Indy 500 2012: 7 Under-the-Radar Drivers Who Could Challenge for the Win
You know all the favorites. At Penske Racing, there's three-time race winner Helio Castroneves, polesitter Ryan Briscoe, and championship leader Will Power. At Andretti Autosport, there are two front row starters, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Marco Andretti, who paced the field on Fast Friday. At Chip Ganassi Racing, one can never count out former winners Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti.
But as we learned last year, being the favorite doesn't mean anything to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Last year's race came down to fuel strategy, which left the race in the hands of rookie J.R. Hildebrand, until a last-turn accident gave the race away to Dan Wheldon. Wheldon won as part of a one-race deal with Bryan Herta Autosport, making him the first one-shot winner since Castroneves and Penske in 2001. If nothing else, it reminded everybody that a win is no guarantee for the sport's power players.
With that in mind, there's a strong possibility that another under-the-radar team can put together the right combination on Sunday and take the Borg-Warner Trophy. These seven teams have the best shot.
#4 J.R. Hildebrand
Panther Racing Chevrolet, Starting 18th
Panther cars have finished second at Indianapolis for the past four years. Hildebrand had been poised to break the streak until he crashed coming out of the final corner in last year's event, allowing the late Dan Wheldon, himself responsible for two of those runner-up finishes, to make the winning pass.
Panther is sick of finishing second, Hildebrand didn't develop a taste for it last year, and with a bill at the hands of the government that may eliminate all military sponsorship of sporting events, a win may be the best way to prepare for potentially replacing the National Guard on Hildebrand's Chevrolet.
#5 E.J. Viso
KV Racing Technology Chevrolet, Starting 9th
Viso was the least likely driver to make it into Saturday's Fast Nine shootout, matching KVRT teammate Tony Kanaan in a pole shootout field that included eight Chevrolets. Viso has been running at Indy since 2008, but he's never made it to the finish of the race.
With the top engine in the series and a more consistent, level-headed approach to this season, Viso's first time making it to the checkered flag might produce big results.
#7 Sebastien Bourdais
Dragon Racing Chevrolet, Starting 25th
Dragon Racing, owned by Jay Penske, managed to secure Chevrolet engines (with the help of father Roger, whose Ilmor engine-building corporation manufacturers them) for Bourdais and Katherine Legge late in the week of practice, and Bourdais rewarded the effort by posting the fastest qualifying run on Sunday.
He placed 12th in his only Indy 500 in 2005, crashing out of fifth place with three laps to go, so he knows how to get around this place.
#14 Mike Conway
A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda, Starting 29th
Foyt-prepared cars are always a sentimental pick at Indianapolis. Foyt is one of the lucky few to visit Victory Lane four times as a driver, and he added another visit in 1999 as Kenny Brack's owner.
Conway, meanwhile, has unfinished business at the track, after a season-ending accident in 2010 and failure to qualify for last year's event. This combination has more to prove than perhaps any other at the speedway, and after the insult of qualifying on Bump Day, they're going to attack Sunday's race with everything they've got.
#22 Oriol Servia
Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet, Starting 27th
Breaking their Lotus contract left Servia and Dreyer & Reinbold at a serious disadvantage coming into Indianapolis, but a partnership with four-time race runner-up Panther Racing to run Chevrolet engines should greatly improve their fortunes.
Servia qualified on the outside of the first row last year, while three separate DRR cars each led laps in the 2010 running of the race, so both know what it takes to run up front at Indy. The only question is if they can borrow some of Panther's luck; three different drivers have brought them to runner-up finishes in each of the past four years.
#67 Josef Newgarden
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda, Starting 7th
If there's such a thing as a "popular" dark horse pick, i.e. an unexpected driver who everybody expects to win come race day, it can only happen at Indianapolis, where days and days of practice separate the bona fide contenders from the wannabes. Newgarden, a rookie, and SFHR, running its first full-time season, have established themselves as bona fide contenders, after topping the time sheet on three of the first six practice days.
The team only has a one-race sponsorship deal with Dollar General, so a victory would do great things for all parties; it'd give SFHR a greater shot at attracting sponsors, it'd give Newgarden a ride for years to come, and it'd give IndyCar the competitive American start that it's been desperately pursuing for the past few years.
#98 Alex Tagliani
Bryan Herta Autosport Honda, Starting 11th
Last year's polesitter and last year's winning car owner should make for a reasonably decent, if not world-beating, pairing in this year's race.
Now that Herta and Tagliani have given up their Lotus contract to return to the Honda power that aided them at Indianapolis last year, their chances to win should be greatly improved. Though neither returned to the pole shootout in Saturday qualifying, falling two places short, it's clear that both driver and team are excited about the engine switch, viewing it as the final piece to mounting a serious effort for the rest of the season.