JR Hildebrand (FAR LEFT) rode into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Thursday afternoon, in a Hummer, to deliver the entry list for the 96th Indianapolis 500 with the National Guard.
In one month and eight days, Hildebrand will be looking to ride into victory lane for his sophomore attempt after that rookie year.
Hildebrand, of course, was expected to grace the entry list as one of the 26 full-time drivers in this year's IZOD IndyCar Series. The one-offs, though are always the ones that merit the most attention – especially in this, the first year of the new car and new engine package.
Thirty-four entries appear on the list, 30 of them with named drivers and the other four with drivers strongly linked to the respective seats. A few news and notes to observe from the list:
THE CONFIRMED ONE-OFF DRIVERS – Ana Beatriz seeks her third, Sebastian Saavedra his second and Wade Cunningham and Bryan Clauson their first starts in the 500. Beatriz will make her debut in the fourth Andretti Autosport car at Brazil with technical support from Conquest Racing.
Saavedra wants a bounce-back after his first two Indianapolis 500 bump days have been mixed. His first year, he backed into the show, literally, after crashing in the final hours but then was promoted in when both Paul Tracy and Jay Howard's teams withdrew their times and were unable to bump Saavedra out. That marked both his and Bryan Herta Autosport's first IndyCar starts, and also secured Saavedra's place in the record books as the first driver born in the 1990s to start the Indianapolis 500.
The Colombian failed to qualify last year with Conquest, but in a mature move, he has moved back to Firestone Indy Lights with the AFS/Andretti combo that served him so well his first season in the championship in 2009. Already this year, he has a win and three podiums from the first three races, and is leading the standings. As in 2010, Saavedra will also be the only driver in the field attempting to pull “double duty” in running the Freedom 100 on Carb Day and also the 500 on Sunday.
Cunningham's Indianapolis 500 debut – if he qualifies – will be a story of persistence after seven years in the U.S. trying to make it. He won three Freedom 100s (leading James Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball, LEFT) but only got his first sniff of an IndyCar for a handful of races last year. The Larry Foyt-led squad has always excelled at car setup around Indianapolis, and Cunningham is in a good position.
Clauson should be good to go as well, the sprint car veteran moving up through Firestone Indy Lights last year and finishing fifth in the Freedom 100. He's one of two drivers who would be making his first IndyCar start. He and Josef Newgarden will be teammates for the second time, having also driven together for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2011.
THE LIKELY “TBA” FILLERS – Without being too much of a secret, the four seats that remain officially unfilled are largely set if the financial pieces fit into the puzzle.
After an eight-year hiatus from IndyCar racing (Champ Car in 2004) and some occasional A1GP starts in 2006, Michel Jourdain Jr. looks set to reunite with RLLR after he enjoyed the two best years of his career with the team in 2002 and 2003.
Jourdain remains one of the most amicable people in the paddock, although his time away from the seat may be a small hindrance. Still, he'd all but certainly set the record for the longest time in between starts at Indy – Jourdain was 19 in 1996 when he raced in both his last and the last 500 with turbochargers. Driving for Andy Evans' Team Scandia, he qualified eighth and finished 13th.
At Schmidt Hamilton, Townsend Bell is set to reprise a role he's filled with the team the last two years – the team's Indy 500 specialist. Bell tested at Texas and admitted on last week's NBC Sports Network broadcast he considers the new car doesn't have enough horsepower. Props to Bell for speaking his mind, and together with Indianapolis rookie Simon Pagenaud, this is likely the strongest of the one-off entries assuming it happens.
If it comes to fruition, possibly with Buddy Rice, Ed Carpenter Racing's second car could also lay claim to that distinction. The 2004 Indianapolis 500 champion proved an invaluable asset to Hildebrand's learning curve at Panther Racing last year, and coupled with team principal Carpenter are two of the stronger oval drivers in the field.
Jean Alesi remains the largest wild card. For starters, he'd be the oldest driver in the field by some eight years – not to mention out of competitive open-wheel racing since his last Formula 1 starts with Jordan in 2001.
So far the only confirmation of the Alesi program has come from the driver himself, not from the Newman/Haas team, whose crew members have spread to assisting Dragon Racing and moved elsewhere such as RLLR. At the moment, Alesi's the longest shot to qualify given his oval experience levels (none) and his engine's oval experience levels (also none).
THE OUTSIDERS – It's a place no one wants to be, but invariably several drivers are, both when the first entry list is released and then come 6:00 p.m. ET on bump day: Outside the field of 33.
At the moment, and assuming the other rumored TBA deals happen, that list includes 2011 Indianapolis 500 starters Bertrand Baguette – who could have won the thing had a late yellow happened last year; the always exciting Tomas Scheckter; the (in this writer's opinion) very underrated Alex Lloyd; one of RACER's most popular bloggers, Pippa Mann; Indy 500 lifers John Andretti and Davey Hamilton; the under-the-radar Jay Howard; and of course, one of Indianapolis' best qualifiers in Bruno Junqueira. Paul Tracy also remains on the outside, hopeful of a final Indianapolis 500 start and a proper send-off as it will be 10 years since his near-miss loss in 2002.
Undoubtedly there will be a handful of these drivers walking around, helmet in hand, looking to see if they can get an opportunity in the new car. It's a fascinating but nerve-wracking four weeks for these drivers as the window of chance closes.
OTHER OBSERVATIONS – Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will have the largest reduction of entries compared to recent years. The rebranded Lotus DRR will field only a single entry for Oriol Servia, compared to four each of the last three years.
A start for Sebastien Bourdais would be his first since 2005. His 2011 Dale Coyne Racing teammate James Jakes is an Indianapolis rookie again this year after failing to qualify a year ago.
The rookie crop is a healthy one: officially the three series rookies of Pagenaud, Newgarden and Katherine Legge, oval rookie Rubens Barrichello, the aforementioned Jakes, one-offers Clauson and Cunningham, and Alesi if his deal materializes.