Friday, May 25, 2012

The 33: A Full-Field Indy 500 Rundown

Happy Carb Day to one and all! As you're reading this, I am likely fumbling with a tent in IMS Lot 2, and realizing I forgot to pack paper towels for this weekend's camping experience. However, before all this, I went through the entire field of 33 for this year's Indianapolis 500 to give my quick thoughts on each.

Row 1

Ryan Briscoe: This year's pole winner has often been considered the third man at Team Penske by fans, but he's clearly capable of some great speed. Indy has not been kind to Briscoe, however; he's finished P23 or worse here in three of his last four 500s. A victory here would obviously send his stock through the roof, and he's not going to find a better chance to make that happen. We'll see how he responds to the challenge.

James Hinchcliffe: Hinch has been impressive this year both on the track and off. His humor and personality are a huge hit with fans, and it doesn't hurt that he can really pedal an IndyCar. While concerns remain over his relative inexperience in this kind of race and pressure, this could be the one that really puts him on the map.

Ryan Hunter-Reay: Despite starting on the front row, Hunter-Reay seems to be the forgotten man when it comes to the Andretti Autosport drivers with a chance of winning this week. Perhaps that's because his results here have been mixed; after finishing P6 as a rookie in 2008, he hasn't finished better than P18 since. Despite that, RHR can win on ovals, and should have a great car for this year's race.

Row 2

Marco Andretti: Despite his relative youth, Marco will be contesting his seventh 500 on Sunday. He's been routinely excellent at Indy, even when he was in a comparatively poor car. This year, he apparently has a rocket ship underneath him. The Andretti Curse is a powerful foe, but Marco really does seem to be in a good place this month.

The Andretti cars seemed primed to run out front.
(Credit: Eric Schwarzkopf. Courtesy
Used with permission.)
Will Power: The biggest knock on Power (a pure road/street ace if ever there was) has always been his relative weakness on the big ovals. That's not entirely fair, given that he's had many good finishes on ovals, but it's also true you won't find many pundits picking him to win this weekend. His overall Series championship lead will likely remain intact after this race, but a great result could push him ahead even more.

Helio Castroneves: Helio will again contend for his fourth Indy 500 win, and will again have a very strong car  to aid him in that quest. After being a curious non-factor in last year's race, most parties seem to expect him to bounce back in a big way on Sunday. Although he's no longer a clear-cut favorite about all others, he still has to be considered as one of the top three or four picks to win.

Row 3

Josef Newgarden: If you haven't been on the ground at Indy this week, it's possible you've underestimated the fan favorite Josef Newgarden is becoming. In a word: don't. Piloting the only Honda to make the first three rows, Newgarden has simply been fast in his first Month of May. As a rookie, there's the chance he'll make a rookie mistake, but also has the raw potential to give Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing a great finish here.

Tony Kanaan: One of the best drivers to not win Indy (yet), a TK 500 victory would be as popular as it would be overdue. No one is quite sure where the KV Racing cars will shake out in race trim (they looked relatively slow before boost was added), but Kanaan will do what he can with what he's given. It remains to be seen if what's given is enough to contend for the win.

EJ Viso: Long the focal point for seemingly every on-track mishap for the past few seasons, EJ has always left fans at a loss over his mix of flashes of pure speed and recklessness. Happily, Viso has shown a lot more patience and maturity in 2012. If he can finish all 200 laps and secure a Top 10 finish, it would be a nice note for a season that appears to be offering very real progress.

Row 4

Rubens Barrichello: Easily the most experienced rookie Indy has seen in some time, the former F1 driver struggled to find speed early on in the month, but after boost was added qualified quite well. One of the big questions in this race will be seeing just how Rubens does in this 500-mile test. He's a smart enough driver not to take anything for granted, though, and that's a point in his favor.

Alex Tagliani: What's really remarkable about Tag and this Bryan Herta Autosport team is that they were able to make a successful transition to the Honda engine in such a short time span. It feels wrong calling the defending Indy 500-winning team a dark horse, but they have all the tools to make some very real noise on Sunday.

Graham Rahal: As the fastest Ganassi in qualifying, Rahal is easily capable of moving up during the race. He's not had the best of times finishing this race, but last year's P3 gave very real hope that's no longer the case. We tend to forget Rahal is only 23 years of age, so likely still has a lot of opportunities ahead of him.

Row 5

Ana Beatriz: I'm not sure how much folks expected from this Conquest/Andretti entry this month, but Bia has looked very, very sharp, both with and without boost. She's finished P21 in both of her previous 500 outings, but it's quite possible this could be a breakout performance by her. If you're looking for another dark horse for the race, don't ignore this one.

Charlie Kimball: CK had a very nice month at Indy up until his Bump Day practice crash, and we'll have to see how much speed, if any, was lost as a result. Charlie likely won't be in Victory Circle for this race, but he's shown a lot of growth in his sophomore year in the Series. A nice finish here would be an extension of that.

Scott Dixon: Although his qualifying run was disappointing, the Target Chip Ganassi cars should again be close to the front in race trim. Dixon is a professional's professional, and will give the team everything he can to win another Indy 500 here. After last year's fueling issues, Dixie can only hope he gets the same support in return.

Row 6

Dario Franchitti: The defending Series champ has rarely looked comfortable in the DW12 this season, but he's easily one of the best ever to race at Indy, and that means he'll have an excellent idea of just what it takes to win here. He knows consistency and smoothness are big here, and those are both strengths of his on this oval. Don't forget, Dan Wheldon started from this spot last year and won.

