Archive for Sunday, May 28, 2006

It pays to be up front at Brickyard

May 28, 2006

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— Forget about Danica Patrick, Michael Andretti and all those other drivers back in the pack today.

After several years of what had to be considered a wide-open race, the real contenders in the 90th edition of the Indianapolis 500 will be easy to spot.

They're all right up front.

With pole-winner Sam Hornish Jr., two-time winner Helio Castroneves and defending champion Dan Wheldon dominating the speed charts all month, it'll be tough for anyone to break up their front-row party.

Hornish, in particular, has been unmatched since practice opened May 9, topping the speed chart in all but one session before easily winning the pole with a four-lap average of 228.985.

Under normal circumstances, that would make an overwhelming favorite of the two-time IRL IndyCar Series champion. But Hornish's history of bad luck at the Brickyard means he has to at least share that honor with Marlboro Team Penske teammate Castroneves and Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Wheldon.

"After six years of not doing it right here, I've got to prove I can get it done," said Hornish, who has crashed out of three races and failed to finish more than 196 of the 200 race laps in any of those six starts.

"I might pose a threat to myself if I don't do everything right," he said.

He already has made one startling misstep this month, crashing his backup car last Sunday during a practice session.

Asked if the accident was part of a developing Indy jinx, Hornish shrugged and replied, "You can look at it one of two ways: 'Yeah, there it goes again,' or, 'We got it out of the way.'

"Hopefully," he added with a smile, "we'll at least make turn one."

If Hornish does mess up again, Castroneves could be there to add again to team owner Roger Penske's record 13 wins at Indy.

The Brazilian is off to a great start this season, with two victories and a runner-up finish (to Wheldon) in three starts.

"We can win it again," Castroneves said. "This race, though, everything has to go right for you. But it has been a good month, so far."

Penske, looking for his first Indy win since Castroneves in 2003, likes his chances.

"I think it's our race to lose," Penske said.

Wheldon and Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon, starting fourth, might have something to say about that.

Wheldon's move from Andretti Green Racing has reinvigorated the entire Ganassi team and sparked a renewal of a longtime rivalry between the two elite teams that battled in the '90s in the rival CART (now Champ Car) series.

Both teams struggled last year, at Indy and throughout the season, with underpowered Toyota engines. But Toyota has withdrawn from the IRL, leaving Honda to provide engines for the entire field.

That has also changed the power structure at Indy, with Penske and Ganassi stealing the thunder from Andretti Green and the Rahal Letterman Racing teams that were dominant here in 2005.

"I've always been one to shake things up," said Wheldon, who gave AGR co-owner Michael Andretti his first trip to Victory Circle at Indy after many frustrating years of trying as a driver. "I hate to be boring.

"We won this race once and my passion for Indianapolis has not changed," he added. "I'll do whatever I can possibly do to win it again. And, if I don't win, look out for Dixon."

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