Meira tops list of dark horses

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Vitor Meira enjoys driving out of the spotlight, where he doesn’t have to deal with the litany of interview requests, autograph seekers or public hounding that the big-name drivers do.

Of course, he wouldn’t mind winning the Indianapolis 500 and changing all that, either.

But the barely recognizable runner-up from last year finds himself in a perfect position this week – he can focus on racing instead of the sideshows.

“In a perfect world, you only go racing,” the 29-year-old Brazilian said. “Everybody wants to share the fun and everything, but it gets bad when you don’t balance things.”

Meira has spent the last four years driving in relative anonymity on the Indy Racing League circuit, developing his skills and emerging as one of the series potential future stars.

That could change Sunday.

Since putting Panther Racing’s No. 4 car on the outside of Row 2, Meira has become a trendy dark horse pick to win the series’ most prestigious race.

“We’re not surprised,” he said. “I pleased them. It pleased us a lot to know we were in the hunt.”

While Meira tops the list of dark horses this year, someone always seems to break up Meira’s breakthrough chance. It could happen again at Indy.

Other favorites aside from the usual suspects include Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti of Andretti Green Racing, former race winners Eddie Cheever Jr. and Buddy Rice and, of course, the most prominent name at the track – Michael Andretti.

Andretti, a fan favorite, starts 13th after returning from a two-year retirement to compete against his son, Marco. His hope: Ending a career’s worth of disappointments at Indianapolis.

Mario Andretti, the 1969 race winner, Michael’s father and Marco’s grandfather, believes his son can still win.

“That’s his unfinished business,” the eldest Andretti said. “I think he still has a realistic shot at it.”

Herta, who finished third at Indy last year and is seventh in the points this season, understands how tricky it can be to win at Indianapolis. He thought he had a chance in 1995 and said he could have won last year’s race – if it was the Indianapolis 510.

What Herta finds shocking, though, is that people now consider Michael Andretti an outsider.

“It’s a crazy world if Michael Andretti is looked at as a dark horse,” Herta said of his boss. “He’s gotta be considered a favorite as far as I’m concerned. You don’t win 40 races by being a dark horse.”

Still, many, including Herta, consider Meira the most intriguing driver.

Why? First, he’s exceeded expectations. A mechanical failure knocked him out at Homestead, but Meira was fifth at St. Petersburg – his 15th top-five finish – and 10th at Japan.

Plus, he proved last year he could survive the historic 2.5-mile oval when he was the best finisher on a strong Rahal Letterman team – finishing two spots ahead of teammate Danica Patrick.

Andretti’s comeback has again threatened to overshadow Meira, who has actually been one of this month’s top performers.

He’ll start sixth after posting a four-lap qualifying average of 226.156 mph and has spent much of the week refining his race setup when he’s not doing other engagements.

But as Patrick became the media darling and Sports Illustrated’s cover girl, Meira became the forgotten man. Fans have frequently had to ask where he finished last year, mistaking his runner-up spot with someone back in the pack.

“I know my place, and I’m not a whiner,” Meira said. “I know Danica leading the race and coming in fourth was the biggest story. I didn’t complain about it then, and I never will.”

AP-ES-05-26-06 1605EDT

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