Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Indy 500 Field Preview: Rows 1-5

Today marks the first part of a two-part preview of this year’s field for the Indianapolis 500. Let's start by taking a look at all the drivers in Rows 1-5. Tomorrow, we’ll take a crack at previewing Rows 6-11. Here are your first 15 qualifying positions for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500:

Row 1
1) Ed Carpenter, #20, Ed Carpenter Racing
We’ve seen small teams win pole position at Indianapolis before, such as Sam Schmidt’s crew with Alex Tagliani in 2011. However, Ed Carpenter’s crew has every reason to believe that their storybook month will not end there. Carpenter won the most recent IndyCar oval race (Fontana, in last year’s finale), and he was in contention for the win at Indy before a late incident last year. While his overall Indy stats might not look legendary, he’s run especially well here overall in recent years, and this team is built to win on ovals. There’s no guarantee Carpenter drinks the milk Sunday, but his performance this month is anything but a fluke.

2) Carlos Muñoz, #26, Andretti Autosport
The young Colombian driver was fast out of the box this month, but also ran aggressively and had a few close calls that could have made his first Month of May experience much less pleasurable. The trick will be to see if Muñoz can temper his raw speed with patience and good decision-making to ensure he hangs around for the final stages of the race. As the only driver doing both the 500 and the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 race, Muñoz has had no shortage of track time at 16th and Georgetown this month. May couldn’t have gone much better for Carlos so far; we’ll see if he can finish strong and add a 500 Rookie of the Year trophy to his case.

3) Marco Andretti, #25, Andretti Autosport
Despite the bugaboo of the “Andretti Curse”, Marco has been a popular pick to finally get his Indy 500 victory and turn around the family fortunes at this track. And why not? He’s raced extremely well this year, been fast all month at Indy, and has Chevy power behind him. Perhaps most importantly, though, is the fact that the Marco we’ve encountered this month seems more level and accepting of where he is. It seems to be a different mental outlook for Andretti, and at a track where’s he’s been so close to victory, that could make all the difference. Anyone spending five minutes with Marco can tell how much he wants this, and he should have every chance to make it happen.

A New Marco This Month?
Photo: Mark Reed.
Courtesy IndyCar Media
Row 2
4) E.J. Viso, #5, Andretti Autosport/HVM
Viso’s had an excellent year since moving to the Andretti Autosport stable, and this month has been no exception. The maturation process that picked up a few years ago seems to be reaching the next level. While there are those that still base their expectations of him on what he did three or four years ago, that’s not the same driver that’s starting inside Row 2 on Sunday. This will mark Viso’s best starting position at Indy; last year’s P9 start yielded P18 (his best 500 finish). Indy hasn’t been one of his better tracks, but he’s got every advantage to turn that around this year. Can Viso shake some of his remaining naysayers? We’ll soon have our answer.

5) AJ Allmendinger, #2, Team Penske
Dinger has been absolutely impressive in his first go-around at Indianapolis, as the NASCAR and open wheel veteran was a threat for the pole from seemingly the get-go. Then again, getting to make your rookie Indy debut with Team Penske can do a lot to smooth your path. Penske ride or no, the fact remains AJ is a very talented racer in just about anything he drives, and he should be lots of fun to watch this weekend. A Top 5 result is definitely not out of the question.

6) Will Power, #12, Team Penske
This is an important race for Will Power, if he wants any chance of jumping back into the IZOD IndyCar Series title hunt. In a tie for P18 in points, Will needs to get back to his 2009-2010 finishes (average P6.5) instead of 2011-2012 (average P21). Power had a slight brush with the wall on Bump Day, but that shouldn’t have any impact on race day for him. Will was the fastest entrant for a good portion of the month, but as always, we’ll have to see how that translates into sustained race pace.

Row 3
7) Ryan Hunter-Reay, #1, Andretti Autosport
Much like his 2012 title rival Will Power, Hunter-Reay has had an up-and-down history at Indianapolis. Since finishing P6 as a rookie, he’s finished no better than P18 in his next four attempts. Still, Hunter-Reay showed not only speed, but plenty of patience on ovals post-Indy last season, and he’s developed into one of the best all-around racers in the series. If RHR can channel some of the patience and decision-making he showing in the second half of last year, he should be in much better shape late in this year’s 500.

