Indianapolis 500 Preview – Part 2

Seats have been very difficult for drivers to land in entries for this year’s Indianapolis 500. Due to engine shortages in the garage area, many pilots with past 500 experiences are on the sidelines, while most of the usual suspects are practicing for the upcoming time trials. Speeds have picked up a bit and rookies seem to be having some success. Let’s see who’s in and who’s out as we move toward the 96th Indianapolis 500.

VETERANS: Three past 500 winners are entered and they account for six wins in the last 11 races. Helio Castroneves (3 wins), Dario Franchitti (2) and Scott Dixon (1) have visited Victory Lane recently and are among the favorites to repeat. Castroneves is one of three Team Penske-Chevrolet entries along with Will Power and Ryan Briscoe. Power is leading the IndyCar point standings with three wins after four early-season road course events, but this will be the first oval race for the series in 2012. Castroneves is second in current points and is the series’ current ‘Oval Master’ going for his fourth 500 win. Briscoe is in a three-way tie for seventh in points leading up to the 500, and many feel he needs to produce to keep his seat at Penske.

Leading the Honda teams is Target Chip Ganassi Racing with Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal. Honda should be competitive on the Indy track having been allowed to use a different cover on their single turbocharger; a decision that took several weeks to go through legal appeals by Chevrolet. Franchitti and Dixon are annual contenders at the Speedway, but Rahal (12th in points), is due for a break-out season to establish his place among the top drivers.

Andretti Autosport is a Chevrolet team that lost Danica Patrick to NASCAR, but retained the infamous Go Daddy sponsorship for second-year driver James Hinchcliffe. Other AA drivers include Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter- Reay, Sebastian Saavedra and a combined effort with Conquest Racing for Brazilian Ana Beatriz. Marco (19th in points), is in the same situation as Rahal and needs a strong effort to remain not just a famous name. Hinchcliffe may have the strongest up-side in this group as he is currently third in the standings and his Go Daddy ride is always competitive. Saavedra has topped the early practice speeds and looks to be a contender for the pole come Saturday.

A driver who also bears watching in the days ahead is JR Hildebrand who almost won the 500 in his rookie effort a year ago, but crashed with the checkered flag in sight. His Panther Racing Chevrolet remains a contender and with a year of experience, he could be ready for a move up.

Others, including Tony Kanaan (KV Racing Chevrolet), Mike Conway (AJ Foyt Honda), Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing Honda) and Takuma Sato (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda) should provide strong competition among the veterans.

ROOKIES: This group has provided the buzz in early practice as Josef Newgarden and Bryan Clauson have been at or near the top of the speed charts in their Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Hondas; each running above 221 mph.

Rubens Barrichello is probably the most intriguing driver in the field whether a rookie or veteran. Having competed and won at the top level of Formula One for 19 seasons, he found himself without an F1 seat in 2012 and was lured to IndyCar by KV Racing teammate, and fellow-Brazilian, Tony Kanaan. The learning curve is steep for him due to never having run on an oval, but Kanaan took a run in Barachello’s car recently and turned similar speeds, giving the rookie confidence that he is on the right track.

James Jakes, Simon Pagenaud, Wade Cunningham, Katherine Legge and Jean Alesi round out the rookie class.

Legge, along with veteran teammate Sebastien Bourdais, is waiting for Dragon Racing to get out from under their contract with Lotus so they can switch to the more competitive Chevrolet power. But time is not on their side as Legge needs to take a rookie refresher test and few days remain before time trials.

Alesi’s Fan Force United Lotus has been too slow to make a successful completion of his rookie test, but the F1 veteran hopes to complete the final test phase soon. He will likely be the slowest qualifier and may not meet the 105% rule for starting the race.

Missing In Action: With only 34 car/driver combinations entered, many 500 veterans find themselves without a ride for this year. If an entered driver has trouble getting up to speed this week, one of these from the MIA group may step in and try to make the field.

In no particular order, those walking the garage area with helmets in hand could include: Jay Howard, Alex Lloyd, Pippa Mann, Bruno Junqueira, Paul Tracy, John Andretti, Buddy Rice, and Tomas Scheckter. Time will tell if any of these land a spot in the cockpit.

Preview # 3 will list the extra events that are scheduled prior to the 500 that give fans something to do as they await the 96th Indianapolis 500. Look for these next week.

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