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.VISION RACING
One of many giant-killing performances in qualifying for the 2010 Indy 500 came from Ed Carpenter. That isn't to denigrate the skills of himself or his team: they've shone on ovals several times before, most recently at Kentucky last year. But both team and driver had been out of the game since the end of last season. Even given the sharing of technical information and personnel with Panther Racing, sticking the car into the middle of the third row was a startling achievement. Carpenter doesn't tend to make many errors on race days, either, so if the team has blown off the rust in pit stop practice, there's no reason Ed can't at least hold his position to the checker.
NHR has inevitably taken a lot of criticism from Graham Rahal fans for its picking of a pay driver over a young American and there have been times when one wondered what Graham could do with the No. 06. Based on last year, you'd have to say “better than Hideki Mutoh” – but only on road and street courses. On ovals, Mutoh can deliver on race days and he was very unfortunate to be eliminated in Kansas by a wayward backmarker. After some of the heartbreaking near-misses Newman/Haas has endured at the Brickyard with Mario and Michael Andretti and Nigel Mansell, it would be a miracle if the unheralded Mutoh delivered the milk, but a top five is feasible.
DREYER & REINBOLD RACING
What an achievement already: four cars in on Pole Day, including one part-timer (Tomas Scheckter) and one rookie (Ana Beatriz). As for Justin Wilson, he was another star of qualifying, wheeling the No. 22 car around to a time that reflected how different Indianapolis Motor Speedway is from any other oval on the IZOD IndyCar Series calendar after a hopeless race in Kansas, his description of Indy's turns as being more like exceptionally fast road course corners helps explain why this ace has been so fast here this month. Full-time teammate Mike Conway is no less committed and, unlike in 2009 when a shunt in practice dented his confidence, he looks strong. Scheckter, too, is an excellent oval racer, while Beatriz is as capable and mature as you'd expect of someone who was strong on any type of course that the Firestone Indy Lights threw at her. A top-15 finish and Rookie of the Year award (she's highest-placed rookie on the grid) should be achievable goals.
DE FERRAN DRAGON RACING
Give Raphael Matos a teammate to share ideas and information, and suddenly this team starts to show its teeth. Flying solo since he graduated from Indy Lights as 2008 champ, Matos shows much talent and dedication but Davey Hamilton's presence in a second car has benefited the team this month. Hamilton's race savvy will be a fine example for Matos to follow on Sunday, although Rafa himself will be desperate to prove himself after last year's clash with Vitor Meira. Top-10 finishes for both would be a satisfying day's work for this team.
Paul Tracy's failure to make the grid was an embarrassment for the team, but after the three full-time drivers crashed their cars to a lesser (Mario Moraes) and greater (Takuma Sato) extent over the course of practice week, team co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser will have been relieved to have at least gotten Moraes and EJ Viso through on Pole Day. In fact, Moraes' crash damage was relatively light and his 13th-place time showed it hadn't affected his bravery, but he needs to remember, even in the heat of battle, his curious rim-riding line around the Brickyard won't be negotiable once the tire marbles have built up.
Viso could be KV's strongest challenger if he keeps his head together. He's a tough competitor when it comes to dicing, which can work for or against. KV cars are strong in race trim if the weather is cool, and Viso also has Bill Pappas as his engineer. Sato, as a rookie, is going to be on a huge voyage of discovery, and if he can survive lap one, in the turbulent air of 30 cars, he should be smart enough to reach the end of the race.
