The Race Outlook: Indy 500 favorites? List is as long as race

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Tell Helio Castroneves he's one of the favorites in the Indianapolis 500 today and he just shrugs his shoulders and grins.

"Yeah, me and 10 other guys," this two-time Indianapolis winner said.

It seems the 91st edition of the Memorial Day weekend classic is just about anybody's race.

The front of the 33-car field reads like an all-star roster -- pole-winner Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti in the first of 11 rows of three, followed by Scott Dixon, defending race winner Sam Hornish Jr. and 2005 winner Dan Wheldon in Row 2. Ryan Briscoe, Danica Patrick and 2006 runner-up Marco Andretti make up Row 3.

Add Michael Andretti, Marco's father and the third-place finisher from a year ago, in the middle of Row 4, and that's a strong list of possible winners.

Five -- Kanaan, Franchitti, Patrick and the two Andrettis -- drive for Andretti Green Racing.

"When we showed up at this race last year, we weren't fast enough," Franchitti said. "We wound up with four cars in the top seven of the race, but that was through perseverance, good strategy and making the right decisions. This year, I feel that we've got five cars that are fast enough."

But Team Penske's Castroneves and Hornish and Target Chip Ganassi drivers Wheldon and Dixon have won six of the past seven 500s and are just as fast.

From Castroneves to Michael Andretti, their four-lap, 10-mile qualifying efforts were separated by just more than two seconds.

Asked to handicap the race, Hornish said, "It wouldn't surprise me if anybody in the top 11 won this race.

"But the competition for the win is probably going to come from Tony Kanaan. Obviously, I feel that Wheldon, Helio and myself are three guys who have won before and know what it takes to do that.

"Scott and Dario have been very fast here, not only this month, but in past years and have made mistakes that have taken them out of contention in the past. But I had done the same thing until last year, so sometimes it's just a matter of getting it right."

Kanaan, of Brazil, has raced at the track five times and never started worse than fifth. Since crashing out while leading near the midway point in 2002, his rookie year, he always has finished in the top eight, with a second-place run in 2004.

"He seems to be fast, patient, consistent and knows how to make it to the end of the race," Hornish said. "But he hasn't had that little bit of Indianapolis luck that you need to get to victory lane.

"It's not always about how good you are."

No one knows that better than Michael Andretti, who has come agonizingly close to joining his father, Mario, as an Indianapolis winner. Michael, who came out of retirement a year ago at 44 to race against his then-19-year-old son, led with four laps to go before being passed first by Marco and then by eventual winner Hornish.

"I've never been able to get to that 500th mile without a problem," Michael said. "Maybe there's a scenario there, yet. I was thinking it was there last year. It almost worked out. But, that's the only reason I'm back this year. I think I can win this race."

Wheldon, who has won two of the four IndyCar Series events this year, came into the month as the likely favorite. But, after he and teammate Dixon were the fastest early, they faded back into the pack.

That could be a good thing.

"If you're not driving as fast as the guys in front, you're not using as much fuel," he said. "And, sometimes, it can come down to fuel strategy."

It definitely could come down to fuel mileage this year because the IRL switched to all-ethanol fuel, which burns hotter, makes less horsepower and produces better mileage. Honda regained some of the lost horsepower by changing from 3.0 to 3.5-liter engines, and the IRL cut the fuel cell from 30 to 22 gallons. Another factor that could change strategies is Honda's decision to limit the in-cockpit fuel adjustments to two settings, meaning drivers won't be able to use it to save fuel.

The field includes three other former champions and a third Andretti.

Buddy Rice, the 2004 winner, will start 16th; Buddy Lazier, the 1996 winner, will start 22nd; and two-time winner Al Unser Jr., (1992 and 1994) will start 25th.

"I can never put aside what has happened in my life, good or bad, but I'm back at Indianapolis, ready to race," said Unser Jr., best known in recent years for alcohol-related problems.

"I probably won't win, but we're capable of having a good day."

John Andretti, a member of another of Indianapolis' most famous families, will start 24th in his seventh 500 but first since 1994.


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