News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 26, 2013

Seeking elite status

97th running of Indianapolis 500 slated for today

Lori Wood
Tribune-Star correspondent

INDIANAPOLIS — Many stages are set in the long-running drama that is the Indianapolis 500.

The 97th running on the famed oval today has the potential to provide a new four-time champion in Helio Castroneves or Dario Franchitti.

A win for either driver would tie them for the all-time lead in the Indy 500 as A.J. Foyt (1961, ’64, ’67, ’77), Al Unser 1970-71, ’78, ’87) and Rick Mears (1979, ’84, 88, ’91) are atop that mountain with four wins a piece.

While Castroveneves starts in the middle of row three, he and his team won the pit stop competition on Carb Day. The last time Castroneves won the pit stop competition, he won his third Indy 500.

“The field is so close and we have at least 20 cars that are capable to win this race,” Castroneves said. “My previous win, it was actually won on that as well. We were able to execute in the right time and they were able to put me in a very good opportunity to execute.”

The guy he defeated in the pit stop challenge, Franchitti, is starting in the 17th slot on the grid. Not where he wanted to be, but Franchitti won his third Indy 500 last year starting in the 16th spot. He is not concerned about winning his fourth, but rather just winning.

“There’s no more pressure than there is on anybody else in the field. Doesn’t make you any faster. Doesn’t make the team work any harder. It’s simply right now about the mechanics of trying to put ourselves in a position to challenge on race day, trying to make sure the Target car is fast, consistent.”

Undoubtedly, fans are eagerly awaiting the performance of Ed Carpenter, the hometown favorite. Carpenter qualified on the pole, the only single-car team to be in the top nine. Carpenter is the first owner/driver to be on the pole since A.J. Foyt in 1975. In Carpenter’s first year as an owner/driver, he won the season finale at Fontana in 2012. Carpenter has finished 11th three times in the race and in the top 10 twice. His best finish is fifth in 2008.

He has lived in Indianapolis since he was eight, and being the step son of Tony George, the speedway is as much a part of his essence as anyone.

“I love it here. I love racing here. I love going fast here. It’s cool to see the speeds climbing again,” Carpenter said. “But this track and race means a lot to the other 32 guys that are going to start the race, too. I don’t think it’s just special to me.”

His landmark qualifying run may have signaled that he is a contender and is even showing progress in the street and road course venues. Carpenter, with his strong oval experience, could be the first driver to win from the pole since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006.

Dogging at Carpenter every step of the way will be Andretti Autosport and Team Penske. Those two teams make up the rest of the top nine starting positions. Rookie Carlos Munoz is Andretti’s fifth car for the race, and he was the fastest rookie, not only in qualifying, but also through practice sessions. He starts second. The front row is perfect for the race. I have my teammate just on the side of me, I have great people around me with a lot of experience,” Munoz said.

 Next to him on the front row is Marco Andretti. Andretti spent the off-season working intensely on his whole racing program, from the skill aspect to the mental aspect. Andretti started the season with a new number, 27, and a new attitude towards his career. It has seemed to work. Andretti is second in points and has two podium finishes and two top tens.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, E.J. Viso and James Hinchcliff round out the other Andretti Autosport drivers in the first three rows.

The other rookie in the top nine is A.J. Allmendinger. Driving for Team Penske, he is starting right behind Munoz in row two. The NASCAR and former CART star has a lot of open-wheel experience, but not on the ovals.

His first Indianapolis start will put him in contention for Rookie of the Year. It’s imaginable to see him in the winner’s circle.

“This is what I have dreamed about for 15 or 20 years and to finally have the opportunity and have Roger Penske and Tim Cindric give me the opportunity. Everybody at Team Penske makes me feel at home,” Allmendinger said.

The big question of the day may be that the Hondas been sandbagging through practice and qualifying. Honda has trailed Chevrolet the entire season, and Alex Tagliani is the highest starting Honda in row four, but on Carb Day, Simon Pagenaud, and Target Chip Ganassi driver Franchitti and Scott Dixon were all in the fastest of the day group.

“It’s great to go into a race with such a positive note,” Pagenaud said.

Points leader Takuma Sato may be A.J. Foyt’s best shot at winning another Indy 500 as an owner, the last coming when Kenny Brack won in 1999. Sato won his first IZOD IndyCar Series race in Long Beach this season, leading the final 50 laps of the race. It has been said that four-time winner Foyt likes Sato’s aggressive, ready-to-take-a-risk style of driving. Sato did not qualify as well as anticipated and will have to make his way to the front from row six.

In all, there will be three former winners, four rookies and four women in the mix for this year’s race. At least 20 different drivers are considered to be in contention to be in victory circle when the day is over.

Gates open at 5:30 a.m, and the race begins shortly after noon.