Franchitti, Dixon likely to contend for Indy 500 checkers
The question of whether Danica Patrick will jump to NASCAR will loom over Indy
Dario Franchitti is a contender to take the checkers Sunday at the Indy 500
Helio Castroneves, Will Power are likely to run in the front, challenge for the win
Will she stay or go?
Heading into the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, this is the question that looms over the race and the entire IndyCar Series: Will Danica Patrick stay in IndyCar beyond 2011 or will this be her final appearance in America's most revered race?
Not even Patrick knows what she'll do. She's repeatedly told me and others in recent weeks that she has yet to reach a decision on her plans for next season and beyond, but no doubt one will be forthcoming shortly. Her contract with IndyCar's Andretti Autosport expires at season's end, as does her deal with JR Motorsports in NASCAR. She's currently running a full schedule in IndyCar and a part-time schedule in the Nationwide Series -- the triple-A of NASCAR. While she's struggled this month at Indy -- she qualified a disappointing 27th -- she appears to be improving in stock car racing with every event and every lap she turns. Just in March she finished fourth in a Nationwide event in Las Vegas, the best result of her fledgling NASCAR career.
What do I think she'll do? It says here she'll leave IndyCar to drive full-time next season in the Nationwide season for JR Motorsports. Then, if all goes according to plan, she'll jump full-time to the Sprint Cup Series in 2013, possibly with Stewart-Haas Racing, which is looking to expand its number of cars in the Cup series from two to four. I also believe this: Patrick will be a contender on Sunday at Indy.
More than at any other track on the open-wheel circuit, Patrick flourishes at Indy. In seven career starts at the 2.5-mile oval she has two top-5 finishes -- fourth in 2005 and third in 2009. She has a comfort level with Indy that is rare. "This track is not just a surface," she told me last week, "it has a mind of its own. I just get so pumped when I get to Indy. I feel so positive when I come here."
Yet Patrick hasn't flashed elite speed this month during practice sessions and qualifying. But this doesn't mean she can't win. Her team excels at pit strategy; she excels at avoiding trouble and staying out of precarious positions. If this race becomes a battle of attrition -- and I think it will, because of the new double-file restarts after cautions, which should lead to plenty of wrecks in Turn One seconds after the green flag waves on restarts -- then it will play right into Patrick's hands. I don't think she'll win on Sunday, but another top-5 finish in what I believe will be her last Indy 500 for at least several years seems within her reach.
So who will be chugging the milk late on Sunday afternoon and kissing the bricks at the start-finish line? It will come down to a race between the two heavyweight teams in the sport -- Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing -- and these four drivers:
The reigning Indy 500 winner and series champion, Franchitti has been fast most of May at the Brickyard. He looked like a solid bet to win the pole, but ran out of gas on the last of his four laps of qualifying and will be starting ninth.
Currently second in the standings, Franchitti, who drives for Ganassi, won the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and on Sunday he could become just the sixth driver in history to win back-to-back 500s. If he has a car anywhere near as dominant as the machine he piloted last year -- he led 155 of the 200 laps and could seemingly pass at will -- then he'll take the checkered flag in a yawner.
Dixon, who also drives for Ganassi, is the most popular pick in the media center to take the checkered flag on Sunday. He's been consistently faster than any other driver over the last month at Indy and he'll be starting on the front row, next to surprise pole winner Alex Tagliani.
Though he's a two-time series champion and he won the 2008 Indy 500, Dixon, a soft-spoken native of New Zealand, has been overshadowed by Franchitti for the last few years. That will change if he can reach Victory Lane on Sunday. One thing is virtually certain: Dixon will not beat himself by making a careless mistake. Out of all the top contenders, Dixon is the steadiest behind the wheel.
The heart-and-soul of Penske Racing, Castroneves has already established himself as one of the all-time top drivers in Indy history. He's won here three times and is so smooth on the track that he makes navigating the four turns at 230 mph seem effortless.
Yet this has been a tough year for Castroneves. He's struggled in the first four events on the IndyCar schedule -- he's currently 17th in the standings -- and on Sunday he'll have his worst starting position (16th) in his 11 career races at Indy. Still, if Castroneves isn't in the lead pack in the closing laps, I would consider it an upset. After all, he has shown this month -- albeit not with consistency -- that his car possesses winning speed.
Power, who is Castroneves' teammate at Penske, has never been a factor at Indy in five career starts. He's a road-course specialist, but he's experiencing a breakout year. He leads the series in points and on Sunday will start in the middle of the second row. If I had to guess, he'll grab the lead just a few laps into the race.
But can he stay with the leaders for 500 miles? I don't think so.
My pick to win the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500: Dario Franchitti.