Photos courtesy of IMS
2012 Indy 500 front row drivers.
Ryan Briscoe? James Hinchcliffe? Ryan Hunter-Reay?
From a statistical standpoint, they're the favorites going into Sunday's Indianapolis 500. Front row starters have won 40 of the 95 previous races.
Speed is very important in every race, especially Indianapolis where it is projected over the fastest, most grueling 500 miles in racing. The 40 front-row starters winning in a race that is entering its second century confirms that.
The second row has done pretty well, too, 18 victories including the late Dan Wheldon from the outside spot. Wheldon's triumph with a team, Bryan Herta Autosport, that was in its second Indy 500 and second IndyCar race, was regarded as an upset a year ago. In retrospect, it proved that with a great driver with first-class engineering and an up-to-date Dallara that put it on a level field with the biggest teams like Penske and Ganassi was capable of winning the greatest race in the world. But it won't happen often.
Like last year, all 33 drivers will have a , albeit with the DW12 chassis that looks and behaves completely differently, and they'll all be on the same Firestone tires. There is engine competition for the first time since 2005 with a new turbocharged, 2.2-liter, V6 formula, which raises issues of reliability. Chevrolet was fastest in practice and qualifying, taking the front two rows, but you just know Honda can't be far off.
The race day temperature is forecast for the low 90s, which will make it one of the hottest days in Indy history. It's a factor that favors the most skilled and experienced drivers and teams in making changes as the track becomes slicker with oil and rubber laid down during the three hours the 500 typically takes.
It's going to be a very interesting 500, a new era where the draft and teammates will play a bigger part than in the previous 100 years.
"I think it's going to be a pretty wild race," predicted pole sitter Briscoe. "I think nobody is going to be able to pull away. There's going to be a lot of passing. It's going to be a pretty grueling 500-mile race and it's going to be hard to predict a winner until you see them come out of Turn Four and maybe even then, you won't know it."
With 33 cars entered, every team spent the week focused on race preparation, looking for good balance in the draft. Add the extra boost allowed by , take away down force and you're ready to go qualifying. The drivers that had been at the top of the speed chart in practice were also on top in qualifying. It's not a coincidence.
You could argue that the Penske team, an amazing 15-time winner of the 500, wasn't up there every day and it was a slight surprise in qualifying to see Briscoe on pole and Will Power and on the second row. Briscoe argues that isn't true.
"We have not been out there all week searching for the big tows and putting the big lap times on the board although it did happen," Briscoe said. "Helio was second at the end of one of the days and we were second I think at the end of (one practice).
"But yeah, I mean, it's been a work in progress, and here it's all about fine tuning. You're not doing anything big."
The three-car Penske and the five-car Andretti teams occupy the front two rows and that's where the winner will come from? Here's my handicap.
The favorite: Castroneves. He's won the 500 three times in 11 starts, the last in 2009. The Brazilian has been smart with strategy, when to show his speed and knows how to reach the checkered flag (10 times in 11 races).
The contenders: , Marco Andretti, Will Power. Andretti Autosport's Hunter-Reay and Andretti have been fast every day cars have been on the track. Power has made his reputation as a great road racer. So had Danny Sullivan before winning for Penske in 1985.
The sleepers: It's been a quiet month for Ganassi Racing's and , who have Hondas, but they're 500 winners and can't be overlooked. KV Racing Technology's Tony Kanaan has four-top five finishes at Indy, Chevy power and he's a threat.
The rookie: has been the fastest Honda, consistently one of the fastest in practice and qualified seventh. But this will be his first oval race in an IndyCar. He might be able to run up front, even lead, but there's too much to learn to beat the other 32 cars in this field. A top-five finish and Rookie of the Year will be his rewards for an impressive month.
And the winner is: Castroneves, the fourth four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.