Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Six Big Stories For This Year's Indy 500

Forget, if you could for a moment, the dirty rumor mill and irresponsible speculation. Forget any gripes you might have, or what the rest of the season might hold. These are the last few days before the Indianapolis 500, and what will happen on Sunday is all the drama we need. Frankly, it’s the Indy 500, and if you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong.

With that in mind, here are six big stories to follow for Sunday’s race. Find yourself in a discussion about the race and not sure what to say? Pick one of the topics below, but don’t forget to nod or wink conspiratorially at some random point during each. That way, people will wonder what sort of “insider knowledge” you’re really hiding:

Penske Goes For Another (Helio, Too): Roger Penske has already grabbed his 17th pole at Indy this month, and he’ll be looking to add a 16th 500 win as well. With Ryan Briscoe on the Pole, Will Power in Row 2, and Helio Castroneves on the outside next to him, Penske certainly seems like he’s got the pieces in place to give everyone else a run for their money.

Castroneves in particular would be a historic victor; he would join Al Unser, Sr., Rick Mears, and AJ Foyt as the only four-time winners of the 500. He would also have the shortest gap between his first and fourth Borg-Warner trophies (2001-2012).

The On-Track Chevy/Honda Battle: There’s no denying Honda has been shut out in the victory column so far this year, and fans of their company were probably not thrilled to see the Chevys dominate qualifying last weekend. However, that was with the added boost, and there’s a sense that things should normalize when the cars return to their regular boost levels this weekend. Basically, if a Honda entry can find their way to winning the 500, it would instantly erase a lot of the early-season defeats at the hands of Chevy. Whichever manufacturer wins is going to have some pretty hefty bragging rights in the news cycle to come.

Andretti Rising: Last year, Andretti Autosport drivers Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti could barely qualify. Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Mike Conway didn’t. 2012 has proven to be a completely different animal, as all three regular Andretti entries qualified on the front two rows. The additional part-time associate programs with Sebastian Saavedra and Ana Beatriz have also looked strong, and the team seems primed to contend for victory once more at Indy. If Penske can boast Castroneves, Power, and Briscoe, Andretti can counter with James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Any of the three would be a popular victory with INDYCAR fans, and if Marco can pull it off, the casual 500 fans would also have a very recognizable last name back in Victory Circle.

The New Guard: While veterans such as Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti aren’t ready to hang it up yet, this season has shown the future of IndyCar is tremendously bright. It’s been very easy to be impressed by recent additions such as Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe, both of which have become almost instant fan favorites. Simon Pagenaud has been sharp, and Bryan Clauson represents a potentially re-opened gateway for USAC drivers. Charlie Kimball has shown nice improvement in his second year, and is joined by young legacy drivers such as Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal in forming an extremely rosy outlook for the relative talent level of the Series in the coming years. Right now, we get to see the veterans of the Series at their prime mix it up with the young guns of tomorrow, and that makes Sunday’s battles a tremendously exciting prospect.

Newgarden's star potential can't be ignored.
(Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway)
The Plight of the Lotus: Although they’ve handled it with grace and professionalism, there’s no denying the Lotus engines for HVM Racing and Lotus Fan Force United are off the pace. It’s been great to see the outreach and attitude of both teams (especially FFU’s PR efforts), but they’ll need to show more speed during the race to not get black-flagged. Their updated engine seems to add horsepower and hope (the two are closely linked, you’ll find), but just how much of a bump they get from it in race trim remains to be seen. It’s hard to not pull for these teams, both of who have made the best of a frustrating situation this month. If they can hang around during the race and finish while running, that would be a nice story in its own right.

(As a side note, I spoke with Paul Dalbey this weekend about the idea of the Fillip Line. Much like the Mendoza Line in baseball is used to illustrate a considerable lack of hitting prowess, falling below the Chet Fillip line of running 11 laps in the ‘83 Indy 500 before being black-flagged would be a notorious accomplishment in its own way. I’m not sure if it will catch on, but I like it).

The Dark Horses: Honestly, when is the last time we’ve seen a field with this much lurking talent? As much as anything, you get the feeling that we really haven’t seen the best from some of these teams and drivers yet. Even in the back of the field, there are many drivers that might provide this year’s surprise frontrunner. We know Ed Carpenter can be fast here. Wade Cunningham knows his strategy, and if he stays out of trouble could make things interesting late in the race. Simon Pagenaud hasn’t failed to impress yet, and fellow Honda driver Takuma Sato is adept at giving us those flashes of brilliance. And, of course, we know Sebastien Bourdais knows a thing or two about winning. One of the most exciting parts of this race for me is there are so many drivers you just can’t quite count out of a very good Top 10 or even Top 5 finish. Before you scoff at any of these names, consider this: how many of you had Bertrand Baguette coming within a couple laps of winning last year’s Indy 500?

This is one of the deepest fields we’ve enjoyed in a long time, and that means counting very few drivers out before the flag drops. I might not know who’s going to win on Sunday, but you have to think it’ll be a fight all the way.

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