This is the most magical week of year for race fans and, perhaps, for racing pundits too. With 33 – er, make that 31 potential winners of this year's Indianapolis 500 (sorry, Lotus) – this is the best time of year to make a stab at who will earn legend status after they pull into Victory Lane past 3 p.m. local time on Sunday. After examining each of the 33 drivers in this year's field, looking at three criteria: prior Indy history, 2012 form, and this month of May's form, I've addressed some of the potential strengths and weaknesses for each driver.
The beauty of this is come Monday, we'll see how far wide of the mark the prognostications were. In the interim, here's some thoughts on this year's field of 33:
1. RYAN BRISCOE
THE GOOD – Chevrolet power, the Team Penske crew, and the fact that Penske's last two Indianapolis wins have come from the pole (Helio Castroneves in 2009, Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006). Penske hasn't gone longer than three years without winning at Indy since his return to the Speedway in 2001 (wins in 2001-'03, '06, '09).
THE BAD – Briscoe's best 500 finish in four previous starts with Team Penske is 15th in 2009, and the other three have ended in accidents. Fair or not, the pressure is on him given Castroneves' Indy prowess and Will Power's dominant start to the year. Will he rise or fall?
2. JAMES HINCHCLIFFE
THE GOOD – His attitude, his confidence, and his pace – both in single-car runs and in traffic this month. It's 10 years since Canada's last near-miss at Indy, and some would say Hinch's predecessor as the field's colorful yet talented Canadian, Paul Tracy, was the rightful winner of the 2002 "500". A motivated force to be reckoned with, and has said he'll have his head shaved if he wins…
THE BAD – Hinch wrecked in his only previous "500" start a year ago and has yet to complete an open-wheel race of this distance. Coming up through the ranks, cracked at crucial moments.
3. RYAN HUNTER-REAY
THE GOOD – Renewed motivation as part of the resurgent Andretti Autosport squad, and a strong start to the season with two podiums already and a third lost at Long Beach only due to last lap contact.
THE BAD – Has finished 32nd, 18th and 23rd in his last three "500"s, rarely as a factor. Has not yet dealt with being in contention in the late stages of this race, despite his maturity and experience level.
4. MARCO ANDRETTI
THE GOOD – Has finishes of second, third and third in his three even-year "500" starts. 2012 is an even year, he's been fast all month, and has an air of confidence we haven't seen in a long time. He also has ace engineer Allen McDonald (BACKGROUND) on board.
THE BAD – His start to the season thus far, where poor luck has struck him more frequently than most and leaves him 19th in points. Clearly Andretti has the chops to win, but will going for it cost him even more in the long run this season?
5. WILL POWER
THE GOOD – Has probably the least amount of pressure to perform for this race, given his spectacular start to the year. He's not expected to win at Indy, but if he can it would be his fourth in a row this year, and silence the remaining doubters about his oval ability.
THE BAD – Strange to say but it's been his team's pit work, usually faultless, that has proved Power's undoing on the ovals of late. The tire that wasn't secured last year at Indy and the contact with Ana Beatriz at Kentucky cost Power invaluable points toward the title. I'd like to see Power have a shot at the win for the full 500 miles and not have something outside his control shut him down and, with Tim Cindric calling his shots this year, it's likely he won't have the same sort of pitfalls.
6. HELIO CASTRONEVES
THE GOOD – Three-time Indy winner comes into the 2012 edition flying under the radar after Briscoe's pole and Power's last three races. He's back in the Shell colors for the first time since St. Pete, when he won. More than his teammates, he is battle-tested and poised on how to handle the pressures of Indy.
THE BAD – Largely anonymous the last two years at Indy, even despite his 2010 pole, Castroneves no longer enjoys the odds-on favorite he has been accustomed to in some prior years. There's also one part of his Indy arsenal gone missing – Tim Cindric is no longer calling his strategy, and those are some big shoes to fill.
7. JOSEF NEWGARDEN
THE GOOD – He's already got an Indy win on his resume – last year's Freedom 100 – and he's starred with speed and poise all month. His Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team won the series' last oval race at Kentucky. He has the benefit of Dollar General support this race, who he no doubt wants to please for further support the rest of the year. The fastest Honda and the fastest rookie, so the sky's the limit for him on race day.
THE BAD – He's a rookie, and his speed to burn has occasionally got him in trouble this year. Granted, contact in Long Beach and Brazil wasn't his own fault. But while his undeniably ballsy move at Long Beach earned him a lot of respect, even though the end result was against the Turn 1 wall, Newgarden will have to channel that aggression and exert patience this race. In other words, attempt to follow the JR Hildebrand rookie strategy, save for Turn 4 on lap 200…
8. TONY KANAAN
THE GOOD – A former driver for Michael Andretti, Kanaan's now resembled his ex-boss as arguably the best of the current crop of drivers to have never won a 500. He knows how to charge, knows how to lead, and knows how to manage his car to be in contention – unfortunately, it just hasn't come entirely together at the exact moment. Reunited with longtime engineer Eric Cowdin, Kanaan's primed for a big race this year after a lackluster start to 2012.
THE BAD – It wasn't until Friday when the extra boost came in that KV Racing showed a substantial amount of speed that netted them their top 10 starting positions. If the KV squad falls back into the 20s, as they were most of the week until Friday, with race boost levels, it might be a challenge to keep up.
9. E.J. VISO
THE GOOD – I've seen it since he won this year's Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in the PC class, but there is just a renewed air of purpose and dedication that Viso has this year that seemed to be lacking in years past. Perhaps it's showed in his first four races, where Viso's been a genuine borderline top six or seven driver and more committed given the improved team chemistry at KV. Having Jimmy Vasser calling his strategy has no doubt helped, too.
THE BAD – Unfortunately, it will take a successful Indy to fully complete Viso's reformation. In four prior starts, Viso has never made it past lap 139 – a mark he hit three straight years from 2008-'10, and last year, he was one of the early retirees after an over-ambitious move on a restart.