Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Indy 500 Field Preview: Rows 6-11

Today marks the second installment of a preview of this year’s starting 33 drivers for the Indianapolis 500. If you missed yesterday’s preview, which covered Rows 1-5, you can find it here.

Row 6
16) Scott Dixon, #9, Target Chip Ganassi Racing
It doesn’t matter if the Ganassi cars qualify in Row 1, Row 6, or Row 10; they still have to be accounted for on race day. While the Hondas seem to lack the raw power of the Chevy camp this year, Scott Dixon is one of the all-time best at Indianapolis, and can never be counted out. As always, he should run well, run smart, and could very easily take his string of Top 6 Indy 500 finishes into its eighth year. Qualifying positions are nice and all, but the Ganassi garage knows how to make a car balanced, quick, and sustainable in race trim. The 2008 winner should again be a contender up front again this year.

17) Dario Franchitti, #10, Target Chip Ganassi Racing
While some fans grumbled of “winner fatigue” after the now three-time 500 winner won again last year, there’s no doubting Franchitti is simply on another level when it comes to Indy. Like his teammate Dixon, it would be folly to think he couldn’t win, regardless of what we’ve seen from Chevy or Honda so far this month. We should expect him towards the front on race day in relatively short order. If he does win his fourth 500 this Sunday, it will be very interesting to see how the crowd reacts. It’s also interesting to note he’s starting next to Sato, whom he battled on the infamous last lap of last year’s race. It could be a wild start in Row 6.

18) Takuma Sato, #14, AJ Foyt Enterprises
Everyone, and I mean everyone, with even a tangential interest in IndyCar and the Indy 500, has seen the last-lap crash as Sato attempted to push past Dario Franchitti to win the 500 last year. It was a gutsy, ill-starred move, the kind we’ve come to expect from Sato. This year, however, rather than crash out, Taku has the Foyt team leading the series in points heading into Indianapolis. Sato is still a very aggressive driver, which can mean a feast-or-famine outcome at IMS. He’s driven smarter this year overall, though, and I think everyone is essentially just waiting to see if he can duplicate his late-race fireworks again this year, only with a happier outcome. Of all the Honda entries, Sato may well be the biggest wild card in terms of just what he’ll do. If he leaves Indy with a good finish and the season points lead still intact, it will be huge.

Row 7
19) Charlie Kimball, #83, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing
Kimball is the quiet Everyman of IndyCar, seemingly sneaking in for a Top 10 or even podium here and there. Despite driving for Ganassi, he rarely gets mentioned as being seriously in contention, even as he’s cracked the Top 10 in points so far this season. We’ll have to wait and see what the team and engine brings for race day, but Kimball did finish P8 in last year’s race. If he ninjas the field and ends up with a Top 5 finish, don’t say you weren't warned.

20) James Jakes, #16, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
It appeared as if Jakes was struggling along with the rest of the RLLR on Pole Day, when he busted off a late run that turned out to be more than enough to make it into the field. Jakes had a competent, mid-pack finish last year after missing the 2011 race, but it’s tough to know just what to expect from one of IndyCar’s less-known drivers this weekend (forgive me, Jakesy Nation). He’s raced reasonably well not only at Indy, but also Fontana and Texas, so a result just outside the Top 10 (or perhaps just sneaking in) is not too remote a possibility. With the chaotic month RLLR has had, nothing would really surprise me here.

21) Simon Pagenaud, #77, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports
Pags may have had a superb rookie season, but this year hasn’t been one to remember thus far. We’ve seen him run well on big ovals before, and he should have a chance at a positive result come this Sunday. I’d expect him to not be overly aggressive, run a smart race, and take what opportunities he can to move up. It might be easy to overlook Pags given the amount of oval talent on display in this field, but that should not be the case. He’s very capable of having a great day at IMS this weekend.

Row 8
22) Townsend Bell, #60, Panther Racing
Bell has been fortunate enough to drive the Sunoco “Turbo” car this month, which is at least in the conversation for the very best livery out there. Appearances don’t count for much once the race starts, but fortunately Bell has looked pretty quick all month. The Pole Day time withdrawal/re-qualification silliness behind him, Bell would seem to be in a great position to grab another Top 10 result at Indianapolis.

23) Ryan Briscoe, #8, Chip Ganassi Racing
Last year’s Indy 500 polesitter has had an awful lot happen since then. He was released from Penske Racing after the season, didn’t find a full-time IndyCar driving gig that worked for him, and finally agreed to a one-off deal for Indianapolis. Briscoe didn’t qualify particularly well, but he has plenty of experience at Indy, and that and keeping patient counts for much more on race day. It’d be a great story if Briscoe could storm back and win Indy this year, even if that looks like a somewhat longer bet right now compared to last season.

