Carb Day festivities are over, the Last Row Party is in full swing, and in a day and a half the 94th running of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race will be underway.
Helio Castroneves, already a three-time winner of the 500, looks difficult to beat. He won the pole for Sunday's race and his Team Penske crew won the annual Pit Stop Challenge today. But this year's 500 field is full of talent and skill, and as everyone knows by now, the Indy 500 isn't over until the winner takes the double-checkers.
As the countdown to race day continues, we take a look at the top five qualifiers for the race as well as the five strongest dark horse candidates who could spoil their party.
The Fast Five
- Helio Castroneves (Penske Racing No. 3 Dallara). The odds of Castroneves drinking milk in victory lane are very good. So far this season, the IZOD IndyCar Series has been dominated by Penske Racing, and it is impossible to discount Penske's history at the Brickyard. Team manager Tim Cindric has guided Castroneves to victory in the 500 three times before and has the Brazilian poised to do it again this year.
- Will Power (Verizon Wireless No. 12 Dallara). Power started the season in the best possible fashion, winning the first two events from pole position. The Aussie has made the most of his new deal with Penske Racing and figures to be Castroneves' strongest challenger. However, Power's luck on ovals hasn't been as good as his road course results; this could be the "X-factor" that keeps him from getting his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy this year.
- Dario Franchitti (Target No. 10T Dallara). The 2007 winner of the Indy 500, Franchitti took a year off in 2008 for an ill-fated stab at NASCAR racing. Returning in 2009, Franchitti finished the year as the IZOD IndyCar Series champion. His Target Chip Ganassi team lacks the outright speed enjoyed by Penske Racing, but Franchitti and team strategist Mike Hull make up for it in patience, good strategy and a well-balanced car -- all elements that could add up to a victory.
- Ryan Briscoe (Penske Racing No. 6 Dallara). Briscoe is the enigma of Penske Racing. He is fully capable of winning races, as he proved last season, but he is also dogged by inconsistency and a wild streak that makes him equally apt to find the wall. No one doubts his outright speed, but the question of whether Briscoe can keep it together over 500 miles at Indianapolis continues to haunt him.
- Alex Tagliani (B&W/FAZZT Racing No. 77 Dallara). Tagliani, by rights, should be listed as a dark horse for the 500, but his exceptional performance with his first-year FAZZT Race Team in qualifying -- and, indeed, a series of surprisingly strong performances during the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season to date -- resulted in the fifth-fastest average time on Pole Day. The amiable French Canadian from Quebec is a fan favorite, particularly among fans of the defunct Champ Car series, but prior to this season has enjoyed a solid but unremarkable career. There are plenty of unknowns surrounding Tagliani and FAZZT but with some luck they could end up playing the spoiler for the much bigger Penske and Ganassi teams.
The Dark Horses
- Scott Dixon (Target No. 9 Dallara, starts 6th). The Iceman has been known for his ability to stay cool under pressure. Yet this season Dixon has appeared uncharacteristically mortal to date. Still, the Indy pole- and race-winner from 2008 is the most precise and calculating driver in the field and there is no discounting him from the list of possible winners.
- Ed Carpenter (Fuzzy's Vodka No. 20 Dallara, starts 8th). There are some who might wonder why Carpenter is listed while American wunderkind Graham Rahal is not. Certainly, the one-off partnership between Vision Racing and Panther Racing that resulted in Carpenter's ride does not bode well for a win on the surface. But Carpenter has been running conservatively all month and still has a lot of leeway to push the envelope. Nobody is expecting great things from either Carpenter or his team -- and that is usually a perfect circumstance for people like Carpenter to pull off a shocker.
- Justin Wilson (Z-Line Designs No. 22 Dallara, starts 11th). Wilson pulled off the near-impossible last season -- winning a race for Dale Coyne Racing. That alone gets him consideration on this list. But Wilson is also one of the more talented ex-Champ Car drivers in the field and is highly regarded for both his skill and racecraft. If his Dreyer and Reinbold team can keep up with him, it could be a great day for both.
- Bruno Junquiera (FAZZT Racing No. 33 Dallara, starts 25th). Junquiera posted a speed good enough for fourth-fastest time in qualifications, but he did it on Bump Day and thus starts 25th. Still, Junky has shown plenty of speed every time he's come to Indianapolis and his FAZZT team has proven to be startlingly capable this month. Junquiera does not have a sponsor, but he has a legitimate shot to win the biggest prize in IndyCar racing.
- Tony Kanaan (7-11 No. 11T Dallara, starts 32nd). Kanaan's two crashes leading up to qualifying put him and his team behind, but Kanaan is also the best technical driver in the Andretti Autosport stable. If you expect Kanaan to stay back among the backmarkers, then you don't know Tony Kanaan. The only question: Will he continue to suffer from the bad luck that choked him at Indianapolis on race day. But everyone who races with him will tell you -- never, ever count Kanaan out.