The 97th Indianapolis 500 shapes up as wide open with one of the deepest fields in history. For the first time since 1987 there are two drivers who have won the race three times. Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves will be trying to join the exclusive club of four-time winners: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, Both are still on top of their games and they drive for two powerhouse teams. Ganassi's Franchitti, 40, won his first Indy in 2007 and hopes to become the first driver to go back-to-back since Castroneves in 2001-02. Penske's Castroneves is 39 and his third Indy win was in 2009, but he won twice in the series a year ago on road courses -- where a driver's skills supposedly first go downhill.
Scott Dixon won Indy in 2008, finished second last year and has completed every lap -- a record 1,366 straight -- in seven consecutive races with a worst finish of sixth. He will be driving in the 500 for the 11th time and, at 32, in his prime.
There are three bona fide contenders from Michael Andretti's resurgent team: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and James Hinchcliffe. They're Indy 500 veterans with fast cars.
The one-car team of owner/driver Ed Carpenter can't be overlooked. He won IndyCar's previous 500-mile race, at Fontana, Calif., last September, and put his Dallara-Chevrolet on the pole at Indy this year.
Is the pole important? Not really, it's a 500-mile race, but it is good to have had the fastest car of the month when it counted going into the race.
Also in the thick of the hunt: Takuma Sato, who was second before crashing on the final lap at Indy a year ago. He made history by becoming the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar event when he took Long Beach this year. Tony Kanaan, Will Power and JR Hildebrand would need everything to go right, but they could be in the picture, too. They bring the total to 11 drivers who nobody would say, "Where did they come from?" if any of them won on Sunday.
The Indy 500 used to be a marathon with high levels of attrition and big speed differences between the front, middle and back of the field. Some examples: When Foyt won his fourth in 1977, second-place finisher Tom Sneva had the only other car to complete 200 laps. Al Unser and Wally Dallenbach completed 199. Fifth-place Johnny Parsons was seven laps down. In Unser's fourth win in 1987, Roberto Guerrero was the other driver on the lead lap and Fabrizio Barbazza was two laps down in third. But since 2000, engine and chassis reliability have turned the Indy into a 500-mile sprint. The IndyCar Series made wholesale changes to its chassis and engine formulas a year ago and 16 cars finished on the lead lap. There were a record 34 lead changes and 10 leaders, and the race produced one of the most dramatic conclusions in history
The Dallara DW12 brought a different aerodynamic dimension to the 500, which accounted for the record lead changes. At speeds over 200 miles per hour during the last 30 years, IndyCar drivers have had to deal with severe turbulence that usually made the front end wash out -- point toward the outside wall -- as they approached to pass. They had to time their passes perfectly to complete them. With the DW12, if the driver has his car balanced, he can make a deep approach to the one ahead and draft around in relative safety. The ability allowed Franchitti to win from the 16th starting position in 2012.
Chevrolet and Honda produce the turbochanged, 2.2-liter engines. They are estimated to have 580 horsepower with the boost level allowed at Indy. The competition between the two manufacturers is very intense. Honda was outclassed by Chevrolet in qualifying last year, but its race motors had a fuel mileage advantage and that helped Franchitti, Dixon and Sato all get to and stay at the front in the final 75 laps. Chevrolet swept the top 10 spots in qualifying this year and needs to prove that it can maintain its edge once the race starts. Honda is going for its 10th straight victory at Indy; Chevrolet is desperate to win its first since 2002.
Firestone is the third supplier of key components for the 500 and, as the sole tire, is often overlooked because it delivers a consistent, trouble-free product that is capable of runs longer than one stint. Firestone brought the same tire back to the 500 that it supplied last year and, make no mistake, it was a major reason for the all-out, great racing in 2012.
It's possible, in the second year of the new chassis, engines and tires, we could see race laps jump regularly into the 220-miles-per-hour range. Andretti had the fastest lap in 2012 at 220.172 mph.
At one time, drivers from the U.S. ran off a streak of 22 straight Indy 500 wins (1967-88), but it has been seven years since an American last won the race. Here are the last six winners since Sam Hornish, Jr. took the checkered flag in 2006.
The rookie class
A.J. Allmendinger, Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz and Tristan Vautier are the four rookies in the field. Allmendinger is the best bet for Rookie of the Year. He's driving for Penske Racing and has far more experience than the other three. He drove in 40 CART Champ Car races, mostly road and street courses, and had five wins before switching to NASCAR's Sprint Cup for four-and-a-half seasons.
Daly, the son of retired Formula One, IndyCar and sports car driver Derek Daly, and Munoz are driving in their first IndyCar races. Vautier will be in his first IndyCar race on an oval. They're all talented -- all three have wins in Firestone Indy Lights, IndyCar's development series -- and Daly has victories in Europe's GP3.
This will be the 14th straight year that the Indy 500 will have at least one female driver in the field. The four for 2012: Simona De Silvestro starts 24th, Ana Beatriz 29th, Pippa Mann 30th, and Katherine Legge 33rd. It will be the fourth 500 for De Silvestro and Beatriz, and the second for Mann and Legge. Since Janet Guthrie in 1977 became the first to start, the best finish by a woman has been Danica Patrick's third in 2009.
Marco Andretti has always been fast at Indianapolis, finishing second by a split second to Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006. He's also come in third twice and he led the most laps, 59, a year ago. It's been 44 years since grandfather Mario gave the family its sole victory at Indy and a second Andretti victory is long overdue. At age 26, Marco's career hasn't developed into what was expected when he won his first IndyCar race in 2006 -- he has two victories in 118 starts -- but taking Indy this year will make him a star.
The Tweet Beat
Lars Anderson, SI.com: @LarsAndersonSI
Terry Blount, ESPN.com: #TerryBlountESPN
John Oreovicz, ESPN.com: @IndyOreo
AJ Allmendinger: @AJDinger
Marco Andretti: @MarcoAndretti
Ana Beatriz-Bia: @Biaracing
Townsend Bell: @TownsendBell99
Sebastien Bourdais: @BourdaisOnTrack
Ryan Briscoe: @Ryan_Briscoe
Ed Carpenter: @edcarpenter20
Helio Castroneves: @h3lio
Conor Daly: @ConorDaly22
Simona De Silvestro: @simdesilvestro
Scott Dixon: @scottdixon9
Dario Franchitti: @dariofranchitti
JR Hildebrand: @JRHildebrand
James Hinchcliffe: @Hinchtown
Ryan Hunter-Reay: @RyanHunterReay
James Jakes: @JamesJakes
Tony Kanaan: @TonyKanaan
Charlie Kimball: @racewithinsulin
Katherine Legge: @katherinelegge
Pippa Mann: @PippaMann
Carlos Munoz: @CarlosMunoz026
Josef Newgarden: @josefnewgarden
Simon Pagenaud: @simonpagenaud
Graham Rahal: @GrahamRahal
Sebastian Saavedra: @sebsaavedra
Takuma Sato: @TakumaSatoRacer
Alex Tagliani: @tagliani
Oriol Servia: @OriolServia
Tristan Vautier: @TristanVautier
E.J. Viso: @EJVISO
Justin Wilson: @justin_wilson