Dario Franchitti stops short when asked if he considers himself the favorite to win the Indianapolis 500. Just because he’s won two of the previous four races and has three IndyCar championships doesn’t mean he’s going to win again. The answer is straightforward. Favorite? No. But he does think he has the car and the team and the experience to contend.
“I’m very proud of the job the entire team did, but it has no bearing on what’s going to happen this month,” he says. “We’ve got to make all the right choices in order to win the race again. I think we can do it, and we have all the right tools, but there will be 32 other people on that grid who will have something to say about the outcome.”
That’s how tricky the Indianapolis 500 is. The race is so difficult and so unpredictable that it becomes pointless to proclaim a pre-race favorite. Sure, you might think you can narrow down the list of potential winners to just the teams owned by Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske, but you would be ignoring a dozen other drivers capable of victory.
One of those dozen is Townsend Bell. Once again a one-off for Indy, Bell is likely to be fast in a KV Racing Technology entry. He has a solid resume as an Indy-only competitor; his fourth-place effort in 2009 was the best finish by a one-off since Al Unser won the race in 1987 as a replacement for the injured Danny Ongais.
For one-offs and other part-time drivers, the most pressing challenge is lack of seat time. Most of the field has been grinding away since the IZOD IndyCar Series opener at St. Pete in March. The Indy-only racer has to get up to speed immediately.
“The trick is to respect the environment and challenges and realities of racing at Indy,” Bell says. “You do have to get up to the program rather quickly. It’s not the ideal situation in which to approach the race, but you learn each time you do it how to maximize your time.”
Among the part-timers to consider are Buddy Rice, the 2004 winner who’s teaming with Panther Racing, which has a strong track record at Indy; Dan Wheldon, the 2005 winner, in a Bryan Herta Autosport entry; Tomas Scheckter in a KV-SH Racing combo; Paul Tracy with Dreyer & Reinbold; Ed Carpenter with Sarah Fisher Racing; Bruno Junqueira with A.J. Foyt Racing; John Andretti with Andretti Autosport; and Jay Howard with Sam Schmidt-Rahal Letterman Lanigan; Davey Hamilton with D&R; and Bertrand Baguette with RLL.
Teams are always a consideration when looking at Indy possibilities. While Penske and Ganassi have claimed eight of the last 11 500s, several others have been on their heels during that time. Consider Andretti Autosport, for example. It’s been a tough couple of years for Michael’s team, as it slid from equal standing with Penske and Ganassi. But AA is starting to get it back – witness Mike Conway’s win at Long Beach – and all four of its drivers have shown speed at Indy.
That’s why you can’t eliminate KV, Newman/Haas, Panther, D&R, Conquest or Dale Coyne from consideration. Indy is a matter of speed and skill, but it’s also a matter of breaks and track position. The cars are so equal at this point in their development that blasting past a competitor for position is rare. Getting yourself in position by strategy or fast stops is the underdog’s best shot.
Some might scoff at the notion that anybody can win the Indianapolis 500. Anybody? Probably not. But half the field? That’s realistic. It’s not as impossible as it might sound.
Tell us who you consider to be the favorite – and the best upset – for the Indy 500 by commenting below.