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May 24, 2014

Six former winners chasing Indy 500 championship

INDIANAPOLIS — Angst, frustration and heartbreak are all part of the lore of the Indianapolis 500, but when a driver finally takes the checkered flag, all of those words are quickly relegated to the back of their mind and replaced with pure joy. That emotion keeps bringing them back, and for the 98th running of the Indy 500, six former winners will chase that passion again.

This year’s race is unique in that two of the former winners are returning for the first time since their win, and a lot of years have passed for 1995 winner Jacques Villeneuve and 2000 champion Juan Pablo Montoya.

Racing for Team Green, Villeneuve had an early lead in the race, but a yellow flag and drivers pitting caused enough confusion that Villeneuve was assessed a two-lap penalty for passing the pace car twice. More controversy late in the race came when Scott Goodyear passed the pace car. When Goodyear did not come in to serve the penalty, officials stopped scoring his laps, leaving the door open for Villeneuve to take the win. He went on to win but the following year, Villeneuve left for Formula One, where he won the F1 Championship in 1997.

Starting on the outside of Row 9, Villeneuve holds the record for the most elapsed time between races, 19 years. He is driving for Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports this year in a one-off deal, but his qualifying run was quite different than it was in ’95. “We didn’t trim the car. We concentrated on race setup. The car was quite fast without being trimmed, so we’re quite happy.” The cars have changed since his last run at Indy, but Villeneuve adapted quickly. “The speeds are similar, but it drives differently. I love driving at these speeds. That’s what I was born to do.”

For Montoya, it has been 14 years since his win in 2000. Montoya, who won for Chip Ganassi, also departed for Formula One after winning at Indianapolis. After his F1 career, he continued to drive for Ganassi in NASCAR where he won two races and nine poles. He returned to IndyCar this year to drive for Team Penske, joining three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves and Will Power.

Montoya qualified as one of the fastest cars in the field, but because of the change in the qualifying format, he will start 10th. “It was readjusting to the car, understanding the car. I had to get myself and the team on the same page. There were certain things we couldn’t try on the car because I was uncomfortable. As time goes on, I’m definitely more comfortable in the car.”

Montoya was not completely away from Indianapolis. He drove both United States Grand Prix and the Brickyard 400 here, but the track, the cars and Montoya has changed.

“I am just a little more experienced, smarter and wiser, but at the same time, you have to figure out everything again. I’ve been away from open wheel a long time,” Montoya said.

In his return to Indy, Montoya will have the added help of team owner Roger Penske, who with 15 wins, has won Indianapolis more than any other owner. That includes team advisor Rick Mears, who is one of only four drivers who has four Indy wins.

Seeking history

Team Penske teammate Castroneves rounds out the power trio who is on a quest for his fourth Indy 500 win. Castroneves starts fourth and is sporting the throwback “Yellow Submarine” paint scheme and helmet that Mears took to victory in 1984 and 1988.

“It’s certainly a very unique opportunity. You can’t be thinking about that,” said Castroneves. “To make it happen, you got to work. You’ve got to execute. I’m really confident right now that we have the best equipment out there, but it’s about being in the right place at the right time. It would awesome for sure because only three guys did that.”

He credits Mears with assisting on all three of his wins and feels Mears, by proxy, has more than four wins. Mears told Castroneves that he will like the fourth win more than any. Mears was 39 years old when he won his fourth. He was the youngest of the trio with four wins, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser being the others. Castroneves turned 39 a few weeks ago.

Every race is different, Castroneves said.

“You start from zero. Every time you come over here, there’s something new, something absolutely different from the years’ past. You have to adapt when it comes,” Castroneves said.

Looking for

a repeat title

For Tony Kanaan, last year’s win was sweet — and a long time coming. In his previous 12 tries, Kanaan had always come up short. He was leading during a rain delay in 2007, but the race was able to restart several hours later and then teammate Dario Franchitti went on to win. He finished in the top 10 in seven of his 12 starts. A long-time favorite of the fans, Kanaan knows how to get around Indy. In 2010, he started 33rd and passed 11 cars on the first lap.

However, even after his Indy 500 win, his team, KV Racing Technology, struggled with sponsorship, not even sure they could secure sponsorship for the whole season. He was able to make the move to Target Chip Ganassi Racing. He is now driving the No. 10 car, formerly of Dario Franchitti, who had to retire because of injuries suffered last year. Kanaan is grateful to be where he is now.

“I’m in a good place, happy to be here working hard with my teammates,” Kanaan said.

Team owner Ganassi is thrilled for Kanaan.

“We obviously had a curveball thrown at us with Dario, but to have a guy like Tony Kanaan there to step in, I think it’s been seamless and very good,” Ganassi said.

So far this season, they have struggled, finishing 10th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, 9th at Barber, 18th in Long Beach. He best finish of the season opener at St. Pete where he finished 6th. “We haven’t given Tony the car he needs yet,” Ganassi said, “but we feel those are pretty much behind us.”

Although Kanaan loves Indianapolis, his approach leaves the mystique of Indy out of his head. “The way I approach it, it’s just another race we have to win. If you’re going to put extra effort just because it’s the Indy 500, to me you’re not a complete driver. You should put extra effort every time you go on the race track. I try to take that pressure off and not think about it’s the Indy 500. Kanaan is starting 16th, not where he wanted, but Kanaan has the science of passing into an art.

His Target teammate, Scott Dixon is also looking for a second Indy win. Dixon won from the pole in 2008 but will start this year’s race in 11th. Last year’s IndyCar Series Champion has two top-10 finishes this season, but ended the inaugural Indianapolis Grand Prix in 18th. While the whole team struggled in qualifying, historically, Ganassi drivers seem to turn it around on race day. “You have to think about the big picture,” Dixon said, “keeping an open mind because things change constantly.” Last year’s race produced a record 68 lead changes.

“Your emotions go through rollercoasters like anybody in a high-stress situation. I think the biggest thing is trying to concentrate on what’s ahead, what you need to improve. I think if you get hung up on certain things, it’s going to ruin your day,” Dixon said.

Mr. Irrelevant?

It has been a long time since Buddy Lazier won the Indianapolis 500, but the taste of that milk has kept him coming back since his 1996 win with Hemelgarn Racing. Lazier impressed many with his win that year, considering just two months prior, he suffered serious back and pelvis injuries in a crash at Phoenix. He was a rookie in 1991 and raced annually through 2008 before taking a four-year hiatus until his return in 2013. Last year, finished 31st with only one day of practice before qualifying. In his career at Indianapolis, Lazier has six top 10 finishes. He was fifth in 2005 with Panther Racing. He begins his 17th Indianapolis 500 as the 33rd starter, and at age 46, he will be the oldest driver in the field.

Rookies looking to make a splash

In addition to the six former winners, seven rookies also adorn the field with NASCAR champion Kurt Busch being the most notable. Busch is attempting to the “double.” If he does it, Busch would complete the 500 miles of Indianapolis and the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte. Busch qualified in the 12th position. The team at Andretti Autosport had to rebuild the car after a crash in practice on May19th.

For the six who know what it’s like to drink the milk, it’s a taste they cannot forget and one that keeps them coming back. Throughout the three and a half hour exercise in extreme concentration, the decisions in the final minutes can be the difference between elation and heartbreak. “When it comes down to the end,” Dixon said, “a little aggression sure does go a long way.”

The green flag for the 98th Indianapolis 500 waves at 12:12 pm.

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