It didn't earn the reputation as the "World's Greatest Race" by accident. Like the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon or Tour de France, the Indy 500 is truly one contest the world stops to take notice.
This year's Indy 500, in particular, carries special meaning as the race celebrates its 100th anniversary. It was in 1911 that Ray Harroun drove to history as the winner of the first 500-mile race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Harroun thought the race was so dangerous, he retired after taking the checkered flag.
There will be plenty of time to look back on the history and significance of the Indy 500 this month, but with the opening day of practice set for Saturday, let's take a look at some of the major storylines for this year's race.
1. Can Dario Franchitti join an exclusive list of back-to-back winners?
After driving to a dominant win in last year's 500, reigning champion Dario Franchitti is in position to become the first back-to-back winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001-2002. It's an exclusive list that includes Wilbur Shaw in 1939-40, Mauri Rose, 1947-48, Bill Vukovich, 1953-54 and Al Unser, 1970-71.
Having led 239 of a possible 600 laps in the last three Indy 500s, Franchitti has become a master of the Speedway. He is trying to win his third Indianapolis 500 in five attempts after winning in 2007 and 2010. Franchitti did not race in 2008 because he was competing in NASCAR, so who knows how many laps led may have been added to that already impressive total?
Even before turning one practice lap Franchitti has to be considered a favorite because he has the car and team behind him at Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. If he takes the checkered flag, it would be just the sixth time a driver has won Indy in back-to-back seasons.
2. Helio Castroneves attempts to become the first foreign four-time winner
Castroneves became the first driver to win in his first two Indy 500 attempts, in 2001 and 2002, and he scored his third victory two years ago. That one came just one month after he was acquitted of tax evasion.
His season has gotten off to a shaky start, with a first-lap crash at St. Petersburg in March and a wreck at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach that took out teammate Will Power on a restart late. He was also involved in on-track incidents with Justin Wilson at Long Beach and Vitor Meira at Barber Motorsports Park.
Still, Castroneves remains one of IndyCar's most popular drivers among fans, and a fourth Indy 500 win would further validate his stature as one of the great drivers in the history of the race.
3. Pippa Mann becomes the latest female driver to compete in the Indy 500
English racer Pippa Mann is the latest woman to attempt to make the starting lineup. Mann hopes to joins fellow female drivers Danica Patrick, Simona de Silvestro and Ana Beatriz on this year's starting grid. If all four make the cut, it will be the second year in a row that four women start the 500.
Last year, Mann won the pole for the Freedom 100 Firestone Indy Lights Series race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Later that year, she won the Indy Lights race at Kentucky Speedway.
Mann could be one of the last drivers to get into the race on Bump Day on May 22, and driving for one of the smallest teams in the series (Conquest Racing) could prove to be a struggle come race day.
4. Graham Rahal's best shot, so far, of winning the Indy 500
When the son of 1986 Indy winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal joined team owner Chip Ganassi's racing team for this season, it was time for the 22-year-old driver to produce. Although he got off to a slow start in the first three races of the season, Graham Rahal finished an impressive second to race winner Power in Sao Paulo two weeks ago. That has given the driver from Ohio momentum heading into the Speedway. As part of Ganassi's four-driver effort that includes former Indy winners Franchitti and Scott Dixon, along with rookie Charlie Kimball, this could be Rahal's best chance of becoming a second-generation Indy 500 winner.
5. Will Power's first oval track victory could be memorable and historic
Unquestionably IndyCar's "King of the Road," Power's nine IndyCar wins and two Champ Car victories have come on street and road courses. However, the Aussie has never won a race on an oval .
Power would be the first to admit that his inability to win just one ovals race cost him the 2010 IndyCar title. With two wins in the first four races this season, Power could be on his way to his first series championship. An Indy 500 win would be a major triumph in that quest.
6. Danica Patrick returns to her best track
Off to a slow start this season, Patrick returns to her best track and will obviously be a major source of attention. In six previous Indy 500s, Patrick has three top-5s and five top-10 finishes. If she pulls off another top finish, it might finally get her season moving in a positive direction -- and be a huge boost in both her popularity and IndyCar's.
But would Patrick pull a Sam Hornish Jr. if she won her first Indy 500, leaving open-wheel racing behind and heading for a full-time ride in NASCAR? While Patrick is nowhere near making a decision on what she will do when her contract is up at the end of this year, an Indy 500 win would be "Mission Accomplished."
7. Scott Speed prepares for first IndyCar race, but not his first at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Out of work NASCAR driver and former Formula One racer Scott Speed has joined forces with Dragon Racing for his first IndyCar Series race, and it comes in the biggest event of the year. But this is far from the first time Speed has competed at the Speedway.
He competed in two United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis in 2006 and 2007, finishing 20th and 13th, respectively, for Scuderia Toro Rosso. Speed also competed in two NASCAR Brickyard 400s at Indianapolis for Team Red Bull, finishing 31st in 2009 and 25th last year.
During Speed's Rookie Orientation Practice on Thursday, he was amazed at how fast the cars race around the track. Speed hopes to crash the IndyCar championship party at the end of the year as he is the first driver who has accepted the $5 million challenge for the season-finale at Las Vegas. Up to five drivers from outside the series can compete in the final race of the season and if they win the race, they will collect a $5 million bonus.
8. The final Indy 500 of the current car
While the Indy 500 used to be a platform for innovation, the current chassis, with a normally-aspirated engine, has contested every Indy 500 since 2003. But this will be the last year of the current car as it will be replaced by a new generation of chassis featuring a variety of different "aero kits" in 2012. The engines will also be replaced by turbocharged ones from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus, making the 2012 race a competition between drivers, cars and engines once again.
9. Some old names return
Former champions Buddy Rice (2004), Dan Wheldon (2005), Paul Tracy and longtime veteran John Andretti are some of the veterans returning to this year's 500. For Rice, Wheldon, Andretti, Townsend Bell, Bruno Junqueira and Tomas Scheckter this is the only IndyCar race on their schedule this season. Tracy and Ed Carpenter will run a limited schedule in 2011.
Rice and Wheldon are the only drivers out of this group that have experienced the thrill of winning the Indy 500. Rice nearly went on to win the series championship in 2004, but fell short to Tony Kanaan. Wheldon parlayed his Indy 500 victory into a series title that year.
Both drivers are still competitive and fearless, and it's hard to understand why neither Rice nor Wheldon have full-time rides in the IndyCar Series. But if both drivers should overcome the obstacles with high finishes in the race, maybe they could compete a few more times in 2011.
10. Five drivers for Andretti Autosport
Team owner Michael Andretti hopes there is strength in numbers as he enters five drivers in this year's race for the second year in a row. Cousin John Andretti returns for an Indy 500-only effort, joining full-time drivers Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Mike Conway. John Andretti is hoping to make the Indy 500 for the 12th time in his career.
Before 2009, the last time Andretti Autosport had five drivers in the Indy 500 was 2006, when Michael Andretti came out of retirement to join his four, full-time drivers in the race.