Bruce Martin
Friday May 28th, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS -- After a condensed schedule that saw only one week of practice and one weekend of qualifications, it's time to get ready for the "World's Greatest Race" -- the Indianapolis 500.

Several drivers experienced heartbreak, notably Paul Tracy, who withdrew a speed that would have kept him in the 33-car starting lineup in the closing minutes of Bump Day only to go even slower. Tracy, who continues to believe he was the actual winner of the 2002 Indy 500 rather than Helio Castroneves, said his latest Indy disappointment "cuts real deep."

Tracy's story is but one of many tales that has established what 350,000 fans jamming the grandstands of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will see Sunday afternoon (ABC, 1 p.m. race start). Indeed, the race has changed since Ray Harroun won the first 500-mile race on May 30, 1911. And though technology and corporate sponsorship has come to mark much of the race, there is a certain artistic beauty to seeing the winged racing machines do battle at speeds over 225 miles per hour, the drivers' helmets peaked up from open cockpits while the open-wheel designs leave drivers just inches from disaster.

And sometime Sunday, one driver will be able to drive into Victory Lane and drink the traditional bottle of milk that goes to the winner of the Indianapolis 500.

But first, let's get started with SI.com's Five-Minute Guide to the 94th Indianapolis 500.

Tony Kanaan's charge from last place to the front -- The popular driver from Brazil is easily the best driver in the IZOD IndyCar Series that has never won the Indianapolis 500. Since his rookie season in 2002 he has been a threat to win the race and has led laps in every Indy 500 until last year, when he crashed hard into the third turn after 97 laps. Kanaan finished third in '03, second in '02, eighth in '05 and fifth in '06. He was the leader of the '07 500 when heavy rain stopped the race after 113 laps. Nearly four hours later, the race was restarted and Kanaan was on a fuel strategy that would have had him in front if the race went 200 laps. Instead, it rained again after 166 laps and Dario Franchitti was the winner.

Kanaan had a terrible run of luck last weekend when he crashed on Pole Day on Saturday and crashed again in Sunday morning's practice session. His team repaired the car in time for him to get into the field with 37 minutes left in qualifications. He was originally in the 32nd starting position but the Andretti Autosport team decided to rebuild his race car -- one they think can win the race -- so he moves to the last position in the lineup.

But keep an eye on Kanaan's No. 11 car at the start of the race and see how many cars he passes on the first lap. In fact, drivers in Gasoline Alley are starting a Tony Kanaan Pool to see how many cars he picks off before the completion of Lap 1. "I think he can pick off a couple of rows," said teammate Marco Andretti. "But we're going to have to remind him it's a 500-mile race."

My guess is it won't be long before he catches teammate Danica Patrick, who starts the race in 23rd position. But it should also be mentioned that no driver has ever won the Indianapolis 500 from 33rd starting position.

Can Helio Castroneves finish the race where he starts -- Castroneves won his fourth Indy 500 pole last Saturday and is attempting to become a four-time winner of the Indy 500. If he accomplishes that this year he will become the first driver to go back-to-back at Indy twice in his career. Castroneves is a master of this race and he is the likely favorite to win on Sunday and join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only four-time Indy 500 winners.

But the favorite often doesn't win this race and that is why if Castroneves is the victor on Sunday, he will overcome some historical odds.

The impact of push-to-pass in the race -- For the first time, the electronic horsepower assist device -- otherwise known as "Push-to-Pass" -- will be used in the Indianapolis 500. The driver hits a button on the steering wheel that gives a 5 horsepower burst for 18 seconds, which can be strategically used to pass a car or the car in front can use it to keep from getting passed. The number of push-to-passes for a normal 200-lap race on a 1.5-mile track is generally 20, so the thinking was the drivers would get more pushes in the longest race of the season. Instead, it has been decreased to 15 pushes, but the duration of horsepower increased has gone from 12-second bursts to 18 seconds in duration.

