INDIANAPOLIS -- It's time for the 96th Indianapolis 500, the "World's Greatest Race. With a completely new chassis (the Dallara DW12) and the return of turbocharged engines for the first time since 1996, the dynamics of the race will drastically different than in years past. And while the field has plenty of former winners, highlighted by three-time champion Helio Castroneves, two-time winner Dario Franchitti and 2008 champ Scott Dixon, there are also plenty of new fresh faces in this year's lineup, including young American rookies Josef Newgarden of Tennessee and Indiana's Bryan Clauson.
During the first week of practice, speeds have climbed, new storylines have developed and burning issues have arisen so let's take a look at 10 storylines to watch for in this year's Indianapolis 500.
The likable Brazilian driver at Team Penske is attempting to join Indy legends A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500. Castroneves won the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and is off to one of his best starts in years, arriving at the 500 second in the IZOD IndyCar Series points standings, 45 points behind teammate Will Power.
Castroneves has become a master of the Speedway, scoring Indy 500 wins in his first two attempts in 2001 and 2002. His third Indy 500 win in 2009 came one month after he was acquitted of federal income tax evasion charges.
While some teams have worked on speed in the first week of practice, Team Penske's three drivers have devised a well-formulated plan for setup on race day. Castroneves is the best driver at the 2.5-mile IMS oval since 2001, and he stands a very good chance of becoming a four-time winner this year. The flat, four-corner Speedway perfectly suits his racing style.
When it comes to dominance on the street and road courses, few drivers are in the class of Australia's Will Power at Team Penske. Of Power's 18 career victories (two in Champ Car and 16 in IndyCar), all but one have come on street circuits and permanent road courses. Power's best Indy 500 finish was fifth in 2009. He was 13th his rookie season in 2008 and 14th last year. Power is easily capable of winning the Indianapolis 500 because he has one of the best prepared cars on the track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Team Penske president Tim Cindric calling the race strategy.
Power has come close to winning the IZOD IndyCar Series title the past two seasons but has fallen to Dario Franchitti each time. An Indianapolis 500 win for Power could help power him to this year's IndyCar championship.
So far, so good for the new Dallara DW12 chassis. The first six days of practice saw just one minor incident and that came when rookie driver Josef Newgarden spun out of the fourth turn and gently hit the inside retaining wall. INDYCAR officials, however, are interested in seeing how the new car holds up in its first hard impact with the wall during racing conditions. According to INDYCAR vice president of technology Will Phillips, the new chassis has stood the test of several crashes on the street and road course this season, but Indianapolis is the first race for the new car on a high-speed oval.
"It's something we hope we don't have to see but we know it's inevitable and we will learn how the car holds up in a crash," Phillips told SI.com after Wednesday's practice session. "That's the only way we know for sure just how this car can sustain a crash."
The new car has plenty of safety innovations built in, including more crash absorbent bodywork and rear wheels that are covered in the back to keep cars from going airborne after they interlock wheels. The latter is what happened in the 15-car crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October that claimed the life of last year's Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon.
There are some talented young American drivers making their first Indianapolis 500 start, and Newgarden and Clauson are the most impressive. The 21-year-old Newgarden is the reigning Firestone Indy Lights Series champion from Henderson, Tenn. Clauson, 22, is a former USAC open-wheel star. Both drivers are graduates of the Mazda "Road to Indy" Ladder System. Newgarden was the fastest driver in three of the first five practice days at Indy and could be a threat to contend for a top-five finish on race day.
But there are some other talented first-time drivers, including former Formula 1 star Rubens Barrichello of Brazil and Simon Pagenaud of France. England's Wade Cunningham and Katherine Legge are both rookies at the Speedway but have yet to be in the same speed category as Newgarden, Clauson, Pagenaud and Barrichello.
While Newgarden has a speed and savvy that belies his youth, look for Barrichello's experience to make him the top rookie finisher in what will be the longest race of his career.
Since her stunning Indianapolis 500 debut in 2005, when she became the first female driver ever to lead this race and came within seven laps of taking the victory, Danica Patrick has dominated the attention every year at Indy. But Patrick moved on to a full-time career in the NASCAR Nationwide Series with a limited Sprint Cup schedule last offseason. And IndyCar has moved on from Patrick. In fact, Patrick's name has barely been mentioned at Indy this year. Ironically, while Patrick competed in last Saturday night's race at Darlington Raceway, her father, T.J., and mother, Bev, attended opening day for this year's Indy 500.
Patrick's replacement at Andretti Autosport is popular Canadian driver James Hinchcliffe, who has taken on rock star status at the Speedway this year. But Hinchcliffe is more than just a personality; he is also an impressive race driver and has been in the top five in practice speeds throughout the first week of practice. He enters the Indianapolis 500 third in points and with a powerful Chevrolet engine in his race car and a solid team behind him, he could be one of the leading contenders to score his first Indy 500 victory.
Since 2007 there has not been a more complete driver in this series than Scotland's Dario Franchitti. He won the Indy 500 and the season championship in 2007, left the series to compete in NASCAR in 2008, returned to IndyCar in 2009 and has won the title every season since his return. Franchitti also won the Indy 500 in 2010 to join a select group of drivers that have won this race more than twice. Franchitti is always a threat to win the Indianapolis 500 and this year should be no different. He drives for the impressive Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team that also boasts 2008 winner Scott Dixon. These two drivers are powered by Honda, which has yet to score a victory in the first four races of 2012. But all that could change over the course of 500 miles on May 27.
Graham Rahal made it look easy when he won his first-ever IndyCar race at St. Petersburg in 2008 to become the youngest winner in IndyCar history as a 19-year-old. Rahal has yet to win another race, although he is considered one of the top young talents in the sport. The now 23-year-old Rahal drives for team owner Chip Ganassi and despite having an engine failure in practice, has been among the fast drivers in the opening week of practice. If Rahal is able to win his first Indianapolis 500, he would become another second-generation winner as his father, Bobby, won the 1986 Indianapolis 500.
When Danica Patrick was in the lineup, there was a real possibility that a female driver could win the Indianapolis 500. This year there are three females in the starting lineup, but the only one that has a legitimate chance of finishing in the top half of the field is Ana Beatriz of Brazil because her car has a Chevrolet engine. Simona de Silvestro has the talent but is handicapped with the Lotus engine, which can barely top the 210 mile per hour barrier while the fastest cars are nearly 15 miles per hour quicker. And rookie Katherine Legge's Dragon Racing team has dumped the Lotus for a Chevrolet but missed the first six days of practice while the logistics of that switch was being made. Because of that, none of these three females really have much of a chance of doing anything noteworthy in the Indy 500.
For the first time since 2005 there are multiple engine manufacturers competing in the Indianapolis 500, and in the first four races this season Chevrolet has had a decided edge over Honda. Chevrolet drivers at Team Penske have won the first four IndyCar contests but none of those were as demanding as the Indianapolis 500. The Honda teams have made some gains but will it be enough to make a difference on race day? Considering that Target/Chip Ganassi Racing is the lead Honda team, never underestimate Franchitti or Scott Dixon. Meantime, the lackluster Lotus will be getting the blue "move over" flag for most of the race with former Formula 1 driver Jean Alesi and de Silvestro driving the only two Lotus entries in the field.