Wednesday, May 25, 2011

In a wide-open Indianapolis 500, go with Dario

Sacramento, California – It’s milestone week.

I’ll be heading to Indianapolis tomorrow and marking my 50th anniversary of attending the Indianapolis 500, which is celebrating its centennial on May 29.

It will be an emotional day, and some fortunate driver will write his, or her, name into a special page in Indy’s record book. Who will it be?

I can’t remember a year where it was more unpredictable. With a mix of drivers not generally known to the public starting up front and numerous big-name drivers ready to charge from the back of the field, it’s a wide-open affair.

Yes, Canada’s Alex Tagliani, starting from the pole for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, could make himself world famous and carve his name in Centennial Gold on Sunday with a victory. It would be an incredible story for a longtime journeyman driving for a small INDYCAR racing team.

The same goes for other relatively unknown drivers starting in the first three rows.

Indy’s traditions have long included handicapping the 500 based on qualifying speeds and starting positions. That’s also a mistake … proven many times over the past 100 years.

Over the past generation alone, numerous drivers who were leading the 500 only 10 laps from the finish have not won the race. So starting from the pole is certainly no guarantee of drinking the milk in Victory Lane.

It’s not unusual for the pole-sitter to miss the race-day set-up and fall back into the field. Likewise, it’s not unusual for a middle-of-the-road car to have a perfect set-up and streak forward.

The race is being billed as the big race teams (Penske, Ganassi, Andretti) against the smaller, less-generously-funded teams. And while David beating Goliath has a nice ring to it, my gut tells me that one of the big boys will take the checkered flag first on Sunday.

From early on this year, I’ve liked three-time winner Helio Castroneves to win his fourth 500 this year. He likes the track and knows how to drive the race, and he’s working for the winningest Indy 500 race team owner of all time in Roger Penske. Castroneves has so far had a miserable season, and he shocked many last weekend with a lackluster qualifying effort that put him 16th on the starting grid.

Does that put him out of it? Not a chance. It just makes it more challenging.

If Penske hits the Brazilian’s race-day set-up on the nose, Castroneves will move up steadily and be among the leaders at the halfway point. From there, it’s a tactical race, and Castroneves has been there before. Remember that 2005 Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon started 16th in that race and blazed through the pack to take command.

Wheldon, amazingly without a ride for the full INDYCAR season, is my dark horse pick to win the race. His car is fast, starting from the sixth spot, and his record in the 500 is sterling – second the past two years, plus a third and a fourth to go with his 2005 victory. He’s done that in just eight Indy 500 starts.

For my money, that leaves two solid favorites, both starting near the front – Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon (2008 winner) and Dario Franchitti (2007 and 2010 winner). Based on past history, both cars will be expertly dialed in to run up front on race day. Indeed, it’s my guess that Dixon and Franchitti will be consistently in the top two from Lap 50 on.

From there, it’s just a matter of who’s faster, or who catches a break … and as always, who can avoid an accident. But then, you can say that about all 33 cars starting the 500.

It’s almost impossible for me to pick one of the two. But for argument sake, I like Dario to win the 500 for a third time. He’s been masterful at Indianapolis. I don’t expect that to change on Sunday.

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