The $5 Million Vegas Jackpot: Ten Drivers Who Could Win It

The IZOD IndyCar Series will conclude its 2011 season in Las Vegas, with five "invited" drivers racing to win an additional $5 million purse. (Photo: IMS Photo)

The bombshell dropped on the IndyCar community today by Randy Bernard and his administration team revealing that one of five non-championship drivers could win $5 million by winning the IZOD IndyCar Series' finale in Las Vegas has everyone buzzing.

As a promotional gambit, it's stellar. The odds of winning the $5 million purse are long, but if it happens it becomes the richest single payday in motorsports history.

With the surplus of Dallara chassis at the end of the 2011 season - the cars will be instantly obsolete after the checkered flag waves in Las Vegas - picking up a spare IndyCar won't break the bank, and although the chance to win may be slim, it's still worth the shot.

Naturally, the first people you might think of who would be prime candidates to try for this bounty would be NASCAR drivers, right? Wrong. Although the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race that weekend is on Saturday, which would leave the drivers free for the October 16th race date in Vegas, none of the Chase contenders will be willing to risk their status in the NASCAR championship stakes to do an IndyCar one-off. Even drivers outside of the Chase will probably be loathe to try and jump into an unfamiliar race car no matter how rich the payday would be.

That does not mean that there isn't a big list of prime candidates for the Big Check. There are plenty of hotshoes who may be willing to take up the gauntlet for the chance at a big pile of scratch. Here are some of the stronger ones:

  • Memo Gidley - It's been a few years since Gidley has been behind the wheel of an open-wheel car, but let's not forget that the "super sub" once raced for Chip Ganassi and has no fear on high-speed ovals. Currently racing for Team Sahlen in the Grand Am GT category, Gidley still keeps fit by racing... well, everything. He could be a dark horse if he latched on with the right team.
  • A.J. Allmendinger - As mentioned above, very few NASCAR drivers are likely to rise to the bait. ‘Dinger could be one of them. His stated goal is to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but if he is not in the Chase come October, the young Californian would be an ideal candidate for someone looking to make a splash. A proven winner in open-wheel, Allmendinger has plenty of talent and could be a contender in a short amount of time.
  • Robby Gordon - Frankly, I can't see Gordon not trying for the $5 million payday. He may be the only owner-driver to take the shot, too. Already a veteran of double-duty scenarios, the logistics of running NASCAR and IndyCar in one weekend would not faze him.
  • Simon Pagenaud - Former Champ Car driver and current ALMS shoe Pagenaud has been rumored for months to be making the switch to IndyCar racing in 2012 with his Highcroft Racing team. Whether that happens depends on funding - rumor has it that the team's IndyCar plans may be shelved due to a lack of it - but Pagenaud is lightning-quick behind the wheel and $5 million would be a huge boost to an aspiring team's budget. Don't count them out yet.
  • Scott Pruett - No spring chicken, Scott Pruett still keeps getting it done for Chip Ganassi in the Grand Am Rolex Daytona Prototypes. That relationship would be a perfect segue for Pruett to get a one-off ride for Vegas from the top team in IndyCar, and Pruett has plenty of seat time in open-wheel cars on high-speed ovals. But time and distance from open-wheel racing ultimately may be a stumbling block for a racer who frankly isn't getting any younger.
  • Scott Sharp - Almost immediately after the announcement from Las Vegas was made, Panther Racing's Twitter account piped up with Sharp's name. Still a popular face among IndyCar fans, Sharp's speed on oval tracks has never been seriously questioned. With a willing team that made significant gains on the "red cars" last season behind him he could be a front-runner for the big dough.
  • Travis Pastrana - Pastrana is one of those athletes that would like to try anything once. Already dipping his pen into the NASCAR well with Michael Waltrip Racing, Pastrana is a guy for whom the splashy lure of big money for a one-race shot would be right in the ol' wheelhouse. Pastrana may not have the experience, but he is fearless and loves a challenge when the spotlight is on him.
  • Max Papis - A wily veteran who will be toiling away in NASCAR's Camping World Truck Series this season, Papis showed last year that even as a maturing family man he still had the speed to battle for wins. He hasn't forgotten how to go fast in open-wheel cars either - the tough part would be to find a team to latch onto.
  • Bruno Junquiera - Junquiera, former pole sitter for the Indianapolis 500, is fast on ovals, has the talent to win races, and moreover has a good relationship with Alex Tagliani's FAZZT Race Team. If he does not have a full-time ride in 2011, he at least deserves a shot at the Vegas Jackpot.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya - Let's not mince words here. If Juan Pablo Montoya wanted to do this, he would be the closest thing to a shoe-in to win as there could possibly be. Guaranteed, he would have Ganassi equipment, and with his background in open-wheel race cars (not to mention the spanking he put on the field when he won his first - and only - Indy 500) he would become the instant favorite to win. The problem would be a lack of interest, even if he is not embroiled in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase - after a career in F1, he certainly does not need the money, and he's said more than once that IndyCars are "too easy."
  • Sam Hornish - Hornish does not have his Sprint Cup ride anymore, and his NASCAR career is on the skids. But he still has a relationship with Roger Penske, which in IndyCar racing is as good as gold. Add to that that he is one of IndyCar's most prolific winners on oval tracks and it seems like Hornish could be a sure thing to try for the big bucks.

What about you? Do you agree with these candidates? Do you have any drivers not on this list who you'd love to see try for this enormous bundle of dough? Let us know in the comments!

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