he also will face the test of his first-ever oval race. Barrichello, who won an F1 race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course track in 2002, starts 10th.


In addition to the rookies, you can count out Venezuela’s E.J. Viso, Columbian Sebastian Saavedra, Japan’s Takuma Sato, Englishman Justin Wilson, Mexico’s Michel Jourdain Jr., Brazilian Ana Beatriz and Americans Townsend Bell and Ed Carpenter. Many of these eight drivers will likely end up in the wall before the end of the race.


You can also add 47-year-old Frenchman Jean Alesi to the list of also-rans. The Formula One veteran, who retired from that sport in 2001, has never competed on an oval and is the oldest driver in the field. He’s starting last, with an average speed about 16 miles per hour slower than the pole speed, the slowest of any Indy starter since 1997. He’s way out of his depth, but with any luck, he won’t hurt himself (or anybody else).


By the same token, the talented Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland is driving the other Lotus-powered car in the field and starts 32nd. She deserves a much better ride and will probably park it early, if race control doesn’t do it first due to the Lotus cars’ lack of pace.


Canadian Alex Tagliani, driving for defending race-winning team Bryan Herta Motorsport and starting 11th, couldn’t make it to the end last year after starting from the pole. I don’t imagine his luck will be any better this year.


England’s Mike Conway is driving for A.J. Foyt’s team with Beloit’s ABC Supply as his sponsor. Conway failed to qualify last year, so just being in the race should feel like a win for him. However, starting 29th isn’t ideal.


Californian J.R. Hildebrand, who starts 18th, is looking to rebound from his final lap, final turn crash in last year’s race. Look for him to run strong but ultimately come up short again.


If his Dreyer & Reinbold team hadn’t dropped Lotus late last month and entered into a partnership with Panther Racing, Oriol Servia would have been lucky to finish. However, now with Chevy power, the Spaniard will look to better his finish of sixth last year. It won’t be easy because Servia starts 27th.


Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais is in a similar situation. His Dragon Racing team sued Lotus earlier this month, and is now also running Chevy power. Bourdais hasn’t run at Indy since 2005, but if he can hold it together, he may be the surprise of the day. The four-time Champ Car champion is my dark horse pick for the race, though starting 25th will make that difficult.


Tony Kanaan wants to win this race, and how! In his second year with KV Racing and starting eighth, the Brazilian has as good a shot as anybody. He didn’t lead any laps last year but still finished fourth, his fifth top five finish in ten tries.


Battle likely between Penske, Ganassi and Andretti

Polesitter Ryan Briscoe has had mixed results at Indianapolis. The Australian, whose wife is Roscoe, Ill., native and ESPN2’s “NASCAR Now” host Nicole Manske Briscoe, has two top 10 finishes in six starts. However, the race has been won 20 times from the pole, and this is the fourth pole in as many races for Team Penske this season.


If Briscoe has good pit stops as well as a little luck, he could become the first Australian to win the race and give team owner Roger Penske his 16th Indy 500 win.


Briscoe’s teammate and fellow countryman Will Power is off to a stellar start this year with three wins in four races. Not known as an oval specialist, he has two top 10 finishes in four starts at Indy and will start fifth today.


Castroneves, the third Penske driver and only other driver to win a race this season, last won this race in 2009. He is still looking for his fourth Indy 500 title to tie the mark held by Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.


The Brazilian is running car number 3, which incidentally has won the race 11 times, more than any other car number. Will it be enough? Even with a starting spot of sixth, my guess is no.


Target/Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti hasn’t quite had the year he would have liked. He could certainly turn things around by winning his third Indy 500, but momentum is everything, and with his worst starting position in six years (16th), I wouldn’t look for him to be victorious.


Two of Franchitti’s three teamates, New Zealand’s Scott Dixon and American Charlie Kimball, won’t end up in victory lane, either, although Dixon could come close. He won the race in 2008 and has seven top 10 finishes in nine tries. Dixon rolls off in 15th spot. Kimball finished 13th in his rookie endeavor last year and will hope to just finish. He starts 14th.


The other Ganassi driver, Graham Rahal, has the confidence and ability to challenge for the win. Adding a bit of pressure to the Ohio native is the fact that his father, Bobby, won the race in 1986. Rahal, who starts 12th, has one top-five finish in four starts.


Andretti Autosport brings five drivers, including Canadian James Hinchcliffe, Americans Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, and the aforementioned Saavaedra and Beatriz.


Both Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay will start on the front row. Either of them could ultimately end up winning, depending on how the cards fall. This will be Hinchcliffe’s sophomore start at the track and his first with Andretti Autosport, while Hunter-Reay has one top-10 finish in four starts at Indy.


Andretti is still looking for redemption after losing the race in his rookie year of 2006 by about 15 feet at the finish line to Sam Hornish Jr. It was the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history.


Starting fourth, he could become the first Andretti in victory lane since his grandfather Mario won in 1969. That’s something his father (and team owner) Michael was unable to do in 16 tries. Interestingly, Andretti is driving car number 26, the same car number Wheldon drove to his first Indy 500 victory in 2005. Good omen, indeed.


The best outcome any IndyCar fan could hope for is a safe, exciting race with loads of passing and a duel to the checkered flag between Andretti and Rahal. Imagine a battle to the finish between the two biggest American stars in the series, racing on the series’ biggest stage.


The best outcome this race fan could hope for is to have Andretti come out on top.


Dave von Falkenstein is an online services technician for The Gazette, and an auto racing fan. You can follow him on Twitter @achtungvon.

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