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The Way It Is/ Rating this year's Indy 500 field

by Gordon Kirby
Surprising is a mild way to describe qualifying for this year's 95th Indianapolis 500 as Team Penske's three cars struggled for speed and Alex Tagliani took the pole in convincing style aboard one of Sam Schmidt's three cars. Will Tagliani be able to produce the same form in the race? More importantly perhaps, will Schmidt's team be able to make a race-long series of perfect stops and call the right strategy to turn Tagliani's pole into a win? And will the Penske and Ganassi teams bounce back from their pole day setbacks to re-establish themselves at the front of the field? Here's a look at the 33 starters and their raceday chances.

*Alex Tagliani: 'Tag' has done a great job of pulling together a first-rate team with sponsorship from Bowers & Wilkins and a new team owner in Sam Schmidt. Alex has come a long way from his rookie days in CART more than ten years ago when he was fast but a little on the wild side. He's matured, calmed-down and learned a lot about how to work with his engineers. With his wife Bronte he's worked hard to find the sponsorship to stay in the game and show his talent. Three years ago he was reduced to racing stock cars in Canada but he stuck with it and made his back into Indy cars first with Eric Bachelart's Conquest team then with his own team which he sold to Schmidt this past winter.

With guys like Schmidt, team manager Rob Edwards and chief engineer Allan McDonald behind him Tagliani is ready to make his name at last. His only win in Indy-type cars came in 2004 at the mighty Elkhart Lake road course driving for Paul Gentilozzi's Rocketsports team and any man who can win at Elkhart has the skill and bravery to make it happen at Indianapolis. Everyone in the sport wishes Tagliani and Schmidt the best of luck next Sunday.

*Scott Dixon: The 2008 winner qualified second despite running out of fuel in the last turn of his qualifying run. A two-time IndyCar champion Dixon has been racing Indy-type cars for ten years and this is his ninth with Ganassi's powerhouse team. Scott is a very cool customer who's totally capable of winning the 500 again and you can be sure that Mike Hull and everyone in Ganassi's team will be doing al they can to recover from their embarrassment at running out of fuel in qualifying with both Target cars. As they well know, perfect pitwork and strategy are necessary to win next Sunday.

*Oriol Servia: The Catalunyan has been racing Indy-type cars for eleven years, although last year he was forced to be a pedestrian. He's back in business this year with Newman/Haas and has repaid the team's faith in him with some excellent early-season performances which have placed him third in IndyCar's points. Over the years Oriol has driven for no fewer than eight teams, scoring the only major win of his career with Newman/Haas in Montreal in 2005 and finishing second in the Champ Car series to teammate Sebastien Bourdais. Back together this year, Servia and Newman/Haas will be serious contenders to win next Sunday.

*Townsend Bell: The Californian has been racing Indy-type cars off and on for ten years without much success. Recently he's been strictly an Indy 500 driver, scoring his best finish (fourth) two years ago with KV Racing. Townsend is an amiable fellow and great salesman who's found the sponsorship to do the 500 again this year. As part of Sam Schmidt's team he produced his best qualifying effort and is a dark horse for this year's race. Don't underestimate him.

*Will Power: The IndyCar points leader did not enjoy the qualifying run he expected but is sure to be a serious contender in the race. This is Will's third year with Team Penske and seventh in Indy-type cars. He bounced back strongly last year after a terrible accident at Infineon Raceway in 2009 to lead the IndyCar championship for most of the year, winning five races all on road or street circuits. This year Power has been the man to beat and sits atop the point standings going into the 500. The quiet Aussie is anxious to break through and score his first oval win and with Team Penske he's ready to achieve that goal.

*Dan Wheldon: The 2005 winner lost his ride with Panther at the end of last year, primarily because of his disappointing results on road courses. He's found a ride for Indy with Bryan Herta's team and hopes to show everyone he deserves a full-time ride. Wheldon is at his best at Indianapolis, finishing second last year, and will be trying hard to repeat his '05 win.

*Buddy Rice: Another former winner ('04), Rice missed the race the past two years but is back this year in a second Panther entry. He qualified comfortably and should be a contender in the race. Both Rice and Panther know how to win the 500.

*Ed Carpenter: This will be Carpenter's eighth Indy 500. He scored his best result (fifth) in 2008 and did a good job this year to qualify Sarah Fisher's car in the middle of the third row. Carpenter is another Indy 500 or oval racing specialist who should run with the leaders and is capable of producing a surprise.

*Dario Franchitti: A shortage of fuel kept Dario from qualifying on the front row but, like teammate Dixon, you can be sure that Team Ganassi will do everything not to make a similar mistake in the race. A two-time Indy winner and three-time champion Franchitti is at the top of his game. He's as much a favorite to win as anyone.

*Takuma Sato: This is the Japanese driver's second year in the IndyCar series with KV Racing. British F3 champion in 2002 he spent six years either testing or racing a variety of Honda-powered F1 cars then sat-out the '09 season before coming to America to race for KV. Sato is fast and fearless and will be trying to run a clean race and score a good finish.

*Vitor Meira: The Brazilian has been racing Indy cars for nine years and has been with A.J. Foyt's team since 2009. This is Meira's second-best IndyCar qualifying effort and with Foyt's experience and knowhow behind him he should run well in the race.

*JR Hildebrand (Rookie): The 2009 Indy Lights champion has earned his first full-time IndyCar ride this year with Panther, replacing Dan Wheldon. Hildebrand is a bright young man who turned his back on a chance to attend MIT in favor of pursuing his racing career. JR is one of the best American open-wheel prospects and with Panther he has the chance to finish well and take the 500's rookie-of-the-year award.

