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Ten-minute guide to the Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS -- There are few sporting events that transcend sports and enter the mainstream. The Indianapolis 500 is one of them.

It doesn't take a horse racing fan to appreciate the significance of the Kentucky Derby. People who don't play golf will stop to watch The Masters. Someone who doesn't watch hockey all season knows the importance of the Stanley Cup.

While NASCAR has dominated the motorsports landscape in the United States and Formula 1 is the world's most-watched form of auto racing, the Indianapolis 500 rises to a level of interest far above that of the IndyCar Series.

For decades, hundreds of thousands of fans have flocked to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to take part in a great sporting tradition that dates back to the first 500-mile race in 1911.

Ray Harroun's name was immortalized when he won that first 500 and gave automotive technology one of its greatest safety innovations: the rearview mirror. Since it opened in 1909, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has been both a proving ground for automotive technology and the world's largest theater of human drama.

On Sunday, close to 300,000 fans will fill the Speedway to watch a sporting event that began before the NFL, NHL or NBA. The Speedway was 40 years old before NASCAR was even created.

The Indianapolis 500 is more than a race; it's a spectacle. It's color and pageantry and marching bands from all over the United States marching down the frontstretch at 8 a.m. It's the twinge that comes as the Purdue band plays On the Banks of the Wabash, while the cars roll onto the grid. It's the massive sea of humanity in the grandstands that greets the drivers as they walk out of Gasoline Alley.

It's the tension one feels in the moments leading up to the race, from Florence Henderson singing God Bless America to the invocation and moment of silence to honor those who have served in the military and those who have lost their lives in the race. It's the tears that run down the face and the lump that builds in the throat of a Hoosier native when Jim Nabors sings Back Home Again in Indiana.

The element of danger hangs heavily in the air at this event. Fear is evident, but these drivers are fearless. That's why the race is the massive event it is.

The 500 is also the shiver that runs through the body when you hear, "Ladies and Gentlemen -- Start your Engines!" followed by the loud ear-splitting roar that is a combination of the Honda Indy V8 engines coming to life and the spectators voicing approval.

It's the reaction to seeing the 33 cars race into the first turn at the drop of the green flag. Attend the Indianapolis 500 for the first time and it's likely you'll be hooked for life.

Some fans come to this race every year, and can recite past winners with ease. The majority of these fans may not watch another IndyCar Series race the rest of the season, but they won't miss the Indy 500.

Race fans in New Zealand will be tuning in to see if Scott Dixon can give the Kiwis a second consecutive Indy 500 win. Japanese journalists will be following Hideki Mutoh's every move. The United Kingdom will watch to see if Scotland's Dario Franchitti or England's Dan Wheldon can get their second wins there. Brazilians will focus on Helio Castroneves' effort to win his third Indy 500 or Tony Kanaan's attempt to win his first.

And the pride of the United States rides with Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal.

If the Daytona 500 is NASCAR's Super Bowl, the Indianapolis 500 is the Olympics. It's an international event hosted on American soil on the fertile grounds of what was once an Indiana cornfield.

And at the end of the day, the winner gets to celebrate with a bottle of milk.

What could be more homespun than that?

That said, here's SI.com's Guide to the this year's Indianapolis 500.

Can Anyone Keep Up With The Penskes?

Team Penske drivers start at the front of the field with Castroneves on the pole and Ryan Briscoe in the middle of the front row. Not even the impressive Target/Chip Ganassi duo of 2007 Indy winner Franchitti and defending 500 champion Dixon has been able to keep up with the winningest team in Indy 500 history.

With tremendous resources and experience, look for Team Penske to regain that 'unfair advantage'.

Some Drivers Will Get Lucky With The Yellow Flag

The timing of pit stops is very important in this race, and on a track where it is difficult to pass, making a pit stop just before a yellow flag can be vitally important. Of course, there is no way to anticipate when the yellow flag will fly for debris, a crash or a car stalled on the race course, but this bit of good fortune can pay tremendous dividends for a driver and team in the race.

