Analyzing The Indy 500 Field

The time has finally arrived.

Following seven practice days and four long (and sometimes excruciating) days of qualifying, the field is set for the 91st running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 27. The 33-driver field is comprised of six former Indianapolis 500 winners (Al Unser Jr., Buddy Lazier, Helio Castroneves, Buddy Rice, Dan Wheldon and defending winner Sam Hornish Jr.). Combined, the 33 drivers have a total of 160 starts in the Memorial Day weekend classic, with Unser Jr. being the most experienced of the bunch with 18 previous starts. Only two drivers, Milka Duno and Phil Giebler, will be making their rookie runs at the 2.5-mile speedway.

Below is a list of all the contenders, darkhorses, pretenders, and drivers who should stay out of the way during the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing."

While this race offers no "sure bets" for the 500-mile classic, there is definitely a group of drivers that is head and shoulders above the rest — headlined by polesitter and two-time winner Helio Castroneves.

Castroneves, who secured pole position with a late bonsai run during pole day on May 12, goes into the 500 with a head of steam. Not only did the Team Penske driver win the top spot for the race, but he has also won once this season (Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on April 1), scored two additional AAMCO Poles, and performed well in the final race before the "Month of May" began — a third-place finish at Kansas Speedway.

Alongside the Brazilian driver — both on the grid and in the contenders’ category — is fellow countryman Tony Kanaan. Like Castroneves, Kanaan has already scored a victory this year (Twin Ring Motegi on April 21) and has a strong head of momentum after setting quick lap times throughout the month’s practices. Additionally, Kanaan has been the perfect teammate, having tested four of the five team cars in the Andretti Green Racing stable (sans Dario Franchitti, whom he chats with daily and trades advice). If AGR is willing to put all of their trust in the hands of the driver of the No. 11 7-Eleven Dallara-Honda, expect that person to know what he is doing.

Other drivers to pay close attention to on race day are Franchitti, defending winner Sam Hornish Jr. and the two Target Chip Ganassi drivers, Scott Dixon and 2005 winner Dan Wheldon, both of whom have been fastest throughout the practice sessions this month.

While not mentioned in the same breath as Castroneves and Co., this group of drivers could easily be drinking from the celebratory bottle of milk at the end of the Indianapolis 500 if the drivers from the contenders’ category stumble even the slightest.

At the top of this list are the three remaining AGR drivers; Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Michael Andretti. While both Patrick and the younger Andretti have had disappointing seasons so far in 2007, they both know their way around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — their results in 2005 and 2006, respectively, prove that. Combine their understanding of the track with Kanaan’s help, and these two drivers could make some noise on race day.

As for the elder Andretti, yes, he has been the most snakebitten man in race history, but c’mon, he has led 430 career laps in the Indianapolis 500, more than any other driver in this year’s field. Can the planes align perfectly this one time? It happened with Dale Earnhardt at the 1998 Daytona 500, so don’t bet against it for Andretti.

Want a true "darkhorse"? Look at Ryan Briscoe. Driving for Luczo Dragon Racing, a satellite operation of Team Penske, Briscoe pulled off the stunner so far this month after qualifying seventh for the race — ahead of many high priced drivers and top level organizations. Sure, Briscoe’s open-wheel experience has been limited in recent years, but this guy knows how to race — just look at his victory in the Utah American Le Mans event this past weekend. Also, remember that in his only Indianapolis 500 start, the Australian started 24th and finished 10th. Just imagine what he can do now that he is closer to the front with his Team Penske equipment underneath him.

Other drivers in this group include Vision Racing’s Tomas Scheckter and Ed Carpenter, Panther Racing’s Vitor Meira and A.J. Foyt Enterprises Darren Manning and two-time winner Al Unser Jr.

It is looking pretty grim for the drivers in this category, as they have struggled to find the pace throughout this month to really contend for a victory.

Like the rest of this year, the "Month of May" has been a disappointment for Rahal Letterman Racing and their driver lineup of Scott Sharp and Jeff Simmons. They have not been very quick in practices (Sharp’s fastest lap of 224.214 mph was 19th best while Simmons’ 223.894 mph was 23rd out of 49 driver/car combinations) and look to be in full rebuilding-mode — remember, neither of these drivers was with this team at the beginning of 2006.

Despite showing improvement in the races prior to Indianapolis, Dreyer & Reinbold also fits into this category. Sarah Fisher and 2004 winner Buddy Rice are looking stronger than how they started the year, but they still have a long way to go.

Panther Racing’s Kosuke Matsuura and John Andretti, Vision Racing’s A.J. Foyt IV and Davey Hamilton, Dreyer & Reinbold’s Roger Yasukawa, Schmidt Motorsports Buddy Lazier and Chastain Motorsports Roberto Moreno all fit into this category as well.

Is it possible anybody from this group can win? Yes, but a top-10 result for any of these drivers would still be a positive result.

"Get out of the Way"
Let’s put it nicely — these drivers should focus on keeping their noses clean and “getting out of the way,” not on victory: Alex Barron, Jon Herb, Jaques Lazier, Marty Roth, Richie Hearn, Phil Giebler and Milka Duno.

If there is a big accident, particularly in the first laps, look towards this group to have at least one person involved in it (and probably be at fault). However, as Duno proved in her debut at Kansas Speedway, giving way to the leaders and staying out of trouble is not only possible, but it can lead to a rewarding finish.

Race Center

Auto Club 500

@ Auto Club Speedway
Saturday, October 19, 2013
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