THE FRESHMAN CLASS OF 2012 – With eight very talented rookies in this year's field, there's the potential of something that happened a decade ago repeating itself.
It was oft-overlooked and forgotten given the Helio Castroneves-Paul Tracy finish debate, but Alex Barron and Tomas Scheckter split Rookie of the Year honors. Barron ended the race the highest finishing rookie in fourth, while Scheckter led a race-high 85 laps before crashing out of Turn 4 with just 28 laps remaining.
I suggest this because even if he doesn't record the highest finish of the crop of eight drivers this year, Josef Newgarden has served notice he is worthy of the distinction. Although many of his fastest laps throughout the full week of practice were tow-assisted, Newgarden proved his and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's mettle and speed were no fluke when he backed it up as the fastest Honda qualifier and the only one to make it into the Firestone Fast 9 when the extra boost was added.
The level-headedness of Rubens Barrichello and Simon Pagenaud should serve them well in their first oval starts, and it wouldn't surprise me to see either of them finish best of the first-timers. Wade Cunningham's a sleeper for the award, and I'd rate his chances just a bit higher if the Foyt entries weren't so speed-deprived all month, in either pre-boost or post-boost adjustment modes. Cunningham, though, thinks his car's better in race trim than it has shown thus far.
Less likely are James Jakes, Katherine Legge and Bryan Clauson, while poor Jean Alesi likely will be treading water in the middle of the ocean as the lone Lotus freshman. He's experienced the days of pre-qualifying in Formula 1 and unfortunately the Lotus at Indy is the modern day equivalent of a Life or Andrea Moda Formula (Google it). Neither of those entries lasted long on race day, if they even made it that far…
FUN FROM NUMBERS – Roger Penske returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2001 after a six-year hiatus and his team's inglorious failure to qualify for the 1995 race. In the previous 11 ‘500s, Team Penske has five wins, which brings the career total for “The Captain” to 16. No more than three years have passed between victories since 2001 (2001 through '03, '06, '09). Does the trend continue in 2012?
Not only was 2004 the last year with no bump attempts, but it was also the last year there were only three previous winners in the field. Only Castroneves, Dixon and Franchitti are prior winners, which opens up the best opportunity for a first-time "500" winner since 2008. The string of three straight drivers winning another 500 follows a five-year trend of consecutive first-time 500 winners from 2004 through 2008.
Castroneves won on his debut at Indy in 2001. He's the only active driver from that year's field running in Sunday's race. Only Michel Jourdain Jr. (1996) has an Indy 500 start prior to that. Kanaan and Franchitti (2002) and Dixon (2003) make up the four drivers in the field making at least their 10th or later Indy start. For even more proof of how relatively inexperienced at Indy this field is, just those four plus Marco Andretti, Ed Carpenter and Townsend Bell were in the 2006 race – a stat I saw via @IndyCar_MN on Twitter. Crazy.
The oldest driver in the field, 47-year-old Alesi, had 23 career starts in Formula 1 before the youngest driver, Newgarden, 21, was even born. Talk about a generation gap!
THREE-WIDE TO START, SINGLE FROM THERE – IndyCar president of competition Beaux Barfield has promised the start will look “significantly different” than the straggled starts of years past. The more significant factor for the rest of the day, of course, is the return to single-file restarts this race as opposed to the standard double-file introduced last year and ran at this race. Drivers expressed concerns over the double-file restarts given the narrow nature of the IMS front straight, and Barfield responded to that with the adjustment for this year.
DAN'S TRIBUTES – I'm expecting the emotion to hit like a ton of bricks at the Brickyard Sunday morning. The thing about Dan Wheldon that touched all of us was that his presence, however he related or engaged with you, was genuine, was friendly and was sincere. It made a lasting and indelible impact.
The tributes are plenty – Susie Wheldon receiving the champion's ring, Bryan Herta driving the winning 2011 car, and the white sunglasses handed out to all fans in attendance. Not to mention the iconic image of Dan pouring the milk in victory lane on all this year's ticket stubs.
Bottom line, it should be difficult, but hopefully uplifting to see Susie's courage (if she's present on race day, which is still to be determined) and the tributes paying proper homage to the fallen champion.
The 96th Indianapolis 500 airs with pre-race coverage beginning at 11 a.m. ET and the race itself at noon ET on ABC.