Youth Could Be Served

There are four drivers in the race 22 and younger, including 20-year-olds Rahal and Mario Moraes and 22-year-olds Andretti and Nelson Philippe. Rahal, Moraes and Andretti start fourth, seventh and eighth respectively and all have legitimate shots at becoming the youngest winner in Indy 500 history, a title currently held by 1952 winner Troy Ruttman, who was 22 at the time

The Emergence Of Graham Rahal

Starting on the inside of the second row, 20-year-old Rahal has been impressive so far in his second Indy 500 attempt. By sliding his car to avoid John Andretti's crashed car on May 10, Rahal proved he has luck on his side, too. Newman Haas Lanigan crew chief Mitch Davis has built a brand new IndyCar for Rahal that he calls "the Indy winner," so this is certainly a driver to watch in the race.

Leader With 10 Laps To Go Often Does Not Win

One of the great things about the Indy 500 is that the race winner is often determined in the final 10 laps. In 2006, the storyline changed dramatically in the five final laps as Michael Andretti was in front and appeared heading to his first Indy 500 win before he was passed by his son, Marco. Sam Hornish Jr., who had been penalized for leaving the pits with his fuel-hose attached -- causing a pit fire in the final portion of the race -- was able to chase down Marco and make a run at the lead with two to go before having to back off the throttle to keep from crashing.

With the race seemingly in Marco's favor, Hornish battled back and made the race-winning pass just a few hundred yards from the finish line in the most dramatic last-lap finish in Indy 500 history.

Helio Castroneves

Everything's aligned for the two-time Indy 500 winner since being acquitted of federal tax evasion charges April 17. He finished second in the lead-in race to the Indy 500 at Kansas Speedway, and won the Indy 500 pole two weeks later. For a man whose life as a driver nearly ended, Castroneves is making the most of his second chance, and that could make him a three-time winner of the Indy 500.

Dario Franchitti

The only reason he isn't the 'Comeback Kid' at the Indy 500 is Castroneves. Since his NASCAR experience in 2007 fizzled, Franchitti has shown why he is one of IndyCar's best by winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 19. Starting third Sunday, Franchitti is in the same position he had in 2007, when he won the Indy 500.

Scott Dixon

To say that starting fifth is a disappointment only shows what the expectation level is for the defending Indy 500 winner. Dixon is one of the smartest and savviest drivers on the race track, and that is why he will be a factor to win the race for the second year in a row.

Tony Kanaan

He is the only driver in the field to lead laps in each Indy 500 he has competed in since he first came to this event in 2002. Although he struggled on pole day, Kanaan starts sixth. Andretti Green Racing will provide him with a car capable of winning, and the Brazilian's pit bull determination makes him a favorite again.

Ryan Briscoe

Once considered the "Crash-test Dummy" of IndyCar racing and known as the driver who collided with Danica Patrick leaving the pit area in last year's race, Briscoe has now developed into a driver capable of winning at Indy. That is exactly why team owner Roger Penske hired him to replace Sam Hornish Jr. at the end of the 2007 season. If Briscoe can drive a smart race Sunday -- with the superior equipment Team Penske has at Indianapolis -- he has the look of a winner.

Tomas Scheckter

This guy is fast, talented and knows how to find his way toward the front of the field. But, far too often, he steps over the line and ends up in the wall. This isn't saying Scheckter doesn't have flashes of brilliance; it's just that he usually finds a way to knock himself out of a race.

Milka Duno

Here is a driver who knows how to qualify for a race -- the Venezuelan is starting her third Indy 500. The problem with Duno isn't when she is the only car on the track; it's when there are 32 other cars out there. Duno's race pace is often slow, which can cause a crash for a faster car coming from behind. Expect Duno to see the blue "move over" flag throughout the race.

A.J. Foyt IV

It's tough growing up with the same name as America's greatest race car driver and first four-time Indy 500 winner. Young Foyt has never lived up to his name, and this is his only IndyCar start of the season. He needs to make the most of this opportunity or he'll have to deal with "Grandpa A.J." afterward.

Alex Tagliani

Tagliani is in the race only because team owner Eric Bachelart bounced the team's second driver, Bruno Junqueira, out of the car he qualified into the starting lineup after Junqueira didn't let the faster Tagliani improve his starting position before qualifications closed Sunday. Tagliani has had an emotional month of May in his first Indy 500. Although he is a solid driver, Tags just seems destined to not be around at the finish of the race.

Marco Andretti

Highly aggressive at the Indianapolis 500, Andretti has caused two crashes the past two years, including last year when he moved up the race track and put teammate Kanaan into the wall on lap 106. In 2007, his car went airborne and landed upside-down in a crash that also involved Wheldon, Buddy Rice and Ed Carpenter.

