The Top Storylines to Follow Ahead of the 2014 Indy 500
There's never only one thing that stands out at the Indianapolis 500.
No, that's not a contradiction; it's fact. For every time the green flag and 33 cars and drivers go forward, you essentially have 33 different storylines going forward as well.
But this year's 500, the 98th edition of the so-called "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," has several storylines that just stand out from the pack and deserve special attention and notoriety.
The most notable storylines include NASCAR's Kurt Busch becoming the first driver in a decade to attempt the "Double"—racing in the 500 in the early afternoon and then doubling-up by racing the same evening 600 miles away in the, not coincidentally and aptly-named Coca-Cola 600, Sprint Cup's longest and most grueling event of the season.
For as many eyes that will be on Busch, there will also be eyes on former NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who has returned back to his open-wheel racing roots this season in the IndyCar Series, as well as Jacques Villeneuve.
In an interesting twist of fate, Montoya and Villeneuve will be attempting to defend their wins in the last Indy 500 each man competed in prior to Sunday: Villeneuve won the 1995 500, while Montoya won the 2000 race.
Because both left the Indy car circuit after those respective seasons to drive in Formula One, they never had a chance to properly defend those titles. Can they pick up where they left off 14 and 19 years, respectively?
As USA Today put it, "The returns of Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve are among many storylines that could restore some of the luster the Greatest Spectacle in Racing has been struggling to recapture over the past two decades."
Montoya sure feels that way, telling USA Today, "I do believe the future is very bright for IndyCar. They're definitely on the way up. They really want to put it back where it was."
Let's take a look at eight of the top storylines that every race fan needs to keep an eye on in this Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
8. Buddy Lazier: Will This Be His Last Chance at Winning a Second 500 Title?
Buddy Lazier will go down in racing history as the guy whose Indy 500 win in 1996 was not looked upon on the same level of greatness as almost every other winner before and after him.
Lazier's win in his first ever 500 start came in the same year when CART teams boycotted the 1996 running of the 500. The upstart Indy Racing League mandated specific rules that CART objected to, which prompted the en masse boycott.
After his win in 1996, Lazier was very competitive for the next four years, finishing fourth, second, seventh and second again. But since that last runner-up finish in 2000, he's managed just one top-five since (2005).
Lazier came back to Indianapolis for last year's 500 after a four-year hiatus. Unfortunately, it was not a welcome homecoming: He finished a career-worst 31st out of a 33-driver field.
7. Juan Pablo Montoya: Back Home Again in IndyCar
Former NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya has returned to his open-wheel roots and is back at the place where he captured the 2000 Indy 500 before shipping off to Formula One for the following six seasons.
Ironically, just like 1995 500 winner Jacques Villeneuve, Montoya never had a chance to defend his 2000 win in the 500 because he left for F1 the following season. Can he pick up this Sunday where he left off 14 years ago?
Montoya is aligned with one of the most legendary teams in IndyCar history, Team Penske, which has won 15 races, the most of any team in Indy 500 history.
Given the somewhat failed experiment of Montoya racing the last seven seasons in NASCAR, it would be a huge boost to his career—and indirectly be a boost to NASCAR, as well—if he were to take the checkered flag on Sunday.
6. Jacques Villeneuve: Back at the Indy 500 After a Nearly 20-Year Absence
Jacques Villeneuve will be making his triumphant return to Indianapolis and Sunday's 500 for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Villeneuve has raced an open-wheel racer just twice at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speeedway oval and possesses arguably the most successful record of any driver that has ever raced on the fabled Brickyard.
Villeneuve finished second in his rookie start there in 1994, and then came back to win the race the following year before jumping to Formula One the following season, where he'd finish second in 1996 and win the championship in 1997.
Because he jetted off to F1, Villeneuve never had a chance to defend his 1995 win in the 500, so in a sense he's doing that this Sunday. Can he make it "two in a row?"
Although it has been 19 years since his last start at Indianapolis, Villeneuve still has a tremendous amount of talent. He's foregone returning to Indy a few times because of poor funding or mechanical resources. But he comes into Sunday's race with everything he needs to reach victory lane once again. And if he does, what a story that will be.
