Thursday May 27th, 2010

Dressed in a black collared shirt, black pants, black shoes, and dark sunglasses, the man to beat at this year's Indy 500 strolled through the paddock at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday afternoon, full of swagger. Helio Castroneves waved to fans, signed every piece of paper that was thrust in front of him, and told anyone who would listen that he feels very, very, very good about his chances of making history on Sunday in the 94th running of the Indy 500.

"I'm as confident as I've ever been heading into this race," Castroneves told me earlier that morning as he leaned back in a chair in the Team Penske garage. "It's a long race and anything can happen, but I've learned from mistakes in the past and I know what it takes to win here. Plus, I've got a great car."

Indeed he does. Castroneves blew away the field in qualifying -- he was nearly half a second faster than the second-fastest qualifier, Will Power, which is an eon in IndyCar racing time -- and every driver I spoke to on Thursday acknowledged that Castroneves will likely boast more raw speed than anyone else on Sunday. "Clearly," Danica Patrick said, "Helio is the one everyone needs to be looking out for."

But Indy is an endurance race, not a sprint, and the fastest car often doesn't win. So who could have a chance to spoil Castroneves' quest to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to win four Indy 500s? The most obvious candidates are his teammates at Penske: Ryan Briscoe and Power. I spent time with Briscoe on Thursday and his plan for Sunday is simple: Do what Helio does. "Hey, the guy is a natural here, so I'll follow him early and see what happens," Briscoe says. "Then maybe late in the race we'll get after it."

Power, who holds a 25-point lead in the series standings over Scott Dixon, is more of a road course specialist, but the Australian-born driver did finish fifth at Indy last year in a car that was nowhere near as fast as the one he'll be piloting on Sunday. "If I have some luck," Power says, "watch out."

Two other drivers to keep an eye on: Dixon and Dario Franchitti, who are teammates at Ganassi Racing. This race, like last year's, is going to come down to a two-team battle between Penske and Ganassi. Dixon and Franchitti are both former winners here; they're starting in the top six (Franchitti in third; Dixon in sixth); and they work as well together as any two teammates in the series. Last year, operating in perfect harmony, they ran one-two for about two-thirds of the race. Franchitti clearly had the fastest car in the field, but he lost track position -- and ultimately the race -- because of slow late-race pit stop, which opened the door for Castroneves to take the checkered flag. "I think we'll be alive to be fighting at the end for the lead," Franchitti says. "We just have to be smart."

My darkhorse to watch is Patrick. I might be the only writer in the sprawling media center at Indy who thinks she has a chance, but remember: If there's one track in the world at which she shines, it's Indy. She finished third in the 500 last year, which was the highest ever for a female driver, and in '05 came in fourth. Yes, she's starting 23rd -- his worst-ever starting position here -- and she's struggled this entire IndyCar season. But Patrick is a patient, cerebral driver whose driving skills mesh well with the challenges presented at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval. She has a knack for staying out of trouble, getting in and out of the pits cleanly, and making moves late. She won't have the fastest car on Sunday, but if anyone can snooker the field with pit or fuel strategy, it's Patrick and her No. 7 team.

"We'll need a little luck, that's for sure," Patrick told me as we rode on a golf cart together through the infield on Thursday. "But Indy has been pretty good to me and you never know what's going happen over the course of 500 miles."

Patrick is a longshot. My pick to be chugging the milk late on Sunday afternoon is: Helio Castroneves.

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