Monday, May 19, 2014

World of possibilities in Sunday's Indianapolis 500

What to make of Sunday’s 98th running of the Indianapolis 500?  It’s my 52nd Memorial Day weekend classic, and there are about that many variables in play when it comes to picking a winner.

Since I’m showing up at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, I might as well take a shot.

For starters, any one of 20 drivers could win.  Yes, I’m serious.  Look at the qualifying speeds.  There’s VERY little separation among the top two dozen drivers.  And given the architecture of the cars, drafting to pass is going to be a most common occurrence on Sunday.

In fact, I can virtually guarantee you that if the lap last is run under the green flag and you have a handful of cars racing together in line at the beginning of that lap, the second- or third-place car will win.

As was demonstrated last year with driver Tony Kanaan’s late pass to victory, it’s nearly impossible to hold back the second-place car for any length of time in a nose-to-tail formation.

Kanaan and his Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon, aren’t generating much buzz this week because their cars did not generate the kind of speed found by the hot shots of the just-concluded qualifying weekend.

Don’t let that fool you.  I thought the same thing in 2012, when the Ganassi cars of Dixon and teammate Dario Franchitti seemed to be lacking in speed.  On race day, they had more-than-adequate speed and exceptional fuel mileage.  Franchitti and Dixon finished first and second, respectively.

That could happen again on Sunday.  Kanaan deserves particular attention. He drives the Indy 500 like Wynton Marsalis handles a trumpet.  His 16th starting position means nothing.  He could be leading the race by 100 miles, and yes, he’s very capable of notching a second straight Indy win.

With so many cars are bunched tightly on the speed charts, this year’s race shapes up as a blizzard of potentially glorious stories: Marco Andretti winning to break the “Andretti curse” at Indy, James Hinchcliffe bouncing back from a recent concussion to take the prize, hard-luck Will Power banishing his demons with a 500 win and Helio Castroneves winning a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500.  I can also envision Carlos Munoz, last year’s runner-up and not well known outside Indy racing, drinking the winner’s milk on Sunday.

As for me, I’m picking pole-sitter Ed Carpenter to win it, and that win will rank as one of the most popular in race history if the soft-spoken, hometown Indianapolis driver can pull it off.  Carpenter started from the pole last year, but myriad problems kept him out of the scramble at the finish.

If he steers clear of problems and is running in a line of three to five tightly bunched cars at the end, watch him closely.  He’s very good on the fast ovals.

Luck will enter the play at some point.  A lot can happen in 500 miles: tire trouble, mechanical ills or just being in the wrong place at any given moment.

Dark horse pick: 2000 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, returning from his adventures in other racing series to win at Indy once again.

Deep dark horse pick: Josef Newgarden, a seriously talented, smart 23-year-old who could propel himself into the national spotlight when the checkered flag falls on Sunday.


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