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Plenty to watch for at Indy 500 Sunday

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INDIANAPOLIS — For the 98th time, the Indianapolis 500 rolls off the grid. And for the 98th time, the 33 starters all carry with them a host of compelling storylines and things to watch as the day unfolds.

At noon Sunday, the green flag flies. Approximately three hours later, a new legend will be created, a new tale will be told. But there are quite a few stories to watch:


A wild one: Last year’s Indianapolis 500 featured a record 68 lead changes, including one on the final restart that saw Tony Kanaan jump past Ryan Hunter-Reay and clinch the race win when Dario Franchitti crashed on Lap 198. That was double the record number of 34 lead changes set the year before, when Franchitti won. What’s notable is those are the two Indianapolis 500s run with the new Dallara “DW12” chassis, which has allowed the trailing car to use the draft on the two long straightaways at Indy and gain momentum on the car in front, similar to the Hanford device used by CART in the late 1990s. If that holds true to form, expect a similar number of lead changes and a close race at the finish again.

Indy has also had its share of close finishes in recent years. The 2006 and 2011 races featured the first two to be decided with a lead change on the final lap – Sam Hornish Jr. passing Marco Andretti at the line in 2006, and the late Dan Wheldon taking the lead when J.R. Hildebrand crashed coming out of Turn 4 in 2011. In 2012, Franchitti and Takuma Sato went into Turn 1 of the final lap side-by-side, but touched wheels and Sato ended up in the wall. Franchitti came around for his third win. The 2013 race might have had a similar finish if not for Franchitti’s Lap 198 crash that brought out the yellow.


The polesitter: Local favorite Ed Carpenter became the first driver since Helio Castroneves in 2009-10 to win back-to-back pole positions. Carpenter has long been fast on ovals, and has two career top-10s at Indy. Last year, he had five top-10 finishes in six ovals, including a second-place finish in the season finale at California, and fourth-place finishes at Texas and Iowa. He won his first Indy pole last year, and finished 10th. This season, driver/owner Carpenter has split his car – running only ovals, while Mike Conway runs the road courses. A win by Carpenter would make him the first Indiana-raised driver to win the race since Wilbur Shaw won his third Indianapolis 500 in 1940. Carpenter was born just over the state line in Paris, Illinois, but has lived in Indianapolis since childhood. No American has won the race since Ohio-born Sam Hornish Jr. beat Marco Andretti in 2006. Carpenter will join James Hinchcliffe and Will Power on the front row.


Drive for four: Last year’s race featured two drivers seeking their fourth wins, but Dario Franchitti has since retired. Instead, it’s Helio Castroneves’ turn to try to join Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser in racing’s most exclusive group. Castroneves won his first two Indy starts in 2001 and 2002, and again in 2009. He finished second in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis held on the track’s road course two weeks ago.


The defending champion: Tony Kanaan crossed the finish line to thunderous applause, becoming one of the most popular Indianapolis 500 wins. “TK” had finished so close in his previous 11 tries. On the 12th, he thundered past Ryan Hunter-Reay on a late restart and realized the dream of putting, as he said, his “ugly mug” on the Borg-Warner Trophy when his longtime friend Dario Franchitti crashed, bringing out a race-ending yellow shortly after Kanaan took the lead. He’d come close several times – crashing while running in the top five twice, having rain intervene in his chances to win two other times, and finishing in the top three two others. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion is now the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, but he will have to charge forward from the sixth row. Known for his aggressiveness on the start – and restarts – he vowed to pass a lot of cars on the start. Kanaan’s win in his 12th start is the second-longest wait for an Indy-winning driver. Sam Hanks won in his 13th start in 1957, and then promptly retired.


The new “Ruby”: In golf, the title was “best to never win a major,” which Phil Mickelson wore until he finally won his first Masters. In racing, it’s the “best to never win the 500.” You could also call it the “Lloyd Ruby Award” – for the driver who was always close, but always seemed to run into some bad luck along the way. Michael Andretti wore that label for his entire career as a driver, but he has since won the 500 twice as a car owner. Since Kanaan shed that label last year, the focus shifts to two Andretti Autosport teammates. Marco Andretti – the 2006 near-winner – and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Andretti, who has two wins and 63 top-10s in 129 IndyCar starts, is coming off his best season, where he finished fifth in the IndyCar standings. He is best-known as the near-winner of the 2006 race, finishing runner-up when Sam Hornish Jr. passed him at the line. He’ll start sixth Sunday. Hunter-Reay will start on the seventh row, but was the IndyCar Series champion in 2012, and has won 10 races. He finished third at Indy last year and has won 12 IndyCar/Champ Car races during his career.  Another to watch is Sebastien Bourdais, whose resume at Indy is limited – he’s run the race three times – but he won four Champ Car titles between 2004-07. Bourdais has won a race at Indy, being part of the team that won the 2012 Grand Am event at the track.


