May 22, 2009

The 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 is Sunday, and this year's race boasts one of the deepest fields in the event's history. With the return of Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti, and a grid that boasts a number of past champions, the Borg-Warner Trophy is up for grabs.'s racing writers weigh in with their picks.

Six drivers have the car and the talent to win this year's 500: Helio Castroneves, Ryan Briscoe, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, and Marco Andretti. If fuel mileage doesn't become a factor -- and that's a big if because it often does at Indy -- I think this will come down to a sprint between the Team Penske duo of Castroneves and Briscoe. In the end, I see two-time winner Castroneves chugging the milk on Sunday.

Will Helio Castroneves or Scott Dixon win the 93rd Indianapolis 500? It's a very difficult call. They drive for great teams, Penske and Ganassi, respectively. They have mechanically bullet-proof cars with leading-edge engineering under the body work. They're blessed with extraordinary talent for driving an IndyCar extremely fast, which is what it takes at Indianapolis. They're patient, willing to ride out a fuel-and-tire run with an ill-handling car rather than overdrive and stick it in the wall. They can be aggressive, too, when the situation requires it.

They understand this is 500 miles and there are plenty of pit stops to work on optimizing the car for the final 100 miles, when races are won. This will be Castroneves' ninth and Dixon's seventh start at Indy; they have the experience to keep their cars tuned to the changing track conditions -- the key to winning. Castroneves has always been a front-runner at Indianapolis; he won in his first two starts and was second in his third. He's been third and fourth the past two years. Dixon's success has been gradual, sixth in 2006 and second in 2007, before winning last year. Who to pick? I'll take Castroneves by a car length. He's overdue for that third victory.

Ever since he was acquitted of tax evasion charges in a Miami federal court on April 17, Castroneves has been riding a magical wave of popularity and success. Winning the Indianapolis 500 pole two weeks ago was the latest bit of fortune to come his way, but his biggest prize of all will come Sunday when he becomes a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Still, don't discount Tony Kanaan. This fierce "Pit Bull" of a driver is the only one in the field who has led a lap in every Indy 500 he has competed in since his debut in 2002. He believes his bad luck is out of the way after switching cars to qualify two weeks ago. If fierce determination is necessary to win the Indy 500, then Kanaan will once again be a contender at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Race Day.

What better way to celebrate a new (unincarcerated) life phase than becoming just the sixth man -- joining Louis Meyer, Mauri Rose, Johnny Rutherford, Wilbur Shaw and Bobby Unser -- to win the Indianapolis 500 three times? Those federal tax evasion charges behind him and another sleek Team Penske machine under him, the pole-sitter will chug milk again, but for the first time since winning consecutively in 2001-02.

He's always in play, having finished on the podium in half of his eight starts at Indianapolis. The story of a Castroneves victory will be a boon for the Indy Racing League and a national rehabilitation campaign for his image, and open wheel racing will rule Memorial Day again ... unless, of course, former Indy 500-winners Juan Pablo Montoya or Sam Hornish Jr. wins the Coca-Cola 600.

The Winner Is ... Helio Castroneves. Castroneves is in perfect position to win his third Indy 500 just two months after exoneration for tax fraud. Driving like a man with a new lease on life, the pole-sitter has been nearly a mile an hour faster than anyone else at Indy all month. If he doesn't suffer a mechanical breakdown, he'll hand the IRL a great story and some much-needed national publicity not named Danica.

Keep An Eye On ...Dario Franchitti. The former Indy 500 champ is back in the IRL full-time after a failed attempt at NASCAR in '08. The Chip Ganassi cars have been a bit behind the Penske curve this month, but if something happens to the top two, expect the Scot to take advantage.

Dark Horse: Paul Tracy. The Canadian is back at Indy for the first time since his controversial second-place finish in 2002. Paired with KV Racing Technology, he doesn't have the fastest car by a longshot; but the fastest car rarely wins at unpredictable Indy. Look for Tracy's veteran experience to put his No. 15 in contention at the finish.

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