95th Indianapolis 500: Drivers to Watch

Aaron YoungContributor IIIMay 28, 2011

95th Indianapolis 500: Drivers to Watch

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    The Front RowJonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    As the final hours tick away before the 95th running of the Indianapolis 500 commences, the race has attracted more intrigue than perhaps any 500 of the last decade.

    One hundred years after Ray Harroun's landmark victory, the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" has obviously undergone drastic changes. However, much of the excitement in this year's race can be attributed to the gradual return to tradition by both the race and the series.

    This year, the 33-car field is flooded with underdogs and one-off teams who have as much of a chance at the Borg-Warner trophy as the Goliath organizations of Ganassi and Penske. Moreover, at this year's qualifications, nobody was safe as two of the seven entries that missed the field belonged to Andretti Autosport, the third largest team in the series.

    Returning next year will be a team's liberty to choose what aero-kit/engine package they will run, ending the near-decade dominance by Dallara and Honda. Also in 2012, the turbocharger, which was once a signature of open-wheel racing and the Indy 500, will make its return.

    This Sunday's race has many analysts and long-time fans on the edge of their seats, and the green flag has yet to be waved. So, amidst a pack of dark horses, slower-than-expected established teams and the usual front-runners, who should keep an eye out for?

Best of the Rest

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Team Penske (Briscoe/Castroneves/Power)

    You may be surprised by the exclusion of this powerhouse team from the list. However, only Will Power has shown any consistency this past month, and ovals are not the Australian's strong suite. Despite a 16th place start on the grid, three-time winner Helio Castroneves will easily race his way in the top 10.

    However, teammate Ryan Briscoe, who starts 26th in a backup car, may experience great difficulty in racing his way to the front. I could very easily be wrong about the Penske fleet, which is always a threat, but I believe all three of the team's drivers will endure a race of mediocrity.

    Andretti Autosport (Andretti/Hunter-Reay*/Patrick)

    Maybe the most shocking story to follow the results of Bump Day was the shocking lack of speed displayed by the Andretti Autosport team. Of the five entries, only three made the field while another team driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, replaced Bruno Junqueira in the race in the No. 41 Foyt Enterprises entry.

    The team's top two drivers Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick fended off staggering drama on Sunday to eek their way into the field, but neither have shown evidence they will contend on race day. Don't expect Andretti or Patrick to contend for the win. A top 10 would be a great success for any of these three drivers.

    Ed Carpenter (No. 67/ Sarah Fisher Racing) & Buddy Rice (No. 44/ Panther Racing)

    Both of these drivers were surprising to spectators to a certain degree as Rice qualified seventh and Carpenter eighth. I believe these two entries to be legitimate entries, and it would not be out of the question for the veteran Carpenter and 2004 Indy 500 winner Rice to find success on Sunday.

    However, in a field packed full of dark horse contenders and potential upsets, these two have unfortunately taken a back seat in the conservation. I, for one, would certainly enjoy seeing both drivers contend for the victory.

Graham Rahal/ No.38/ Chip Ganassi Racing

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The son of 1985 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal returns for his fourth go at equaling his father's success. Following an encouraging 12th place finish in his father's car in last year's race, Rahal came to Indy this year as a new member of the expanded Ganassi fleet.

    The month began well for the 22-year-old from Ohio as he and Ganassi-satellite teammate Charlie Kimball put up good speeds while racing with the pack in practice. However, engine woes during time trials placed Rahal in the middle of Row 10. These struggles were short-lived, though, as the problems seems to be worked as his Carb Day speeds equaled those he laid down earlier this month.

    Graham Rahal is now longer an Indy rookie as he has endured his share of attrition at the track (finishes of 33rd and 32nd in his first two years, respectively). Expect this rising star to pick up the most positions of any competitor on Sunday and claim a more than solid finish.

Paul Tracy/ No. 23/ Dreyer-Reinbold Racing

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Paul Tracy is more than ready to replace his controversial runner-up finish in the 2002 Indy 500 as his most memorable race experience. Although the 42-year-old Canadian starts on the outside of Row 8, Tracy's intensity and proven talent make him a constant threat.

    Don't be surprised if the "Thrill from West Hill", who is competing in his seventh Indy 500, makes a charge to the top 10. At the very least, he is a guarantee to stir up some sort of excitement on or off the track.

