The stage is now set for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 after an exciting Fast Nine qualifying round on Sunday, and there are plenty of stories to watch out for leading up to the May 25 race.
Coming into unarguably the biggest race of the year in IndyCar, the standings are packed at the top. Will Power will enter the race as the points leader (149), but only one point back (148) stands laps-led leader Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud is six points behind the lead.
There are a wealth of other drivers not named above who are capable of making a championship surge with a victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But, to start out, the entire field will be chasing Ed Carpenter, who won the Indy 500 pole for the second straight year.
Here's a look at the entire starting grid:
|10||Juan Pablo Montoya||231.007|
*Starting grid courtesy of IndyCar.com
Let's break down who to keep your eye on and what storylines will emerge throughout the race.
Will Helio Castroneves Pull it Off?
In every Indianapolis 500 since Helio Castroneves' 2009 victory, the one big-picture storyline continues to shine through—can Castroneves win his fourth Indy 500?
There have only been three to do so in IndyCar history—A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears—and if he joins their company, he'll tie the all-time record. The 39-year-old still has some good years left in him, so tying the record anytime soon will give him a great chance to break it in the years after.
Castroneves will start out fourth to open up the Indy 500, and he posted his excitement on Twitter:
Qualified 4th for IndyCar Series 230.649 Mph! http://t.co/h7hxaLsWHb— Helio Castroneves (@h3lio) May 18, 2014
A chance to join that elite company isn't the only opportunity Castroneves has in front of him. With 102 points, he's 47 shy of the lead, and a victory would move him into better contention for what would be his first IndyCar Series championship.
Needless to say, a lot is on the line for Castroneves, and a victory would make for one of IndyCar's best moments of the last few decades.
Can Ed Carpenter Learn From Last Year?
For the second year in a row, Ed Carpenter will start out the Indy 500 with nothing but track in front of him.
He hopes not to end the way last year's did, however.
Carpenter did lead 37 laps in the 2013 Indy 500 after winning the pole, but wasted little time giving it up and struggled to a 10th-place finish.
After getting the excited feelings of winning the pole out of the way last year, the 33-year-old wasted no time looking forward to the race in the moments after his second straight Indy 500 pole, per Indy Motor Speedway:
Coming from the top pole position and winning the race is certainly easier said than done, but Carpenter won't have any qualms about his starting spot. Perhaps the experience of last year will allow him to learn how to better stay in front, and how to stay in contention even when the lead is inevitably lost.
At the very least, Carpenter's pole position may allow him to finish well enough to earn his first points of the season.
Will Any Contender Separate Himself?
As discussed earlier, the standings are awfully tight at the top of the IndyCar Series after four races.
Power, Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud are all within six points of each other, but a handful of contenders aren't far behind, as told by the updated standings:
|Rank||Driver||Points||Behind||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
If Castroneves is able to win his fourth ever Indy 500, and one or all of the top three drivers finish poorly, he could make a big surge. Defending champion Scott Dixon, tied with Castroneves, will be eager to post an impressive finish to improve his fifth-place ranking.
But wait, there's more. Mike Conway, Marco Andretti, Justin Wilson, Tony Kanaan, Sebastien Bourdais and Ryan Briscoe all have 80 points or more.
At this point so early in the season, any one of 15 or so drivers have a feasible chance at winning the IndyCar Series.
But with the sport's biggest names at the top of the points standings, it's more likely that one of them will start to distance himself.
Will it be Power winning his first Indy 500 and taking a better grasp of the lead? Will Hunter-Reay bounce back from his 19th-place start? Can Castroneves make history and thus make a push toward the top of the standings?
All of those questions will be answered come May 25.