Danica Patrick Won't Win The Race

Despite the focus and attention placed on her, even she admits that Andretti Green Racing is just a step behind the faster cars at Team Penske this year. Patrick is quick to point out that in a 500-mile race, the fastest car doesn't always win, and with her past history at Indy, she is highly competitive, but this won't be the year she becomes the first female ever to win the Indy 500.

There Will Be a Green-Flag Pit Stop

When Scott Dixon won the Indy 500 last year, it was a race in which he never made a pit stop in green-flag conditions. With the yellow flag waving eight times for 60 laps, the field had ample time to make their stops, which played out advantageously for Dixon. This year, there will be some extended periods of green-flag racing, bringing pit stop strategy back into the equation.

Most Passes For The Lead Will Be In The Pits

With Team Penske, Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Green Racing far ahead of the other teams in the field, and with the track very difficult to pass on, most of the lead changes will appear during pit stops and not under green-flag conditions.

Richard Petty Will Be Gone Before The Halfway Point

Petty may be listed as an Indy 500 entrant, but the team is actually Dreyer and Reinbold Racing. NASCAR's King will be out of the pits and heading to Lowe's Motor Speedway for the Coca-Cola 600 before the Indy 500 reaches its halfway point. If John Andretti crashes or breaks down on the race course, Petty may leave sooner than that.

This Is The Last Year Of Two Weekends of Qualifying

While the purists at this race -- including myself -- have an understanding and appreciation of the four rounds of qualifications spread over two weekends, times have changed. True, I'll be sad if this gets cut back to pole day on Saturday and bump day the following day, but this year's schedule at the track was a joke.

In an effort to save money, IMS officials moved opening day to the Wednesday before pole day. Rain took care of that, so the teams didn't hit the track until Thursday. And with two days of practice, it didn't generate much momentum for pole day. The schedule was even worse the second week when the track didn't open until Thursday, and, while Bump Day had its usual drama in the final hour, there is a growing sense that if the track is only going to be open for five days of practice, then do away with one of the weeks entirely.

The downside to this is they tried it in 1998 and 1999 and it affected the deals that come together in the final week to get second cars into the race.

Helio Castroneves' Triumphant Return

At some point, let's get back to talking about Castroneves the race car driver more than his acquittal on federal tax evasion charges. By the time the advance features have been written or the ABC telecast is concluded, this topic will have run its course.

The Andretti Curse

When Mario Andretti won the 1969 Indianapolis 500, he thought it was the first of what would eventually be many 500 wins. Instead, it was his only win in 29 Indy appearances. His son, Michael, never won as a driver in 16 attempts, finishing second in 1991 and third in 2001 and 2006.

Maybe if Marco wins, the "Andretti Curse" can finally be put to rest. But in the likely instance that doesn't happen, the curse will be talked about for another year.

Danica Patrick

As much as the media is in love with the starlet of the Indianapolis 500 -- including this publication and author -- she is not the only driver in the race. While that may come as a news flash to the big-market newspaper editors who think there are only two race drivers in the United States -- NASCAR's Dale Earnhardt Jr. and IndyCar's Patrick -- this is only her fifth Indy 500 appearance and her best finish was fourth in her rookie year in 2005.

Sex may sell at the newsstands, but speed is what wins the Indianapolis 500.

Paul Tracy

The most colorful character in Sunday's race, Tracy has a case that he was the actual winner of the 2002 Indy 500, but got shafted by an official's ruling that said Tracy's race-winning pass of Helio Castroneves with 1-1/2-laps left in the race came after the call for caution for a two-car crash behind them in Turn 2. But video-tape evidence shows the green light was still on when Tracy's car was 16-feet ahead of Castroneves'. Since that time, additional warnings have been added to the driver's radio channel, the drivers' cockpit and the back of each car to indicate a caution period.

I love Tracy's attitude, personality and racing skill and have gotten plenty of mileage at his quips and zingers regarding the fact he is a "former winner" of the Indy 500. But let's focus on 2009 and not 2002.

Roger Penske Is The Winningest Owner In Indy 500 History

We already know this! But when Castroneves or Briscoe wins the 93rd Indianapolis 500 on Sunday that point will be made once again.

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