Simona De Silvestro/ No. 78/ HVM Racing

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The 22-year-old Swiss driver suffered second-degree burns on her hands as a result of a scary practice crash on May 19. Two days later and in a great measure of pain, she safely qualified for her second Indy 500 and will start in the middle of Row 8.

    Last year, she impressively finished in a solid 14th and was named Rookie of the Race. While she may not be much of a threat to contend for a top finish, the fact the she is in the field following her injury is admirable. If she is able to complete all 500 miles, de Silvestro will display the utmost degree of devotion and determination and should earn many new fans.

John Andretti/ No. 43/ Andretti Autosport

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    This pick may be surprising to most readers. While I would agree John Andretti may not set the word on fire Sunday, I do believe he has the potential for a strong finish and, in my opinion, will be the highest finishing of the three Andretti Autosport entries, a feat which would be significant.

    Andretti's team, the No. 43 Window World machine, is not a complete effort by his cousin Michael's team as it is funded in majority by John's longtime NASCAR owner Richard Petty, but it was the only of the Andretti fleet to qualify on pole day and has been the most impressive overall in practice. The 48-year-old put up impressive speeds on Carb Day and once strung together four consecutive top-10s in the 500 between the years of 1991 and 1994.

    While his prime may be behind him, this may be a good opportunity for him to earn an impressive finish at the historic two-and-a-half-mile track. If he can make it out of the first few laps from the accident prone starting position of 17th, he could put together a top 10 or 15.

James Hinchcliffe/ No. 6/ Newman-Haas Racing

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The young Canadian is everybody's pick to be Rookie of the Race and for good reason. The 24-year-old Hinchfliffe starts in 13th behind top qualifying rookie J.R. Hildebrand and has laid down consistent practice laps while staying out of trouble.

    This is the Indy Lights graduate's first oval start in the IndyCar Series, but he does have some experience at the track in the Lights series, finishing third and 16th in two previous starts. Expect James Hinchcliffe to stay out of trouble and finish impressively for a rookie.

Vitor Meira/ No. 14/ Foyt Enterprises

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Vitor Meira's record in the Indianapolis 500 is a story of triumph and tragedy. The veteran Brazilian driver has achieved the arduous feat of finishing the runner-up in the race twice in his eight starts (2004, 2008).

    His near victory in 2008 was followed by the aforementioned tragedy as he broke his back in a horrific crash late in the race and was sidelined for the remainder of the season. This year, though, Meira once again has a legitimate shot at being the first to the checkered flag. The 34-year-old has been one of the fastest cars since the track opened, and he easily qualified the car in 11th.

    Although he starts a little farther back then most dark horse picks, Vitor Meira may be the best bet for an upset and could very easily bring the Borg-Warner back to Foyt Enterprises for the first time since 1999.

Dario Franchitti/ No. 10/ Chip Ganassi Racing

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Most will pick Franchitti's teammate Scott Dixon as the outright favorite to claim another 500 victory on Sunday. However, I believe Dario is the man to beat. He may start seven positions behind his teammate on the grid, but as we all know the seven position separation between the two was the result of an unfortunate fuel calculation every during Pole Day qualifying.

    The No. 10 Target machine's speeds have nearly equaled those of Dixon and should find no trouble in catching him during the race. I believe Dario, already a two-time Indy 500 Champion, has proven himself to be perhaps the best of his generation at the Speedway, only rivaled by Helio Castroneves. I can easily picture Dario adding a third Indy 500 victory to his resume on Sunday.

Dan Wheldon/ No. 98/ Bryan Herta Autosport

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    The veteran Dan Wheldon may be absent from the IndyCar Series this year, but the Englishman shows no signs of rust. The 2005 Indy 500 Champion has only this race on his schedule this year, driving for former teammate Bryan Herta, and he plans to make the most of it.

    The No. 98, which is receiving additional support from Sam Schmidt Motorsports, has been among the fastest of all entries during the month of May. Qualifying sixth and laying down consistently fast practice laps, Wheldon has shown his definite prowess at the Speedway and looks rested and more prepared than ever. Motivated by this one-off opportunity and a thirst for another unforgettable 500 memory, expect Dan Wheldon to seriously contend for the win.

