Friday, May 10, 2013 6:14 pm
Drivers, teams preparing for different Indy 500
By MICHAEL MAROTAP Sports Writer
Rumors are flying, speeds are increasing and an Andretti is trying to get back to Victory Lane. Yes, it's starting to feel like the good old days in Indy.
"I've been feeling that resurgence ever since I came back over in 2009 and the momentum around the Indy 500 is just increasing," said Dario Franchitti, the defending race winner who is trying to become the fourth member of the four-time winners club. "It's growing in stature again."
This year's race will be historic for other reasons.
For the first time since 1987, two three-time Indianapolis 500 winners -- Franchitti and Helio Castroneves -- are expected to be in the starting field. For the first time since 1991, excluding the years of the open-wheel split, Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi are arriving at the 2.5-mile oval without a win.
For a change, nobody's talking about whether race organizers can fill the traditional 33-car field. They're talking about whether any late additions could knock one of the 33 on the current entry list out of the starting field.
"I think it's going to be exciting," said Michael Andretti, the former driver whose team has won three of this season's first four races. "Some teams have not been so competitive in years past. But the racing this year has been at the top level and it has to be great for the fans. It's as good as it's ever been."
Who would expect anything else with a field this talented?
Canadian James Hinchcliffe, one of five Andretti drivers trying to qualify next weekend, has won half of the first four races. Defending points champ Ryan Hunter-Reay, one of Hinchcliffe's teammates, won at Alabama but hasn't been on the podium anywhere else. The current leader is 36-year-old Takuma Sato, the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race and the driver who crashed on the final lap last May as he tried to pass Franchitti for the lead.
"You go for the win, you know," Sato said. "Anybody in that position would have done it."
Meanwhile, the old guard - Castroneves, Franchitti and Tony Kanaan - all have their own issues to contend with.
Franchitti, who owns four series titles - three with Target Chip Ganassi - is trying to fight his way back into contention for the championship. When practice opens Saturday, he'll be 15th in the points. Castroneves has only two wins in his last 37 races, while Kanaan hasn't reached Victory Lane since Iowa in 2010, a span of 41 straight races.
"Every year, I believe it's the year," Kanaan said Thursday while promoting the series' next race at Belle Isle Park in metro Detroit. "Honestly, I've enjoyed going to Indy because of the way the crowd made me feel. I know I haven't won there, but they make me feel wanted and welcome and they make me feel like a winner."
But qualifying weekend could have an old-time flair to it, too.
Most expect speeds to increase significantly in the second year of this engine-chassis combination. Last year, Ryan Briscoe took the pole with a four-lap average of 226.484 mph. This year, with the right conditions, that number could jump significantly.
"I think the pole speed will be close to 230, if not 230," Andretti said.
Off the track, there's just as much being discussed.
Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a legislative bill this week that will give track officials $100 million in public financing to upgrade the facility. Potential projects already being discussed include updating the seats, renovating the road course and adding lights at a speedway that has never had night racing.
Of course, it wouldn't be Indy if there wasn't endless speculation about who may find a late ride before the second and final day of qualifying ends on May 19. One name sure to surface, now that he has passed his rookie test, is Kurt Busch even though the 2004 Sprint Cup champion made it clear he's not ready to try "The Double" this May.
" I think the proper thing is to go out and experience this car at another oval track and get into a race and experience what the buffeting is and the movement of the car when all the downforce changes," Busch said after posting a fast lap of 218.21 mph on Thursday.
All of it has given Indy an injection of excitement to opening day at the track.
"I think this race has an aura about it every year because it's such a unique event," Hinchcliffe said. "Our team will try to improve and other teams will try to improve as well, but none of that really matters till you roll the car out on opening day."