Commentary

Indianapolis 500 will be wide open

Updated: May 25, 2012, 11:53 AM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- If more than a hundred years of history at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has taught us anything, it's that you can rarely predict the winner of the Indianapolis 500 (Sunday, noon ET, ABC).

Pick a winner four days out? Shoot, some years it's impossible to pick a winner four laps from the finish.

In 1912, Ralph De Palma led the second-ever Indianapolis 500 from Lap 2 to Lap 198 and had a 5½-lap margin on the field. But he didn't win.

[+] EnlargeRyan Briscoe
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesRyan Briscoe pocketed a $100,000 bonus for winning pole position for Sunday's Indianapolis 500.

Just last year, JR Hildebrand had an eight-second lead over Dan Wheldon three-quarters of the way around the 200th and final lap. Hildebrand learned the hard way that getting 799 out of 800 corners right during the 500 doesn't add up to victory. His last-lap crash was a $3 million mistake that left the late Wheldon crying tears of joy and chugging the traditional winner's milk.

Prognosticating this year's Memorial Day Classic is even more difficult than usual because there's been a wholesale equipment changeover. The chassis is still an Italian-made Dallara, but engines were downsized from 3.5 liters to 2.2 liters and turbocharged.

There's also competition between multiple engine manufacturers in the Izod IndyCar Series for the first time in six years, but for the most part, the 2012 engine war has been no contest. With a big helping hand from Team Penske, Chevrolet won the first four races of the season and powered Will Power to a comfortable championship lead over his teammate (and three-time Indy 500 winner) Helio Castroneves.

Meanwhile, the Honda camp, and especially flagship team Ganassi Racing, has struggled. The fastest Honda runner throughout Indy's nine days of practice and qualifying was rookie Josef Newgarden of local favorite Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. The Honda cars have been more competitive in race trim, but a Chevy victory on Sunday is perhaps the safest prediction one could make this month.

Ryan Briscoe emerged from the shadow of his teammates to take pole position, the record 17th at Indianapolis for team owner Roger Penske. A victory on Sunday would be the 16th for Penske, also a record.

But an equally strong 1-2-3 threat comes from the five-car Andretti Autosport effort, which qualified 2-3-4 with drivers James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti.

[+] EnlargeMarco Andretti
Michael Hickey/US PresswireMarco Andretti, a third-generation driver from the famous racing clan, will start fourth on Sunday.

Hinchcliffe, a 27-year-old Toronto native who is driving the GoDaddy-sponsored car made famous by Danica Patrick, is having a breakout campaign and triumphing at Indianapolis would significantly accelerate his rise to stardom. And there's no question that a win for Marco, son of Michael and grandson of Mario Andretti, would be a huge boost for the sport of IndyCar racing as a whole.

Meanwhile, the Target Ganassi team of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti that has dominated the 500 the past four years, winning in 2008 and '09, has been flat all month, not even keeping pace with smaller Honda teams.

But at 500 miles, Indianapolis is almost twice as long as any other IndyCar Series race. It's also the first oval race for the new turbocharged engine formula. With engines designed for an 1,800-mile lifespan, reliability shouldn't be a problem, but engineers from Chevrolet, Honda and backmarker Lotus won't rest easy until the checkered flag falls.

The racing itself is another venture into the unknown; the DW12 chassis, with its rear wheels semi-enclosed by bodywork for safety reasons, creates a huge aerodynamic draft, or tow, in its wake. Drivers have noted substantially greater closing speeds in the turns and predict much more passing and jockeying for position than in recent years.

The last wild card is what is forecast to be searing heat and humidity, with temperatures expected to crest in the upper 90s. A real endurance test for (wo)man and machine, in other words.

It all adds up to what many observers are calling the most wide-open Indianapolis 500 in 20 to 30 years. Here's a breakdown of the 33 competitors set to contest Sunday's race (car number/sponsor/team/engine):

Row 1

1. Ryan Briscoe (No. 2/Izod/Team Penske/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Occasionally overlooked Aussie can solidify his Penske Racing tenure by converting pole position into another win for "The Captain."
Quote -- "This race is just so important. It's so big, and I think even just a pole win here is remembered. So it's a great feeling. I think it's going to be a pretty wild race."
Oreovicz's odds -- 5-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

2. James Hinchcliffe (No. 27/GoDaddy/Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Personable Canadian has starred this year in car vacated by Danica Patrick and intended for the late Dan Wheldon.
Quote -- "Our cars were second, third and fourth on the grid. It's awesome to see the kind of results that we are getting because these guys have been working so hard."
Oreovicz's odds -- 5-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

3. Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28/Sun Drop-DHL/Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Unofficial Andretti Autosport team leader is tipped by many as a dark horse.
Quote -- "It's been a really enjoyable week, and to have a legitimate shot at getting the pole at Indy has been so much fun, especially after last year."
Oreovicz's odds -- 5-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