Many of the drivers admitted on Thursday that the temptation to use their push-to-pass button will be strong in the early-going on the long straightaways at Indianapolis. But that would be unwise as the extra horsepower needs to be conserved for late in the race. This will also be a valuable tool on restarts, so look for drivers to hit the button heading down the frontstretch during restarts.

But as one driver astutely noted on Thursday, the only restart that is really going to matter will be the final restart of the race.

Pit stop strategy is always a key -- One strategy that can be used by drivers in the race in an attempt to leap-frog toward the front is through pit strategy. For drivers who start near the front, the strategy of when to pit is usually determined by the leader. But cars starting mid-pack can sometimes get out of sequence to the leader and stretch their fuel mileage. Cautions are also important in this strategy, so the team that pulls this one off often has to be lucky in addition to being good.

The highest-finishing female driver -- Before this year, the easy pick would have been Danica Patrick, who became the highest-finishing female driver in Indy 500 history last year with a third-place finish. But Patrick has had a terrible start to the season and starts Sunday's race back in 23rd. Her previous worst starting position at Indy was 10th in 2006 and 2009, but she finished eighth in '06 and third last year.

Even on Thursday she admitted she is not comfortable with the race setup on her car, which means the team will have to use Friday's Carb Day one-hour practice session to try a few things rather than do a simple installation check.

The three other female drivers are all talented, including veteran Sarah Fisher, who is making her ninth Indy 500 start. Fisher is owner/driver of her race team and starts 29th, so she has lots of cars to pass to finish as the fastest female. The other two drivers are rookie Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland, who starts 22nd, and Ana Beatriz of Brazil, who was the fastest female in qualifications and starts 21st.

It would be easy to pick de Silvestro out of this group based on her performances from earlier this season, but Patrick's experience will keep her out of trouble and in the top 10.

Scott Dixon -- The 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner starts sixth -- the outside of Row 2, just behind his Target/Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti. Dixon is one of the smoothest, most talented drivers in the sport and is a two-time series champion. He started on the pole and led 115 laps in his 2008 victory. Last year, he led 73 laps before a problem with the right rear wheel hub on his final pit stop proved costly and he finished sixth.

When it comes to driving an IZOD IndyCar, Dixon is as good as it gets, which is why he's my pick to win on Sunday.

Dario Franchitti -- The 2007 Indy 500 winner starts third and has a tremendous chance of becoming a two-time Indy 500 winner. He is fast, fearless and smart and already knows the path to victory at Indy, winning the rain-shortened race that was flagged after 166 laps three years ago. It still counts as an Indy 500 victory, but Franchitti would love to be the winner after a full 500 miles on Sunday.

Helio Castroneves -- As noted above, Castroneves is the popular pick. But the "back-to-back twice" scenario keeps coming into play and that is the only reason I don't think he will win on Sunday. Then again, Castroneves remains one of the best to ever drive in this race.

Will Power -- The IZOD IndyCar Series points leader starts second and has a car just as fast as his teammate, Castroneves. He may not be as flamboyant as the "Dancing with the Stars" star, but his fifth-place finish last year in a third Team Penske car proved that he knows how to run a 500-mile race. He is just a shade ahead of teammate Ryan Briscoe in speed.

Ryan Hunter-Reay -- Let's go with the long-shot, who starts 17th, to race his way to the front on Sunday. The Andretti Autosport driver won the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in April, becoming the first American driver to win an IndyCar race since Watkins Glen in July 2008. It would have been just as easy to put Briscoe in this group.

Takuma Sato -- The former Formula One driver from Japan has already knocked down the wall, doing so in a Saturday morning practice session. If the rookie ever puts together a full race without making a mistake, he is fast enough to score a high finish. But, at some point in the race, the yellow flag will wave because Sato will be in the wall.

Mario Moraes -- Team owners Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven will stop talking to me for picking another KV Racing Technology driver for this category, but come to think of it, Kalkhoven doesn't talk to me any way. Oh well. Moraes is a fast and talented Brazilian with a penchant for crashing.

