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Opinion: Andretti Curse, Penske power and possible rain key wide-open Indy 500  1 Month ago

Source:   USA Today  

INDIANAPOLIS – The 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is Sunday. For those fans looking for a quick breakdown of what they can expect to see, we have you covered.

Frankly, all 33 drivers bring compelling narratives to the table ahead of Sunday’s race, but a few certainly stand out.

Among the biggest is Marco Andretti’s quest not only to break the “Andretti Curse” but to win his first 500 on the 50th anniversary of his grandfather Mario Andretti’s lone victory in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

While Mario’s son/Marco’s father, Michael Andretti, has enjoyed plenty of success as an owner (five victories, including three of the past five), no one with the Andretti name has conquered the Yard of Bricks in 50 years despite so many close calls.

Piloting a car with a livery honoring his grandfather’s victory, Marco Andretti hopes this can be the year he snaps the streak. If that happens, Mario Andretti said, “There’s going to be a celebration like you’ve never seen.”

The cars of Roger Penske are also dominating headlines in Indianapolis. Will Power returns as the reigning champion; Simon Pagenaud is sitting on the pole; and Josef Newgarden is aiming to continue his meteoric rise by adding Indy 500 champion to his resume.

Last, but certainly not least, is the final car in the Team Penske stable, the one driven by three-time winner Helio Castroneves. A Castroneves victory would put him in elite company, as he’d join A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser as the only four-time winners.

Finally, there’s James Hinchcliffe. One of the most popular drivers in the paddock and across the country earned a little redemption by managing to avoid getting bumped for a second year in a row. However, the Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver is hoping for a lot more than just making the field. After nearly dying on the track in a violent 2015 crash at the speedway, a win Sunday would make his one of the great comeback stories of all time.

It would also be a win for the “little guys” as Penske, Andretti and Chip Ganassi Racing cars have won 10 of the past 12 Indy 500s.

“There’s only one thing left to do at that track for me,” Hinchcliffe said. “And that’s to win the thing.”

Depends on the weather. Assuming the rain holds off long enough to squeeze the race in, there’s potential for it to look a lot different than last year’s. After the 2018 race, many fans complained that outside of the heroics of Alexander Rossi and too few others, there wasn’t much in the way of passing. Among the biggest reasons, drivers said, was the heat, which made the cars tough to handle. The forecast for this year’s race is for temperatures to be much cooler than for last year’s scorcher.

However, that doesn’t mean fans should expect to see a thousand passes on Sunday either. In traffic, these cars are still a handful.

“The further back you are, the tougher it is to pass,” Newgarden said. “Think about it like this. The car’s a little like boats. When you make a wake in the water when you’re going fast. The air coming off of cars is making a big wake, and the more disturbance you get from that, the harder it is to handle your own car. One car is OK. Two cars, it starts not to feel so good. Three cars, and it’s really hard to handle. So you can imagine when it’s 10, 20, 30 cars in front of you. So I think this year we’ll see it being difficult to pass, but maybe a little easier for the guys driving up front. If it’s cold, there could be more passing than people expect.”

With it being tough to naturally pass on track, expect a lot of drivers — as Rossi did last year — to take big chances at the green flag and especially on restarts. For drivers coming from the back, they know that might be their best chance to make some hay.

“There are literally 33 drivers (who) can win this race,” Hinchcliffe said Thursday.

That isn’t hyperbole. This is the Indianapolis 500. In the 103-year history of this race, drivers have come from all over the field to taste victory. Five-hundred miles is an awfully long way to go, and a lot of things can happen as they each unfold.

But forced to make a pick, I’m going with Indianapolis native Ed Carpenter.

For one, Carpenter’s due. He’s sat on the pole three times and has started on the front row — as he will again this year — five of the past seven years. Though the prime starting position hasn’t paid off in recent years, Carpenter’s been trending in the right direction since 2016, going from 31st to 11th to second last year.

Carpenter also is driving a car powered by Chevrolet, which has proved all month to boast superior speed to its Honda counterparts. With Chevrolet power behind him, Carpenter and his team have brought some of the most consistent pace to the speedway in recent years.

This May was no exception. Joining Carpenter on the front row is teammate Spencer Pigot, who will start to his outside. And lining up on the inside of Row 2 is Ed Jones, making it the second consecutive year ECR has put all three cars in the Fast 9.

Put simply, Carpenter and his team know what it takes to be quick at the speedway. Armed with one of the fastest cars in the field and with drivers saying passing could come at a premium, Carpenter is primed to secure the victory he’s been chasing his entire life.

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