21 May 2008

2008 Indy 500 preview

With the last two winners of the '500' off chasing glamor and glory in Taxicab Land, the 92nd running of the race is wide open for a first-time winner, likely from the two drivers who have been the dominant forces in the sport for the past five years but are still looking for their first win in the biggest event of the season. Taciturn Kiwi Scott Dixon lost the 2007 championship by running out of fuel in the final turn of the season but has come out firing in '08 with one win in the first four races and two others that could easily have come but for bad luck with pit sequences. He's also on the pole raceday. His chief rival left in the series is maddeningly consistent Tony Kanaan, who has led in each of his six prior starts but has yet to win, though he may have deserved it last year only to be shuffled back in the weather-induced chaos of the final segment.

The past three seasons have been dominated thoroughly by the "Big Three" teams in the sport, Team Penske, Andretti Green, and Chip Ganassi Racing, and they remain head and shoulders above the rest of the field. However, even among that troika, Ganassi has pulled out a clear edge in the early season schedule as Dixon and teammate Dan Wheldon, the '05 winner, have won twice, scored three poles, and has swept the first two starting positions for the last two races. Most of the damage has been done by Dixon, though Wheldon has had the much better career of the two at Indianapolis. Team consistency may be playing a role in the team's success; while Ganassi enters his third season with the same driver lineup its main rivals have been forced to replace past champions with question marks.

Roger Penske, chasing his 15th '500' title, has tabbed quick but erratic Australian Ryan Briscoe to step in for the departed Sam Hornish, Jr., gone to Penske's stock car operation. Briscoe pairs with two-time winner Helio Castroneves, who achieved minor celebrity in the off-season by winning ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" reality show. Castroneves is in his ninth season with Penske still seeking his first series championship, and, after a great start to his career at Indianapolis, has been uninspiring in recent years. Briscoe and Castroneves will trail the Ganassi cars off the grid, starting third and fourth respectively.

Defending champion Dario Franchitti is spending his retirement tooling around the back of the NASCAR grid, leaving Kanaan the undisputed standard-bearer for Andretti Green's four-car armada. The team's other three drivers have only two career wins between them. Marco Andretti is the heir to that family's racing legacy, but is coming off an abysmal sophomore season in 2007, and still seems prone to rookie errors. Japanese rookie Hideki Mutoh replaced Franchitti and is smooth but conservative. If Danica Patrick gets her second career win in the 92nd '500', the world may not survive to see Monday.

The teams with the best shot of cracking the superteam monopoly are two single-car efforts qualified in the top 11. Brazilian veteran Vitor Meira starts Panther Racing's only entry in eighth. The affable Meira and the plucky, independent team are fan favorites, and Meira getting his first career win--he has eight runner-up finishes--would be one of the most popular outcomes for the diehard observers. Roger Penske's son Jay is building an impressive operation with technology executive Steve Luczo, and they have brought fearless South African Tomas Scheckter on board for the team's second '500'. Scheckter starts 11th, and is guaranteed to be a factor at some point in the race, for good or ill.

Of the teams brought over by the dissolution of the Champ Car World Series, the most prominent is the longstanding powerhouse operation of Newman/Haas/Laniagan, another team replacing a key member with four-time CCWS champ Sebastian Bourdais moving to the Toro Rosso F1 team. While 19-year old Graham Rahal, son of the former champion Bobby, gets all the press clippings, its Bourdais' replacement, lanky career overachiever Justin Wilson, who gives them the best shot at a high finish. KV Racing Technology also has a capable tandem in Oriol Servia and Will Power, who should both improve on lackluster qualifying efforts. Conquest Racing and Dale Coyne's operation are low-budget survivors, though former Indy pole-winner Bruno Junquiera found good speed in qualifying to start one of the Coyne cars 15th. HVM Racing brings rookie E.J. Viso to the track for its debut outing. Viso, a cocky, aggressive outsider with sponsorship from the Venezuelan national oil company PDVSA, no less, is like a perfect storm of hate for the oldtimers.

Elsewhere, the Dreyer and Reinbold duo of Townsend Bell--fastest second-day qualifier--and 2004 winner Buddy Rice could challenge for top-10 finishes. Tony George's friends-and-family-only Vision Racing team has made great strides in the past two seasons, and has the boss's son Ed Carpenter starting 1oth, as well as ex-driver turned radio analyst-turned driver again Davey Hamilton. Future superstar Alex Lloyd makes his first career Indycar start on loan from Ganassi to Bobby Rahal's team. Lloyd starts on the seventh row with his teammate, able Californian Ryan Hunter-Reay. Journeyman Darren Manning gave the legendary A.J. Foyt's team a boost with a 14th place qualifying run, but the team lacks the race management ability to sustain it.

If you've bothered to read this far, I assume you're crazy enough to be interested in my picks. While one would be foolish to pick against Dixon, I have a superstition that the driver who claims most of the headlines during the month often gets overshadowed on race day by someone who has been lying in the weeds. Plus, although he is often dominant everywhere else on the circuit, Dixon has never shown much natural affinity for Indianapolis. I'm going to go a little against the current and pick Briscoe. While it may be crazy to think he can keep it off the barriers for 500 miles, if he does he's much too fast to not be in the mix. And, admittedly, it's a bit of a rooting interest; I've always felt Briscoe has been hard done by the fan community (very few non-American drivers can avoid this, however) never more then now replacing All-American Hero Sam Hornish. I'd be delighted if he could serve up a crow sandwich to all the right people.