A feel-good 500 winner?
INDIANAPOLIS -- What you wish for, every year in this storied race, is another wonderful story to add to the lore.
Here's a wish list, in countdown order, of the seven best possible feel-good wins in Sunday's 97th Indianapolis 500 (coverage begins 11 a.m. ET, ABC).
This should be a slam dunk No. 1, but it wouldn't be. There would be an annoying, if not maddening, side to the story that would spoil it.
At face value, this would be a touching comeback. Dinger was an open-wheel prodigy before venturing into NASCAR as the Champ Car World Series went under.
"I just did it for a job, honestly," he said this week. "People thought I made the decision, 'Ah! The money's there; it's easy to go.' It was hard. In my heart, I love open-wheel racing."
His ordeals in NASCAR are sadly documented, falling from grace last year for violating NASCAR's substance abuse policy, being fired by team owner Roger Penske, doing everything right to get reinstated but struggling to find rides.
The ever-compassionate Penske, whose eye for open-wheel talent is impeccable -- his drivers have won the Indy 500 a record 15 times -- gave Allmendinger a ride here this year, and he qualified fifth.
Career sorely interrupted, Allmendinger is back where his true talent and lifelong training lie.
"Is it back home? I don't even know what that is," he said. "I don't know what it's supposed to feel like."
With a story that sad, a win should draw thunderous cheers across the continent. And among those who truly understand motor racing, it would.
But public perception is everything, and NASCAR fans are the vast majority of the race-watching public. False as their impression would be, their reaction would be that a mediocre NASCAR driver won the Indianapolis 500.
Out of triumph would come myopic misunderstanding, and that would hurt as much as help the image of this troubled race.
6. Either contender for a fourth 500 win -- Helio Castroneves or Dario Franchitti
This race's four-win club is elite and totally American: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
As Castroneves of Brazil and Franchitti of Scotland vie to make the club international, they're arguably neck and neck as the most popular foreign-born regulars ever in this race. But for the past quarter century, many American fans have been disappointed at the domination of an American institution by imported personalities.
The original club was formed during the glory decades of Indy, before the devastating split between CART and IndyCar. So the question would be inevitable: Are four wins now as big as they were then?
Franchitti could shatter Mears' record for winning four in the shortest time span. Mears did it in 10 races, 1982-91, but Franchitti has won three of his past five attempts -- missing the race in 2008 for a NASCAR venture. Sunday could give him four wins in seven races and six attempts.
It took Foyt 10 years between his third victory and becoming the first four-time winner, in 1977. Unser took nine years between his third and his fourth, in 1987.
Castroneves is more like those two in the matter of the dues-paid category. It took him seven years between No. 2 and No. 3, and the third was four years ago, in 2009.
How welcome would they be as four-time winners, in public perception?
"I don't know," Franchitti said. "I feel very lucky that I've got fans who really support me. I don't know the answer to that question."
"I've been very well received, and the love from the fans has been absolutely incredible," said Castroneves. "I don't know how I can pay them back. My only thought for now is giving them what they want."
5. Ed Carpenter
With the pole sitter comes another scenario that should but wouldn't be 100 percent feel-good. More a burden than a boon to Carpenter in the public's eyes is the label "stepson of Tony George."
George, the controversial founder of IndyCar, is long gone from power, and Carpenter has had to scratch and claw for funding in recent years.
Still, "There are people out there who think the only reason I won the pole is because we were cheating and I'm Tony George's stepson," Carpenter said.
Preposterous as that is, "It still exists."
4. Graham Rahal
The surname isn't as titanic as Foyt, Andretti or Unser around here, but it's big, and somewhat local, out of neighboring Ohio.
Bobby Rahal won in 1986, and Graham could make them the first father-son faces on the Borg-Warner Trophy since Al Unser and Al Unser Jr.
And you can bet that if Graham won, he'd hammer on the idea that the Rahals accomplished the father-son feat the Andrettis couldn't -- "unless Michael magically comes out of retirement -- again," Graham quipped this week.
A full flowering of an Andretti-Rahal rivalry that runs deep between the families -- Bobby versus Mario and Michael, then Graham versus Marco -- would be fun for the public.
3. Takuma Sato in A.J. Foyt's car
This would be a huge hit on both sides of the Pacific.
There never has been and never will be another icon quite like Foyt on this, the most hallowed ground in all the world's motor racing.
To see his long-troubled racing team win here for the first time in 14 years -- 14 being his longtime car number -- would be delightful to Americans.
In Japan, a win by Sato would be a human-interest reward at long last for a nation whose industries have contributed so much to racing around the world but have yet to see one of their own drives reap, in a major race, the benefits of all that engineering, effort and funding.
2. Any of the four female drivers
Ana Beatriz, Simona De Silvestro, Katherine Legge and Pippa Mann all have this going for them: They are not Danica Patrick. A win by one of them, while Danica is at Charlotte, would be enormously popular with Patrick's detractors.