24) Simona de Silvestro, #78, KV Racing Technology
A year after the Great Lotus Crisis of 2012 saw Simona run a handful of slow laps before retiring from the race, the Iron Maiden is back, this time with a competitive car and a team that should be at least solid for the 500. It has to feel much better for de Silvestro, who’s had a brutal time of it at it after winning Rookie of the Year honors back in 2010. De Silvestro’s never been considered a prime oval racer, but she could creep up a few positions over the course of the race. Something around a Top 10 for her here would be nothing short of excellent, and a great bit of redemption, to boot.

Row 9
25) Josef Newgarden, #21, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
Newgarden simply ran out of time on Pole Day to qualify, but the team has been one of the more impressive Honda teams this month, despite being a smaller one-car effort. Newgarden was extremely fast in practice and qualifications in his rookie 500 last year, but the team ran into all manner of mechanical race day woes. Last season, it was a P25 result after starting P7. This year, starting P25, can they manage a P7 or better? Newgarden and SFHR have the ability to run well here, and have to be counted as not only a sort of Honda bellwether, but one of the more intriguing entries in the back half of the field.

26) Graham Rahal, #15, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Rahal’s month was absolutely brutal, as for most of the month the Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew simply could not find speed. The crew was able to make it happen on Bump Day at over 225 mph, and now they can worry about race setup. The last time Graham started towards the back at Indy was 2011 (P30) and he finished third, so it isn’t as if he can’t make the charge forward on race day. After a rough month, Rahal knows that what really matters is getting it right when the flag drops Sunday. He's still very much in the race day conversation.

27) Sebastian Saavedra, #6, Dragon Racing
Saavedra will be making his third Indy 500 start Sunday, though neither previous start was exactly sparkling in nature. Saavedra has Chevy power behind him, but seemed a bit up-and-down this month, culminating in a Bump Day practice moment that almost took out polesitter Ed Carpenter. Dragon Racing hasn’t had a particularly good year, so improving on his previous finishes and moving up as he can without incident would indicate nice progress for driver and team alike.

Row 10
28) Tristan Vautier, #55 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
The likable rookie didn’t look fully at-ease during his first time in the big cars at Indy, and perhaps that’s good; you never want drivers to be too “comfortable” with things. Vautier managed to keep things green all month through qualifications, and finishing the race likewise has to be a main goal. Folks expect big things from Vautier as he gains experience; a respectable, confident finish at Indianapolis would be an excellent next chapter in his story.

29) Ana Beatriz, #18, Dale Coyne Racing
Leading up to qualifications, Beatriz was relatively slow on the speed charts, and did seem happy or comfortable with where her cars was. By the time qualifications came around, however, she was able to find plenty of speed to qualify comfortably—and probably had a bit more, had she needed it. In her three previous 500s, she’s never finished higher than P21, so it might be a bit much to expect anything at the front of the pack this year.

30) Pippa Mann, #63, Dale Coyne Racing
Mann made her debut in the DW12 car on INDYCAR’s biggest stage in Indianapolis, and acquitted herself nicely, having no real issues during the month. Like her teammate Bia, you got the sense that there was a bit more speed in the car if it came down to that. Mann’s rookie 500 odyssey two years ago ended with her finishing P20 (+11 spots on the day) with a broken hydration system; she’ll look to improve on that this time around. Folks have questioned just how competitive the 2nd and 3rd Coyne entries can be; Mann and Beatriz will help answer that Sunday.

Row 11
31) Conor Daly, #41 AJ Foyt Enterprises
After a rookie May that included a nasty accident, plus engine swap following an aborted qualifying run, the Noblesville, Indiana hometown kid managed to find speed on Bump Day and put his car into the field. Daly seemed a bit shaky at points during the month, and that’s understandable; Indy can bite hard. With all that behind him, he’ll look to stay out of trouble and turn his first 500 experience into a more positive one. Daly has plenty of talent and is an easy guy to cheer for; let’s hope his race day is clean and clear.

32) Buddy Lazier, #91, Lazier Partners Racing
A sizable number of individuals figured the 1996 Indy 500 winner would be the odd man out come Bump Day, given the fact his team had no backup car, a last-minute deal, and not a lot of support network. Yet the Lazier crew, bringing together a mix of Hemelgarn and Conquest crew, managed to make the show, and seemed to have more speed had they needed it. (Having Chevy power was certainly a boon, as well). It’s easy to speculate perhaps Lazier’s car won’t stand up to the rigors of 500 miles, but historically, Buddy’s been pretty good about moving up from the back of the field over his long career at Indianapolis. A Top 15 finish or higher for this team would be a big feather in the hat, and a nice story to round out the month.

33) Katherine Legge, #81, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
A last-minute addition to the 500 field, Legge was able to qualify with minimal laps in the car, getting up to speed very quickly on Bump Day. Making her second 500 start, even Legge has few pretensions about her chances of winning, stating after Bump Day that a Top 10 would be a pretty great scenario for this entry. She raced well at Fontana in last year’s finale, and she should at least be able to move up a few spots if her equipment is serviceable.

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