Row 2

4. Marco Andretti (No. 26/RC Cola/Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Third-generation star has headlined at Indy but hasn't overcome Andretti family jinx.
Quote -- "We learned attention to detail when we were just trying to get into the show, but now all of a sudden that we roll off with pace, all those little things put us in the position to potentially run for the pole."
Oreovicz's odds -- 4-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

5. Will Power (No. 12/Verizon/Team Penske/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- The IndyCar Series' dominant driver at road racing venues can silence the oval doubters with victory in The Big One.
Quote -- "Every year you come here, you just learn more and more and more. I have to say, this year I feel so comfortable in the car. It just comes with experience."
Oreovicz's odds -- 5-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

6. Helio Castroneves (No. 3/Shell-Pennzoil/Team Penske/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Three-time Indianapolis 500 champ has an excellent shot at joining the small club of four-time winners.
Quote -- "I feel confident at this point. It's great to have two teammates here giving more information so you can adapt and grow faster."
Oreovicz's odds -- 4-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

Row 3

7. Josef Newgarden (No. 67/Dollar General/Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Brash kid from Nashville already has made a mark in his rookie IndyCar campaign.
Quote -- "The team has done a phenomenal job. I know we're not the quickest in qualifying, but I really think we have the quickest car in the field."
Oreovicz's odds -- 12-1

8. Tony Kanaan (No. 11/Geico-Mouser/KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Popular former series champion has been down on his luck in recent years at Indy, a track where he's never won.
Quote -- "If there is no drama for me, it's never fun. I guess I keep continuing with my legacy here of the drama."
Oreovicz's odds -- 8-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

9. E.J. Viso (No. 5/Citgo/KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Venezuelan charger is finally learning to finish races.
Quote -- "We could have gone a bit faster, but the car feels strong, consistent, stable, and that's all we need for a good race."
Oreovicz's odds -- 20-1

[+] EnlargeRubens Barrichello
Michael Hickey/US PresswireRubens Barrichello's introduction to the massive Indianapolis Motor Speedway rectangle was an "awesome experience."

Row 4

10. Rubens Barrichello (No. 8/BMC-Embrase/KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Most experienced F1 driver of all time has learned what it's like to be a rookie at Indy.
Quote -- "I'll tell you, those four corners are much more difficult than many of the other corners I've done in my whole life. It's been an awesome experience."
Oreovicz's odds -- 20-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

11. Alex Tagliani (No. 98/Barracuda Networks/Bryan Herta Autosport/Honda)
The lowdown -- Last year's Indy pole winner got a new lease on life when BHA switched from Lotus to Honda.
Quote -- "This month we definitely tested the crew because of the switch to Honda. To tell you the truth, we're pretty stoked."
Oreovicz's odds -- 12-1

12. Graham Rahal (No. 38/Service Central/Ganassi Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Son of '86 Indy winner Bobby Rahal hopes to improve on third-place finish from a year ago.
Quote -- "Chevy certainly has a little bit of an advantage at this point. Our goal was to be the quickest of the Hondas, and I think we could have been close."
Oreovicz's odds -- 10-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

Row 5

13. Ana Beatriz (No. 25/Ipiranga/Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- The driver known as "Bia" in her native Brazil lines up for her second Indy start.
Quote -- "I'm not sure what our problem was, but I wish we had done better."
Oreovicz's odds -- 40-1

14. Charlie Kimball (No. 83/Novo Nordisk/Ganassi Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Sophomore American looked smooth all week until post-qualifying crash gave his crew a couple of long nights.
Quote -- "The car has been good all month, especially in race trim."
Oreovicz's odds -- 20-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

15. Scott Dixon (No. 9/Target/Ganassi Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Decent start to season has gone awry of late for 2008 Indy winner.
Quote -- "We're still struggling a little bit, but we're doing the best that we can."
Oreovicz's odds -- 7-1

[+] EnlargeJR Hildebrand
Michael Hickey/US PresswireWe'll find out soon if JR Hildebrand can repeat his 2011 performance
-- without the last-lap hiccup, of course.

Row 6

16. Dario Franchitti (No. 50/Target/Ganassi Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- IndyCar racing's most accomplished active driver has struggled to adapt to the new 2012 cars and engines.
Quote -- "Every member of the Target team is working so hard. There's a bit of head-scratching going on and we're just having a hard time figuring this one out."
Oreovicz's odds -- 8-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

17. James Jakes (No. 19/Boy Scouts of America/Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Second-year English driver has excellent tutor in countryman Justin Wilson.
Quote -- "We've got a better race car than a qualifying car, so we'll just take the positives."
Oreovicz's odds -- 50-1

18. JR Hildebrand (No. 4/National Guard/Panther Racing/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Last year's moral victor wants to complete that 200th lap in the lead this time.
Quote -- "A good starting position in the 500 helps you keep out of the craziness that goes on sometimes."
Oreovicz's odds -- 15-1
Watch the on-board camera on raceday