Townsend Bell/ No. 99/ Sam Schmidt Motorsports

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    In his third year as an Indy 500-only driver, Bell hopes to repeat his fourth place performance in 2009. Last year, the veteran Californian drove for Sam Schmidt Motorsports and placed 16th. He returns to the track this year with the same team, which has proven itself to be much, much stronger.

    Much like his teammate who sits on the pole for the race, Bell and his No. 99 have been pleasant surprises this month. The 36-year-old came close to a front row start on pole day, earning fourth on the grid. This car performs well in the pack, and its driver has plenty enough experience despite racing in only 22 career IndyCar races. Bell has a legitimate shot at making a name for himself after a decade of open-wheel racing.

Oriol Servia/ No. 2/ Newman-Haas Racing

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    To the surprise of many, Oriol Servia and the No. 2 Newman-Haas team have been among the most consistent teams this May. Unlike most second-tier operations at Indianapolis, Servia has yet to lose speed over the past few weeks. The 36-year-old Spaniard even sat on the pole for a period of time. Servia, who is making his third start in the race, will start on the outside of the first row.

    While I don't include him in the shortlist of drivers who have a serious shot at winning on Sunday, I am reluctant to exclude the former CART stand-out. I do find it altogether possible that Oriol Servia can run a good race, finish in the top five or ten and help re-establish Newman-Haas as a front-runner in open-wheel racing.

Scott Dixon/ No. 9/ Chip Ganassi Racing

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    As I previously wrote, Scott Dixon is considered by most to be the favorite. While I agree is in a great position to claim his second Indy 500 victory, I don't consider the New Zealander as a lock. The 30-year-old nearly claimed the pole last Saturday but wound up in a close second.

    He has supported his excellent qualifying run with blazing fast practice speeds, topping the charts many times. Dixon has proven himself a force to be reckoned with a the track, but I believe his teammate Dario Franchitti to be the superior driver at Indianapolis. Dixon will most likely find himself on the podium once all is said and done on Sunday. Where on the podium? That's to be determined.

Alex Tagliani/ No. 77/ Sam Schmidt Motorsports

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Alex Tagliani's pole run is one of the most inspiring stories in motorsports in recent years. The odds were firmly against the 38-year-old Canadian claiming the top spot last Saturday. The veteran driver fulfilled his owner Sam Schmidt's dreams of accomplishing Indianapolis greatness after his driving career was cut short a decade ago when a practice crash left him paralyzed.

    The No. 77 entry was established last year under the FAZZT Motorsports banner and was partially owned by Tagliani himself before the short-lived team was sold to Schmidt. Now, the team, vastly underfunded in comparison to IndyCar conglomerates, has emerged a contender at the greatest event in all of motorsports.

    Tagliani is the first polesitter not competing for Ganassi or Penske since Tony Kanaan claimed the pole for Andretti-Green Racing in 2005. While some remain skeptical of the Canadian's pole run, his practice speeds have only seconded his chart-topping qualifying trial. On Carb Day, Tags was second only to Scott Dixon. The veteran is competing in his third Indy 500 with previous finishes of 10th and 11tth. 

    In a race that has been dominated by basically two teams for the last decade, many would expect Tagliani and the No. 77 Sam Schmidt Motorsports entry to stand little chance at victory. I would argue to the contrary though and say Alex Tagliani has a good a shot at kissing the bricks as any other driver. A victory on Sunday by Tagliani would be on of the most inspiring and memorable in the race's illustrious history.

Summary

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    This field is without a doubt full of contenders for a victory in the most important race of the year. Analysts may speculate all they please, I among them, but in the end, the Indianapolis 500 has proven itself to be a nearly unpredictable race. Following a month of quickly changing weather, the race could easily end due to rain and a surprise winner, much like Buddy Rice was in the shortened 2004 race, could be victorious.

    Or, with the introduction of double-file restarts, an unexpected crash could wipe all the race's contenders in a few short moments. Or really, anything could happen. Only one thing is positively true. Millions of fans are eagerly awaiting the hoisting of the Borg-Warner trophy by a worthy racer when the checkered flag has fallen on the 100th Anniversary and 95th running of the Indianapolis 500.