Helio seeks his Triple Crown at Indy

May 20, 2003 11:34 PM

In the previous 86 Indianapolis 500 races, only five drivers have ever won in back to back races. One of those drivers, Helio Castroneves (6-1), has his streak still alive and will go for an unprecedented three wins in a row.

However, this year’s race will present his most difficult challenge of his three starts in "The greatest spectacle in racing."

The talent pool of drivers in the IRL prior to last season was rather weak and that was because most of the top drivers drove in the CART series, a series that was respected internationally where the top car owners had more resources than anyone in the IRL.

After seeing fellow CART car owner Chip Ganassi enter two cars in the 2000 event and thoroughly dominate like no one ever had, Roger Penske immediately began building engines to meet IRL specifications with the sole purpose and intention of winning the Indy 500. In 2001, Penske had his engines built and won the race with Castroneves.

The following year, Penske pulled his top two drivers, Castroneves and Gil de Ferran (12-1), out of the CART series and into the IRL’s oval circuit full time and won the Indy 500 again. Last year brought another powerful owner, Team Green, along with drivers Paul Tracy and Dario Franchitti.

The 2002 Indy 500 was the most competitive field since track owner Tony George formed the IRL after the 1995 season. The resentment was harsh and all the top owners stayed with CART. Meanwhile the fans suffered because the quality of the fabled race was second rate and essentially minor league.

Move to 2003 and the merger is nearly complete. The open wheel series has come full circle. Every top owner has a car present and the only regular big name open wheel driver that isn’t present is Las Vegan Paul Tracy, who is still upset over last season’s botched ruling on the final lap. This truly is a great race again.

There is a tremendous build-up coming in like never before and the list of candidates to win is longer than ever before. Should Castroneves win again, this would be without a doubt the toughest field he’s faced.

There will be four former Indy 500 winners participating this year, but the driver that has had a win at Indy elude him more than any other is Michael Andretti (8-1). After 19 seasons, Andretti will retire immediately following the race win or lose. The name "Andretti" just exudes what the Indy 500 is all about and the Andretti name will be missed.

Two other great names in Indy 500 racing will also be represented. Al Unser Jr (30-1) will be attempting to win his third taste of victory milk. A.J. Foyt IV (100-1), grandson of the great four-time Indy 500 winner, will be making his inaugural Indy run.

So, who’s going to win? Based on the last three races, one thing is clear, the well financed teams with the unlimited resources of technology have a decided advantage. Eliminate the old guard IRL teams and stick with the new power of Penske, Ganassi, Andretti-Green, and Rahal-Letterman (yes, that Letterman), which consists of about 10 drivers.

Helio Castroneves (6-1) and Gil de Ferran ”” Penske/Toyota: The Brazilian duo will have Helio be the focal point of Penske efforts to win for the third straight year. Mechanical problems are not an issue with the sound Penske team assuring both should be near the front late in the race. The odds are stacked against Castroneves, the pole sitter, as he attempts to do what no one else has ever done. Both drivers are excellent choices to bet on in driver match-ups regardless of who they’re matched up with.

Tony Kanaan (6-1), Michael Andretti (8-1), Robby Gordon (10-1), Dan Wheldon (15-1) ”” Team Green/Honda: This team comes firing with fast cars and excellent drivers. Of the bunch, despite being fast in every practice and qualifying, Wheldon might be the driver to pick on in match-ups because of his youth. Gordon almost won this race in ’99 and is a much better open-wheel driver than stock car driver. Andretti will be the focal point of Team Green. He had a poor qualifying session, but has consistently put up great test times. Kanaan, another Brazilian, won at Phoenix already this year and has been blazing at Indy the last two weeks.

Tomas Scheckter (14-1), Scott Dixon (10-1) ”” Ganassi/Toyota: Scheckter was leading late last year when he lost control of his car. Dixon is in his first IRL season, coming over from the CART series where he had one victory as a rookie two years ago. Dixon will likely be Ganassi’s key driver in pit strategies.

Kenny Brack (9-1), Jimmy Vasser (18-1) ”” Rahal-Letterman/Honda: Brack was the ’99 Indy 500 winner. After taking his skills to the CART series for a few very successful years, he’s back to where he made his name. He’ll be starting sixth. Las Vegas driver Vasser, is getting a late start because of his commitment to the CART series race in Germany two weeks ago. His testing times haven’t been close to Brack, but he’s a very smart driver and may be undervalued.

In attempting to pick the winner for this year’s race, we’ll go through a process of elimination. We’ll take a Brazilian to win which leaves us five drivers. And then to narrow it even further, we’ll go with the Brazilian that drives a Honda leaving us with only Tony Kanaan.

There is another race Sunday. The Coca Cola 600, longest of the NASCAR season, takes place at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte. Last week’s All-Star event should have got everyone into the Charlotte handicapping mode already and the race results are a good indication of what will happen this week.

The key component is the distance of this race and who has been successful. The last four seasons have seen Roush drivers come out on top. Last week, Kurt Busch (7-1) came hard at the end to finish second behind Jimmie Johnson (10-1).

Look for Roush to be successful again this week.