Commentary

Five drivers with storybook dreams

Updated: May 25, 2012, 8:31 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- This is just a hunch, but something tells me we might just see a feel-good moment Sunday at the old Brickyard.

Obviously, it's a feel-good moment for any driver and team that go to Victory Lane for the Indianapolis 500. That's not what I mean.

I see five competitors in the 33-driver field who just might win the 96th running of the classic event, giving the crowd one of those special moments that have made the Indy 500 so memorable over the years.

Here are my feel-good five, a quintet of possible winners, any of one whom would all but write the story for me Sunday afternoon if it happens:

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
Michael Hickey/US PresswireHelio Castroneves hopes to join an elite group by winning a fourth Indianapolis 500.

• Helio Castroneves -- He would become the fourth driver to win the Indy 500 four times and the first to do so in more than 20 years. Ricks Mears won his fourth in 1991. A.J. Foyt and Al Unser Sr. are the other four-timers.

The former "Dancing With the Stars" champ is one of the most popular drivers in the IndyCar Series. This is Helio's third shot at the fourth win after earning his third victory in 2009. Castroneves started on the pole in 2010 and finished ninth. He finished 17th last year.

He's starting on the outside of Row 2 this time and he knows he can win it. Team Penske is unbeaten in the first four races this season, and Roger Penske's drivers have a record 15 Indy 500 victories.

But now in his 12th Indy start, Castroneves realizes the 2.5-mile rectangle can haunt a driver.

"This place is very difficult," he said. "If you think you understand it, forget it, because it's going to drive you crazy."

A Castroneves win Sunday would make Penske the first team owner to have two drivers win this race four times. Mears also drove for Penske.

Maybe the biggest obstacles for Castroneves are his two teammates. Ryan Briscoe won the pole and Will Power (three victories already this season but not known for his oval-track prowess) is starting next to Helio.

And yes, I know about all you old CART naysayers who still believe Castroneves has only two Indy 500 victories. The conspiracy theorists say Paul Tracy was the 2002 winner by passing Castroneves on the next-to-last lap a tick before the caution lights came on.

We'll stick with the official record book, which will always list Castroneves as a four-time winner if he takes the checkered flag Sunday.

• Marco Andretti -- The 43-year jinx would come to an end. Indy's most famous family is also its most cursed. Grandpa Mario is the only Andretti winner at Indy, and that happened in 1969.

[+] EnlargeMarco Andretti
Michael Hickey/US PresswireCan Marco Andretti put an end to the famous family's 43-year jinx at the grand old speedway?

It was obvious Thursday on media day at Indy that Marco believes he can win it. When told that Scott Dixon said Marco is the favorite, Marco was asked if he agreed.

"Darn right I agree with that," he said laughing. "But it's nice to have him confirm what I've been feeling. We still have to go out and prove it for 500 laps, but I'm very confident."

Marco's legendary grandfather should have gone to Victory Lane so many other times here, but misfortune cost him a win a few years. He had five top-5 finishes, including a runner-up twice. Marco's dad, Michael, also finished in the top five five times, including second in 1991 and third in 2001 and 2006.

Marco, 25, experienced the family pain at Indy in 2006, when he thought he had it won before Sam Hornish Jr. passed him just before the two cars crossed the finish line, with Hornish beating Marco by 0.06 of a second. Marco also finished third in 2008 and 2011.

Marco is starting on the inside of Row 2 this time, but he was disappointed at qualifying fourth after posting the fastest lap of the month (227.540 mph) the day before qualifying.

Nevertheless, Marco knows he has a car that may give him his best shot at winning since 2006. And despite his family's misfortune at Indy, it's a place where he excels.

"I absolutely love driving here," he said. "I love just being here."

• Graham Rahal -- The other famous family name that would bring smiles to longtime Indy 500 followers. Bobby Rahal, Graham's dad, won it in 1986. Bobby finished in the top three on three other occasions and was the runner-up in 1990.

[+] EnlargeGraham Rahal
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireGraham Rahal wants to join his father, Bobby Rahal, as an Indianapolis 500 winner.

