In the world of sporting events, especially auto racing, unpredictability is one of the main ingredients that creates excitement.
When it comes to the month of May and the Indianapolis 500, there is no shortage of that ingredient. It’s one of the reasons I find the event so thrilling, but it is also what makes it so difficult to pick the right driver to win.
So many times, the driver who leads the most laps or sets the fastest lap in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” goes home empty-handed. Drivers know that until the checkered flag falls, any vision of glory is only an illusion that can quickly turn into crushing disappointment. For most drivers, finishing second at Indy is just as meaningless as not finishing at all.
For the 102nd time since 1911, spectators will watch drivers wage battle at the 2½-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 200 laps. They will maneuver their Honda- and Chevrolet-powered rocket ships at speeds over 220 miles per hour to try and become part of history.
Winning today doesn’t just mean you get to drink the milk in victory lane or get your likeness added to the Borg-Warner trophy. It also means that you get to add your name to an elite list of auto racing’s finest and forever be known as an Indy 500 champion.
Coverage of the race starts at 10 a.m. today on ABC. It’s the last time (for now) the race will air on the network that has carried it since 1965. Starting next year, the race will air on NBC, with the full Verizon IndyCar Series season splitting time between NBC and NBC Sports Network.
Thankfully, that means this will be last year we have to suffer through the yawn-inducing duo of announcers Eddie Cheever and Scott Goodyear. On the other hand, you can bet ABC will have an exhaustive look back on the last 50-plus years of its coverage in the pre-race, bringing back memories of real announcers like Jim McKay, Sam Posey, Jackie Stewart, Paul Page, Bobby Unser and Bob Jenkins.
For the first time in many years, there was actually some drama during the qualifying sessions last weekend that saw two drivers get bumped from the race. I can’t say it was a huge surprise to see Britain’s Pippa Mann fail to make the field since she’s one of the many Indy-only competitors.
However, when full-time driver and 2016 pole winner James Hinchcliffe didn’t make it in, it was absolutely shocking. Hinchcliffe, who was nearly killed in a practice crash at Indy in 2015, currently sits fifth in the season points standings. With double points being awarded, missing today’s race will send him plummeting down the standings.
This is not the first time the speedway has been cruel to drivers attempting to qualify. In 1995, defending race winner Al Unser, Jr. and his Penske teammate Emerson Fittipaldi couldn’t find the speed and were spectators on race day. In 1993, defending series champion and former race winner Bobby Rahal found himself on the outside looking in.
Today’s field of 33 drivers comes from 11 different countries. Six former race winners will try to become the 20th multiple Indy 500 winner, while one is looking to become the fourth four-time winner. Four rookies will attempt to become the tenth driver to take the victory in their first try. I reckon at least two-thirds of the field has a realistic chance at winning.
Let’s get started.
First, I’ll weed out some drivers who I can almost guarantee won’t win. These include Englishmen Jack Harvey (starting 31st) and Jay Howard (28th); Australia’s James Davison (19th); and California natives Charlie Kimball (15th) and Kyle Kaiser (17th). I also reluctantly include Indiana native Conor Daly, who just hasn’t had the speed this month and qualified last in the field.
England’s Max Chilton led 50 laps en route to a fourth-place finish last year and starts 20th today. Chilton is racing for the new Carlin team this year and I don’t think he’ll factor.
Pennsylvania’s Sage Karam has not been very impressive at Indy since finishing ninth in his rookie year of 2014, though he was fastest in Monday practice. Karam starts 24th today in his lone IndyCar start this season.
Karam’s teammate on the Dreyer & Reinbold team is Californian J.R. Hildebrand, who has four top-10 finishes in seven starts. Hildebrand, who is also an Indy-only driver, starts 27th. They’ll both need some luck and clean pit stops to make an impact today.
Colombian Gabby Chaves has one top-10 finish in three Indy starts and also has two-time race winner Unser, Jr. as his driving coach. Chaves, who starts 22nd, might run well but I don’t think he’s seasoned enough to pull off the win.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing trio of Ohio native Graham Rahal, Japan’s Takuma Sato and Spaniard Oriol Servia has had a rather difficult month. Defending race winner Sato was the top qualifier for the team and starts 16th. I don’t see him repeating last year’s triumph.
Servia, another Indy-only driver, starts 26th and will be lucky to duplicate his 2012 run when he finished fourth. Rahal, who starts 30th, is still looking to duplicate his dad’s 1986 Indy win. As much as I’d love to see it, I don’t think it will happen today.
Dixon always a possibility
Four-time series champion and 2008 race winner Scott Dixon starts ninth. The New Zealander has 10 top-10 finishes in 15 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing and can never be counted out. After winning the pole last year, Dixon was unhurt in one of the most frightening crashes in recent years at Indy and finished a career-worst 32nd. His team won the pit stop competition Friday, so he’s in a good position to erase the memory of last year’s race.
Dixon’s teammate Ed Jones, who finished third as a rookie last year, starts 29th. It’ll be a tall order for the Briton to duplicate last year’s run.
