Andretti is choice in wide-open Indy 500 field

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Dave von Falkenstein
Sunday, May 26, 2013

If racing fans controlled the weather, it would never rain in Indianapolis on the final Sunday in May.

If youíre anything like my dad or me, youíre compulsively checking the Indianapolis weather forecast.

Odds are, we donít need to worry.

Among the 96 Indianapolis 500 mile races, five have been postponed by rain, the latest coming in 1997. That year, it was postponed twice, finishing on the Tuesday following Memorial Day.

Rain has not shortened the race since 2007, when after a nearly three-hour rain delay on lap 113 the race was stopped for good 34 laps from completion.

The Indianapolis race day forecast calls for a 40- to 50-percent chance of showers with a high near 70. Hopefully, the rain will hold off for the nearly half a million people who will walk through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway gates at 16th and Georgetown in the aptly named suburb of Speedway to witness ďThe Greatest Spectacle in Racing.Ē

To me, itís not just a spectacle. Itís a combination of speed, stamina, talent and luck for the 33 drivers who speed around the oval. Itís the Super Bowl and World Series of open-wheel racing. And like the Memorial Day holiday, the race is as American as apple pie and Bruce Springsteen.

The 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 will take the green flag at 11 a.m. today on ABC, with pre-race coverage beginning at 10 a.m.

As the first four races of this IZOD IndyCar Series season have shown us, this should be the most wide-open Indy 500 field in years. The level of competition in the series is at an all-time high, and as history has proven, unpredictability reigns at the venerable 2Ĺ-mile track. At least a dozen drivers have a legitimate shot at emerging victorious after 200 laps.

The race will see competition between two engine suppliers, Chevrolet and Honda. Lotus was in the mix last season but fell far behind and was released from its contract at the end of last season. The top 10 starting positions all have Chevrolet power, so Honda will be playing catch-up.

Who will add their likeness to the Borg-Warner trophy? Letís take a look at the field for todayís race, where the 33 drivers are representing 14 countries. Of those 33, four are former Indy winners.

The drivers

This yearís rookie crop could hold some surprises. A.J. Allmendinger and Conor Daly, two of the eleven Americans in the field, along with Franceís Tristan Vautier and Colombian Carlos Munoz, could figure into the finish.

Allmendinger is a former Champ Car and NASCAR driver who was given a shot at redemption by his former NASCAR boss Roger Penske in todayís race. He has so far returned the favor by being the highest-qualifying Penske driver. Heíll start fifth.

Daly is a second-generation driver with limited oval experience whose father, Derek, raced in Formula One and CART. Conor had the unfortunate luck of being the only driver to crash during practice for the race earlier this month.

Vautier has been quick so far this season but has limited oval experience.

Munoz drives for Andretti Autosport in the Indy Lights feeder series. Munoz has been consistently quick all month and is the first rookie since his fellow countryman Juan Montoya to start on the front row. Montoya won that race in 2000, his only appearance in the 500, so Munoz will be hoping to duplicate that.

I expect some drivers to drop out before the end of the race. They include American Buddy Lazier, Colombiaís Sebastian Saavedra, Brits James Jakes, Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge, and Brazilian Ana Beatriz.

California-born J.R. Hildebrand is still looking for redemption after he crashed on the last turn of the last lap in 2011, giving the win to the late Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand drives for Panther Racing with National Guard sponsorship. He would be a popular choice to win, but I donít think heís ripe.

Britainís Justin Wilson has improved much on ovals in the last couple of seasons, and he could pull off an upset as he did at Texas Motor Speedway last year. Reliability will be a key factor in whether Wilson makes it to the end.

Tennessee native Josef Newgarden drives for former IndyCar driver Sarah Fisherís team. Fisher, the only female car owner in the series, has shown she knows how to put together a good team. But with a starting spot of 25th, Newgarden will have his work cut out for him.

Spaniard Oriol Servia desperately needs a strong finish today, as his Panther DRR team has announced they will not continue past Indianapolis. Thatís a shame because Servia is a solid driver and deserves a fair shake. American Townsend Bell, Serviaís teammate for the race, has had a mixed bag of finishes at Indy with three top-10 finishes in six starts. This is his only IndyCar race of the year.

Frenchman Simon Pagenaud showed flashes of brilliance last season and makes his second start at Indy. He also has limited oval experience but completed every lap of the race last year, finishing in 16th place. He certainly will look to improve on that today.

Quebecís Alex Tagliani, who was the polesitter for the race in 2011, has the highest qualifying Honda in the field. Tags hasnít won a race in a major series since 2004, and I donít see that changing today.

Franceís Sebastien Bourdais is a four-time Champ Car champion and former Formula One driver. Heís making his third start in this race. If his team can find the speed, heís my choice as the dark horse.

