Monday, May 23, 2016

Indy's young guns must watch mid-pack veterans

Mark Glover will attend the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, his 54th Indy 500. A menu of his AutoGlo car reviews can be seen on the Business page of The Sacramento Bee’s website

There are young guns aplenty in the first three rows of the 33-car field that will take the green flag Sunday in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, but I strongly suspect that a prospective winner is lurking in the middle of the pack.

That has been the way of Indy of late.  A high starting position is no guarantee of drinking the winner’s milk when the grind is done.

And yet, there is highly capable talent up front.

Relatively youthful pilots whose names are not familiar to folks who follow IndyCar on a casual basis could become household names by the time the checkered flag falls.

American Josef Newgarden, 25, has shown speed all month in his Chevrolet.  He came within an eye-blink of winning the pole position last weekend.

Colombian Carlos Munoz, all of 24, darn near won this race as a raw rookie in 2013, when he was just edged out by mega-popular victor Tony Kanaan.

Twenty-nine-year-old Moscow native Mikhail Aleshin seems like a veteran of the new guard, but he has traveled a rocky road to get his shot at glory from the No. 7 starting position.

And then there’s James Hinchcliffe, the 29-year-old Canadian, who put his Honda on the pole a year after nearly bleeding out in his car after a brutal crash into Indy’s barely-forgiving outside wall.

Hinchcliffe claiming the pole is the comeback story of 2015.  He’s completely capable of upping it a notch on Sunday.

Truth be told, any one of 20 drivers could win.  Seriously.  This is ultra-high-speed motorsport, and yes, it is Indy.  Anything can happen.  A million variables are in play.  A serious favorite can be taken out by a small mistake not of his/her making.

Looking well back in the starting field should give Hinchcliffe and the young guns plenty of reason to worry.

Scott Dixon, the 2008 winner, will likely have his new engine and chassis tuned to perfection by Sunday.  He goes off 13th.  Next to him is Marco Andretti, who came within a few hundred feet of winning back in 2006 and has a handful of top-fives at Indy since then.

Starting positions No. 17 and No. 18 are occupied by two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya and Kanaan, respectively.  I’m betting that they will be running near the front 50 laps into the 200-lap race.

How unpredictable are things?  Could, say, 24-year-old Northern California native Alexander Rossi win it as a series newcomer and Indy 500 rookie?  Absolutely, he could.  His Honda has been fast all month.  Starting from the No. 11 position, he needs to stay clean and let things happen to other cars.  If that pans out, he has a chance.

As do another dozen or so drivers, given similar situations.

Who wins it?

I’m aging and sentimental, so I’m picking three-time race winner Helio Castroneves to claim his record-tying fourth victory in this 100th running of the world-famous race.  He starts ninth.  He has a fast car.  He drives for Roger Penske.  And he knows precisely how to win this race.  Enough said.

My dark horse pick is 32-year-old Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, if you can call an exceptionally talented driver who has won the last three Verizon IndyCar Series races a dark horse pick.  Pagenaud came within one bad break of contending for the win in 2015.  The Chevy driver, starting eighth in a Penske-prepared Chevrolet, is on a serious roll.  And I hear that he likes a swig of milk after a long race.

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