Why, you ask, is the Indy 500 more important than the Coca Cola 600 this year? Let's start with Danica Patrick. Not only is she the most compelling story in IndyCar this season, she's also the No. 1 story in all of motorsports. Four years ago when she briefly seized the lead late in the race in the 500, I was in Charlotte for the 600. On that afternoon scores of NASCAR drivers were late for the pre-race introductions because they couldn't stop watching Danica's quest for history on the flat screens in their motorhomes. But thing is, after she notched her first win in Japan last month, Danica fever is even hotter this year, and she's the kind of transcendent star that will lure even the non-racing fans to their television sets on Sunday. There's also the matter of the unification between Champ Car and IndyCar. For the first time in a decade, all of the top-open wheel drivers in this country will be competing in the 500, which gives the event the star power it used to feature back in its heyday of the 70s and 80s. On Sunday there will be legendary names in the field like Andretti (Marco), Foyt (A.J. IV), and Rahal (Graham), along with such luminaries as Patrick and Dancing with the Stars winner Helios Castroneves. Believe it: The juice is back at Indy.Finally, there's the quality of the racing at each event. I've always thought that most NASCAR races are about 100 laps too long, but the Coca Cola event, the longest race on the schedule, takes mid-race boredom to whole new level. Even the drivers themselves complain about the length of the event. Last year's race was completed in merely 4 hours and -- yawn --36 minutes. The Indy 500 typically takes less than three hours to complete and, with the Indy Car's traveling at 220 miles per hour, there's more thrilling passing in one 500 than in a dozen Coca-Cola 600s, where the speed of the stock cars hovers around 175 mph. To me, it's not even close: The Indy 500 is the race that matters most this weekend. After all, if you ask, many of the Cup drivers will even admit that.
NASCAR still drawing Indy talent
Doug Benc/Getty Images
On the eve of the Indy 500, IndyCar should be celebrating the first unification of open wheel racing for the sport's biggest event since 1995. Instead, they're in the news for another big star threatening to leave the series, revealing in the process just how far they have to go to catch back up to stock cars.Two-time winner Helio Castroneves was denying a story Thursday he's interested in moving to NASCAR following the season; he's now joined 2005 winner Dan Wheldon on the list of open wheel stars rumored to bolt for '09. If they follow through on that plan, they'll join former 500 winners Sam Hornish Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, and Dario Franchitti on the stock car side of the fence. All three will be MIA at Indy, choosing to race in the 600-mile marathon at Lowe's Motor Speedway instead.And therein lies open wheel's biggest problem: even in the face of more momentum than the sport has had in a decade, it's most recognizable stars are still bolting to race elsewhere. Just four former winners are in the 500 field -- it's a number so low, NASCAR has nearly that many starting in its race down south (three). And while the former Champ Car teams will enjoy their first taste of Indy on a level playing field, parity has yet to surface on the IRL's oval track races. Not a single new team cracked the top 10, with Townsend Bell in 12th the best effort the former road racing crowd could muster. Realistically, it's going to be difficult -- if not impossible -- for any of them to contend for the win.Compare that to NASCAR, in which the Coca-Cola 600 usually is as unpredictable as they come. In an event that's got a habit of producing first time winners, Casey Mears added his name to the list after a fuel mileage gamble thrust him out front at the finish. He was one of fifteen drivers to lead at least one lap in that race; in comparison, the Indy 500 had just nine. All the history, the prestige, and milk of Indianapolis can't overcome stock car's higher degree of unpredictability.Danica could be Indy's only hope to pull the upset. But then, the question won't be when she'll win again -- it'll be when NASCAR will come calling.