Pays to be up front at Brickyard


INDIANAPOLIS – 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 is 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. He’s got a great car and he’s a hell of a driver.”

Patrick, whose fourth-place start and finish in last year’s Indy ignited “Danicamania,” has struggled to find speed in her Rahal Letterman entry throughout the month after being one of the fastest drivers as a rookie a year ago.

“I’m not concerned at this point,” said Patrick, who will start 10th in the 33-car field. “We have a very good race car and I think we can have another good day on Sunday.”

The driver starting fifth may pose the biggest threat to the front-runners.

Tony Kanaan, the fastest of five AGR drivers in the lineup, has finished second and third here in four starts and knows that anything can happen in a 500-mile race.

“It’s going to be a normal Indianapolis 500,” Kanaan said, shrugging. “The cars up front are good, but there are a lot more than four or five cars that can win this race – and we have one of them.”

A year ago Kanaan started from the pole, when then-teammate Wheldon started 16th.

“We had dinner that night and Dan said, “You see, the 500 is done for me.”‘ Kanaan said. “We went out the next day to do a long run and he smoked everybody. I looked at him and said, “You want to trade places?’ And look what happened.

“You have to respect this racetrack.”

A possible wild card on Sunday could be the weather, with one of the hottest race days in Indy history – the forecast calls for high 80’s – after a mostly cold, wet month.

“I think what it’s going to come down to is some guys can be heroes and some can be chumps,” said Andretti, making a comeback after a two-year retirement in order to race against his 19-year-old son, Marco, in his first 500. “It’s a bit of a gamble on some things you can do because we haven’t run in these conditions.

“I’m thinking about taking some gambles on my setup that may pay off and may not. If they don’t, I’ll a lap down early. If they do, I’ll look like a hero. So I’m debating on whether I’m going to do something.”

Two other veterans making comebacks this month are two-time Indy winner Al Unser Jr., who sat out the 2005 season, and 1998 winner Eddie Cheever Jr., who last drove here in 2002.

While Andretti, who has led more laps than any non-winner here, is considered at least an outside threat, Unser and Cheever are not likely to be contenders.

“A top 10 finish would be a victory for this team,” said Unser, who is driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

Cheever, at 48 the oldest driver in the field, at least has hopes of taking another checkered flag for his own team.

“I didn’t come here for the free lunches,” Cheever said, grinning. “I think the Penske and Ganassi cars have the best opportunities to win but, after that, it’s kind of a free for all the next 10 or 15 positions back.”

The field also includes two other former Indy champions: 2004 winner Buddy Rice, Patrick’s teammate, who missed last year’s race with an injury, and Buddy Lazier, the 1996 winner.

Aside from Michael Andretti, the dark horses in the lineup include his teammates Bryan Herta, who finished third last year, and Dario Franchitti, as well as Vitor Meira, starting sixth on Sunday after finishing second last year.

Joining Marco Andretti in the battle for Rookie of the Year are Townsend Bell, P.J. Chesson, Arie Luyendyk Jr., son of a two-time winner, and Thiago Medeiros, the slowest qualifier in the field at 215.729.

AP-ES-05-27-06 1212EDT