The 91st Indy 500 is a wide open race

Published 4:02 am Sunday, May 27, 2007

By By MIKE HARRIS, AP Auto Racing Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — Tell Helio Castroneves he’s one of the favorites in today’s Indianapolis 500 and he just shrugs his shoulders and grins.
It seems the 91st edition of the Memorial Day weekend classic is just about anybody’s race.
The front of the 33-car field reads like an all-star roster — pole-winner Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti in the first of 11 rows of three, followed by Scott Dixon, defending race winner Sam Hornish Jr. and 2005 winner Dan Wheldon in row two. Ryan Briscoe, Danica Patrick and 2006 runner-up Marco Andretti make up row three.
Add Michael Andretti, Marco’s father and last year’s third-place finisher, in the middle of row four, and that’s a strong list of possible winners.
Five — Kanaan, Franchitti, Patrick and the two Andrettis — drive for Andretti Green Racing.
But there are other teams whose drivers have been just as fast or faster this month.
Team Penske, which fields cars for Castroneves and Hornish, has won a record 14 Indy 500s, including four of the last six, while Target Chip Ganassi, with Wheldon and Dixon as its drivers, won the 500 in 2000 with Juan Pablo Montoya. Wheldon got his Indy win with Andretti Green before moving to Ganassi’s team last year.
From Castroneves to Michael Andretti, their four-lap, 10-mile qualifying efforts were separated by just more than 2 seconds.
Asked to handicap the race, Hornish said, ‘‘It wouldn’t surprise me if anybody in the top 11 won this race.
Kanaan has raced here five times and never started worse than fifth. Since crashing out while leading near the midway point in 2002, his rookie year, the Brazilian has always finished in the top eight, with a second-place run in 2004.
No one knows that better than Michael Andretti, who has come agonizingly close to joining his father, Mario, as an Indy winner. Michael, who came out of retirement last year at 44 to race against his then-19-year-old son, led with four laps to go before being passed first by Marco and then by eventual winner Hornish.
Knowing his car owner’s history here, Kanaan says he can’t complain that he hasn’t won yet at Indy.
Wheldon, who has won two of the four IndyCar Series events this year, came into the month as the likely favorite. But, after he and teammate Dixon were the fastest early, they faded back into the pack.
That could be a good thing.
It definitely could come down to fuel mileage this year after the IRL switched to all-ethanol fuel, which burns hotter, makes less horsepower and produces better mileage.
Honda regained some of the lost horsepower by changing from 3.0 to 3.5-liter engines, and the IRL cut the fuel cell from 30 to 22 gallons. Another factor that could change strategies is Honda’s decision to limit the in-cockpit fuel adjustments to two settings, meaning drivers won’t be able to use it to save fuel.
So, too, could Tomas Scheckter and Scott Sharp, starting 10th and 12th. Scheckter, son of former Formula One champion Jody Scheckter, finished fourth in 2003 and is always fast. Sharp, now with Rahal Letterman Racing, finished seventh and ninth the past two years.
Sunday’s race also will include three women for the first time.
Patrick, who created a whirlwind of publicity by leading laps and finishing fourth — both firsts for a woman — in 2005, is part of the Andretti Green Racing juggernaut and has an outside shot at a win.
Sarah Fisher, the fastest female qualifier at Indy in 2002, is back for her sixth race and will start 21st. Milka Duno, a 35-year-old rookie from Venezuela and the least experienced driver in the lineup by far, will start the second race of her IndyCar career from 29th, the middle of the 10th row.
The field also includes three other former champions and a third Andretti.
Buddy Rice, the 2004 Indy winner, will start 16th; Buddy Lazier, the 1996 winner, will start 22nd; and two-time winner Al Unser Jr., (1992 and 1994) will start 25th.
John Andretti, a member of another of Indy’s most famous families, will start 24th in his seventh 500 but first since 1994.
Andretti, who finished fifth here in 1991, has been racing in NASCAR in recent years. He said it felt a little strange getting back in an IndyCar after such a long absence.
The drivers up front are hoping everything falls into place for them Sunday.