Tomas Scheckter -- The son of 1978 Formula One World Champion Jody Scheckter is a perennial pick in this category, although he has fared much better the last three years. He was running at the finish and on the lead lap in 2007 and 2009. He dropped out in 2008 because of mechanical failure. But Scheckter also has crashed in three of his first five Indy 500s.

Sebastian Saavedra -- The 19-year-old rookie from Colombia crashed after his qualification attempt on Sunday and that earned him a trip to Methodist Hospital. He was bumped out of the race two times only to get back into the field when Paul Tracy and Jay Howard made the boneheaded moves of withdrawing times that would have kept them in the race in an attempt to protect their position with the faster speed. So that allowed Saavedra to make the 33-car starting lineup with the 35th fastest speed. Now that he is in the race, his inexperience could be a good reason for him to spin off course at some point in the race.

Graham Rahal will finish in the top five -- There is a lot riding in this year's Indianapolis 500 for the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal. The 21-year-old does not have a full-time IZOD IndyCar Series ride and is competing in an Indy-only effort for Rahal Letterman Racing. If he gets into the top five, that may be enough for another team, such as his former operation at Newman Haas Racing, to attract sponsorship to keep him in the series for the rest of the season. If Rahal were to win the race, he said earlier this week the $3.5 million that goes to the winner would be enough to keep him on the race track for the rest of the season. Rahal starts seventh, so he only needs to improve by two positions to reach the top-five.

Vitor Meira will finish in the top 10 -- Meira was a contender in last year's race and was vying with fellow Brazilian Raphael Matos for fourth place with 25 laps to go before the two cars crashed in the first turn. Meira's car rode the wall sideways and the impact was so severe he suffered a broken back. Although he is starting 30th this year, Meira is a solid race driver and will somehow pedal the A.J. Foyt car up to the top 10 by the end of the race.

A woman will be the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year -- And that female will be Simona de Silvestro of Switzerland, which means hot chocolate will be served at the Indianapolis 500 Awards Ceremony Monday night.

None of the nine American drivers will win the race -- Sadly, this is not a bold prediction as a sport that used to be full of great American racing legends has been dominated by drivers from abroad. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and even Danica Patrick will be the leaders of team USA to make an assault for patriotism at Indianapolis.

Few will be drinking responsibly with the return of the Snake Pit -- For those who don't remember the glory days of the infield Snake Pit, it was where practically anything was accepted, from overconsumption of alcohol to massive inhalation of pot to public displays of sex. It was auto racing's version of Woodstock. But in the 1990s, the management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway systematically did away with the Snake Pit by dramatically limiting areas of the infield where spectators could see the race. This year the Speedway is promoting the "Return of the Snake Pit" in the third turn area of the infield, hoping to bring back the party atmosphere to IMS, so expect to see the Marion County Drunk Tank filled to capacity Sunday night.

Danica Patrick getting booed -- As noted in my Inside Racing Column on Monday, Patrick drew a lot of heat from spectators after she blamed her poor qualification effort on the car and the team's inability to provide her a better setup. Patrick will likely hear some jeers on Sunday, which will keep the story angle going for yet another day.

Helio Castroneves attempting to be a four-time champion -- This has been mentioned so often that even NASCAR fans know it by now.

Tony George is no longer in charge, but he's back -- Give the man credit because it would have been easy to stay away after being booted out as CEO by his three sisters and mother. He chose to resign from the IMS board of directors on December 31 and shut down Vision Racing in January. He returns to the starting lineup in a partnership with Panther Racing, with his stepson, Ed Carpenter, starting eighth.

Chip Ganassi could be the first owner to win both the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 in the same season -- When Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 in February, that placed team owner Chip Ganassi in position to win the two biggest races in the same season. He actually stands a better chance to win the Indy 500 than McMurray had at Daytona because Ganassi's two drivers at Indy are former champions Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.