Row 7

19. Takuma Sato (No. 15/MI-JACK/Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Most successful Japanese driver to date is coming off first career podium finish.
Quote -- "The season has been really good and I'm very happy. Of course, Bobby [Rahal]'s operation is fantastic. They really bring everything together."
Oreovicz's odds -- 20-1

20. Townsend Bell (No. 99/BraunAbility/Schmidt Pelfrey Motorsports/Honda)
The lowdown -- Part-time racer taking a break from his IndyCar pit announcer role with NBC Sports Network.
Quote -- "I'm supposed to be the teacher and Simon [Pagenaud] is supposed to be the student. But it's role reversal. That's what having teammates is all about."
Oreovicz's odds -- 30-1

21. Justin Wilson (No. 18/Sonny's BBQ/Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Like Franchitti, another capable veteran who has struggled to jell with the DW12/Honda combination.
Quote -- "I'm not very satisfied. We could have qualified better but didn't want to do anything too risky."
Oreovicz's odds -- 20-1

Row 8

22. Michel Jourdain (No. 30/Office Depot/Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Returns to Indianapolis for the first time since 1996.
Quote -- "I've been racing NASCAR and driving other cars with rallying. I don't know how to describe how difficult it has been to adapt to the Indy car again."
Oreovicz's odds -- 50-1

23. Simon Pagenaud (No. 77/HP/Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports/Honda)
The lowdown -- Underrated driver and team have lacked pace at Indy compared to road races earlier this year.
Quote -- "I'm here in Indy -- I've been dreaming about this my whole life and I can only enjoy this moment."
Oreovicz's odds -- 30-1

24. Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17/AFS/Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Young Colombian wants to follow in footsteps of countryman (and 2000 Indy 500 winner) Juan Montoya.
Quote -- "We had the car to be in the top nine but had an unfortunate situation on our first qualifying attempt."
Oreovicz's odds -- 50-1

[+] EnlargeSebastien Bourdais
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSebastien Bourdais likes his chances with a Chevrolet engine powering the No. 7 Dragon Racing machine.

Row 9

25. Sebastien Bourdais (No. 7/Bing-McAfee/Dragon Racing/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Late switch from Lotus prevented four-time IndyCar champ from showing his best.
Quote -- "I'm glad to be with Chevrolet and looking forward to the rest of the season." Oreovicz's odds -- 20-1

26. Wade Cunningham (No. 41/ABC Supply Co./AJ Foyt Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- Three-time Indy Lights Freedom 100 winner back for another shot in the big cars.
Quote -- "We didn't come here to be field-fillers."
Oreovicz's odds -- 100-1

27. Oriol Servia (No. 22/Panther-Dreyer & Reinbold Racing/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Behind the eight ball after last-minute engine switch but thankful to jettison Lotus.
Quote -- "My crash looked bad, but the car didn't get too damaged. This race has been won from the back many times, and if you have a good car, you can definitely go forward."
Oreovicz's odds -- 30-1

Row 10

28. Ed Carpenter (No. 20/Fuzzy's Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- IndyCar's only owner/driver had twice as many problems to deal with after Pole Day wreck.
Quote -- "The whole month hasn't gone as you script them."
Oreovicz's odds -- 40-1

29. Mike Conway (No. 14/ABC Supply Co./AJ Foyt Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- With a savage wreck and a DNQ his past two times there, Indy hasn't been kind to this Brit.
Quote -- "I just want to thank AJ Foyt Racing and ABC Supply for hanging in there all week."
Oreovicz's odds -- 75-1

30. Katherine Legge (No. 6/TrueCar/Dragon Racing/Chevrolet)
The lowdown -- Former IndyCar racer has endured rough re-entry into open-wheelers after several years away.
Quote -- "I watched Michael Andretti and Nigel Mansell in the Indy 500 when I was a kid and now I'm hugely thankful for the opportunity."
Oreovicz's odds -- 250-1

Row 11

31. Bryan Clauson (No. 39/Angie's List/Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing/Honda)
The lowdown -- USAC poster boy blotted copybook with Pole Day shunt but otherwise looks right at home in rear-engine cars.
Quote -- "A lot of people are rooting for us to be successful because of my background, and it's pretty humbling."
Oreovicz's odds -- 100-1

32. Simona De Silvestro (No. 78/Entergy/HVM Racing/Lotus)
The lowdown -- Popular female racer prevented from being racy by dud Lotus engine.
Quote -- "We don't have the speed we want, but we've been creeping up to the other manufacturers, so that's a really positive sign."
Oreovicz's odds -- 1,000-1

33. Jean Alesi (No. 64/FP Journe/Fan Force United/Lotus)
The lowdown -- F1 veteran's Indy pleasure cruise has been slower than he hoped.
Quote -- "I'm 47 years old and I've learned more in one week here than I did in my entire Formula One career."
Oreovicz's odds -- 5,000-1