Monday, May 19, 2003 Updated: May 21, 6:18 PM ET
Field among best since split
By Robin Miller Special to ESPN.com
INDIANAPOLIS -- Granted, Bump Day was a bore and the field barely filled up, but the 87th Indianapolis 500 won't be short on favorites or quality teams.
The best part about the May 25th classic is that it's the deepest grid since the Indy Racing League/Championship Auto Racing Teams split in 1996. And no less than a third of the field has a legitimate shot at victory lane.
"Qualifying might not have been as exciting as everyone wanted but I think the race will make up for it," said Kenny Brack, the 1999 Indy winner and one of the obvious contenders this month.
"There's more strong teams than there have been in a long time and a lot of guys have a shot. It's going to be tough on race day."
It's not one of the most talented lineups ever, contrary to what some might have you believe, and it's still missing CART regulars Paul Tracy, last year's winner in many people's eyes, Bruno Junqueira, the 2002 pole-sitter, Patrick Carpentier, Adrian Fernandez and impressive rookie Sebastien Bourdais. Also, Dario Franchitti is injured.
But it's certainly as strong overall as any field since the split thanks to the full-time migration to the IRL of Chip Ganassi, Morris Nunn, Michael Andretti, Toyota and Honda. Plus the Indy efforts of Bobby Rahal and Fernandez. And, naturally, the formidable shadow of Roger Penske's operation.
Based on past history and this year's results, the winner figures to come from this group.
Helio Castroneves is 2-0 at Indy and trying to become the first driver to ever win three in a row. He's got the best seat in the house after taking the pole position and Penske already owns a record 12 victories. Gil de Ferran is returning after a nasty accident last March but appears to be back up to speed.
And while Team Penske leads the Toyota brigade, it's taken a back seat to Scott Dixon of Target/Ganassi this season. Dixon has one win, one pole and is second in laps led coming into his Indy debut while teammate Tomas Scheckter was running away with Indy last May before crashing.
Both Michael Andretti, bottom, and Tomas Scheckter could make runs at the checkers on Sunday.
Andretti, who purchased Team Green along with Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, fields four of the 33 cars -- Tony Kanaan, Robby Gordon, Dan Wheldon and himself -- and all are legitimate threats in their Hondas.
Kanaan, starting second, triumphed at Phoenix and is tops the IRL stats in laps led and poles. He was also leading Indy last year when he spun in a competitor's oil and crashed. Gordon, also competing in NASCAR's show at Charlotte the same day, lines up third and rookie Wheldon is fifth.
Andretti's final Indy-car start is from the inside of Row 5 but the man who's led 398 laps here without a win obviously knows his way to the front.
"It (the race) should be very competitive and I think our team has four legitimate chances to win it," said CART's all-time winner.
Jimmy Vasser, the lone CART regular at Indy this year, starts back in 27th after missing the opening day of time trials, but teammate Brack lines up sixth in two more of Honda's hopes.
Nunn had Felipe Giaffone in contention for the win last May (he finished third) and has paired him with Tora Takagi, Alex Barron and Toyota. Takagi, a rookie at IMS but a veteran of Formula One and CART, has been among the fastest drivers all month and starts seventh. Barron, who replaced Arie Luyendyk, ran fourth here in 2002.
Two-time IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr. is a longshot since he's running an under-powered Chevrolet and hasn't led a lap yet in 2002. But he's got the talent, engineering staff and pit stops to stay in the hunt.
"Nobody gives us a chance, how soon they forget," said Hornish, who starts 18th. "But we kinda like that underdog role."