Joe Jennings, IndyCar Correspondent
The granddaddy of them all, the Indianapolis 500, takes the green flag at high noon on Sunday and it is anyone’s guess who will be drinking the bottle of milk in victory lane. Sure there are favorites but a lot of things can happen over the course of 500 miles. A year ago, the late Dan Wheldon won the race coming out of the last turn on the final lap.
And Wheldon not only enjoyed the thrill of victory but he took home the lion’s share of the $2,567,000 winner’s purse and all the benefits that went with the victory.
In qualifications for the 96th running of the famed race, Chevrolet-powered cars dominated the action, capturing nine of the top-10 starting positions. Driving for the legendary Team Penske, Ryan Briscoe took the overall speed honors at 226.484 miles per hour, barely edging out Andretti Autosport drivers James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti.
Joining Andretti in the second row are two more Team Penske stalwarts Will Power and three-time champion Helio Castroneves.
Team Penske has dominated the IZOD IndyCar Series season to date, winning the pole for all four races and racing to victory in each race. The superpower team is seeking an unprecedented 16th 500 victory and Power hopes to win for the fourth time in race races this season.
Favoring the powerful Penske machine, the pole winner has won the race on 20 occasions. Regarding car numbers, Briscoe carries No. 2 and that number has gone on to victory eight times and Castroneves’s No. 3 has chalked up 11 wins. But Power’s No. 12 has only taken the checkered flag once.
The Andretti Autosport entries of Hinchcliffe, Hunter-Reay and Andretti are numbered 27, 28 and 26, respectively. In history, a No. 27 car has won three times, No. 26 once and No. 28 – never.
If statistics can be counted upon, a variety of numbers favor Team Penske, but statistics do not always bear fruit.
Seventeen Chevrolet-powered machines dot the 33-car starting field with Honda not far behind with 14 entries. Lotus has had its start-up challenges, and the engine manufacturer will field just two cars.
Even though the Chevrolet teams seem to have the lock on speed, the Honda- powered entries of Scott Dixon qualified 15th and teammate Dario Franchitti 16th. As former race winners and series champions, the two drivers are highly skilled and they are expected to be among the front-runners when the race is on the line.
Eight rookies qualified for the race with 21-year old Josef Newgarden the fastest of the Honda group. The Tennessee driver will start seventh in the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing entry. Other fast rookies are F1 ace Rubens Barrichello, James Jakes and the savvy Simon Pagenaud.
Katherine Legge, Ana Beatriz and Simona de Silvestro are the three female drivers to make the starting field.
Nine American drivers are in the starting line-up along with drivers from 13 other countries.
Newgarden is the youngest driver and eldest is F1 ace Jean Alesi, at 47. Alesi’s F1 credentials are outstanding, making it difficult to classify him as a rookie, although the 500 will mark his debut on an oval.
The Indianapolis 500 is chock-full of traditions, and they will all be played out over the weekend, starting with the 500 Festival Parade on Saturday. Leading up to the start on Sunday, bands will play, celebrities will ride around the track in pace cars, “Back Home Again in Indiana” will be sung, thousands of balloons will be released, a military flyover will thrill the crowd and finally the command to fire up the engines will bring some 250,000 fans to their feet.
ABC will telecast the action for the 27th consecutive year, using 80 cameras to cover the action. Nine cars will carry four on-board cameras each and the famed Batcam will zoom up and down the pit area, capturing the action. A talented squadron of on-air talent has been assembled to describe the action for the millions of viewers around the world.
Heat could well be a factor with temperatures in the low 90s forecast. For the record, the hottest race day temperature ever was 92 degrees in 1937.
At the end of the day regardless of the heat and other conditions that prevail, a new champion will be crowned, and he or she will be the toast of the racing world and their face will be permanently etched on the Borg- Warner Trophy.
The winner will become the 99th face to be displayed on the 110 lb. trophy.
On Monday, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be quiet but Sunday’s action will long be remembered by those in the stands or at home watching on television. “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” has no competition when it comes to action and excitement.