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May 25, 2013

Indy 500 could be better than 2012’s epic race

INDIANAPOLIS — They raced 1-2-3 in line, trading the lead a whopping 15 times over the final, frantic 75 laps. All three drivers had a last-lap plan in mind when they zipped past the white flag, and it was Takuma Sato who acted first with a bold move for the win.

Sato pulled out of line, dipped inside of Dario Franchitti and tried to pounce as they headed into the first turn. Scott Dixon watched and waited from third, figuring he was now in position to slingshot past both for the victory.

Instead, Sato and Franchitti nearly touched. Sato spun out and into the wall, and Franchitti zipped to his third victory in one of the most dramatic Indianapolis 500 finishes in memory. Some even argued it was one of the greatest Indy 500s ever.

It sure won’t be easy to top today.

“I got a lot of comments from drivers in NASCAR and Formula One saying it was the best 500 they’d ever seen,” Franchitti said. “But I think this year will also be a very close exciting race.”

The bar was certainly raised at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year with 34 lead changes, passing throughout the field, Franchitti rallying from the back to win and three close friends of the late Dan Wheldon sweeping the podium. So perfect it could have been a Hollywood movie script.

But the IndyCar Series has given every indication this season that today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be another thriller.

The series is off to a terrific start with three winners in the first four races, and for the first time since 1991 none of the winners drive for the mighty Penske Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing teams. Instead, it’s been three wins for resurgent Andretti Autosport and one for A.J. Foyt Racing, which celebrated Sato becoming the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race.

So steady this season, Sato goes into today’s race as the series points leader. And he’ll start from the sixth row — right next to Franchitti and Dixon.

Sato, who calls last year’s race “an unforgettable day,” has the chance to give Foyt his first Indy 500 victory since Kenny Brack in 1999. Sato’s win at Long Beach last month was the first for the Foyt organization since 2002.

“We’re here for it. We are here aiming to win the 500 so there is no reason why we cannot,” Sato said. “Winning, I was so close last year. Knowing that now, how to get there, what you need there, so it’s been a tremendous experience last year to hopefully I can translate it to... this year’s performance.”

The field is stacked, though, and has a pair of drivers trying to join the exclusive club of four-time winners. Franchitti and Helio Castroneves are each vying to join Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the Indy 500, a feat that’s not been done since Mears’ 1991 victory.

“What an incredible opportunity for the fans to have not only one but two guys trying to make history,” Castroneves said. “Forget about the names, forget about who it is. But imagine people who didn’t even see the last time when the guy won four times.”

They’ve got five Andretti Autosport cars standing in their way, and two of them start from the front row.

Carlos Munoz, a 21-year-old Colombian making his IndyCar debut, will start second alongside Marco Andretti, who is once again considered a favorite but must overcome a curse that has limited his famous family to one win — Mario Andretti in 1969 — in 80 starts.

Andretti feels far more comfortable about his chances this year than he did last season, when he called the race “mine to lose.” Graham Rahal, the other half of the closest rivalry in the mild-mannered series, doesn’t consider his nemesis the favorite.

“Do I think it’s Marco’s race? No. Marco hasn’t led in the pack all week,” Rahal said. “He just sits in the back and runs a big lap time and pits.”

Instead, Rahal thinks everybody is overlooking AJ Allmendinger, who will make his Indianapolis 500 debut seven years after he left open-wheel racing for NASCAR. A failed drug test cost him his NASCAR ride last summer with Roger Penske, but the team owner has given him a second chance with this IndyCar opportunity.

Allmendinger has been fast at Indy — so good that struggling teammate Will Power used his setup in qualifying. Power said Allmendinger has the best car in traffic of all three Penske entries. Named after Foyt, his father’s favorite driver, Allmendinger could complete his comeback today.

“AJ Allmendinger is a very good race driver. He’s had quite a bit of experience,” said Foyt. “I met his daddy the other day, I said, ‘Why did you handicap that kid putting A.J. on him?’”

Allmendinger is one of 11 American drivers in the field of 33 — there are also a record-tying four women — and leading the red, white and blue charge is local boy Ed Carpenter, the only owner-driver in the field.

Carpenter, the stepson of IndyCar Series founder Tony George, is a graduate of Butler, a die-hard Indiana Pacers fan and the surprise pole-winner for the Indy 500. He is noted for his skills racing on an oval, and he’s twice beaten Franchitti in wheel-to-wheel races to the finish line. But now he’ll be leading the field to the green flag of his hometown race with all of Indiana watching.

“I don’t feel the pressure,” he said. “As far as the local fan base and support, it’s fun. I don’t think that translates into pressure.”

Carpenter is powered by Chevrolet, which for the second year in a row dominated all the preparations for the Indy 500 and swept the first 10 spots in qualifying. But Honda showed more life in Friday’s final practice, when it had six drivers in the top 10 of the speed chart. If that sounds familiar, it should — last year, Chevrolet dominated leading into the Indy 500, but Franchitti won in a Honda.

“We have seen this movie before — this is the same story of last year, and Honda had the advantage on race day,” said James Hinchcliffe, who goes into the race with two wins this season for Andretti.

And race day is the only day that matters, according to Ganassi, who publicly called out Honda during the season-opening weekend at St. Pete when he questioned the manufacturer’s desire to win. Ganassi went so far as to claim the only thing Honda wants to do is “sit around and hold hands and sing Kumbaya. I want to win.”

Ganassi wasn’t panicked Friday about Honda’s performance so far at Indy and said today will be the “tale of the tape.”

“I’d like to think we gave them a little bit of a spark there that started a bit of a fire, and that fire burns today very hot,” Ganassi said. “I’m happy with how they responded, but this is in response. This is a long, not a one-race or one-day commitment we’re looking for a response to, it’s a season-long slog. A marathon we’re involved in throughout the season. I’m sure they’re up to the task.”

So he’ll wait and see if this year’s running of “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing” can live up to last year.

“Last year is going to be tough to top, but what we’ve seen in practice so far indicates we are going to see a really similar race,” Hinchcliffe said. “And I don’t think fans are ever going to get tired of that kind of action.”

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