5. Ed Carpenter: Unfinished Business Left from Last Year's Indy 500
Winning the pole at Indy is not an easy achievement. But to do so for two consecutive years is significantly much more difficult.
Yet Ed Carpenter won the pole last year and will once again start this year's 500 from the top spot on the 33-driver grid.
But at the same time, Carpenter has some unfinished business left. He finished 10th in last year's race after having a car that potentially could have earned a top-five finish, if not a win.
He seems like he has a better car and is driving better than he ever has in his career. Will his 11th career start at Indy be the one that ends with his first career win there?
4. Tony Kanaan: Can He Make It Two Indy 500 Wins in a Row?
One of the nicest and friendliest guys in all of motorsports is back to defend last year's first career Indy 500 triumph.
But Tony Kanaan will be doing so in a significantly different way. First off, he is with a new team this season, essentially replacing Dario Franchitti, who was forced to retire after a horrendous crash in Houston late last season.
Second, Kanaan knows how to win the 500 now. He has that experience that he didn't have prior to winning last year's race.
And third, he may very well have luck on his side once again, like he did last year. If he can put all those together, he'll repeat as 500 champ for the second straight year.
3. Marco Andretti: Will the 'Andretti Curse' Finally Be Broken?
The infamous "Andretti curse" is now working its way through the third generation of racers at Indy.
Grandpa Mario won the 1969 500 but was never able to do so again in his career.
Father Michael came close several times, but never could seal the deal.
In fact, Marco has come close several times as well in his young career but still appears victimized by the curse that has affected the Andretti family for 45 years now.
Will the curse be broken Sunday? Andretti has been flying under the radar much of this month. That could be the ticket he needs to make history—and put that nasty curse to rest once and for all.
2. Jim Nabors' Indy 500 Swan Song
It will be a very sentimental day Sunday, but not just for the race. It's also about what will take place before the green flag falls or the command to start engines is given.
Jim Nabors, who shot to TV fame as Gomer Pyle in the 1960s, will end what has been nearly a four-decade tradition of his rendition of "Back Home Again In Indiana."
Nabors, who turns 84 in June, will likely cause a massive outpouring of emotion and tears when he gives his final homage to the 500 and the Hoosier state.
If you don't get choked up Sunday during Nabors' 500 swan song, shame on you.
1. Kurt Busch and 'The Double'
Kurt Busch has spent most of his life dreaming about racing in the Indianapolis 500.
On Sunday, that dream will be fulfilled. But it will also be part of history, as Busch will become the fourth driver to ever attempt what is known as motorsports' "Double", racing in both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600, the longest and most grueling race on the Sprint Cup schedule, on the same day.
John Andretti, Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon are the only other drivers who have attempted the Double, and Busch is the first since Gordon last did so a decade ago in 2004.
“I’m a racer. Tony Stewart is a racer, Robby Gordon is a racer and John Andretti is a racer,” Busch told the Charlotte Observer. “This is a true test of what your commitment level is on being a racer.”
Other than a wreck in practice earlier this week, Busch has had a near-flawless month at Indy. He's shown he can handle the speeds, the uniqueness of the open-wheel design and he's also not afraid to back down against fellow competitors.
"He looked incredibly comfortable, just like, 'OK, this is no big deal,' " ESPN analyst Eddie Cheever Jr., who won the Indy 500 in 1998, told USA Today. "He knows what he's got to do. He doesn't seem bashful about thinking he's capable of it.
"If he's in the top five and there's a mad rush the last two laps, I give him as much a chance as anybody. Because he's done it so many times before."
Realistically, we see Busch wind up with a top-10 finish. But if he gets a few breaks and stays out of trouble, he has a legitimate chance of becoming one of the very few drivers in racing history to win both a NASCAR championship and an Indy 500 win.
“I’m doing this for a lot of different reasons, but at the end of the day I think motorsports can use the shot in the arm to (follow) this is a guy that has never been in an Indy car (and) follow him to Charlotte to see what he can do down there running that full 600 miles,” Busch told the Observer.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski