100th anniversary has makings of classic

BY foxsports • May 28, 2011

Underdogs, controversy, Danica and Dario and a high-speed bait-and-switch. If the storylines play out as expected, Sunday’s 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 should make the historians proud. It has the makings of an epic.

An A-list driver lineup steering underdog team cars stands a reasonable shot to snap a string of six straight Indy victories by IndyCar’s top dogs — Penske, Ganassi and Andretti teams.

For the first time ever, double-file restarts will be used on the historic and treacherous 2.5-mile super oval. It’s been a very unpopular idea with the drivers who worry that this first-time experiment might derail them in the biggest race of the year. But they acknowledge — perhaps grudgingly — it’s sure to grab fans’ attention.

With what looks like an impending move to NASCAR on the horizon and new IndyCars to drive coming in 2012, this may be Danica Patrick’s last realistic chance to make history as the first woman to win Indianapolis. She has five top-10 finishes in six Indy 500 races but rolls off 25th in the 33-car field Sunday, her worst-ever starting position.

For drivers Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves — wins Sunday would make the record books. Defending winner Franchitti is trying to become the first to win back-to-back races since Castroneves in 2001-2002 and only the 10th driver in history to collect at least three wins. Castroneves is going for his fourth gulp of Indy’s victory milk, putting him in the legendary company of A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears.

And just for good measure, there was a jaw-dropping last-minute driver swap. After failing to qualify for the race on his own merits, Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay will replace Bruno Junquiera in A.J. Foyt’s second car. It gives the race another American driver, but left some purists with a bad taste in their mouth for the behind-the-scenes deal-making.

Every year the pundits wonder how the actual race can live up to its hype. As with most years before it, the world’s greatest race looks to be up to the billing.

Still, for all the talk of dramatic surprises, it most likely will come down to the greatest rivalry in American motorsports, the Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi teams.

These teams account for 18 wins between them and four of the last five. However, this year’s race presents some challenges. Both organizations struggled uncharacteristically during qualifying. Ganassi driver Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy winner, was tops among the superpower teams and will start second, alongside upset pole-winner Alex Tagliani, who drives for the smaller Sam Schmidt Motorsports team.

Current IZOD IndyCar Series points leader Will Power will start fifth — best among the three Penske entries.

“Qualifying is gone, we’re not worried about that,’’ said Franchitti, whose car stunningly ran out of gas in the middle of his qualifying run, leaving him with a ninth-place spot on the grid — his worst start since 2004 (16th).

“It will make the first part of the race a little more difficult, but we have a fast car and we’ll get the Target car back up front. It’s very disappointing. I was really pissed off. But we’ll see what we can do on Sunday.

“It’s always a very tight race. I see it very close.’’

The bad weather that canceled several practice days should give the bigger teams the advantage of experience and detailed playbooks. They also hold an edge when it comes to pit stops. Penske driver Ryan Briscoe won the Pit Stop Competition on Friday. Some of the smaller teams put together impressive qualifying efforts but their crews lack continuity and practice. This is the first race of the year for four of the top nine starters creating an “on the job” training sort of situation when it comes to pit stops.

“If you would have asked me if we would out-qualify Helio and the other Penskes, I would have said no,’’ said 2005 Indy winner Dan Wheldon, who is making his first start of the season in the No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport car.

“Is it a surprise that Alex (Tagliani) sat on the pole? No. It just seems to be an incredibly competitive month and from a partial-program standpoint, it gives you that sole focus and that’s probably an advantage.

“I’d like to think we could be the Cinderalla team and wrestle a win from Penske and Ganassi. In this race, it doesn’t matter where you qualify.

“I don’t think you can discount too many people and I think that’s a positive for the IndyCar (Series) people."