15) Davey Hamilton
Hamilton did a superb job in qualifying, but expect him to be relatively conservative on the track. He’ll move up when he can, and likely won’t force the issue. We'll have to see if the veteran can parlay that nice starting position into his fourth 500 Top 10.
14) Bertrand Baguette
Baguette's a quiet sort, and you don't hear much out of him, but he doesn't need to talk to impress. His Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing machine looks racy, and Bertrand showed a lot of improvement on ovals in just the span of last season. He could be a dark horse to watch for a very good finish.
13) James Hinchcliffe
Hinch did a nice job of qualifying, and has impressed everyone so far this year with his talent, poise, and great personality so far this season. He'll need to keep it going if he's going to be highest-finishing rookie at Indy. Fortunately, he's had some experience here in Firestone Indy Lights, which can't hurt.
12) JR Hildebrand
The highest-qualifying rookie, “Captain America” jumped right on board with a Panther Racing team used to excellent results at Indy. He's fast, and should be as well on race day, barring any rookie miscues. Considering he's one spot ahead of Hinch, his nearest competitor in the Rookie of the Year standings, it should be great to see how the two compare in their results. As with Hinch, JR does have experience here with Firestone Indy Lights.
11) Vitor Meira
Vitor's in the best car he's had here since 2008, and it showed in qualifying. Vitor's streak of starts without a win could come to an end in the most surprising of fashions on Sunday. Don't count him out; he'll do the absolute best with what he has, and knows how to finish well here.
10) Takuma Sato
Just last year, most of us thought Sato would never last in the IZOD IndyCar Series—too many mistakes, too many crashes, and not enough good finishes despite his speed. This year, he's still fast, but so far has really cut down on the mental errors. He's got a good car, should avoid some of the initial mid-pack chaos, and just might give our racing fan friends in Japan something to smile about.
9) Dario Franchitti
Prediction: Dario will not run out of fuel before he's scheduled to during this race. The two-time winner is bucking for the Borg-Warner trophy for a third time, and after the Ganassi fuel debacle in qualifying, he should be even more motivated to show the rest of the field just why he's so respected here.
8) Ed Carpenter
The hometown boy is a fan favorite, and few other drivers winning here would be as welcome as if Carpenter were able to do it. He’s been fast all month, he’s an oval ace, and he knows his way around Indy. If Sarah Fisher Racing wins with Ed, the fans at IMS will collectively lose it.
7) Buddy Rice
It's been tremendous fun watching the revitalization of Buddy's IZOD IndyCar Series career this month. Paired with a wicked Panther program, Rice showed why it pays to hire a previous 500 winner. Rice isn't finished yet, and you can look for him to attempt to prove the same when the green flag waves.
6) Dan Wheldon
Many fans expressed doubt about the pairing of Dan Wheldon with his friend Bryan Herta's fledgling team for Indy. Yet as part of the extended Sam Schmidt Motorsports network, they've looked simply fantastic all month long. Wheldon's well on his way to being considered one of the best ever at Indy; this Sunday could write another chapter in that already-considerable account.
5) Townsend Bell
Poor Townsend Bell. He's pretty much Indy 500-only at this point, comes in, qualifies on the second row, and his teammate Alex Tagliani wins the pole. Any other year Bell just might be the big story, but he's still a very likely candidate to spend plenty of time up front.
4) Will Power
The fastest Penske qualifier, Power looks to finally win on an oval. He'll have plenty of competition, but you know it's going to happen sooner or later. Indy would be a great place for it to take place.
3) Oriol Servia
Servia has led a resurgent Newman/Haas effort this year, with the team continuing to run up front. If this team could put to bed their demons at Indy, it'd be a welcome and fitting story for the Centennial Anniversary. Servia's a cool veteran presence, which can only help if it comes down to the wire.
2) Scott Dixon
Word in the garages this month is that Dixon just might be the man to beat. He narrowly missed the pole, has won here before, and seems to have a great car. He has to be considered one of the top favorites to bring it home.
1) Alex Tagliani
If Tagliani wants to win Indy, he needs to show consistent speed over the longer stretches of the race and have excellent pit stops. Sounds like pretty boilerplate advice, but it’s missing the fundamentals more than anything that do people in at Indy. If Tag can win from the Pole (and don’t think for a moment that he can’t), the crowd is going to go crazy over their newfound ace.
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.