The 2010 Indianapolis 500 is upon us and already there have been positive surprises, shocks and heartbreaks. Expect more of the same on race day, whenever the weather gods allow that to be.
If qualifying's new format was a success (and most agree it was, although some tweaks are needed), so too may be the race. Ever since Chip Ganassi Racing came up with a new aero package for oval races, the left-turn-only racing has improved, but the Indy rules package is different again. Let's hope that we get a lot more passing in the closing stages than we did last year.
One catalyst for that should be the push-to-pass boost, which most drivers intend to save until the last third of the race. They will get 15 hits of the button that will last 18 seconds each time, and it will take 10 seconds off-boost before it can be used again. Given the length of the straights at Indy, a lot of people expect this to make a huge difference. Use it up too early in the event, and you'll get eaten alive in the event of a late-race restart.
RACER staff are divided regarding who's going to drink the milk and lift the Borg-Warner on Sunday. Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Will Power and Scott Dixon are the predictable predictions – but there have been interesting premonitions favoring both Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti, too. (Mind you, two of us put money on Paul Tracy, so what the hell do we know?) Whatever, no one's expecting an easy ride for Castroneves, despite his form in qualifying: after all, Franchitti and Dixon were only one bad pit stop away from fighting him all the way to the flag in 2009…
Helio knows better than any of his rivals that, at Indy, Pole Day bragging rights last for a few days: race day winners are immortalized.
So, here's a team-by-team form guide to the 94th running of the Indy 500:
You could argue that the only unsurprising aspect of the 2010 Indy 500 grid is that Helio Castroneves is on pole. The new format of qualifying was never going to shake the faith that the Brazilian has in Team Penske's No. 3 crew, in the tactics of team president Tim Cindric and in his own ability. Whenever Castroneves drives into the racing capital of the world, he's a contender for fastest time and that continues into the race. If next Sunday's event were 200 green-flag laps, it would be a brave man who bet against Helio.
Will Power fans might do so, though. Rick Mears must be particularly pleased that his protégé's approach to this year's race has displayed the experience he gained from racing at the Brickyard with Penske last year. No one drives himself harder to absorb and learn from every racing experience and that has paid off so far. A composed Power in the Verizon Penske No. 12 should be Castroneves' strongest opposition.
Ryan Briscoe, while never looking the best of the three Penske cars over last week was always thereabouts, and with Roger Penske himself calling the shots for the No. 6 car, Briscoe will have regained his momentum by Sunday. Although he's the most likely of the three Penske drivers to make a mistake when the pressure's on, he's also very brave and fearsomely determined when dueling with non-Penske cars.
TARGET CHIP GANASSI RACING
If any team can rebound from a slightly underwhelming Pole Day, it's Chip's boys, and if you want proof, just look to the about turn that the No. 10 car – correction, No. 10T car – enjoyed last weekend. Sure, Dario Franchitti may have been alarmed by his trips over the ragged edge of adhesion through last Saturday, but after trailing his teammate Scott Dixon for most of the week, he flip-flopped the order comprehensively when it mattered, and beat one of the Penskes to gain a front-row starting position. If TCGR can do that with one car, they can surely make similar gains with Dixon's, and the team as a whole can come up with a Penske-matching race day setup. Both drivers have won Indy in the past, and Dixon in particular looked strong when running with race-level downforce through the practice days.
As for Townsend Bell, in the car co-run with Sam Schmidt Motorsport, a top-three finish is not too far fetched. He was superb in the KV Racing-run car around Indy last year, and even runner-up Dan Wheldon admitted it was only Panther's superior pit stops that put him ahead of Bell. Now that Townsend has qualified 10th, a Ganassi/Schmidt team and car could enable him to improve on his fourth place from '09.
FAZZT RACE TEAM
The biggest and best surprise of qualifying is that a rookie team with a sophomore driver was able to beat a Ganassi car to center spot on the second row. Yet if you'd been watching the progress of Alex Tagliani through all the practice sessions, it was actually far less of a surprise. FAZZT has played the “month of May” very cannily, not racking up a huge number of miles, but when it's got a good thing going, sticking with it. Team manager Rob Edwards obviously plays a huge part, but so too does race engineer Allen McDonald who has won this race before with Franchitti – and whose absence from Andretti Autosport may well have been a key ingredient to that team's lackluster showing on Pole Day. As for Tagliani, there's a real confidence in the guy, despite having been ill for the last two weeks. It would be amazing to see any driver outside of Penske or Ganassi win the 94th running of the Indy 500, but Tagliani is perhaps the strongest candidate.
So, too, is Bruno Junqueira whose arrive-'n'-drive performance on Bump Day made the whole process look absurdly easy. The former Indy pole winner can be expected to scythe through the pack, and there shouldn't be any need to put him off sequence to get him toward the front. If there is, Derrick Walker is a fine strategist who can do precisely that.
RAHAL LETTERMAN RACING
It's a real pity that there wasn't an on-board camera on Graham Rahal's car during qualifying. Even from outside the car, the run that put him into the Fast Nine was an alarming one – but it worked. There's no question Rahal is a brave and fast driver on any type of oval, but remaining composed and not trying to match the unmatchable will be vital, too. If he's to attract the sponsors who can support him full time, it's important that those who tune in only for the 500 don't see him hit the wall for the third straight year. This effort with his dad's team may have only come together at the 11th hour, but RLR knows how to win – including at Indy – and a top-five finish should be there for the taking. If the stars align and the team hits the car's sweet spot, then Graham can go with it all the way.