Dixon, like his teammate Dario, can't be counted out.
(Image Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)
James Jakes: One year after failing to make the field of 33, Jakes has shown nice improvement at Indianapolis this month. As a rookie and generally unproven on the ovals, a great day would be staying out of trouble and finishing in the top half of the field.

JR Hildebrand: Hildebrand might just be the the competitor furthest back in the field with a good chance at winning this year. The Panther Racing crew is always strong at Indy, and after last year's now-infamous last lap crash, there shouldn't be any motivation issues going into the race. The Panther car should be able to move up through the field over the course of the race, and we'll see what happens from there.

Row 7

Takuma Sato: We all know Taku can pedal, and raw speed has never been his issue. However, Sato's consistency troubles still haven't been put completely to bed, and 500 miles is a long way to go. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew should give him a good car and strategy; we'll see what he makes of it.

Townsend Bell: Bell's reputation as an oval ace is pretty solid, and he's finished well here before. Having said that, the Schmidt Pelfrey car hasn't made any big waves this month, and it remains to be seen if they can show any real improvement during the race itself.

Justin Wilson: While Wilson has never been considered an oval specialist, he's an accomplished, veteran driver that can smartly advance his position when the situation presents itself. The Dale Coyne team has looked pretty decent so far this month, so Wilson could be set for a good day if things fall his way.

Row 8

Michel Jourdain, Jr.: After one of the longest layoffs in Indy 500 history (1996-2012), Jourdain returns to the track where he once debuted as a 19 year-old rookie. He surprised many as a first day qualifier, and his Rahal team should give him a good shot at a solid finish.

Simon Pagenaud: Pags has been nothing but impressive his rookie season, fulfilling much of the promise Honda and many pundits saw in him. With that said, the Sam Schmidt team looks a bit off the pace compared to last year. Simon is an old hand at longer races, and what his car might lack in speed, he can partially make up with his great track awareness.

Sebastian Saavedra: The young Colombian driver did a nice job sliding his car into the field on Pole Day after a blown engine earlier in the session. Saavedra is also running the Firestone Freedom 100 on Carb Day, and his decision to go part-time in the IZOD IndyCar Series while running a full-time Firestone Indy Lights schedule certainly looks like a good choice right now. The AFS/Andretti #17 should have enough push to move up on race day, if Saavedra avoids early trouble in the crowded mid-pack.

Row 9

Sebastien Bourdais: After a tumultuous month, Bourdais finally has a Chevy in his car, and hope in good results once more. The Dragon Racing team seemed to be fighting to find a good balance for his car, but I stopped doubting Bourdais right around the time he finished P9 in a Lotus. It's been a long time (2005) since his last 500, but if anyone can make the most out of this situation, it's him.

Bryan Clauson is one of 8 rookies in the field.
(Credit: Eric Schwarzkopf. Courtesy
Used with permission.)
Wade Cunningham: After winning what seemed like a dozen Freedom 100s, Cunningham finally gets his shot at Indy. Unfortunately, the Foyt cars seem to be struggling to find pure speed this month. Despite being a rookie, Wade is a strategist as much as anything, and could make some moves if he's hanging around at the end.

Oriol Servia: With Dreyer and Reinbold now partnered with Panther Racing, Servia has to be enjoying life right about now. He should be in a lower-numbered row, but a Pole Day crash ended that quickly. If his car is close to what it was pre-crash, look for him to be a big mover on the day.

Row 10

Ed Carpenter: An underdog's pick to win the 500 before the month began, Carpenter's team has had to deal with not only a baffling lack of speed, but also a Pole Day crash that ensured Ed start towards the back of the field. Carpenter has a great support team, and is generally very good at Indy, but it will be a wait-and-see game in regards to if he has anything for the leaders on race day.

Mike Conway: Like his Foyt teammate Cunningham, Conway has been largely unable to find any sort of speed at Indy this month. After a brutal crash in 2010, he wasn't able to make the field last year. Moving up without incident during the race would be a nice reward, and make the rough times this month a bit more palatable.

Katherine Legge: Only acquiring her Chevy engine at the last possible minute, Legge had to contend with a rushed Rookie Orientation and very little practice time. It's probably not realistic to expect too much from this entry on race day, but hopefully the rookie can learn while staying well away from any attrition.

Row 11

Bryan Clauson: The two-time USAC National Champion was looking great all month until the fourth lap of his Pole Day run, where an accident dropped him to this lowly starting position. The Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing cars have been fast, and Clauson has shown a fast learning curve this month. It'll be a long afternoon for the sprint car champ, but the Noblesville native has raw talent. We'll see how he uses it.

Simona de Silvestro: A month of dark clouds for the Lotus HVM team got a bit brighter when they received an updated engine before qualifying. Make no mistake, Simona's speeds are still well off the mark, but if she runs fast enough to not be black-flagged and can move up during the race through attrition, that's a victory in and of itself.

Jean Alesi: The Lotus Fan Force United team was put together at the last minute, and did not receive their updated Lotus before their qualifying run. Despite having their backs against the wall, they've weathered it with class, respect, and not a small bit of humor. Alesi is a true professional, and will be the oldest rookie to ever make his Indy debut. If there's any way to not get black-flagged, this team will do it. Whether that happens or not, cheers to them for reminding us the best stories at Indy aren't just about the winners.

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