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Team & Driver Preview: Indianapolis 500

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After a topsy-turvy qualifying weekend that witnessed one of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most popular wheelmen omitted from the 33-car grid, there are still several scenarios that have been unexplored entering Sunday’s 102nd Indianapolis 500.

The fight for engine supremacy continues between Chevrolet and Honda, with the GM-marque having made their cake and ate it right in front of the Japanese manufacturer’s face in time trial mode. Nine of the first 11 positions are from the “Bow-Tie Brigade,” with representation from one powerhouse group and two that have more or less been assigned the “oval track-specialist” moniker.

The primary benefactor is Team Penske, winners of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing 16 times. However, due to Honda enjoying a power plant edge the past two editions, the Captain has been barred from the victory podium since Juan Pablo Montoya took a sip of milk in 2015. Two of the automotive entrepreneur’s best bets are on the front row of the grid, yet both are recognized for their success on road courses. Between Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, they have secured glory in each of the first five runnings of the IndyCar Grand Prix, held on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s infield layout.

The Australian, however, may have the upper-hand concerning recent triumphs. Power has victories on his resume at three different high-speed ovals: Pocono Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway, and at Auto Club Speedway in California, which is no longer part of the series slate. The Frenchman has only scored a single P1 on an oval, taking the checkered flags first a year ago in Phoenix. Both men played major roles during Montoya’s 2015 trophy catch. Pagenaud was in the top-five for most of the day, before a broken front wing ended his challenge. His counterpart, entering the event as the reigning series champion chased the Colombian to the finish line, but settled for runner-up honors.

The current IndyCar titleholder is also a player in Penske’s latest “Super Team.” Josef Newgarden starts fourth on race day, hoping to improve on a third-place output at the Brickyard a couple of years ago. Of course, the participant from the big four that is garnering the most attention is three-time Indy 500 king Helio Castroneves, who will once again seek a record-tying fourth triumph. The middle of row three starter has come close to history equaling feats twice this decade. He took runner-up honors behind Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014, and just lost out to Takuma Sato in last year’s memorable duel.

Penske is not the only serious contender from the General Motors camp. Indianapolis-based Ed Carpenter Racing, won the opening battle for the Verizon P1 Award last Sunday and featured three machines in the opening nine places. The team boss garnered the top billing in the Firestone Fast Nine shoot-out, posting the only 230 MPH lap.

Despite securing three poles at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the main event has been a bitter pill to swallow for Ed Carpenter. He has placed no higher than fifth since 2008, and has not made the finish in three of his past four attempts. Still, he does enjoy a home-court advantage of sorts; no driver received louder cheers than the Circle City-based veteran last weekend.

Supporting Carpenter at ECR are the up-and-coming Spencer Pigot and the super-popular Danica Patrick. Minus a difficult opening to the 2018 campaign, where the Floridian has fared no better than 14th in five outings, the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires titlist has picked where JR Hildebrand left out in the No. 21 Chevrolet ride; close to the front.

Many eyes will be focused on the Roscoe, Illinois-based star, who has posted a sub top-ten result at Indy only once in seven tries. Patrick showed no rust last week, making the Fast Nine and then taking the seventh spot on the grid the following afternoon. The 2018 Indianapolis 500 will represent the final competitive auto race in her impressive career.

One cannot forget about A.J. Foyt Racing either. The 2018 event is perhaps the best shot at a sixth trip to victory lane for the 83-year-old Texas entrant, since winning with Sweden’s Kenny Brack in 1999. 2013 Indy triumphant Tony Kanaan is back for his 17th appearance in the May classic, yet his first drive with Super Tex. The Brazilian also has a semi-protege in teenage teammate Matheus Leist, last year’s Freedom 100 race winner.

While Honda has yet to take any significant headlines this month, Andretti Autosport’s six-car attack cannot be ignored. With P1 honors in three of the last four editions of the 500-mile race, the squad knows what it takes to move from mid-pack to the front, the scenario that awaits most of its combatants on Sunday. The toughest challenge faces 2016 race champion Alexander Rossi, who due to handling problems on Pole Day, will start from the last row. Superior pit strategy captured the victory for the ex-Formula One tester two seasons ago, and a similar tact may be required to flip the order in his favor.

Ryan Hunter-Reay also stands a fair shot to be a threat for a second Indy 500 victory. The 2012 series champ has made a regular march to the front each year and could have achieved more than a single triumph in 2014;  if not for misfortune. Contact on the pit lane ended his challenge in 2016 and a failed Honda motor sidelined him last year.

Outside of the four multi-car operations, there are other victory options to consider. Scott Dixon returns a year after his event was ruined by an airborne incident. Sebastian Bourdais is in the show for the first time since a qualifying shunt kept him out of action for over three months. And Max Chilton represents Indy 500-debut team Carlin Motorsport, 12 months following a 50 laps-led performance at this venue.

Regardless of how this annual drama plays out, expect many heroics to influence who’s face will be added to the Borg-Warner Trophy after the 200th lap is run on Sunday.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularOpenWheel.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad.

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