Brazil’s Tony Kanaan appears to have reinvigorated A.J. Foyt’s ABC Supply team, and the former race winner starts 10th. Every year I wonder if this will be Kanaan’s last at Indy, but thankfully the 43-year-old has stuck around. He was fastest in final practice Friday, but we’ll get back to him in a moment.
Kanaan’s teammate, fellow Brazilian Matheus Leist, is the highest-starting rookie in 11th. At 19, Leist is the youngest driver in the field, born the same year Kanaan was an IndyCar rookie. If Leist can at least finish the race that would be considered an achievement.
Carpenter the pole-sitter
With a four-lap average speed over 229 mph, Indiana’s Ed Carpenter is on the pole for the third time. Carpenter hasn’t finished higher than 10th since 2009, but his team really seems to have something figured out this year.
The other Ed Carpenter Racing entries of Spencer Pigot and Danica Patrick also qualified well, with Pigot starting sixth and Patrick seventh. Florida’s Pigot is making only his third Indy start, so I don’t expect him to factor into the finish.
In her last hurrah, Roscoe, Illinois, native Danica Patrick returns for the first time since 2011 to the race that made her famous. Patrick always runs well at Indy, picking up six top-10 finishes in seven previous starts. I wish her well in what she says is her final race, but I just don’t see her winning.
Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais missed this race last year after suffering multiple pelvic fractures and a hip fracture in a devastating qualifying accident. Bourdais, who starts fifth, already has one win this season and gave his Dale Coyne Racing team its best starting spot ever in this race. I won’t be surprised if he takes the win and gets his Indy redemption.
Bourdais’ teammate is Canadian rookie Zachary Claman De Melo, who is filling in for the injured Pietro Fittipaldi. De Melo, who starts 13th, drives part-time this season and should have a solid run.
Rookie Robert Wickens has surprised everybody this season and with a little luck could already have two wins. Despite crashing in practice Monday and working without teammate Hinchcliffe, watch for Wickens and his Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports team to compete for the win.
Andretti Autosport has won five Indy 500 races, including three of the last four. The race that Michael Andretti came so close to winning so many times has awarded him well as a team owner. As was the case last year, the team will be well represented with six drivers.
Ohio native Zach Veach finished 26th in his rookie campaign at Indy last year and starts 25th today. Veach just needs to get some laps under his belt and keep his nose clean.
Britain’s Stefan Wilson starts 23rd in his second Indy 500. Wilson is driving the No. 25, which was the number his late brother Justin drove for Andretti when he died from injuries sustained during a race at Pocono in 2015. I’m hoping Wilson has a good run today.
Californian Alexander Rossi won the 100th Indy 500 in 2016, but he starts 32nd. Rossi won earlier this season at Long Beach and sits second in the points standings. While no driver starting worse than 28th has ever won, keep an eye on Rossi.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champ, won this race in 2014. He led 28 laps last year and looked to be on his way to a second victory until his engine blew. The Florida native starts 14th today, but it won’t take him long to get to the front.
Brazil’s Carlos Munoz has finished in the top ten in four of his five starts at Indy, including two runner-up finishes. Munoz starts 21st in his only IndyCar race this season.
What can you say about Marco Andretti? The Pennsylvania native has had eight top-10 finishes, including five top-five finishes since 2006, but has yet to seal the deal. He starts 12th today and has been fast all month. Will this be the year he finally breaks the Andretti curse and gets to victory lane?
Team Penske, the winningest team in Indy 500 history, is on a quest for its 17th race win. The team is off to a good start with all four drivers qualifying in the top eight. There have been years when the Penske team has struggled during the race, but it’s going to be hard to beat them today.
Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, starts second. The Frenchman has only two top-10 finishes in six starts at Indy, so even though he says he has the best car in the field, it doesn’t seem likely that he’ll take the win.
Power for the Penske team
Will Power starts third and also has a win already this season. In 10 Indy starts, the Australian has five finishes in the top 10, including a second place in 2015. If any of the Penske drivers were due to breakthrough here, it’s the 2014 series champ.
Tennessee’s Josef Newgarden starts fourth. The defending series champion has a pair of top-10 finishes in seven Indy starts, but this is only his second year with Penske. He’s already won two races this season and is leading the points, so he’s got momentum on his side to battle for the win.
Helio Castroneves, who is no longer a full-time IndyCar driver, is looking to win his record-tying fourth Indy 500. If you’re superstitious at all, you might find it interesting that when Al Unser, Sr. won his fourth Indy 500 in 1987, it came nine years after his third win and he was a part-time driver for Team Penske. The last Indy win for Castroneves came in 2009. Can the Brazilian, who starts eighth, join Unser, Foyt and Rick Mears in the four-time winners club?
Castroneves will probably have to duel with Kanaan, a driver he’s been battling since the two raced go-karts as teens in Brazil. Kanaan, the 2004 series champ, won Indy in 2013 and has nine top-10 finishes in 16 previous Indy starts.
While Kanaan’s team hasn’t had much success at the Brickyard since winning with Kenny Brack in 1999 (only one top-10 finish in the last 10 years), I think Kanaan can give Foyt his sixth overall Indy 500 win.