Exclusive INDYCAR Nation News

Handicapping the 500 Field

by
Kyle Lavigne
| May 25, 2012

Row 11: Jean Alesi, Simona de Silvestro, Bryan Clauson

Alesi and de Silvestro, as the lone Lotus drivers, will be primarily concerned with running as long as they can. Through no fault of their own, the Lotus package is woefully off the pace, some believe dangerously slow. Many have even said it may not be long before each is black-flagged and parked because of their simple lack of speed. Regardless, gathering miles, and invaluable data for the engine, will be at the forefront for them.

Clauson, who looked solid in practice before crashing on Pole Day, will have the goal of running the entire way without incident. A top 10 would be a major accomplishment for the young USAC star, and serve notice that he could be a major player in INDYCAR if given the proper chance. But, above all else, he needs to run the entire distance.

Row 10: Katherine Legge, Mike Conway, Ed Carpenter

Row 10 is intriguing. Legge, like the starters in row 11, should be solely focused and gaining experience and running the entire distance (or as much as possible). Conway and Carpenter, however, are more complex. Each is a proven race winner, yet each will enter race day with a mountain to climb. Both struggled mightily on Pole Day (Conway was knocked out of the top 24 while Carpenter crashed heavily) and were forced to qualify the second day. We’ve seen in the last two years that a driver can come from the back and race amongst the leaders, but you’ll have to to be extremely careful and avoid any carnage to make it there. It’s possible for Conway and Carpenter to move forward, but expecting them to get all the way up to the lead is a reach. Top 10’s for them would be a fine effort.

Row 9: Oriol Servia, Wade Cunningham, Sebastian Bourdais

Row 9 gives us the first of the true dark horses. Though Bourdais and Servia struggled in qualifying, their skills on race day cannot be ignored. Each has a heavy march forward to make, but don’t overlook them. If circumstances play out in their favor, they both could be players. Cunningham, in his first Indy 500, will be looking to hold his own throughout the day and complete all the laps.

Cunningham, like many of the rookies, would do well to simply finish the race, with few expectations of contending for wins. Like those starting behind him, Cunningham’s goal is to keep his nose clean.

Row 8: Sebastian Saavedra, Simon Pagenaud, Michel Jourdain Jr.

This row sees another dark horse in the form of Simon Pagenaud. One of the early stars in the 2012 season, Pagenaud drives for a Schmidt-Hamilton team that gave big guns Penske and Ganassi a scare last year. The Frenchman’s supreme driving skills should mean they’ll be a factor again in 2012. Expect him to steadily work his forward through the day.

For Jourdain, and Saavedra, once again running all the laps and finishing on the lead lap would be a solid effort. Though their equipment is stout, few expect either of them challenge for victory.

Row 7: Justin Wilson, Townsend Bell, Takuma Sato

As we work our way closer to the front, we found more dark horses and possible contenders. Row 7 is full of them. All three drivers are very gifted and could quite possibly pull an upset on Sunday. Sato has been a bright spot this year, Bell has become a hot shoe around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Wilson is one of the most underrated drivers in the IndyCar paddock at the moment. It could be a small chore to move up from the middle of the pack, but don’t sleep on anyone from row 7. They could all wind up at the front at some point.

Row: 6: J.R. Hildebrand, James Jakes, Dario Franchitti

Here, we have a dark horse, an improving second-year driver, and an underachieving favorite. Hildebrand, last year’s Rookie of the Year and runner-up (in dramatic fashion) enjoyed a strong week of practice but couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, eventually landing 18th. But, he has proven himself a strong driver and has improved on his rookie season so far. Plus, with four consecutive second-place finishes at the Brickyard, Panther Racing knows it’s way around Indianapolis very well. If they can avoid mistakes, a potential victory is in the cards.

Jakes has also improved on his rookie season (which was a struggle for the young Briton) and managed to qualify for his first Indianapolis 500. The package with Dale Coyne Racing is very solid, and he won’t simply be an “also ran.” But, victory could be out of the question, given his inexperience. Still, like many of the other young guns, a solid top 10 finish won’t make anyone unhappy in his camp.

Franchitti represents the first of the heavy hitters. However, he has underachieved mightily in 2012. He and the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi squad have had trouble grappling with the DW12 and can’t quite seem to find that magical setup, though finishing third in Sao Paulo, Brazil was a sign of improvement. Despite their struggles, you should not count out Franchitti, who has won this race twice before. If the car will give him a chance, Franchitti will have a shot at a third victory.

Row 5: Scott Dixon, Charlie Kimball, Ana Beatriz

Like teammate Franchitti, Dixon represents one of the heavy hitters. Unlike Franchitti, his season has been much stronger, with a pair of second-place finishes to his credit (though a 23rd and 17th have hampered his efforts). Of course, like his Ganassi stable mates, he underachieved on Pole Day, meaning he’ll have to start 15th. Still, he is talented and patient enough that he retains a good shot of contending for the win, even if he is coming from the middle of the pack.

Beatriz and Kimball share the same goal with many of the other up and comers. But, theirs is slightly altered given their machinery. Both are in top-notch equipment and both have quietly enjoyed solid months (their only combined hiccup being Kimball’s crash on Bump Day). The only thing holding them back is their inexperience. This is Beatriz’s third Indy 500, but she only has one full season of racing under her belt, while Kimball is early into his second full-season campaign. We should be hesitant to label them true contenders, then, but they both could surprise if circumstances fall their way. So long as they don’t make mistakes, they could mix it up with the leaders.

Row 4: Graham Rahal, Alex Tagliani, Rubens Barrichello

Now we’re starting to see the cream of the crop, the drivers who have excelled throughout the month and should run well on Sunday.