American Graham Rahal is finally driving for his dad, 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. His team has had a hard time finding speed this month, but Rahal can never be counted out. He would love to better his 2011 third-place finish and follow in his fatherís footsteps as an Indy 500 champion.

Iím tempted to pick Brazilian Tony Kanaan every year, but he canít ever seem to close the deal. He never has luck on his side in Indianapolis. Car failures, ill-timed caution flags or pit stops and even rain have taken away what seemed like sure wins.

Kanaanís six top-10 finishes in eleven starts donít tell the whole story. He ranks third on the all-time list of Indy 500 lap leaders who have not won the race, with 221 laps led. Can he seal the deal today? It will take a little luck, but there is nobody more deserving.

Kanaanís KV Racing Technology teammate, Switzerlandís Simona de Silvestro, has not fared well at Indianapolis, but this is perhaps her best chance yet to do well. Sheís recorded three top-10 finishes in the first four races of the season and is finally with a competitive team. Her starting position of 24th will make her run challenging.

Japanís Takuma Sato, who crashed on the last lap of last yearís race trying to get around eventual winner Franchitti for the win, already has one race win this year. His A.J. Foyt Enterprises team has long had sponsor backing from Beloit-based ABC Supply, and this figures to be Satoís best chance yet. I donít see it coming to fruition, but stranger things have happened.

Indiana native Ed Carpenter already has surprised everybody by winning the pole for the race with an average speed just under 229 mph. Once thought of as a spoiled rich kid who was only in the IndyCar series because of his step dad, former speedway executive Tony George, Carpenter has proven many of his skeptics wrong. The only team owner/driver in the field may have beat the Goliath teams in qualifying, but 500 miles is a long way. As the adage says, the end of the Indy 500 looks a lot different than the beginning.

The heavyweight teams

The superpower duo of Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have been non-existent so far this season, but both will be looking to change that today. After all, Penskeís team has 15 Indy 500 victories since 1972, and both teams have combined to win 10 of the last 13 races at the Brickyard.

Penskeís trio of Australian Will Power, Brazilian Helio Castroneves and the aforementioned Allmendinger will do everything they can to bring their team owner a 16th Indy 500 trophy. All are starting within the first three rows.

Power has finished runner-up in the IndyCar championship the last three years but has had mixed fortunes at Indianapolis. Even though he has been fast all month, heís a risky choice for the win.

Castroneves has a fantastic record at Indianapolis, collecting three wins and 10 top-10 finishes over 12 starts, so you can never count him out. As long as his pit stops are trouble-free, he will certainly be in the mix at the finish.

Ganassiís entries of American Charlie Kimball, Scotlandís Dario Franchitti, New Zealandís Scott Dixon and Australian Ryan Briscoe could have a few tricks up their sleeves.

Kimball, who finished eighth last year, makes his third start at Indy. If he can equal last yearís finish, Iíll be surprised.

Briscoe sat on the pole last year for Team Penske but found himself out of a ride at the end of last season. While he may not have a stellar record at Indianapolis, this is his only ride of the IndyCar season, so he is out to prove he belongs.

Dixon was the last first-time winner in 2008 and has amassed eight top-10 finishes in 10 starts at Indy, all with Team Ganassi. Keep your eye on him.

Four-time IndyCar champion Franchitti is the defending race winner. He and Castroneves will try to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time Indy winners. Franchitti has six top-10 finishes in nine starts at Indy, so it would not surprise me if either he or Dixon pulled out a victory. Having Honda power may work against them, but itís hard to tell.

Andretti Autosport has won three of the four races so far this season, and are chasing their third Indy 500 title. Theyíve had ups and downs at Indianapolis in the past but have consistently topped the speed charts all month. They qualified all four of their drivers in the top nine. I expect huge things from them today.

I already mentioned Munoz, who has a one-ride deal for this race, and Venezuelan driver E.J. Viso probably wonít factor, but he has shown that heís got the speed to run up front.

Canadian James Hinchcliffe has two wins this season and is looking to improve on his sixth-place finish of a year ago. The charismatic Toronto native dubbed ďThe Mayor of HinchtownĒ would be a popular champion.

Defending IndyCar series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay has one top-10 finish in five starts at Indy, and the American could come through as a surprise winner, but I think it will be his American teammate.

Although I picked Marco Andretti last year, I am choosing him to win this yearís race. He led a race-high 59 laps last year before crashing with 13 laps to go. He has had a stellar start to this season, finishing in the top seven in each of the first four races of the year and starts on the front row today. He has four top-10 finishes in seven starts at Indianapolis, including a heartbreaking runner-up finish, the second-closest finish in the raceís history, in his rookie year of 2006.

I think Marco has what it takes to join his grandfather, Mario, as an Indy 500 winner and drink the milk in victory lane.

Dave von Falkenstein is a digital content coordinator for The Gazette and an auto-racing fan. You can follow him on Twitter @achtungvon.

Last updated: 10:32 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

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