Since the dawn of the automobile, an otherwise nondescript street corner west of Indianapolis has served as the focal point for the hopes and dreams of racecar drivers the world over.
The sprawling Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the home of the 94th annual Indianapolis 500, an American institution since the year before the RMS Titanic was built. It has survived a century of American history.
This year, some 300,000 people are expected to experience the race in person, along with millions more around the world via television and radio, as Helio Castroneves tries to add to that history by becoming the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner.
Brazilian native Castroneves is the most recent 500 winner -- having won from the pole last year -- and his chances for winning this year improved dramatically when he repeated his pole-winning performance from 2009. Should Castroneves be victorious, he would join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears as the only four-time champions while also delivering team owner Roger Penske his 16th Indy 500 victory.
Castroneves delivered a blistering performance Saturday during Pole Day qualifications, turning in a four-lap average of 227.970 mph around the 2.5-mile oval. He edged teammate Will Power, whose 227.578 mph average was good enough for second. His other Penske Racing teammate, Ryan Briscoe, will start fourth after Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dario Franchitti broke up the Penske party with the third-fastest time.
"Each run encouraged my teammates -- if he can do it, I can do it as well. This track is very tricky. You have to go at the right time, and we did that," Castroneves said. "It's great to be part of this team. We work so well together. I'm on the pole but all three of us benefit from it. I'm very proud of Team Penske, they did a great job today."
Bump Day qualifications followed on Sunday, and the atmosphere was electric as drivers attempted to make it into the field of 33 starters. Since Indy qualifications were compressed from their traditional two-weekend format to a single weekend, drivers and teams found themselves bereft of their usual safety cushions and were forced to gamble on last-minute "make it or break it" attempts. For some, including Tony Kanaan -- who crashed both his primary and backup cars in practice -- the gamble paid off. For others, including fan favorite and 2002 Indy 500 runner-up Paul Tracy, it did not.
Kanaan was unable to post a qualifying time until there was less than an hour to go in Bump Day qualifications. His car, cobbled together from pieces of other Andretti Autosport cars, was not the threat for the pole position that many considered it would be earlier in the month, but it was good enough. Kanaan, who for the past eight years has started in the top two rows, will start from the middle of the last row on Sunday.
"This is quite a life. Today was very stressful for the whole 7-Eleven team, but it is what it is," Kanaan said. "I know I can pass cars, so I think next Sunday is going to be a lot of fun."
Tracy, meanwhile, was in the field as Bump Day wound down, but a controversial call from team owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser and race strategist Barry Green resulted in him withdrawing his speed in favor of trying for a more solid qualifying time. The move backfired after Tracy could not get up to the requisite speed. "Can you believe it? Because I can't. [I'm] going to miss the biggest race in the world," a devastated Tracy said afterwards.
The 33 starters will participate in a whirlwind media tour at the beginning of the week but will return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for Friday's Carburetion Day final practice prior to the 94th Indy 500, which will get under way at 1:00PM EDT on ABC Sports.
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.
Four women will be competing in this year's Indianapolis 500. The fastest is Sarah Fisher, who comes to Indy as an owner/driver in the Dollar General No. 67 Dallara. Fisher originally came to Indy with two cars, but her teammate Jay Howard failed to qualify on Bump Day.
Two rookies, Ana Beatriz and Simona de Silvestro, will be making their Indy debut in 21st and 22nd place respectively. Beatriz races in the Firestone Indy Lights Series for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing and won the FILS race at Iowa Speedway last June; this will be her second IZOD IndyCar Series start. De Silvestro has competed the full season to date for HVM Racing and has impressed many with her performances, although her race finishes have thus far been disappointments.
Danica Patrick finds herself in unfamiliar territory. The darling of the IndyCar world and perhaps its most famous personality sits back in the 23rd position. Danica has made headlines this month for her dissatisfaction with her car and her team that became public in a series of post-qualifying interviews. Her teammate, Kanaan, eventually sat Patrick down and had what he called a "Come to Jesus" talk, trying to get her to enjoy what she's doing on the track more. The talented but sometimes temperamental GoDaddy Girl will have a long way to go if she hopes to improve upon her career-best finish of third in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
SBNation's IndyCar blog Pop Off Valve offers this three-part SBNation Primer on the Indy 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to help you learn more: