The Dark Horses Of Indy

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Everyone seems to be assuming that a Penske/Ganassi car will walk away with the Indianapolis 500 crown, three weeks from Sunday. Based on the results on ovals over the last few IndyCar seasons, that would seem to be a safe bet. The last time a car that was not from one of those two stables, won on an oval was on June 28, 2008; when Tony Kanaan won at Richmond for Andretti-Green Racing. Three of the last four Indy 500’s have been won by one of those two teams, and the driver that was the lone exception then; Dario Franchitti now drives for Ganassi.

Although the deck seems to be stacked fairly heavily in favor of one of these two camps adding another Borg-Warner Trophy to their collection – there is reason for the other teams to show up. In fact, many teams have a legitimate shot to drink milk in three weeks. In no particular order, here’s my take on those that do and why:

Dan Wheldon, Panther Racing: Though the results haven’t come with this pairing and the chemistry seems to be lacking, don’t underestimate this team and driver combination on the historic oval. Wheldon has already won here once, in 2005 while driving for Andretti-Green. Panther has been close recently, with a second place for the past two years (Wheldon in 2009, Vitor Meira in 2008, a fifth place by Buddy Lazier in a third car in 2005 and a couple of top tens in 2006 & 2007.

Most expect Panther and Wheldon to part ways at the end of the season, while some even think a mid-season switch may occur. But it’s quite possible for Wheldon to find his way to Victory Lane with this team. That would go a long way in building some needed chemistry between crew and driver.

Vitor Meira, AJ Foyt Racing: I’ll pre-qualify this section by freely admitting to being a hopeless Foyt fan. He was my favorite growing up, and I’ll always have a soft spot for any of his many drivers. I see and understand the flaws with his team, but they are still my sentimental favorite and I tend to let that loyalty cloud my judgment. That’s what makes sports so fun.

A year ago, I thought that the pairing of Foyt and Meira had disaster written all over it. The two just didn’t seem like a good fit. But when Meira was set on fire by his team without flinching, only to calmly go back on track and keep fighting and ultimately break his back in a horrific crash – I think he endeared himself to the tempestuous Texan.

Since Meira’s return this season, he has been very racy at a couple of tracks, while the team totally missed the mark at a couple of others. But when Foyt’s team got it right, Vitor has been fast.

Say what you will about Foyt doing things the old way, but the man still knows a thing or two about finding the quickest way around the old Brickyard. Drivers who think they know more than AJ will quickly find their walking papers. Those that will shut-up, trust him and listen; will be surprised about how well Foyt can set up a car at Indy. His team may not be the best at setting up a car for Milwaukee or Sonoma, but they’re still pretty good at Indy. Meira would definitely be a dark horse to win, but it isn’t entirely out of the question.

Townsend Bell, Sam Schmidt Motorsports: I’m not sure if this counts for this discussion, since the car is running in an association with Chip Ganassi Racing in a one-off effort. Bell came up though the field last year to finish fourth in a third car for KV Racing Technologies. This year, he has known about this deal for a long time and has had time to learn to work with his crew. Plus, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the car will be prepared by Ganassi.

One of the bigger mysteries of the IZOD IndyCar Series is why Townsend Bell is not in the series full-time. If any one-off effort ever had a shot at making it to Victory Lane, Townsend Bell’s HerbaLife car may be it.

Any car from Andretti Autosport: While it was a little perplexing to watch Ryan Hunter-Reay struggle at Kansas, all of these drivers have tasted success at Indianapolis – just not milk. Danica Patrick finished third last year, and has always finished in the top ten – except for 2008, when Ryan Briscoe tripped her up leaving the pits. Some might see her finding her way to Victory Lane as catastrophic, while others would see it as magnificent. Either way, it would certainly be a ratings boost.

Marco Andretti came within a couple of hundred feet of being the first teenager to win the Indianapolis 500, in 2006. Since then, his results have been very inconsistent. He either crashes at Indy or has a high finish. This year, he is due for a good finish.

Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay have formed a quick bond since RHR joined the team. They have both found good finishes at Indy, as well as the wall. Either is capable of finding Victory Lane.

John Andretti is a little long in the tooth, but is very savvy at Indy.

Luczo Dragon de Ferran Motorsports: A little over a month ago, I was singing the praises of this team. They had started strong in Brazil and had a decent showing at St. Petersburg. Since then, they have been going the wrong direction and I don’t know why. The talent is certainly there, with second-year driver Rafa Matos along with Jay Penske and Gil de Ferran as co-owners. Maybe Davey Hamilton joining them for the 500 can bring a new attitude. They certainly have the ability to win, but unless they show something out of the box from opening day, I’m beginning to lose faith in them.