This team has garnered a lot of negative press in the last seven days, with Tony Kanaan throwing his car at the wall twice, and Danica Patrick throwing her team under the bus immediately after getting spooked by her car's handling. Both stories were big news because of who they were and because of their track records at Indy. Come race day, both should shine, though, as could their teammates Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and John Andretti. Marco and Kanaan shone fairly consistently in race trim through practice, and although you'd bet on a Castroneves or a Dixon before a TK or a Marco given their relative performances in practice and qualifying – and histories at Indy! – they should be close enough to pounce on any Penske or Ganassi screw-ups. As for John, he looks sharp enough to gain a top-eight finish. Hunter-Reay, as the man whose ride is only guaranteed up to Texas next weekend, is the one most under pressure, but he's also the man most able to handle that. For that reason alone, there will be many people rooting for RH-R on race day.PANTHER RACING
Neither the team nor Dan Wheldon should ever be disregarded at oval races, and Wheldon at Indy in particular is a formidable force. Yes, 18th is a lowly starting position, but the 2005 winner started from lower last year and came through to second with maybe the seventh- or eighth-fastest car in the race. Like Marco Andretti (and Sam Hornish before that) Wheldon will go for passes that look marginal at best, and come out ahead of his rival. Whether that will be enough to overcome so many strong cars ahead is debatable this year, but another plus is that Chris Mower's managerial skill has this team well drilled.
Simona de Silvestro has the poise, pace and smarts to finish this race, and high up, and it's rare that you can speak so confidently about an IndyCar Series rookie on only her second oval event. Michael Cannon is one of the best race engineers around, too, so expect de Silvestro to be a strong contender for Rookie of the Year honors. She tends to do a whole lot right and not much wrong.
Bertrand Baguette turned many heads when he produced a four-lap run quick enough to get him into the race on Pole Day – especially considering the quality of the drivers who hadn't made it. The next day, anxious to avoid the horrible Tagliani/Junqueira Bump Day scenario of a year earlier, Eric Bachelart was confident enough to send Mario Romancini out for a second run to cement himself in the field. This he achieved comfortably.
No one should be surprised. Conquest regularly produces solid, reliable cars for Indy, and the driver lineup is a healthily talented one. Given Romancini's experience in Firestone Indy Lights, expect him to be the stronger performer on race day, but Baguette does have the capacity to surprise.
DALE COYNE RACING
While Milka Duno predictably failed to qualify as the Indy 500 field continues to gather in strength, year on year, Alex Lloyd never looked like missing the cut. The Briton holds the unique distinction of having won on both the road and oval courses at the Speedway – an accomplishment he achieved while in Indy Lights. Given that that's a series he owned in 2007, it's criminal that he never got the chance to graduate full time until this year. At Dale Coyne Racing, in the absence of ace engineer Bill Pappas for 2010, a top-12 finish would be a worthy achievement on Sunday.
SARAH FISHER RACING
Sarah was heartbroken when teammate Jay Howard didn't make the grid but, unlike Paul Tracy, she at least has her own entry as solace. However, as a team owner, Fisher also understands the importance of sponsorship better than any of her rivals so her distress was very real. Nonetheless, she'll front up on Sunday in her usual friendly but determined manner and doubtless embed herself further into the hearts of her vast phalanx of fans with a strong performance. Owner-drivers like Fisher and team manager husband Andy O'Gara are essential parts of the Indy 500 fabric.
A.J. FOYT RACING
It's not easy to forget how a 300,000 crowd fell eerily hushed last year as the Holmatro Safety Team dug into the wrecked chassis of Vitor Meira's car and gingerly extracted the Brazilian. The clash with compatriot Matos could have had far worse consequences, but being put out of action for the remainder of the season with his spinal injuries was bad enough. So expect a particularly warm welcome back for the perennial Nearly Man who not only has eight runner-up positions to his name in IndyCar Series races, but two of them scored here at the Brickyard. That's enough to earn the respect of the crowd and also team owner and legend Foyt. Let's hope that chief engineer Jeff Britton will discover a race trim setup that allows Meira to show his worth.
BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT
Hardly the IndyCar Series' biggest operation, the team took a huge knock when rookie – and we mean rookie in absolute terms here! – Sebastian Saavedra shunted heavily on Bump Day. However, it's safe to say the adrenaline rush of surviving the frantic fracas while sitting on the bubble and gaining that precious 33rd grid slot made the rebuild 10 times easier. There's no question that Saavedra's main duty (once he's competed in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race on Friday, of course) is to gain experience by driving his Indy car all the way to the checkered flag. Anything beyond that, in terms of making up places, will be very much a bonus for the 19-year-old Colombian, as well as Bryan and partner Steve Newey.