As we draw ever closer to the drop of the green lap for the milestone 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, we enter the first part of our preview of what may happen on Sunday, May 29. We will break the field of 33 into three groups, and in this opening section, we will focus on the fastest qualifiers from the front four rows, led of course by the impressive comeback from near fatal injuries achieved by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ pilot James Hinchcliffe, who will start from pole position. The question now is can he maintain his pace into race day? In addition to his own difficulties in his last two Indy starts, there are several other contenders who could steal the headlines. Let’s take a look at the top 12 starters.
James Hinchcliffe: As mentioned, his return took a further step forward last Sunday, essentially backing up his runner-up effort earlier this month in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. However, his finishing record has not been the greatest. The Canadian’s best result was sixth in 2012 and he’s finished 21st or worse in the other three Indy 500s he has contested. Of course, his most recent moment was his aggressive move late in the 2014 race that backfired and ended the chances of victory for both himself and Ed Carpenter. So even though the month has started strong, finishing it the same way is far from a slam dunk.
Josef Newgarden: The 100th Indy 500 represents new territory for the Tennessee-native, who placed ninth last year, but like Hinch also has several undesirable results in his other three starts. This is his first start on the front line and running upfront is a different scenario than running in the main pack, as things happen faster. However, the fact that Newgarden was fastest overall on the final full day of practice on Monday is a positive sign looking ahead to race day.
Ryan Hunter-Reay: The 2014 champion had two straight solid runs at the Brickyard, but without a strong ride last year he remained stuck in the main pack of chasers and never advanced, finishing 15th. The good news is that Honda seems to have provided their teams with a stronger engine and aero kit for 2016, at least in qualifying. The first 100 laps on Sunday will tell a lot about whether Honda and RHR will pose a threat to Chevrolet.
Townsend Bell: For the first time since 2011, the Indy specialist will not require a charge through the field to get into contention. Five years ago, Bell maintained pace in the lead pack yet never made a serious challenge to claim the lead. Unfortunately, both the 2011 event and the sports car racing veteran’s charge from 25th to as high as second two years ago both ended in accidents. Andretti Autosport has given him the car to pull off the upset win, now the ball is in his corner.
Carlos Munoz: The Colombian has played a role in the late action in each of his three Indy 500 starts, beginning by finishing second in his IndyCar debut at the Brickyard in 2013. He placed fourth in 2014 and would have contended for another top five result last year, if he had not of had to pit late for a splash of fuel. No one is more aggressive in getting around the 2.5 mile oval than Munoz is and making the most of any opening is the key to victory with the current style of IndyCars running so close to together.
Will Power: Last year’s runner-up finally overcame his early race faux-paws to contend late a year go, but was unable to hold off his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya when it mattered at the end. After being known mainly as a road racing specialist, the Australian has improved greatly on the high speed ovals and should play a role in the outcome on Sunday. Whether that equates to adding his visage to the Borg Warner Trophy however, remains to be seen.
Mikhail Aleshin: The second of the three Schmidt Peterson Motosports’ entries is the mystery driver among those upfront at the start. Even though he managed to post the fastest overall practice lap two years ago at Indy, he remained relatively quiet on race day finishing 21st in his one and only appearance. His ability to stay up with the leaders in the first stint, will greatly influence how he may fare on Sunday.
Simon Pagenaud: The Frenchman enters with momentum built on the strength of three straight victories and also a solid effort in the first three-quarters of last year’s race. Unfortunately, a possible winning run was derailed during the final thirty laps when Pagenaud’s front wing was damaged, relegating him to a tenth place finish. He has placed 16th or better in each of his first four tries at the Indy 500, so the numbers plus the eye test should see him in contention at some point on Sunday.
Helio Castroneves: Spider Man disappointed in the Pole Day Shootout last Sunday, but Helio should challenge in his seventh attempt to join the exclusive four-time winners club at the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves just missed out on claiming that win two years ago, losing a head to head duel with eventual winner Ryan Hunter-Reay. Last year, a bad decision on a late chassis adjustment relegated him to seventh at the finish. Still, with three wins and thirteen top tens at the Indy 500, Castroneves will be among the contenders on May 29.
Oriol Servia: The third and final SPM pilot has had two solid runs and multiple also ran status efforts. If qualifying meant anything, the Spaniard has a legitimate chance to pounce on Sunday. He led the race and finished sixth in 2011 and charged from 27th to 4th the following year. Now 41 years of age, the chances to contend are starting to get limited, so be assured that Servia will do all he can to make the most of this opportunity.
Alexander Rossi: The Andretti Autosport newcomer has impressed the veterans so far this month, but will he pass his final exam on Sunday? If he can, he should easily claim the Rookie of the Year title for this event and could maybe find his way to a top ten finish bringing to an end a solid debut performance for the ex-Formula One pilot.
Takuma Sato: The near 2012 Indy 500 champion has suddenly put himself into the equation for having a contending role in the 100th Indy 500. After lacking pace during the week of practice on the 2.5 mile oval, he pulled off a strong qualifying effort in tough conditions last Sunday. If he can regain his 2012 potential, the Japanese veteran could make another charge for victory on race day.
Stay tuned for part two of OnPitRoad.com’s Indy 500 preview, which will include former winners Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon, as well as the defending champion Juan Pablo Montoya.