Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Unknowns abound in Indy 500's 96th running

Indianapolis, Indiana – I’ll be seeing my 50th Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, and I cannot remember another race in that time that loomed as unpredictable as the upcoming 96th running.

New turbocharged engines, new aero chassis designs, new drivers. All will be getting a baptism by fire in, of all things, the most famous race in the world.

Anybody could win it. Maybe not anybody. But the list of potential winners approaches 20. For the Indy 500, that’s a lot.

Working out the bugs of the turbo engines has been the biggest concern. The rule lords of the 2.5-mile oval were fiddling with turbocharger boost right up to last weekend’s opening day of time trials. Plentiful technical fines were handed out last weekend, a byproduct of pressure and scurrying to play this very complex game within the regulations.

You could have a dominating car give up the ghost late in Sunday’s race. You could have overheating issues in the engine compartments. Who knows?

What is certain is that the Chevy power plants – at least under the qualifying rules – had a decided advantage over the Hondas. That might change on race day. Alas, Lotus is so far behind the curve that it’s probably best for them to simply think in terms of “wait until next year.”

Hopefully, with another year of development, more drivers and top-flight engines will be on hand for the 2013 Indy 500. What’s going to happen this time around? Here’s a guess:

Based on the historical example that no racing team does its homework like the one run by Indy legend Roger Penske, I like the chances of all three of its drivers. Pole-sitter Ryan Briscoe looks very racy, and Will Power is getting better on the ovals … a formidable skill to match his excellence on street and road courses.

But I like Penske pilot Helio Castroneves most of all. He’s my favorite to win on Sunday, and that would be his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 triumph.

While not the fastest in qualifying, Castroneves was certainly fast enough to be in the top tier, and he insists that his car is perfectly set up for the race. He has been telling anybody who will listen that his car is so dialed in that it can be tuned to the max in virtually all conditions.

Paired with Castroneves’ Indy 500 expertise – his ability to run up front and then turn it on late in the race is perhaps the best since four-time Indy winner Rick Mears raced here – and Penske perfection, the Helio train will be hard to top on Sunday.

Much as I like Castroneves, the man I most want to win is veteran Tony Kanaan, whose hard-luck experiences in the Indy 500 are legendary. Like me, thousands of Indy Car fans are rooting to see Kanaan break through. A Kanaan win would be hugely popular.

However, I’m not sure his car has the juice to do it. Maybe the crew will find the right formula by Sunday, but last weekend, Kanaan sounded like a man who felt he was a dollar short of a jackpot. In the “Final 9” qualifying session for the pole position, he didn’t even make a formal attempt, telling the media that he felt his car had already given all it had.

I hear that, but Kanaan’s performance record in traffic at Indy has been a sight to behold. If anyone can win it on savvy, Kanaan is the man.

Dark horse pick: Marco Andretti.

Yes, he’s a sometimes baffling combination of awkward arrogance and mind-blowing talent. But this year, he just might be holding all the right cards.

He’s finished third twice here and he came within an eye-blink of winning in 2006. He truly knows this place that has heaped a ton of heartbreak and a dash of glory upon the Andretti family. Marco likes his car, which has been fast right off the transporter.

The so-called “Andretti curse” at Indy might come crashing down when the checkered flag falls on Sunday. I would not be surprised to see young Marco drinking the milk of victory to mark the occasion.

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