SPEEDWAY, Ind. | Two rookies in the first two rows. The defending champion starting in the middle of the field. A Hoosier favorite on the pole. An Andretti on the front row. Nobody from Team Penske starting better than fifth. And unheralded Simon Pagenaud, who qualified in the seventh row, fastest in Friday’s final practice session.
All that and more makes the 97th Indianapolis 500-Mile Race wide open.
Throw a dart at any driver in the first four rows, and several behind them, and you can find a reason why he or she could win.
Pole-sitter Ed Carpenter, stepson of former Indianapolis Motor Speedway boss Tony George, won the pole by winning the Fast Nine qualifying shootout, but Penske speed demon Will Power, who was fastest overall in the early session, is sixth on the grid via his shootout clocking.
Either could win, or fall by the wayside.
Rookie Carlos Munoz, starting second, is the fastest of the five Andretti Autosport drivers, and finished fourth in Friday’s four-wide Freedom 100 Indy Lights finish after leading 27 of the 40 laps.
Phenomenally smooth, Munoz could become the first rookie to win since Helio Castroneves in 2001.
Castroneves and defending champion Dario Franchitti are each racing for more than mere victory. They’re chasing racing immortality. Each is aiming for a fourth triumph in the 500, to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in that lofty territory.
“Hopefully at the end of the race I will get another one, and it will be a dream come true,” Castroneves said. “We’re talking about 500 miles. There’s a lot of circumstances that could play in your favor, and could go against you, as well.”
Castroneves won in 2001, 2002 and 2009. His best finish in the 500 since then is ninth, in 2010. That’s when Franchitti added a second victory to his 2007 success. Winning last year gave him three and set up this showdown, though it’s hardly a match race.
“There’s no more pressure than there is on anybody else in the field,” Franchitti said. “It’s a great position to be in, trying to win that fourth one. I’m very happy to have won one. Look at some of the great drivers who didn’t get an opportunity to win one.
“Three is beyond anything expected. But I really want the fourth.”
Marco Andretti would like his first, which would be the first in the family since his grandfather Mario won in 1969. Ryan Hunter-Reay, the IndyCar series champion last year, would like his first, and a “Baby Borg,” the personal version of the Borg-Warner Trophy, to go with his season title trophy.
James Hinchcliffe, the Canadian who won the season opener in St. Petersburg and the most recent race, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, would like to grab the biggest race in the series.
Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe start on opposite sides of Castroneves in the third row.
Fan favorite Tony Kanaan is also bidding for a first 500 victory. He owns five top-five finishes in 11 starts, including a second in 2004 and third last year.
“I can only say every time I’ve been here I put myself in the position to win the race,” Kanaan said. “That’s all I can do. I don’t feel this place owes me anything.”
Then there’s Takuma Sato, who starts next to Franchitti on the outside of the sixth row. Last year, Sato pulled alongside Franchitti in the first turn of the final lap in a bid for the lead, but spun and hit the wall. This year, Sato dominated en route to winning in Long Beach, and leads the series with 136 points, 13 more than Andretti and 20 more than Castroneves.
He drives for Foyt, whose teams were uncompetitive for years, but have sparkled this year with Sato in the seat and Larry Foyt running the operation.
“We know what we want, and that’s good,” Sato said of his relationship with A.J., for whom the word mercurial was coined. “For any team and any person to win the 500 would be so special. Doing that with A.J., I can’t imagine how he would be. So we’re here for it.”
Friday’s final practice was uneventful unless you were Ana Beatriz or Ryan Briscoe. Beatriz bumped into the rear of Munoz’ car entering the pits and needed a new nosecone, while a leak at the back of Briscoe’s Dallara caused a fire as practice hour ended.
Count Briscoe as one of the dark horses. A driver for Roger Penske the past five years, he turned down Penske’s idea to take downforce off the car late in last year’s race in a bid to hunt down Franchitti.
Briscoe finished fifth, and Penske dropped him at the end of the season. Now he’s part of Chip Ganassi’s team along with Franchitti and former winner Scott Dixon, and starts in the eighth row.
Thirty-three drivers, 29 men and four women, will see their cars pass through final scrutineering before the 11 a.m. CT start, expected to be witnessed by close to 225,000 fans. The weather forecast is favorable, so unless a surprise shower pops up, one driver will have the best view of the twin checkered flags about three hours later. It could be just about anybody.