I've talked with a few racing expert friends about the five drivers you should be paying attention to this year, and was given some pretty good names. These aren't your usual Dario Franchittis and Helio Castroneveseses(es) of Indy racing fame — that list is too easy. Just list the first five drivers in the starting lineup, and you've got the quick and dirty "who's gonna win" list that most lazy sports writers tend to cover.
But during the Pole Day press conference, Helio Castroneves said the sports writers should talk about a few of the other guys too — guys like Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter who made the Front 9, despite some overwhelming odds.
So, while these 5 may not be the favorites to win, these are 5 drivers I'm keeping my eye on this year, and in the future.
1. Graham Rahal: Graham Rahal shouldn't even be here in Indy, let alone sitting 6th. Rahal's #30 Quick-Trim/RLR Special is the result of a deal arrived at with his dad just two weeks before the race.
Two weeks! That's like Peyton Manning taking September, October, and November off, and leading the Colts to the playoffs in just 4 games. Two weeks is like three months in racing years. Or to dogs.
But Bobby Rahal's team managed to put together a great car for him, and Graham and the Mechanics have managed to find the groove that put him within striking distance of the trophy. That speaks to a high quality team of engineers and mechanics, as well as a superb driver. If anyone outside the Penske or Ganassi dynasties stands a chance of winning this race, it's Rahal.
2. Ed Carpenter: Everything I just said about Graham Rahal is true for Ed Carpenter too. The stepson of the embattled Tony George, the ousted CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League, Carpenter had to overcome all of the stress and undue attention his stepdad was getting. This was especially distracting, since Tony is also Ed's boss, as the owner of Vision Racing.
Look, when NFL players get their panties in a bunch, and worry that one teammate's personal problems (that's one fifty-third of the team) are going to "be a distraction" during the playoffs, then you have to think that Tony's problems were on Ed's mind for the last several months. And yet, he managed to pull of a great run and make the Front 9. So either the NFL players need to man up and not let the backup punt returner's DUI affect their playoff run, or Ed Carpenter has more intestinal fortitude than even the toughest NFLer.
3. Justin Wilson: Justin may not be one of the big names in racing, although at 6'3" he's certainly the tallest. But if you follow the IRL, you know he finished 9th in last year's standings. (In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't know this; he had to tell me.) He recorded three top-5 finishes and seven top-10 finishes all of last year. Hopefully Justin won't be Indy Racing's Dan Marino, a Hall of Fame quarterback who never won the big championship. As long as he keeps sticking big finishes, a race win has got to be in his near future. While it may not be this year, as long as Helio Castroneves and the rest of the Lollipop Guild keep putting out fast cars, it will be soon. I gar-on-tee.
4. Tomas Scheckter: He's been a wild, almost unpredictable driver. He's only won two races, one of them coming in an IRL race (the 2005 Firestone 550 in Texas). But if Philip B. Wilson's story in the Indianapolis Star is anything to go by, Scheckter is a force to be reckoned with when he's given the chance.
Despite having, or maybe because of, crashing 21 out of his first 60 starts (man, his mom's gonna be pissed!), Scheckter says he's learned from his mistakes, and says he's not the same driver he was eight years ago.
"Tomas is incredibly talented and he's a great race car driver now," said Panther Racing owner John Barnes. "Anybody would be blessed to have him as a driver, anyone on pit road."
That anyone, right now, is Dreyer & Reinbold. Let's see if they can harness his skills and willingness to go fast. (After I wrote this piece, I realized 3 out of my 5 drivers were Dreyer and Reinbold drivers, which really speaks to the quality of driver that D&R hires.)
5. Ana Beatriz: My friend and racing mentor, Ken Severson, says Ana ("Bia" to the fans) is the real deal. When it comes to female drivers making a strong showing in their rookie season, Ana Beatriz Caselato Gomes de Figueiredo, is it. She's also the only woman to win a Firestone Indy Lights race, taking a checkered flag in 2008 and 2009.
While she may have a tough time in Indy — this is only her second Big Kids race — Dreyer and Reinbold thought enough of her to start her in the São Paulo Indy 300, after two respectable years in the Indy Lights. While this may be a tough first Indy 500 for her, I'm still expecting a respectable showing for the young Brazilian. I'll make my only prediction of this piece, and predict a top 20 finish for Bia.
Honorable Mention: Sebastian Saavedra: This Colombian must have the luck of the Irish. He had one of the most uncomfortable, stressful Bump Days this year. He was sitting on the bubble at #33, after crashing his one and only race car (no backup), when he was bumped off by Tony Kanaan, which put Paul Tracy on the bubble. With no backup, Sebastian couldn't try to get back in.
So Tracy thought he should get off the bubble. He withdrew his time, drove his next qualification, but failed to beat it. As soon as he withdrew his time, Saavedra was back in. And when Tracy didn't beat Saavedra, the Colombian stayed.
But then he was bumped again when another driver went out and made the show. Saavedra was out.
Then, Jay Howard, the last driver of the day, tried the same thing with the same result: withdraw, drive, fail. Saavedra was back in, this time for good.
That put Sebastian back in the race, on the inside of row 11. But In The Race is In The Race, regardless of where you sit. And with luck like he had Sunday, you know Sebastian may end up surprising the hell out of a lot of people next week.
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