NASCAR's Daytona 500 may have emerged as the United States' most popular race in recent years, but there is none with a more hallowed history or richer tradition than the Indianapolis 500.
The Kentucky Derby of auto racing, each year the Indy 500 brings droves of intrigue to a sport that stands mostly on culture's fringes. IndyCar remains a thriving business thanks to its small but passionate fanbase, one that spans across the globe.
But on Sunday, the entire globe will be watching as the world's best open-wheel racers descend upon Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 97th running of the Indianapolis 500. Qualifying festivities set the field of 33 drivers last week for this year's event, leaving practices as the only form of racing between now and Sunday.
Chances for history adorn the field of drivers, giving the 2013 festivities the highest intrigue in recent memory. Four women drivers will vie to become the first to ever win the Indianapolis 500, with Simona de Silvestro being the highest qualifier at 24th.
Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves will also have history on the line, as they can match the all-time record of four wins. Last year, it was again Franchitti taking home the checkered flag. Dominating for much of the final Sunday in May, Franchitti kissed the bricks for a third time.
However, he put himself in a bit of a hole in qualifying and will have to fight his way up from 17th. And Franchitti isn't the only favorite who put themselves behind the proverbial eight ball in qualifying, either.
Here is a breakdown of a few drivers most likely to storm back from disappointing qualifying runs to contend on Sunday.
When: Sunday, May 26, at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
|24||Simona de Silvestro||78|
Mid-Pack Drivers to Watch
Scott Dixon (No. 9)
Dixon heads into the Indy 500 fifth in points, but the season's first four races certainly haven't gone as well as he'd hope. The 32-year-old Dixon has finished in the top five just twice, languishing near the middle of the field as he struggles to make much headway toward the front of the field.
Among IndyCar's top-five drivers this season, he's the only one to not lead a lap yet. That's not exactly the way anyone wants to head into the sport's biggest race, and Dixon is coming off an 18th-place result at the Sao Paulo Indy 300.
Last week's qualifying effort is just more of the same struggles. While most of the focus has been on Dixon's mediocre finishes, the No. 9 car's difficulty qualifying has been more disconcerting. His qualifying average of 14th is pretty dreadful for a driver on Chip Ganassi Racing's monolithic payroll.
Luckily, Dixon might be able to get off the schneid on Sunday. He won the Indy 500 in 2008 and has always exhibited comfort on the sport's biggest spotlight. Only teammate Dario Franchitti kept Dixon from kissing the bricks a second time last season, and he led the most laps before finishing fourth in 2011.
Ganassi brings his best to the Indy 500, and Dixon's car should be raring to go on Sunday. Though the qualifying struggles put him in an untenable position to start, Dixon should be able to work his way up the pack as long as he avoids trouble early in the race.
Dario Franchitti (No. 10)
Speaking of drivers not living up to their expectations...yeesh, Dario Franchitti. Heading into this year's race, the 40-year-old Franchitti is just 15th in the point standings and has major trouble staying on the track. Of drivers who have participated in each of the season's four races thus far, only Ana Beatriz has logged fewer laps, per NBC Sports.
It hasn't just been one problem, either. Franchitti had mechanical issues at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama but smacked hard against the wall at St. Petersburg. Both early-season finishes left Franchitti's chances at coming away with a championship gasping for a bit of air already.
Though a fourth-place and seventh-place finish in the seasons' last two races give him a little momentum heading into the Indy 500, qualifying again was ripe with troubles. Franchitti could not get his car to stick where he wanted it on the track and will now face starting in the 17th position.
Still, history says there's reason for hope for Franchitti. In his three previous Indy victories, he's only started inside the top-10 once. Last year, he started 16th and was on the inside of the sixth row. This year, he'll be one spot to the inside of where he was 12 months ago.
Of course, history doesn't automatically repeat itself. Franchitti will have to have the car to get things done, which didn't look to promising in qualifying. With teammate Scott Dixon also hanging toward the middle of the pack, one has to wonder about the strength of Chip Ganassi's cars this year.
Odds are Franchitti will be in contention. I just wouldn't bet on him winning, especially at Bovada's current 17-2 line.
Takuma Sato (No. 14)
While the two previously mentioned Ganassi drivers have had their fair share of frustrations, Sato cannot be too concerned with his 18th-place qualifying effort.
Driving for A.J. Foyt Enterprises this season, the Japanese racer is off to a fantastic start. He's leading the points standings through the first four races of 2013, having finished no worse than 14th in any event.
What's most notable about Sato is his aggressiveness on the track. The 36-year-old has a go-for-broke mentality straight out of Talladega Nights, driving his No. 14 car like a spider monkey all jacked up on Mountain Dew. It's that aggressive spirit that makes him a perfect fit to drive under Foyt, who is one of the legendary names in all of racing.
Last year at Indy, that aggressiveness didn't pay off. After leading 31 laps and being among the race's most dominant cars, Sato went for a risky pass on Franchitti in the 500's waning moments in a thrilling moment for all watching.
Unfortunately for Sato, he crashed and finished 18th. When asked whether he plans on being as aggressive this time around with the points lead at stake, Sato wasted no time telling Steve Keating of Reuters that fans can expect similar tactics this time around.
"The 500 last year gave a very clear idea for the fans if there is any chance I will attack for sure," Sato said. "This is the 500, you go for the win. Why not?"
Whether Sato will be able to make his way up the field from the sixth row remains to be seen. But we know that it won't be fore lack of trying.