May 23; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indy Car Series driver Sebastien Bourdais leads a pack of car down the front stretch during carb day for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
It’s felt like Sunday all day today. I almost got dressed for church before writing this, in large part because I’m anticipating Sunday’s Indy 500 like a candidate waiting for election results to come in.
Tomorrow isn’t just any Indy 500, it might just feature the strongest Indy 500 field of the last twenty years, and potentially the most competitive ever.
Like it or not, the current rules package favors a draft on superspeedways, leading to packs of five or six cars running together. Because the leader punches such a big hole in the air the car behind almost always has a chance of slipstreaming into the lead.
The 2013 Indy 500, saw more lead changes, 68, than any NASCAR race of that year, including more lead changes than the 2013 Daytona 500, 28 and Aarron’s 499 at Talladega, 30, combined. Judging from practice and the Indy Lights race the Indy 500 will again see more lead changes than this year’s Daytona 500, 42, and Aarons 499, 48. So, if you’re a fan of close-in racing with drivers jostling for the lead the Indy 500 is probably your best bet of the year.
Tomorrow’s Indy 500 is probably the deepest field Indy has seen, potentially ever. CART purists like me long viewed Jacques Villeneuve’s 1995 win as the last legitimate Indy 500 win until the merger in 2008. One could still argue that 1995 is the high water mark because Team Penske DNQed the competition to get in the field was so incredibly stiff, but you’d be hard pressed to find a stronger field. You can watch highlights of that Bump Day here if your interested.
This year’s field features six former winners, led by Helio Castroneves with three wins, seven American open wheel champions, one Formula One champion, and one NASCAR champion. Beyond the numbers — conveniently broken down for you at the bottom of the article –there’s just not a lot of weakness in this field.
Even the drivers you could point to as scrubs, Pippa Man, Martin Plowman, Carlos Huertas and Buddy Lazier who is way past his use by date, deserve to be the field. Both Man and Plowman have driven in Indycar races before and Plowman has a LMP2 win in the 24 Hours of le Mans to his credit. Huertas ranks second in the stiff Rookie of the Year class. Lazier won the Indy 500 before, albeit against an ARCA-level field, in 1996 and is a former champion. The days of Marty Roth, Milka Duno, Dr. Jack Miller and Fermin Velez are long gone. The weakest links in the field are still pretty strong, and there isn’t a single driver you can point at and say they shouldn’t be there.
May 17, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series driver Juan Pablo Montoya poses for the traditional photo with his car after qualifying for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
The usual contenders: The top of the field is as strong as ever, with thirteen cars from the top three teams. The favorites have to include Juan Pablo Montoya who driver/color commentator Townsend Bell said probably has the fastest straight line speed of the three Penske cars. Tony Kanaan has a chance to repeat, driving what’s arguably his best equipment of his career.
May 18, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series driver Townsend Bell pulls out of the pits in the warm up lane going into turn one during pole day for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
One offs: This year’s field includes Bell, whose always competitive and driving the car and setup Kanaan used to win last year. Villeneuve returns with Sam Schmidt racing in a competitive ride and has a sponsor and team who might be interested in running more races later in the season. Oriol Servia has been stout in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan ride and J.R. Hildebrand is looking to redeem himself in a one-off effort for Ed Carpenter Racing.
May 18; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series car owner Chip Ganassi talks to Sage Karam as he waits to qualify during pole day for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
The Rookies: This is potentially the strongest rookie class ever. Jack Hawksworth has been unexpectedly strong in the Bryan Herta Autosport entry, and recently inked a primary sponsor. Carlos Munoz might be the returning Indy 500 champion if not for a late-race yellow flag. Mikhail Aleshin has been fast. Even one off Sage Karam is the real deal and might end up in a Ganassi machine in the non-to-distant future. Honestly, and I’m saying this for the first time ever, any of these rookies could win the Indy 500, and if Munoz does it, it won’t even be shocking.
f Newgarden talks to car owner Sarah Fisher during carb day for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Career Maker: Josef Newgarden has been strong this year and is essentially in a contract year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. In his third-year in the sport he needs to either perform well enough to move up to a funded ride higher on the grid, or preform well enough to help SFHR land a significant sponsor. Winning, or even grabbing a podium, could make his career.
May 17, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; IndyCar Series driver Kurt Busch poses for the traditional photo with his car after qualifying for the 2014 Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
The Double: You can’t talk about the Indy 500 and not mention Kurt Busch. This might be the NASCAR driver’s only attempt at winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing and he’s going to be going all out to put his face on the Borg Warner Trophy. While he’s a bit of an underdog to win he adds excitement, and a bit of a wild card factor to what should be the greatest race of the year.
By the Numbers:
4 Champ Car World Series Championships
3 Verizon Indycar Series Championships
3 Indy Racing League Championships
2 CART World Series Championships
1 Formula One championship
1 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship
18 Formula One wins
53 Formula One podiums
27 NASCAR Sprint Cup Wins
8 24 Hours of Daytona overall wins
2 International V8 Supercar wins
0 Danica Patrick