De Silvestro likely would be the most popular female winner, because she has been embraced as the un-Danica here for three years. Some believe Simona has more talent than Danica but hasn't caught the breaks.
Beatriz has the most experience here of the four. She and De Silvestro have three 500s each on their résumés, but Beatriz has completed 583 of a possible 600 laps to De Silvestro's 254 (mainly because De Silvestro ran only 10 laps for the hapless Lotus team last year.)
Legge, starting 33rd, last, might just have the best shot at winning because she's in a Honda-powered car that was near the top of the charts for a while in Friday's final practice.
Still, the double-edged sword is razor sharp. For all the celebration of a woman winning the Indy 500, the malcontents would grouse that "even a little-known woman can win that race" just like "even a mediocre NASCAR driver can win that race."
This would be 100 percent positive, all good, for the world's best-known racing family and the world's best-known race.
The Andretti Curse would be broken.
"Seventy-plus tries and one victory," Marco said of his family's fate here. Actually, this will make 68 tries spanning 48 years among five of them, with only patriarch Mario's 1969 win to show for it all.
"When you're out front, leading this race, you always think about it," Marco said this week. "You just hope there's not an element of that that's going to take us out of it."
Marco, Mario's grandson, was initiated immediately into the family's heartbreak in his rookie race, in 2006. And in the blink of an eye, the Indy 500 missed turning a corner toward resurgence of its lore.
Marco, at age 19, led going into the final lap. Sam Hornish Jr. charged up in a Penske car. Marco blocked. Hornish braked then charged again.
At the flag, it was Hornish, a nice guy and a deserving winner -- but simply not a name that resonated around the world.
Now Marco, at age 26, is an eight-year veteran, steeped in the legacy of disappointment. What could be the biggest and best possible story to come out of the 97th Indianapolis 500?
For himself, for his family, for Indy, for the world, "I've got to win this race," he said.
97TH INDIANAPOLIS 500-MILE RACE
The 97th running of the Indianapolis 500 is scheduled May 26 with coverage beginning at 11 a.m. ET (ABC). The venerable Indianapolis Motor Speedway is ready for another thriller as a great tradition enters its 102nd year.
Sunday• Racing Live! Indy 500
• Hinton: This time, Kanaan good enough
• Oreovicz: Andretti comes up short ... again
• Video: Full highlights and analysis
• Video: Winner on SportsCenter
• Video: Dario kart
• Kimball cleared to race after illness
Saturday• Hinton: Want a feel-good story?
• Stats & Info blog: Winning on Sunday
• Video: Preparing for the Indy 500
• Video: The Andretti curse at Indy
• Video: Speed and danger
• Video: Sato has Foyt back in contention
• Ailing Kimball misses driver's meeting
• Security tightened after Boston attack
• Insider: Betting the Indy 500
Features• Hinton: Foyt is back as a threat in the 500
• Oreovicz live blog from Carb Day
• Newton: Could a NASCAR star compete?
• Oreovicz: Indy 500 rookies could surprise
• Petry: Full speed ahead for Fisher
• Oreovicz: Night out with legends • Oreovicz: No Bump Day drama • John Oreovicz live blog from Pole Day
• Oreovicz: Turbo boost, speeds, are up
• Oreovicz: Need for more speed?
• Oreovicz: The drive for four
• Oreovicz: Hang on to your hats, folks
News & Notes• Record-tying four women in 500 field
• Jim Harbaugh to drive Indy 500 pace car
• Driver/owner Carpenter wins 500 pole | Grid
• Full 33-car field assured for Indy 500
• Legge gets ride with Schmidt, is 34th entry
• Viso flirts with 230 mph on Fast Friday
• Rookie Munoz paces Thursday practice
• Rookie Daly wrecks car at Indy 500 practice
• Fewer seats at Indy 500, but not fewer fans
• Franchitti tops speed chart Wednesday
• Andretti runs fastest on Tuesday
• IndyCar hires Walker as competition chief
• Carpenter posts fastest lap Monday
• 1996 champion Lazier enters Indy 500 field
Video• Czarniak's ride of a lifetime with Mario
• AJ Allmendinger geared up for Indy
• Ed Carpenter wins Indy 500 pole
• Marco Andretti third fastest on Pole Day
• Getting ready for Indy
• The Greatest Spectacle In Racing
Chats• Ed Carpenter chat wrap
• John Oreovicz chat wrap
• Oreovicz Fast Friday chat wrap
Indy 500 Rewind• 2012 Flashback: Franchitti simply flawless
• 2011 Flashback: Wheldon's Cinderella story
• 2010 Flashback: Dario's all the way back
• 2009 Flashback: Castroneves wins again
• 2008 Flashback: Quiet Dixon makes noise • 2007 Flashback: Franchitti comes up big
• 2006 Flashback: Hornish gets his "Holy Grail"