For most IndyCar races, fortune favors the fast, but for the Indianapolis 500, race experience is absolutely critical when picking potential winners. And now that practice for the “500” is compressed into just over a week, that is more true than ever. Sure, nine days is way more track time than you get to practice for any other IndyCar race, but the myriad quirks and foibles of this event cannot be simulated in the days beforehand, even if drivers do encounter comparable temperatures, wind direction, track conditions and traffic.
And what if, as is possible this year, there is an interruption for rain? The racers least fazed by this are going to be the vets such as Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, etc.
So you're still not going to see a rookie winner. Yes, we came close in 2011, just one turn away, in fact. But would JR Hildebrand have made that critical little mistake if it had been his third or fourth Indy 500? Probably not. Equally, it takes a special kind of mental discipline to react like Franchitti did last year after he got tipped into a spin in pit lane and rejoined at the rear of the field. That comes partly from experience, but also from what Dario's one-time mentor Jackie Stewart would describe as “mind management.” Some drivers never do develop that ability to channel their competitive instincts when angry. And you won't see them win the 97th Indianapolis 500, either…
Ed Carpenter Racing
No. 20 – Ed Carpenter, q1
Carpenter is as brave as they come, but that wasn't what won him pole: it was he and the team's decision to go for the optimum downforce compromise when others, notably Team Penske, got overambitious. Sure, that was Pole Day, and now we're talking about race day, but my point is that this is a team that has matured and can rationalize, while Ed can unquestionably do the job on an oval. Don't be surprised to see him remain a victory contender all day.
No. 26 – Carlos Munoz, q2
No. 25 – Marco Andretti, q3
No. 5 – EJ Viso, q4
No. 28 – Ryan Hunter-Reay, q7
No. 27 – James Hinchcliffe, q9
As explained above, however promising Carlos Munoz is, I think there will be circumstances where his lack of knowledge of both IndyCars and the Indy 500 will count against him. So I'd look to Andretti and Hunter-Reay to be the most prominent of Andretti Autosport's drivers this weekend. Marco is an animal around the Speedway, as combative and fast as his father and grandfather, and he also now has a veneer of maturity as we've seen in the season so far. RHR is driving like a superfast veteran these days, with Franchitti-like race smarts. Could say the same for Hinchcliffe, too, but I'd give him another year before he's truly ready for all that IMS can throw at him. Viso keeps getting better, but needs more time with race engineer Michael Cannon before we see his full potential on race days.
No. 2 – AJ Allmendinger, q5
No. 12 – Will Power, q6
No. 3 – Helio Castroneves, q4
Power spent much of the practice week chasing a setup and pondering a mechanical brain-teaser that was restricting his speed. Come qualifying, he was a pole contender, and I suspect this is a year where he's going to shine at the Speedway like he did in 2009 and '10. Penske as a whole has overcome its pit lane issues which means that Castroneves will be a strong contender for his fourth “500” title, and trying to take the lead from him will be like trying to take a favorite chew-toy from a pit bull. Allmendinger needs to ditch the, “Aw shucks, I'm just grateful to be here” and get his elbows out. He has the pace, and so does his car.
No. 4 – JR Hildebrand, q10
No. 60 – Townsend Bell, q22
Never bet against Panther at Indy. Last year, the team's run of consecutive runner-up finishes was ended in an unusually off-the-pace way, but this year John Barnes' squad is right back where it belongs, and Hildebrand can win, be in no doubt. As for Townsend Bell, he's the one-off ringer I'd always call up for duty if I were a team owner at IMS. He's fast, solid and brave, and can drive into the top five from anywhere on the grid.
Bryan Herta Autosport
No. 98 – Alex Tagliani, q11
Many of us would think it extremely cool if Tagliani could drive the No. 98 car into Victory Lane on the 50th anniversary of Parnelli Jones' win here. The BHA team performed exceptionally well in qualifying, with Tag over 1mph quicker than the next quickest Honda runner. If HPD brings its A game on Sunday – and Carb Day running suggests they will – then Tag is one of the guys most likely to fully exploit that.
No. 11 – Tony Kanaan, q12
No. 78 – Simona De Silvestro, q24
Neither of the KV drivers were particularly thrilled with their cars for much of practice but they've been solid runners in the draft, and once this field gets strung out, that's where they'll be. Simona's fighting qualities will shine through, as they always do. As for TK, he found something that the team believes is a crucial boost during practice last Sunday. And then there's a period in the final 50 laps when it's all about charging, and TK's blessed with that sense of urgency. Will he finally get the job done at the 12th time of asking? He may stand an even better chance than last year when he finished third – and top Chevy runner.
No. 22 – Oriol Servia, q13
Hope there's no one superstitious at DRR, because when you've already admitted that the financial vultures are circling overhead, starting P13 doesn't sound too lucky. But enough of such nonsense. The crossflow of info between Panther and its DRR stablemate has been strong through May, and so has the resultant performance. Servia is Mr. Dependable at IMS, and he may be a dark horse for victory this year if DRR's pit stops match their car's pace.
Dale Coyne Racing
No. 19 – Justin Wilson, q14
No. 18 – Ana Beatriz, q29
No. 63 – Pippa Mann, q30
Wilson was on target for a top-three finish at Indy last year until getting engulfed on a restart. Those who are too polite when the green flag waves have learned their lesson the hard way, and JWil won't make the same mistake this time. So long as Coyne's team's pit stops are good, there's no reason why he can't be a top-five contender again. If Beatriz is as aggressive as she's fast, she could have a fine race; her qualifying position was not representative of her pace through practice. Mann probably needs only to stay out of trouble in order to improve on her 20th-place finish in the 2011 Indy 500, but she'll want to make a bigger impression than that.
No. 7 – Sebastien Bourdais, q15
No. 6 – Sebastian Saavedra, q27
As ever, Dragon is a difficult team to write off, because whenever you see them looking mediocre, they pop in a surprise. The Sebs are unlikely to contend for victory if it comes down to a straight fight on pace, for they have looked underwhelming in or out of the tow through practice, but track conditions change and both are feisty enough to take full advantage of the wind (proverbially and otherwise) blowing in their direction. Everyone knows how good Bourdais is, but Saavedra is looking more and more like the title contender we saw in Indy Lights.
Chip Ganassi Racing
No. 9 – Scott Dixon, q16
No. 10 – Dario Franchitti, q17
No. 83 – Charlie Kimball, q19
No. 8 – Ryan Briscoe, q23
In Franchitti and Dixon, Chip has two of the three best Indy 500 drivers of the past 15 years. And in that same time frame, you could argue that Ganassi has eclipsed Team Penske at Indy, at least in terms of execution on race day. But Honda is crucial to this: if what we saw on Carburetion Day is a true portent of things to come, then the Target drivers are in the fight for victory. It's as simple as that.
Kimball impressed a lot last year and a top five is within his reach provided he's recovered from the sickness that hit him on Saturday. Ryan Briscoe is fast, and so long as he stays out of trouble as he picks his way through the field, he's got a chance of victory.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
No. 16 – James Jakes, q20
No. 15 – Graham Rahal, q26
The disappointment of May…so far. Bobby's team is usually one of the best at oh-so-subtly turning out a really strong car at the Speedway. Maybe RLLR has just left it late to show its hand this year (and too late for Michel Jourdain Jr.). If that's the case, I'd expect to see Graham rise rapidly through the field because IMS seems to bring out a fearless fighting spirit in him, which is entertaining to watch.
Jakes has impressed this year on every type of circuit. An Indy winner? No. But a guy with the capacity to surprise? Yes.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsport / Schmidt Hamilton Racing
No. 77 – Simon Pagenaud, q21
No. 55 – Tristan Vautier, q28
No. 81 – Katherine Legge, q33
The other disappointment of Indy in 2013, but both full-time drivers are as cool as Indy in February and can make the best of a tricky situation. Pagenaud has thrown himself into the oval-racing game with a blend of bravery and technical acumen, and his rookie teammate has much the same set of qualities. I'd be startled if either were to record a DNF through any fault of their own, but Schmidt's cars this year didn't look like a strong force until Carb Day.
Legge did a great job in the circumstances, but she still has to treat her second Indy 500 run as a learning experience. Getting to the finish, as she accomplished last year, will be commendable enough. Reaching the top 15 will be a bonus.
AJ Foyt Racing
No. 14 – Takuma Sato, q18
No. 41 – Conor Daly, q31
It would be a surprise if Sato was again a victory contender entering the final lap of the “500.” If he is, however, you can be sure he'll go for it in characteristic style, because his natural instinct is being fostered and harnessed by the Foyts, not dampened. But the speed we'd hoped to see from this combo at IMS has not yet revealed itself. Daly, of course, is a popular addition to the team and he has a cool head on young shoulders, which will serve him well. He's not the obvious choice for Rookie of the Year, given that Allmendinger is in a Penske, but CD is smart enough to stay the course.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
No. 21 – Josef Newgarden, q21
From being Honda's rock stars for much of 2012's “month” of May, SFHR is looking more mid-pack this year at Indy. But the team and Newgarden could have some surprises in store, because without that pressure of being right at the front, I suspect they'll be fine. Another top-five contender, and Newgarden admits he's more optimistic going into this year's “500” than last year's.
Lazier Partners Racing
No. 91 – Buddy Lazier, q32
Winner of the talent-depleted 1996 Indy 500, Lazier has done a terrific job to blow off the rust and this team has become one of the stories of the month by so quickly coming to grips with the Dallara DW12. If the race is run in cool, quick conditions, expect the LPR team to lose touch with the leaders under green-flag conditions. If it turns into a fickle, slick-tracked battle of wills and race-smarts, 45-year-old Buddy can show the young 'uns a thing or two.