Tomas Scheckter, Dreyer & Reinbold: In reality, Scheckter is the only member of the DRR contingent that has a true shot to win. Larry Curry certainly knows how to get a car up to speed at Indy, but other than Scheckter – his cast is just too green. At Kansas, Justin Wilson confirmed everyone’s suspicions that he still has a lot to learn on the ovals. Mike Conway is still learning his way around Indy after a tough month last year. If Ana Beatriz is added to the stable, it doesn’t improve the team’s chances to win.

KV Racing Technology: This may be the most interesting bunch to watch during the entire month. The four car team of Takuma Sato, EJ Viso, Mario Moraes and Paul Tracy each bring a history of excitement to the table, if not some inconsistency. It’s frightening to think of Paul Tracy and his chrome horn being the voice of reason among the other relative newcomers. One thing is for certain – this team will be fast all month. Whether their equipment will last through the month is another question.

Hideki Mutoh, Newman/Haas: They were surprisingly quick at Kansas and Mutoh had a good run going until he and Sato tangled. But this team is going through some inner turmoil and I wouldn’t expect much noise from them this month.

With the announcement that Foyt will run only two cars, the current entry list stands at thirty-eight cars. With some strong additions for Indy, there will be some regular season IZOD IndyCar Season teams struggling to keep from being spectators this month. Out of the five to not make it, I think possibly both Dale Coyne cars will be headed home. Although she has done a great job all season, I think that Simona de Silvestro will struggle – but I think she is good enough to barely squeeze in on Bump Day. After what I saw at Kansas, I would say Jay Howard won’t make it in – but his boss, Sarah Fisher, will. Graham Rahal will make it in with his father’s team, but I see him having a very unspectacular month.

Of course, no one has turned a wheel at the famed oval and this is all pure conjecture on my part. That’s what blogs are for; following the “what if’s”. But when it’s all said and done, does anyone really think that a car that isn’t a Penske or Ganassi car will win? Stranger things have happened. We’ll see.

George Phillips

Please Note – Although I am posting daily on weekdays, qualifying weekend and race weekend during the month of May- I will not post this weekend or next. I will return Monday May 10. Have a nice weekend and Happy Mother’s Day to my mother and all moms out there. – GP

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4 Responses to “The Dark Horses Of Indy”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    Pat Patrick cut Townsend Bell loose too soon and probably stunted his career. Didn’t even give him a full season. Looking back now, it’s a shame.

    I supported the move at the time, unhappy with Bell’s loose cannon antics that always seemed to wreck Jimmy Vasser (which I think actually only happened 1 or 2 times, but I was a Vasser fan).

    Bell wrecked in 5 of his 9 races in what was supposed to be his first full season with Patrick. Not good, but comparable to Ryan Briscoe wrecking out in 7 of his first 14 starts (8 of 15 if you count one race he didn’t start because he wrecked in practice), or Mike Conway wrecking out in 6 of his first 10 starts.

    Briscoe and Conway got second chances because they showed flashes of being very quick. Bell, who has never had a full-season ride, has done the same and probably should get one as well.

    • I’ll agree with all of that. I was disappointed with how wild Townsend was that first year with Patrick in CART after how good he’d been the year before in Lights (he was sort of the J.R. Hildebrand of his day, the only American in the top-10 in points, winning 6 of 12 starts and beating some guy named Wheldon), but I definitely thought that Patrick pulled the plug pretty quickly. This, also coming from a big Jimmy Vasser fan. :)

      Anyway, it’s kind of crazy that Townsend’s never gotten a full time gig since then, even though he’s scored 11 top-10s in 30 career IndyCar (CART plus IRL) starts, and almost every one of those starts being a part-time or fill-in role. Here’s hoping for another good run for him at Indy this year and maybe a couple more races this year and a shot at a full ride in 2011.

  2. Ryan Johnson Says:

    Yeah it really is disappointing not seeing Townsend all season. I’m a huge fan of his and he’s one of the more deserving drivers that doesn’t have a ride. I’m going out on a limb and saying that I think he may pull it off. What an incredible moment and story that would be! A couple more drivers to watch are Tags, Junqueira and Carpenter. After seeing Tags run extremely well at Kansas I’m really intrigued with what the small team can do with two veteran drivers. As for Carpenter, I still see a strong run from him even though Vision hasn’t had any track time.

    • Oilpressure Says:

      Brain-fade on my part to forget those three. I had completely forgotten about Carpenter joining Panther for the 500, and the pairing at Fazzt slipped my mind also. Call it a senior moment. Thanks for the reminder.

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