Breaking down the odds of victory for a race like the Indianapolis 500 is like trying to project which way the stock market will turn. Too much can happen in 500 miles to determine who crosses the bricks first. However, I am foolish enough to try.
The Elite Contenders
Of course, my sights are set on the front row for this category. Starting with the Penske duo of Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, one does not have to look far for at least one of these two to be right there at the end for the win. You never bet against Roger Penske in Indy. Of the two, Castroneves is more accomplished and proven on ovals, Indy in particular, but Briscoe is intriguing because of his run in 2008's Indy 500, which was cut short because of the well-publicized contact with Danica Patrick in pit lane. I am leaning towards Castroneves based on experience alone, but do not be surprised if the Penske magic rubs off on Briscoe this time around.
As for the rest, the second red and white brigade in Target Chip Ganassi's Dario Franchitti and defending champion Scott Dixon are in the same class as the Penske cars. Dixon is as cool as they come when under pressure. He will be patient with his car as he eventually makes his way towards the front. Franchitti, the 2007 champion, is much like his Ganassi teammate; making the duo ever the more dangerous on race day.
Andretti-Green racing's Tony Kanaan has been as snake bitten as they come in recent years. Kanaan, arguably, had the car to beat in 2008, but was collected in teammate Marco Andretti's hasty decision to pass; ending up in a collision with Sarah Fisher that would end his 500. To say Kanaan is well overdue is an understatement. Starting on the outside of row number two, Kanaan could be one to watch as always has been the case in every 500 he has started.
The Mid-level Contenders
For this category, I will lump the likes of Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and Danica Patrick together. Starting fourth on the grid, Rahal is young and fast; emphasis on young. Inexperience will bite you hard at Indianapolis. Rahal better keep his wits about him or else fall prey to the Indianapolis wall that is out to get the unsuspecting drivers that do not respect it.
Andretti and Patrick are much the same. Both have good track records at the Speedway. Finishing second at the stripe in 2006 to Sam Hornish Jr, Andretti will try to avenge the luck his father Michael had in trying to return the Andretti name to the Borg Warner trophy. Patrick, the media darling, burst onto the scene in 2005 in Indianapolis; finishing fourth. She seemingly is always found lurking in the waning moments of the race and it would not be a surprise to find her there in 2009.
The Dark Horses
Starting seventh on the grid hardly makes you a dark horse, but KV Racing's Mario Moraes qualifies as such. Much like Rahal, he is young and inexperienced, but there has been something about him this month that says he might be a surprise on Sunday. One small adjustment Moraes needs to make is his racing line, which comes dangerously close to tagging the wall exiting the corner.
Will Power has the luxury of having Penske power underneath him on Sunday when he rolls off ninth. Power is inexperienced on ovals, but has apparently come a long way in his transition from Champ Cars a year ago. Much like Ryan Briscoe in the Luczo Dragon car in 2007, which was really a third Penske car, Power will benefit greatly from Penske's knowledge on race day.
Speaking of Luczo Dragon, rookie Raphael Matos was the fastest qualifier on day two; a surprise to many in Gasoline Alley. Jay Penske's operation could work a bit of second generation magic with some crafty fuel strategy to help the young Brazilian be a contender at day's end.
The Revenge Is A Dish Best Served PT Style Category
I could not write this preview without mentioning Paul Tracy. Starting 13th on the grid, Tracy has the ax of axes to grind when in 2002 he lost his appeal of whether or not he passed Castroneves before the yellow caution light came on with two laps to go. Hate to break it to you, Paul, but you still have not passed him. That bit of bitter history aside, Tracy could exact revenge seven years later but stealing a victory and thumbing his nose at Tony George once and for all. If Tracy is a factor late in the race, he could become a force to be reckoned with.
The Hard Luck Bunch
Vitor Meira and Ed Carpenter both had strong runs in 2008. Meira, forever the bridesmaid, has gained notoriety for his mounting runner-up finishes including one in last year's 500. Indianapolis' own Carpenter had a surprisingly strong showing last year. Both could be a factor at race's end, but not too strong of a chance to drink the milk, however.
The Sunday Driver Contingent
Granted, the field has grown stronger over the years compared to the Indy Racing League's creation in 1996, but there is a driver that should have no business piloting a 200-plus mph race car. That is Milka Duno, the Citgo backed driver, who will undoubtedly be slow enough to impede the lead pack's progress as well as cause cautions of her own. To say Duno is unqualified goes without saying, but to say a driver is unqualified is a dangerous proposition when one's job description entails evasive maneuvers at high speeds. Duno is one the last few holdouts from an era of field fillers who brought lucrative sponsorship money despite their lack of driving skills.
So there you have it, the Indianapolis 500 field broken down into distinct divisions. Nothing is certain in this event, but the only constant is the unknown that 500 miles brings.