INDIANAPOLIS -- He ran alone through the infield at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, jogging past fans attending a practice session last week. Marco Andretti was so content with the balance and feel of power of his car that he pulled into Gasoline Alley early, changed clothes in his motor coach, then went for a five-mile run. It gave him time to think, to envision in his mind how the Indy 500 would play out. After being chased off the infield golf course by a marshal, Andretti ran outside the track and took a seat by himself on Turn 3, watching the final minutes of the practice session. That's when he dreamed of what it would feel like to win the most important race in the world.
"This is my best chance to win," says Andretti, 26, who will be making his eighth career start in the 500. "But there are just so many elements that have to work in your favor. I haven't been sleeping just thinking about that final restart. It's going to be chaos."
Indeed, the 97th running of the Indy 500 likely will be determined on the final restart of the race. According to several drivers, the leader on that restart will be a sitting duck because of the aerodynamic tow that the lead car creates, which essentially pulls the car behind it close. Most in the paddock believe there will be a last lap pass for the victory. "The second-place driver probably will have an advantage," says Helio Castroneves, a three-time winner. "But to have a chance late, you need to be in the top three in the final laps. If you're further back than that, you won't have enough time to work your way to the front. So the first 480 miles are really about positioning yourself for the final 20 miles."
My pick to win on Sunday is Andretti. He's consistently been at or near the top of the speed chart during the month of May and he qualified third. If Andretti reached Victory Lane, it would end the so-called Andretti Curse at Indy. Time and again, an Andretti has led the 500 late, and time and again, an Andretti has come up short. Marco's grandfather, Mario, did take the checkered flag once (in 1969), but since then no Andretti has drank the milk at Indy. Mario tried 24 times at that victory and Michael, Marco's father, was winless in 16 starts.
"You are always thinking about the curse," Marco says. "I'll be leading and just wondering, 'Ok, what's going to go wrong now.' But so far our month of May has gone great, as smooth as it's ever been for me. I feel really, really good about this race."
As he should. If Andretti can win, it would be one of the most compelling stories at Indy in recent memory, which is precisely what this struggling series needs.
Here are five other drivers to watch when they roar across the bricks for the first time on Sunday:
1. Helio Castroneves
Castroneves has a chance to join an elite group by becoming a four-time 500 winner (the other four-timers are A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, and Rick Mears). In 12 career starts at the Brickyard, Castroneves' average finish is 7.6, though he's failed to come in higher than ninth in his last three Indy 500s.
I spent time with Castroneves at dinner on Thursday night and he's very confident. "I dream every night of winning that fourth Indy 500," he said. "We have the speed, the experience, the team and now we just need to put ourselves in the right situation at the right time."
Castroneves is starting eighth. His biggest fear: that drivers don't show patience at the beginning and he gets caught up in a wreck before he can reach the lead pack. "This is my message to the rookies and younger drivers: stay calm early," Castroneves said. "If someone is faster than you and then get to you, let that driver pass. Don't challenge him. You do that later in the race."
2. Dario Franchitti
Another three-time 500 winner, Franchitti had a disappointing qualifying run and will start 17th. The Hondas of Chip Ganassi Racing had been down on horsepower for most of the month of May, but during the final practice session on Friday, Franchitti recorded the sixth fastest lap. The gap in power appears to have bridged. "Indy is a track that suits my driving style and I always feel like I have a chance to win here," Franchitti said. "There's an element of luck involved, but we know what it takes to get the job done here." In nine starts at Indy, Franchitti's average finish is also 7.6 and he's earned an astounding $8.6 million at the Brickyard.
3. A.J. Allmendinger
A year ago Allmendinger was racing for Roger Penske in the Sprint Cup series. But then he lost his ride after he failed a drug test for a banned substance (Adderall) and now he's competing part-time for Penske in IndyCar. He starts fifth.
Back in 2006 Allmendinger won five races and finished third in the standings in the open-wheel CART series. Allmendinger is arguably a better open-wheel driver than stock car racer, and it would surprise no one if he took the checkered flag in his first 500. He's a rare talent and one of the more interesting stories right now in IndyCar. "If I win on Sunday, Roger is going to have to put in the car fulltime," Allmendinger said, smiling. "But coming back to this side (open wheel) has been hard. It felt like I was riding a unicycle at first. But I've gotten back in the groove and I really feel like IndyCar is just as challenging as NASCAR. The depth of field is ridiculous."
Indeed, there are as many as 20 drivers that have a legitimate shot at winning on Sunday. "The field," says Penske, "has never been deeper."
4. Ed Carpenter
Carpenter has been the feel-good story of May at Indy. An underfunded, single-car team, Carpenter captured the pole for the race. He's the only owner-driver in the 500, and if he can win it would be one of the most unlikely victories in the storied history of the race. He was 17th-fastest in the final practice on Friday.
5. James Hinchcliffe
Piloting Danica Patrick's old green and black GoDaddy car, Hinchcliffe has won two of the four races this season, though both of his victories came on road courses. Hinchcliffe's strategy for the 500 is simple: survive the first 450 miles and then make a late charge. "The leader is often the slowest guy on the track because of the way these cars drive, so if you can stay on the lead lap, you'll have a shot at winning at the end," he said. "The first part of the race is all about getting into a rhythm and figuring out who's good. With 25 to go, I want to be in the top three. And from there, anything goes."