Though Rahal may have wanted to contend for pole, starting 12th isn’t a bad thing. He passed the most cars of anyone last year and finished third after starting the day 29th. The equipment is underneath him and Rahal has the skill to compete for a win. Plus, though he has looked good this month, he has been decidedly quiet, which could prove an advantage. After all, this race tends reward the driver and team that quietly hangs around.

Tagliani will be looking to avenge last year’s disappointment. After capturing the pole, the French-Canadian ran strong early on before handling issues dropped him back, eventually causing him to bounce off the turn four wall and out of the race. This year, with defending winners Bryan Herta Autosport, Tagliani is laying somewhat lower. He has been fast, but not quite enough to capture headlines. If he can mimic last year’s effort of Dan Wheldon (who ran around the lead much of the day before passing a crashed Hildebrand heading toward the checkered flag), he could certainly find himself a contender and make up for last year.

Barrichello may be one of the most experienced rookies who has ever raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, he has even raced here before, between 2000 and 2007 (albeit on the road course). Qualifying tenth was a great accomplishment and has him well placed to make an early push for the lead. His results have slightly underwhelmed thus far, but that could easily change on Sunday.

Row 3: E.J. Viso, Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden

Quite frankly, Viso would probably be happy to simply finish the race. The at times erratic KV Racing driver has yet to see the end of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing in four previous starts. However, his 2012 season has been marked by fewer incidents and improved consistency. If that trend continues, he should see the checkered flag, and perhaps near the sharp end of the field if the car is up to it.

Kanaan is probably the greatest driver in the paddock to have never won the Indianapolis 500. He has come excruciatingly close. He has led laps, finished as high as second (2004) and third (2003) and thrilled everyone with his charge from 33rd up into second in 2010 before fading to 11th. But, he hasn’t been able to seal the deal. A victory on Sunday would be enormously popular and well deserved for the likeable veteran. However, he’ll need to get Lady Luck on his side. Kanaan’s best 2012 finish is fourth, but his other finishes are 25th, 21st, and 13th, hardly confidence building ahead of the biggest race of the year. But, history says he’ll run well at Indianapolis. And, if that happens, he will be contend for win, and possibly bring home that elusive Indy 500 crown.

Newgarden is an interesting case. As a rookie, the immediate expectation is simply to run all the laps and gain experience. But, after leading three open practices ahead of qualifying, it became apparent that he is one of the best true rookies we’ve seen in a long time. Should the opportunity present itself, Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing could just pull an upset, which would be one of the biggest the race has ever seen.

Row 2: Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Marco Andretti

Castroneves has regained the form that made him a 3-time Indy 500 winner after a nightmarish 2011. The long-tenured Penske driver, who has driven for The Captain since 2000, looks as good as ever and is riding a wave of confidence entering Sunday. Starting up front, Castroneves looks to make history and join the four-time winner’s club (currently inhabited by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears). He’ll need to continue his early-season momentum, but Castroneves has as good of a chance as ever to add to his already impressive resume.

About the only things that have kept Power from challenging for an Indy 500 victory are pit stop errors. In 2010, the fuel hose was left in the car, while a left-rear tire was left loose and fell off last year. If those mistakes aren’t there, Power is a contender. He’ll have to get that monkey off his back, but he is backed by strong team and riding a three-race winning streak entering Sunday’s race. If there’s any time for him to break through, this would be it.

Andretti may have his best chance ever. Finally, after several lean years, Andretti Autosport has the outright speed to be a true contender, and Andretti is poised to capitalize. What’s more, he’ll have ace engineer Allen McDonald, who helped lead Alex Tagliani to pole last year, on his side. Andretti has been fast all month and runs very well at the Speedway, with finishes of second, third, third and ninth highlighting his resume. He’ll need to shake the dark cloud that has hovered the first four races of 2012 (in which his best finish is 11th), but Indianapolis could be the perfect place to get his season back on track.

Row 1: Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Briscoe

For the first time since 2008, when he was Rookie of the Year at “The 500,” Ryan Hunter-Reay is a bona fide contender. What’s odd is that, despite being one of the most tenured drivers in the field, he has only limited experience around the Speedway (he’ll only be making his fifth start in the big race). However, early-season finishes of the third (St. Pete), sixth (Long Beach) and second (Sao Paulo) have given him and the team a renewed vigor. Expect the American to be a major player throughout the day and he could possibly become the first U.S.-born driver to win the Indy 500 since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

Hinchcliffe will lead the charge for Andretti Autosport on Sunday. And, the affable Canadian has quickly become a fan favorite for his humor as well his humility and sensitivity (seen in how has handled being a replacement for Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon, who was originally slated to drive the Go Daddy sponsored machine after Patrick departed for NASCAR, and in his tribute to the late Greg Moore). Hinchcliffe has been pleasant surprise at the start of the season and has not finished lower than sixth this season. Like his teammates, he has been fast all month long and narrowly missed out on the pole. If he can keep his car off the wall (he crashed out of last year’s race), Hinchcliffe should have a chance to become the second Canadian to claim victory at Indianapolis.

Briscoe has finally escaped the long shadows of his teammates this year. The likeable Australian surprised everyone by snatching pole position for Sunday. But, he’ll have to shake the monkey off his back that his haunted him in recent years at ‘The 500.” He crashed out of three of the last four races (all with Team Penske), and finished 15th the only time he saw the checkered flag for the Captain (his other finishes were tenth, for Chip Ganassi in 2005, and fifth, for Dragon Racing in 2007). The success of his teammates means he’s facing mounting pressure to perform, and that pressure won’t be greater than it is at Indianapolis. If He’ll he can shake the bad luck off of him, he has a strong chance of bringing Roger Penske his 16th Indianapolis 500 crown (Jacques Villeneuve was the first in 1995).



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