He sat at a table surrounded by reporters, holding court on Thursday afternoon in a building in the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Helio Castroneves seemingly never has a bad day at Indy, and he smiled and laughed and patted backs as he talked about his chances of winning the Indy 500 on Sunday.
"I love this place," said Castroneves, a three-time winner of the race. "But here, you just never know."
But we do know this: Team Penske -- and its drivers Ryan Briscoe, Will Power and Castroneves -- will be the organization to beat in the 96th running of the 500. How dominant has Penske been during May at the Brickyard? Briscoe won the pole, Power qualified fifth, Castroneves will start sixth, and the three have consistently been near the top of the speed chart during practice sessions.
Penske uses Chevy engines, which have been a tick faster than the Honda engines over the last three weeks. This has dampened the white-hot rivalry between Roger Penske and owner Chip Ganassi, whose cars are powered by Honda. Only one Honda will start in the top nine -- Josef Newgarden, a rookie who qualified seventh -- and Ganassi's formidable duo of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti will have to rely on strategy and quick pit stops rather than raw speed to contend on Sunday. Dixon, the 2008 Indy winner will start 15th, while Franchitti, a two-time 500 champ, will begin in the 16th spot.
"It's a long race and the fastest car doesn't necessarily win," says Dixon. "Strategy can be more important than speed."
Perhaps, but I like Castroneves to win his fourth 500 on Sunday afternoon and join the four-timers club that currently consists of only Al Unser, Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt. Castroneves -- the former
In 11 career starts at the Brickyard, Castroneves has led seven of the races for 231 laps. Look for him to seize the lead around the midway point of the race and then pull away from the field. If he takes the checkered flag, then the question will be: Is Helio Castroneves the greatest Indy 500 driver of all-time?
Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:
Power is already breezing toward the season championship. He's won the last three races -- in Birmingham, Ala., Long Beach, Calif., and Sao Paulo -- but those were all held on road courses, which is Power's specialty. In four career starts at Indy his best finish is fifth.
But Power will be a factor simply because of his Chevy engine. It would shock no one in the press center if Castroneves, Power and Briscoe give Penske a one-two-three finish.
The emergence of Hinchcliffe has been one of the biggest stories of the month at Indy. Driving for Andretti Autosport, he qualified second, narrowly missing the pole by .0023 of a second, which was the closest one-two in 500 qualifying history (it's the equivalent of 9.168 inches over the four laps of qualifying).
Known in the paddock as "Manica," Hinchcliffe took over Danica Patrick's Go Daddy car after Patrick left for NASCAR. He's been spectacularly consistent this season, as he's the only driver to finish in the top six in the first four races of 2012. If an Andretti driver is going to win on Sunday, it will likely be Hinchcliffe, not Marco Andretti, who will be starting fourth.
I had lunch with Dixon on Monday in Birmingham, Ala., and he wasn't overly optimistic about his odds of winning, mainly because of the impressive speeds that the Penske and Andretti drivers have been flashing in practice. But Dixon could surprise. He's led 261 laps here in his last four starts -- a series high over that stretch -- and he's been among the fastest of the Hondas the last few weeks. If he's hanging around near the leaders in the final laps, he'll be a threat because of his experience.
A rookie, Newgarden could be an upset winner. In 2011 he won the championship in the Indy Lights series -- the feeder circuit for the IZOD IndyCar Series -- and he's been quick this May. He topped the speed chart in three of the seven practice days heading into qualifying, and then he qualified seventh, which made him the only Honda driver to crack the top nine.
No rookie has won the Indy 500 since 2001, when a young Castroneves reached Victory Lane. It says here that, 11 years later, Castroneves will be back in a familiar spot on Sunday around 3:45 p.m. ET.