The prodigals: The good old days are back, as the 1995, 1996 and 2000 winners are in the field (as well as the 2001-02-09 winner, the 2008 winner and the 2013 champ). Six former winners are in the field. The most former winners to start an Indianapolis 500 was 10, in 1992. That came before several legends retired from racing, and was the final 500 for Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, Gordon Johncock and Tom Sneva. By 1995, the changing of the guard was largely complete, with only three former winners (Arie Luyendyk, Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal) in the field, and two of them would no longer run at Indy after that year – Sullivan retired and Rahal went to the CART side of the 1996 IndyCar split. That’s when Jacques Villeneuve ran 505 miles to win the 500 – clinching it when Scott Goodyear was penalized for passing the pace car on the final restart – and then went to Formula One where he would later win a World Championship. Villeneuve had run in NASCAR, but is making his return to Indy. It’s the longest hiatus between two races for a driver. One of the longest is Juan Pablo Montoya, who dominated the 2000 race for Chip Ganassi’s team, and then also went to Formula One. He drove the last several years in NASCAR, and dominated the 2010 Brickyard 400 at the track before a late-race penalty put him back in the pack. He will become the first driver to compete in the Indianapolis 500, Brickyard 400 and Formula One United States Grand Prix, the three major races at the track. Montoya has also run in the Grand Am race held on the Indy road course. Of the two, Montoya has likely the best chance, as he’s running for perennial Indy winner Roger Penske. The other winners in the field: Kanaan, Castroneves, Buddy Lazier (1996) and Scott Dixon (2010).


Old is new again: Speaking of prodigals, Paul Page is back to anchor the IMS Radio Network broadcast. Page was the second chief announcer for the radio network from 1977-87 – taking over for Sid Collins. He went over to television after that, calling the 500 13 times between 1988-2004 for ABC. This year, he replaces Mike King as the Voice of the 500. Page is one of five announcers to have that role – joining Collins, King, Lou Palmer and Bob Jenkins.


The seasoned rookie: In the 1960s and 1970s, it wasn’t unusual to see crossover racers start the Indianapolis 500. Lee Roy Yarbrough, Cale Yarborough, Bobby and Donnie Allison all had success at Indianapolis.

This year, Kurt Busch – the 2004 NASCAR champion – takes a stab at Indianapolis. He’s the first driver to attempt do “the double” – running Indy and the Coca Cola 600 in Charlotte the same day – since Robby Gordon in 2004. Gordon did the double five times between 1997-2004, Tony Stewart did it twice in 1999 and 2001, and John Andretti once in 1994. However, those three drivers all had IndyCar racing pedigrees before going to NASCAR full-time. Busch is the first driver that had cut his teeth racing stock cars to run Indy since Bobby Allison in 1975. Stewart has had the best success running the double – finishing sixth at Indy and third at Charlotte in 2001. He is also the only driver to complete all 1,100 miles in the same day. Robby Gordon nearly won the 2000 Indianapolis 500, but had to pit for fuel on the final lap while leading. He was also unable to make it to Charlotte in time to start the race that year.


The other rookies: Lots of them. Mikhail Aleshin becomes the first Russian to start the race. Brit Jack Hawksworth started in the front row of the GP of Indianapolis earlier this month. Colombian Carlos Huertas has been fast. James Davison, Martin Plowman and Sage Karam are also starting their first Indy. Busch is the highest-starting rookie, going off 12th. Hawksworth is 13th, Aleshin 15th and Huertas 18th. The other three are starting in the final two rows.


The other “double”: Simon Pagenaud has given himself the opportunity to be the first driver to win two IndyCar races at Indianapolis in the same month. The French driver won the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 10, and he will start fifth on the grid Sunday. Pagenaud has quickly made himself a contender, finishing third in the IndyCar points in 2013.


Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines: The Grand Prix of Indianapolis was the first race at Indy in a long time that didn’t feature a female starter – with Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick, Lyn St. James and Simona di Silvestro filling that role over the last decade. Pippa Mann will be the one female driver in this year’s field. She will start in Row 8.

There will be plenty of stories to tell, and quite a few that unfold during the three hours on Sunday. The only thing to do now is wait for the event to unfold.


Andrew Smith is a correspondent for the Daily Reporter and a former sports editor. Contact him at andrewsmith@crosscomsports.com.

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