*James Hinchcliffe (Rookie): Second in last year's Indy Lights series Hinchcliffe has found a ride with Newman/Haas for his rookie IndyCar season. Hinchcliffe quickly convinced Newman/Haas of his ability and has looked good so far this year. He qualified well and is another serious contender to win the rookie-of-the-year accolade.

*Bertrand Baguette: A talented but little known Belgian who made his Indy 500 debut last year with Eric Bachelart's team after winning the 2009 World Series by Renault championship. With Rahal-Letterman this year he looked good in practice and qualifying and will be trying for a tidy finish in the race.

*Davey Hamilton: Veteran Hamilton will be starting his eleventh Indy 500. He finished fourth back in 1998 but was seriously injured in a 2001 accident at the Texas Motor Speedway. Hamilton returned to Indianapolis in '07 but crashed the past two years.

*Helio Castroneves: The three-time winner struggled for speed this year. But he's usually at his best at Indianapolis and with Penske's team is entirely capable of working his way through the field and challenging to win. Helio has otherwise had a poor start to the season and will be anxious to turn things around next weekend.

*John Andretti: John is the second-oldest driver in the field and made his first start in the 500 back in 1988. He went to NASCAR in 1995 but returned to Indy in 2007. This will be his twelfth Indy 500 start and his experience was a key in helping get the troubled Andretti Autosports' cars sorted out.

*EJ Viso: The jockey-sized Venezuelan has been racing Indy cars since 2008, first with Keith Wiggins' HVM team then with KV Racing. He's acquired an unfortunate reputation as a wild man and will be hoping for a clean race.

*Bruno Junqueira: The pole winner with Ganassi's team back in 2001 the veteran Brazilian's career has almost stalled in recent years. Bruno is an excellent driver and has found a ride at Indy with Foyt's team. He's capable of producing a surprise performance.

*Justin Wilson: Another excellent driver who's been unable to show his talent Justin has been racing Indy-type cars since 2004. He started in Champ Car and moved to IndyCar in 2008. He won four races in Champ Car and has won twice in IndyCar but has driven for seven different teams over the past seven years, not the best recipe for success.

*Jay Howard (Rookie): British Formula Ford champion in 2003 Howard has been racing in America since then and won the Indy Lights title in '06. He's run a handful of IndyCar races in recent years and qualified for this year's 500 with Rahal-Letterman.

*Tomas Scheckter: Jody's son will be starting his tenth Indy 500. He led the race in his rookie start in 2002 but crashed and led again in '03 on the way to his best finish (fourth). Tomas is a brave boy but he's become an Indy 500 specialist racing just once each year.

*Tony Kanaan: IRL champion in 2003, Tony finished third at Indy that year and was second in '04. But recent years have been rough and after eight years with Michael Andretti's team he joined KV Racing for this season. Expect Kanaan to rocket through the field in the opening laps.

*Simona de Silvestro: Rookie of the year in last year's 500 the talented Swiss lady suffered burns to her hands in a crash during practice last week. Despite the pain she bravely bounced back to qualify for the race.

*Paul Tracy: After struggling to find speed in practice the Canadian veteran produced an excellent qualifying run, fastest on the second day. PT has not had much luck at Indianapolis and hopes for better things this year in a one-off appearance with Dreyer & Reinbold. He's the second-oldest driver in this year's field.

*Danica Patrick: Struggled for speed like all the Andretti Autosports drivers but came through in the clutch to produce the second fastest qualifying run in Bump Day. Danica has gone off the boil in recent years but she's a better oval racer than a road racer and Indianapolis is her favorite race. It will be interesting to see if she can make some moves next Sunday.

*Ryan Briscoe: Penske's third driver made it into the field on the second day after crashing in morning practice on Pole Day. Briscoe is another who has not had much luck at the Speedway but with Roger Penske calling the shots on his car he has one of the best strategists in the business behind him.

*Marco Andretti: This is Marco's sixth year in Indy cars and unfortunately his early promise has faded. He finished second to Sam Hornish at Indianapolis in his rookie year and scored his first and only IndyCar win at Infineon Raceway near the end of his rookie season but has been less competitive in recent years. It's time for Marco to make something happen.

*Charlie Kimball (Rookie): After six years racing a variety of open-wheel cars in Europe Kimball returned to his native USA in 2009 to race Indy Lights cars for two years. The son of former Indy car and F1 designer Gordon Kimball he put together the sponsorship to move up to Indy cars this year teamed with Graham Rahal in a new Ganassi operation. A contender for rookie-of-the-year.

*Graham Rahal: This is Graham's fourth year in the IndyCar series and fifth racing Indy-type cars. A second day qualifier he believes he has a car to run with the leaders. Young Rahal has shown plenty of potential and has won some races. Now it's time to become a regular contender and racewinner.

*Alex Lloyd: Swept to the Indy Lights championship in 2007 with a record eight wins after coming up through the European ladder system. Brit Lloyd has started three Indy 500s and ran his first full IndyCar season last year with Dale Coyne's team, winning the series rookie-of-the-year award. Running the oval races this year for Coyne in the car driven elsewhere by Sebastien Bourdais.

*Pippa Mann (Rookie): The young Englishwoman worked her way up through the European ladder system before moving to the USA two years ago to race Indy Lights cars. She won a Lights race last year and hopes to run a steady race next Sunday.

*Ana Beatriz: Following three years racing small open-wheel cars in her native Brazil Beatriz moved to America to race Indy Light cars in 2008. She became the first woman to win a Lights race and graduated to Indy cars last year. This is her second start in the 500.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
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