Commentary

A feel-good 500 winner?

Updated: May 25, 2013, 7:26 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

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).

7. AJ Allmendinger

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.

Allmendinger
Allmendinger

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.

Franchitti
Franchitti

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.

Castroneves
Castroneves

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."

Carpenter
Carpenter

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.

Rahal
Rahal

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.

Sato
Sato

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
De Silvestro
Beatriz
Beatriz
Legge
Legge

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."

1. Marco Andretti

This would be 100 percent positive, all good, for the world's best-known racing family and the world's best-known race.

Andretti
Andretti

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.