8) Helio Castroneves, #3, Team Penske
We come to the first of our Indy 500 champs in this field, with Castroneves looking to become only the fourth driver to win the 500 four times. Helio didn’t blow us away with raw speed this month, the way he has in some previous years at Indy, but he’s been consistently quick and has had no shortage of time to work on some extended race runs. As much as fans love an underdog and/or new winner, it’s hard to imagine another victory by Helio being met with much unhappiness from the fans. Let’s not forget, he’s also in a very close battle for his first-ever INDYCAR season championship, and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t pick up some big points here.

9) James Hinchcliffe, #27, Andretti Autosport
Hinch couldn’t quite match last year’s thrilling qualifying effort, but the Mayor once again found himself in the Fast 9 at Indianapolis. Hinch has two victories this year, but also has two DNFs through the early street/road portion of the schedule. Hinch finished P6 at Indy last year, and is part of a robust Andretti team that can boast any number of contenders. A Hinch win would probably mean plenty of GoDaddy-fueled publicity, and would also so be an immensely popular win with fans. He might not be quite the plurality pick to win that Marco is, but he certainly can't be discounted, either.

Row 4
10) JR Hildebrand, #4, Panther Racing
What a strange couple of years for Hildebrand at Indianapolis! He comes within a quarter-mile of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, only to see the much-vaunted Panther team qualify mid-pack and finish a quiet P14 on the day. Panther has been so excellent at Indy for so long, it was strange to see them struggle a bit, even if 2012 did mean a new car to develop. Still, the team looks fully on-target this year, just missing out on the Fast 9 and looking very sharp throughout the Month of May so far. Hildebrand could very well have a very good day in his third 500.

11) Alex Tagliani, #98, Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian
Tag definitely knows how to qualify in a hurry at Indy, and he does in fact represent the fastest Honda driver in this year’s field. Team Barracuda-BHA seemed pretty focused on getting race setup down solid, and a nice result here should definitely perk up a season that’s been disappointing for a team that was so quick in the second half of last season. Tag has finished between P10-P12 in three of his four races at Indy, so around a Top 10 finish Sunday would very easily in line with his history here.

12) Tony Kanaan, #11, KV Racing Technology
The perpetual Indy fan favorite, Kanaan is firmly into Lloyd Ruby territory at this point in his Indy 500 career. He’s an annual contender who just never quite has the car or the luck to make it happen. While he hopefully still has a nice number of 500 starts ahead of him, the clock is still ticking on getting a victory that would mean so very much to both Kanaan and the IMS fans. Kanaan’s KV machine doesn’t quite seem to have the speed of the Andretti or Penske Chevys, but he knows how to get around the track, and should make it exciting, if nothing else. If TK is battling it out for the lead in the closing laps, expect the Speedway crowd to completely lose it—yet again.

Row 5
13) Oriol Servia, #22, Panther DRR
With Dreyer and Reinbold Racing likely temporarily shuttering their IndyCar operation after the 500, veteran Servia finds his career prospects much as they have been most of his career--up in the air. The team has not let adversity bother them this month, and Servia has looked very solid through practice and qualifications. Servia has finished P6 and P4 in his last two 500s, and has seemed to really find a new level of performance when it comes to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. If he can pull together a win--which is not totally out of the realm of possibility--it would be a wonderful story and building block for a long-time team and great driver that have had some bad breaks.

14) Justin Wilson, #19, Dale Coyne Racing
Wilson has shown a proclivity for doing well on big ovals in the DW12 car. He won last year in a stunner at Texas, but even more relevant to this week's discussion, he finished a strong P7 in last year's Indy 500. A top-notch driver who gets the best out of his equipment, Wilson is more than capable of another prime run  in this year's race. When the car makes the driver truly drive, that's when he's at his best. Consider him a dark horse to  make things quite interesting in the final few laps, but he should at least have a good opportunity for another good Indy result.

15) Sebastien Bourdais, #7 Dragon Racing
Every time I  passed Bourdais this month, be it in the garages or pits, he had a rather pleased (and occasionally downright happy) expression on his face. While Dragon's season has been dismal thus far, Bourdais qualified pretty well, showed a nice amount of speed in practice, and seems very confident going into Sunday's race. While neither of his prior runs at Indianapolis were anything special, it wouldn't be too shocking to see him moving up over the course of the race come Sunday. If nothing else, the the glare chrome design of his McAfee car could blind his competition, but somehow I don't think he'll need that sort of edge to do well.

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of the Indy 500 Field Preview. 

2 comments:

  1. Didn't Alex Tagliani take the pole with Sam Schmidt Motorsports(instead of Bryan Herta) in 2011?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, you're correct. Typo on my part.

    ReplyDelete