Bobby won 24 races and three CART championships. He was the last owner/driver to win the title in 1992. Bobby is here watching as a team owner for Michel Jourdain Jr. and Takuma Sato, but Graham drives for Chip Ganassi's team.

"With Chip Ganassi Racing, the one thing we can all be confident in is that our cars are going to be built to the highest standard and quality," Graham said. "You got to have the confidence in your guys, and we do."

Some experts this year don't think a Honda-powered car can win. Don't believe it.

The Chevys have been better all season. Chevys qualified in the top six spots here last weekend. But qualifying and racing are much different conditions. The Hondas are competitive in race trim.

And the truth is, no one knows what the new cars (a much different body design this year) will do in this race.

"The one thing this year is there's so much uncertainty," Graham said. "Chevy certainly has a little bit of an advantage. The Chevy right now has more power. It's as simple as that. But I still have high expectations, as I do every year."

Graham, 23, has yet to enjoy the kind of success his father had, but he's a skilled young racer who had an impressive third-place finish here last year after starting 29th.

"Coming off third last year, I feel there's a better understanding of how to compete here and how to race this race," Graham said. "When I started 29th last year, you think that's the death sentence, but you can make up so much time and space here so quickly."

[+] EnlargeTony Kanaan
Michael Hickey/US PresswireTony Kanaan was the first to lead the Indy 500 in his first five starts. Can he finally lead at the end?

• Tony Kanaan -- Of drivers who have raced in this event 10 times or more, Kanaan is one of the best ever without a victory. He has finished in the top five here five times, including fourth last year. He was the Indy 500 runner-up in 2004.

The 37-year-old Brazilian starts eighth Sunday. He's the 2004 series champion and has 15 career victories. But Indy isn't one of them, and no driver in the field may deserve to win it more than Kanaan.

He was the first driver to lead the race in each of his first five starts. Kanaan crashed while leading the race in 2002 after spinning in oil from another accident.

"It's another year; that's all I've got to say," said Kanaan before saying much more about his Indy woes. "A fan said to me the other day, 'Do you realize you are more famous at Indy because you didn't win the 500 than if you actually won?'

"I don't know about that, but this place doesn't owe me anything. I don't put extra pressure on myself. People tell me, 'This is your year.' I'll take that as positive energy. If it happens, fine. If it doesn't, I'll keep trying."

• JR Hildebrand -- Redemption. That's all you need to say about what it would mean for Hildebrand to win after the incredible disappointment when it appeared he had the race won last year.

[+] EnlargeJR Hildebrand
Michael Hickey/US Presswire JR Hildebrand has had a year to stew over the final-turn disaster in the 2011 Indy 500.

Hildebrand had a big lead on the last lap when he slammed into the wall exiting the final turn. It brought about one of the most surprising turn of events in the history of the race as Dan Wheldon zoomed past Hildebrand's crippled car and won.

Hildebrand, a 24-year-old native of Sausalito, Calif., could have been a rookie winner, but the unthinkable happened. That dark cloud followed him two weeks later, when he tore an ACL in a promotional stunt at Texas Motor Speedway.

It's a long shot for Hildebrand to win it this time, but so was last year. He starts 18th Sunday, six spots worse than 2011.

"A good starting position in the 500 helps keep you out of the craziness that goes on sometimes," Hildebrand said. "But either way, it's a long day. You have to stay out of trouble all 200 laps."

No one knows that better than Hildebrand. He is among nine American drivers in the race. Hornish was the last American to win it six years ago. Buddy Rice is the only other American winner in the past 13 years.

Other drivers in the race could become feel-good stories, especially any of the three women -- Ana Beatriz, Katherine Legge and Simona De Silvestro. That would be historic, obviously, but few people give any of them a realistic shot.

No one gave Danica Patrick a realistic shot in 2005 when she had the lead with seven laps to go before finishing fourth.

This is the Indy 500 and anything can happen. Sometimes with a little luck, it's the feel-good story that people remember.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter