In addition to the full-time drivers of the IZOD IndyCar Series, there are a number of drivers who are running either partial seasons or “one-off”, single-race entries. Of these, several have been hired on a primarily oval schedule or just for the Indy 500. They are oval “assassins”; drivers valued in particular for their skills on this specific type of track.
To say these drivers are unidimensional in their skills would be untrue; yet there is no doubt they have an extra gear when it comes to ovals. Of course, there's no greater oval in the world than the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so we shouldn't be surprised each driver on this list has found gainful employment for the Month of May. Let's take a look at several of our oval experts and their prospects for this year's Indianapolis 500.
#19, Dale Coyne Racing
Key Oval Results: 4th at Indy, 8th at Texas (2010)
Lloyd was a relatively late announcement for the Indy 500, but many assumed he would be in the car for the oval courses this year. And why not? Last year's IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year finished 4th at Indy, and had contested that race as a one-off in 2008 and 2009. In 2009, a surprise 11th-best time on Pole Day then saw him finish a solid 13th. If anyone can qualify Coyne's car decently, it's Alex. For the race, watch for him to move up whenever the opportunity presents itself. He's improved his finish each year he's been at Indy, though increasing it from 4th would be a tall order for any driver.
#89, Bryan Herta Autosport (with Curb/Agajanian)
Key Oval Results: 2005 Indy 500 winner, 2nd at Indy (2009-10), 13 other INDYCAR oval victories
Wheldon is perhaps the most well-known name on this list; he's a series champ and Indy winner to boot. He's kept it pretty low-key this offseason, having kept the pundits guessing before signing with Bryan Herta Autosport for a one-off Indy 500 deal. He's particularly adept at Indy and will be one to keep an eye on all month long. Bryan Herta's program is part of the data-sharing network of Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which means this smaller team might have more resources than you'd originally think. Look for Wheldon to get the most of what's out there; exactly what that is, won't become clear for at least a few more days.
#67, Sarah Fisher Racing
Key Oval Results: Pole/2nd at Kentucky (2010), 24 career Top 10 ovals, 2 Top 10s at Indy.
There's a general perception that Carpenter has been this close for a while now and can soon cinch his first IZOD IndyCar Series victory. Last year's near-miss at Kentucky, 2009's amazingly close finish at Chicagoland, and his great qualifying run for the 2010 Indy 500, all add up to an oval veteran who's figured out this whole oval business. For this year’s 500 campaign, the Sarah Fisher Racing driver seems to be picking up right where he left off, with the fastest speed in Opening Day practice. If he keeps it up, this could be a banner year for Fisher's still-growing IZOD IndyCar Series program.
#07, KV Racing Technology-SH Racing
Key Oval Results: 2 career oval wins, 8 career oval poles, 2 Top 10s at Indy.
The wild, gutsy driving that made Tomas Scheckter so enjoyable to watch through the first part of his career also made him a risk to “win or go home.” Seeing Scheckter this year reveals a driver still with an edge to him, but more focused than ever on taking his driving to the next level. He led laps at Indy last year, and in fact, has led 153 laps at Indy in his career. That puts him among such legendary names as Jim Rathmann and Peter DePaolo. The joint KVRT/SH Racing program should give T-Scheck a good car this month; however it pans out, he should be a thrill to watch.
#99, Sam Schmidt Motorsports
Key Oval Results: 4th at Indy in 2009, 9 career Top 10 ovals, 2 Top 10s at Indy.
Bell just missed making last year's Pole Day Shootout at Indy, but still managed to start from the inside of Row 4. In 2009, he surprised many fans unacquainted with his driving with a brilliant drive to 4th place—a fact made all the more impressive when you consider he started 24th and had a limited schedule for the month. Consider this: Bell has only contested 18 oval races in the IZOD IndyCar Series. In those, he has 9 Top 10 finishes. The headstrong, somewhat wild driver of his Champ Car days has disappeared, leaving behind the talent and focus that's made him one of the most intriguing drivers to watch in May. Sam Schmidt Motorsports has a lot of entries under his umbrella at Indy this year; Bell just might be the biggest threat of them all to give Sam his first Indy 500 victory.
Of course, there's also former 500 winner Buddy Rice at Panther Racing, and the whispers that Buddy Lazier might show up in the #57 car if things go very well on Pole Day for Sarah Fisher Racing. There's also Foyt Racing's Bruno Junqueira, who is a multi-disciplined driver that's also considered an Indy 500 qualifying ace at this point. Along with the drivers listed above, these specialists should ensure the oval that comprises the World's Greatest Racecourse should be more exciting and well-challenged than ever.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.