INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis 500 went through a groundbreaking era from 1961 to 1991, when A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears each won it four times. Foyt was the first to four in 1977, Unser next in 1987 and Mears took his fourth in 1991.
From 1994 to 2009, there were no candidates to join the most exclusive club in the history of the world's most famous race. Helio Castroneves' third win in 2009 put him in position and he's finished ninth, 17th and 10th in the past three. Dario Franchitti arrives to Sunday's 97th running with his first opportunity at four. He's won three of the past six races, including 2012, and wasn't in the 2008 race because he was driving in NASCAR.
These are two drivers who are still in their prime and drive for the two of the most successful car owners in Indy 500 history. Castroneves, 38, drives for 15-time winner Roger Penske. Franchitti, 40, drives for Chip Ganassi, who is tied with Lou Moore for second on the all-time victory list with five. Castroneves, from Brazil, and Franchitti, from Scotland, would become the first foreign-born drivers to win four.
Castroneves will be making his 13th start in the 500, Franchitti his 10th. They have everything going for them -- top equipment and crews, experience, the confidence that goes with having won it multiple times -- but Indy is also the biggest challenge in racing. It's 500 miles of all-out racing at over 200 miles per hour.
"I've always said to win this race, everything has got to fall your way," 35-time starter Foyt said. "I don't care who you are. If you're A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones. If it's not your day, it's not your day. In '75, '76, all I had to do was stay out of accidents. Damn near blew it in '77. Everything has to go your way.
"Who would have thought Franchitti last year would have come up and win the race? This race is a special race, a hard race to win. It's the greatest race as far as I'm concerned in the world."
Franchitti started 16th a year ago and he's 17th on the grid this year. He had everything fall his way in his first win in 2007 when a flat tire forced him to pit under caution. It put him on a different fuel sequence than the leaders and he was in the lead when the race ended at 166 laps. But his next two wins were convincing. He led 155 laps in 2010 and made the right moves late in the race to win in 2012.
"I am very happy to have won one," Franchitti said. "So difficult -- look at some of the great drivers that didn't get the opportunity to even win one, so I was happy. Three is beyond anything expected. But I really want the fourth. I think it's one of the few things in my life, the more you do it, the more it means to you. That's a very odd feeling. Each time you come back here, it gets deeper and deeper. It's such a great event.
"You think what a challenge it is to race here, to try to win. People take most of their life to try to compete in this race. It means so much to all involved. It's a special place. It's a great, great feeling to win it. It hurts like hell when you don't. I think when you see your likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy, it kind of takes me back a little bit. Rocks me back on my feet."
Castroneves led the final 52 laps in his 2001 win by 1.7 seconds over Penske teammate Gil de Ferran. His second win, in 2002 to become the first back-to-back winner since Al Unser in 1970-71, was a combination of strategy, a decent car and taking advantage of a mistake: Tomas Scheckter had been the fastest car and led 85 laps when he tapped the wall in turn four and broke his suspension with 28 laps to go.
Castroneves and race strategist Tim Cindric decided to stay out under the caution and took over the lead. The Penske driver had the speed to hang onto it and stretched the fuel mileage to beat Paul Tracy in one of the most controversial finishes in 500 history. The caution came out on the 199th lap with Tracy gaining on Castroneves. Tracy passed Castroneves in turn three, but officials ruled it was under the caution.
Castroneves and the Penske team put together a well-executed victory in 2009, leading the final 59 laps to win over Dan Wheldon by 1.9 seconds.
"[A fourth win] would be a dream come true," Castroneves said. "I dream [about it] every night, obviously. When I walk into this place, I get the chills. It's just amazing. We went to the museum the first night and to see all the history of this place, it's incredible. And, obviously in the situation we are right now, we're certainly feeling very confident, but we know what we need to do, as well.
"We're talking about 500 miles. There's a lot of circumstances that could play in your favor and could go against you, as well. And I have to say every time in any race, but especially this one, when they start playing the national anthem and the Indianapolis song...basically that's when the butterfly goes in your stomach. It is awesome. Especially when you have the crowd there, oh my God, it's the best feeling in the world."
Castroneves and Franchitti will be racing in one of the deepest fields in Indy 500 history. They could become the newest member of an elite group on Sunday and, if either does it, he will have earned it.