The driver lineup is deeper than last year with the return of 2007 Indy winner Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy, the maturing of Graham Rahal and the addition of a third entry from Penske Racing for Will Power. They're all threats to drink the milk Sunday. Penske's Ryan Briscoe, starting from the middle of the front row, has a shot at it, too.
Dan Wheldon, the 2005 winner, Vitor Meira, second at Indy twice in the past four races and Mario Moraes are outside possibilities.
All eight are talented and with solid teams, but here's my list of the five drivers who will be the most watched Sunday by the crowd of about 300,000. These five are most likely to add their image to the Borg-Warner Trophy.
Castroneves starts from the pole, which says everything about his ability to stretch his car when necessary. The Brazilian has the speed to run at the front all day -- perhaps even dominate -- and he'll have it when he needs it most: in the final 20 laps. In this IndyCar era of every driver having a Dallara chassis, Honda engine and Firestone tires, three of the past five winners have started on the pole. Historically, that's significant. Only 17 won from the pole in the first 87, 19.5 percent.
Castroneves has two of the 14 victories for Roger Penske, by far the 500's most successful car owner, and almost became the first to win three straight when he finished second to teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003. Castroneves was flying through the field following a pit stop late in the 2007 race, up to third and closing on leader Franchitti, when rain ended the race with 34 laps to go. If the race had gone the distance, Castroneves was the likely winner. He's magic at Indianapolis, and he still drives for Penske, which has clearly improved its Dallara over last year. All Dallaras are created the same, but teams can do development work under the skin.
Dixon has flown under the radar this month, a surprise considering he led 115 laps last year en route to victory, went on to take the IndyCar Series championship and is starting from the second row. He's 28, and this will be his seventh straight start in the 500 for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. This is a driver in his prime with tons of experience and continuity, and who has developed into a force at Indianapolis. He finished sixth in 2006 and second in 2007.
Dixon's victory at Kansas in the race leading into Indianapolis was his 11th since halfway through the 2006 season. You can count on him being cool under fire. They don't call him the Iceman for nothing.
Kanaan has done everything at Indianapolis except win. He won the pole in 2005, finished second in the rain-shortened 2004 race and has led laps in each of his previous seven starts (214 in total). The Brazilian can get it done at Indianapolis. He doesn't need good luck; he just needs to not have bad luck. Case in point: In 2007, he led eight times for 83 laps, but was forced to spin to avoid another spinning car, and finished 12th.
Kanaan is the team leader at Andretti Green Racing, which hasn't shown the outright speed of the Penske and Ganassi teams this month. Still, he's starting sixth, highest on the team. Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, has 13 career wins in IndyCar. His next victory could be Sunday. He's a big-time racer.
Patrick's stardom began in the 2005 Indianapolis 500 when Rahal Letterman Racing decided to forgo a pit stop during a late-race caution, and she took the lead, becoming the first woman to lead the race. She finished fourth. What has been largely overlooked about that performance is that Patrick passed eventual-winner Dan Wheldon for the lead on a restart. Wheldon had passed her on the previous restart and Patrick took the lead right back. It proved she had the ability to race and overtake the leader, not just drive fast.
Patrick's second impressive performance came the next year when she finished eighth. RLR was using the Panoz chassis, and the cars had inherent handling problems. Patrick kept it off the walls and brought it home in one piece. The next highest-placing Panoz (of 10 in the race) was Roger Yasukawa in 16th. Patrick has had two solid races since then. She was eighth in 2007 and was running seventh last season when contact with Briscoe exiting the pits took her out. Patrick's best race track is Indianapolis. She needs to be trouble-free and drive the best race of her life to win Sunday, but it could happen. Patrick starts from the inside of the fourth row.
Andretti has a strong record at Indianapolis, a track that has brought his famous family of drivers one victory (by grandfather Mario in 1969) and much despair. For Marco, there was the heartbreak of finishing second by inches (.0635 of a second) when Sam Hornish Jr. passed him in the last 100 yards. He had another decent run in 2007, riding in the top 10 until contact with Wheldon with 38 laps remaining took him out.
Andretti led 15 laps and finished third last year in what was probably his best start-to-finish performance. He had the fastest lap of the race at 224.037-mph. Andretti has struggled at many other tracks in his four IndyCar seasons, but he's got the fast way around Indianapolis figured out. Andretti, starting from the middle of the third row, could put an Andretti back in Victory Circle for the first time in 40 years.