Briscoe, Andretti among Indy 500 drivers flying under the radar
Ryan Briscoe won the pole this year, and has what it takes to win the Indy 500
James Hinchcliffe, who drives Danica Patrick's old car, finished just behind Briscoe
Marco Andretti, grandson of Mario Andretti, inherited the family's racing genes
INDIANAPOLIS -- The starting lineup for Sunday's 96th Indianapolis 500 includes three legendary winners attempting to solidify their IndyCar legend. Helio Castroneves of Team Penske is attempting to become the fourth four-time winner of the Indy 500, while Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, both of Target/Chip Ganassi, are challenging for their second and third wins, respectively, at the Brickyard.
These three will have major roles in the day's storylines on what may be the hottest Indianapolis 500 in history (temperatures could soar into the mid-90s and the heat index estimated at 105 degrees).
Flying under the radar alongside these veterans are plenty of drivers with great potential to win the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in their careers. In a pivotal year for the Indianapolis 500, the winner could come from a younger group of drivers, setting them up to be the stars of this race for the next decade or more.
Here are five drivers flying under the radar to keep an eye on during Sunday's race:
1. Ryan Briscoe
When Briscoe arrived in the IndyCar Series with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in 2005, he was as famous for his spectacular crashes than anything else. That led him to step away from a full-time ride in 2006 before running for Penske's ALMS team in 2007. When three-time IndyCar champion Sam Hornish, Jr. left IndyCar for NASCAR in 2008, Briscoe took over his ride.
Since then Briscoe has won six IndyCar races, but a victory on Sunday would be his biggest. Although he won the pole by just 9.168-inches over a 10-mile qualification run on Pole Day, Briscoe has never finished higher than fifth in the Indianapolis 500 (2007). This year will be his best chance at giving team owner Roger Penske another trip to Victory Lane with a different driver. He may have the necessary ingredients on Sunday with a fast Dallara/Chevrolet.
2. James Hinchcliffe
In just four races, Hinchcliffe has seamlessly taken over the identity of Danica Patrick's former green-and-black GoDaddy car, which is nothing short of remarkable.
He enters the Indianapolis 500 third in IndyCar points and has been fast for most of May at the 2.5-mile oval. He put on quite a show on Pole Day, finishing just .0023-seconds behind Briscoe in the closest margin of victory between the pole winner and the second-place qualifier in Indy 500 history. The previous record was .10 seconds between Al Unser and Johnny Rutherford in 1970.
The Toronto driver is extremely popular because of his engaging, effervescent personality -- that was one of the main reasons GoDaddy officials wanted him in the car. But it was his racing skill that impressed team owner Michael Andretti. Although he is starting in the middle of the front row and may not necessarily qualify as "under the radar," a victory in just his second attempt in the Indy 500 would make him a major star.
Hildebrand finished 29th in last year's Indianapolis 500 after starting 13th. But this year, he is with Andretti Autosport, also driving a fast Dallara/Chevrolet, and is fully capable of contending for the win on Sunday.
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
A three-time IndyCar Series winner, Hunter-Reay was bumped out of the race last year, only to get back into the 33-car starting lineup when team owner Michael Andretti and sponsor DHL bought the ride that Bruno Junqueira had qualified into the race for team owner A.J. Foyt.
What a difference one year has made for Hunter-Reay as he attempts to win the Indy 500 for the first time in his career. He starts on the outside of the front row for Andretti Autosport after a four-lap qualification average of 226.240 miles per hour on Pole Day.
Hunter-Reay finished sixth in his first Indianapolis 500 in 2008 but hopes to rebound from a 23rd-place finish last year. He is another driver in a Dallara/Chevrolet, which has been the best combination in the series this season.
4. Marco Andretti
The driver has the pedigree from his grandfather, 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti, and his father, Michael, when it comes to racing at the Indianapolis 500. Marco has also developed quite a knack for racing the four-cornered, 2.5-mile Speedway, and nearly won in his first attempt in 2006 before he was passed by Hornish just 100 yards from the checkered flag.
A two-time IZOD IndyCar Series race winner, Andretti has the famous last name that could attract more attention to the series if he should win the biggest race. Imagine how big an Indianapolis 500 win by an Andretti would be?
Certainly, Marco Andretti can imagine that as he starts on the inside of Row 2 on Sunday in a Dallara/Chevrolet. He was the third-fastest driver in Friday's final "Carb Day" practice with a fastest lap at 221.702 miles per hour. Dario Franchitti had the fastest time at 222.360 mph in a Dallara/Honda followed by Target teammate Scott Dixon's 222.274 mph.
5. Graham Rahal
Like Andretti, Rahal also has a family legacy at Indy. His father, Bobby, won the 1986 Indianapolis 500 and was the winning team owner in 2004 when Buddy Rice drove the Rahal Letterman car to victory.
Graham Rahal drives for famed team owner Chip Ganassi and starts on the outside of Row 4 after qualifying 12th on Saturday. He is the prototypical young American IndyCar driver, hailing from nearby New Albany, Ohio. Rahal became the youngest winner in IndyCar Series history when he won his very first race in the series -- the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg -- as a 19-year-old. But the clock keeps ticking on the now 23-year-old for that elusive second victory.
Tony Kanaan is generally considered the best driver in the field who has yet to win the race. In years past he was a major focal point heading into the 500 but this year has been left alone. But Kanaan starts eighth for KV Racing in a Dallara/Chevrolet, a good starting position for the Brazilian driver to start his path to victory lane.
Josef Newgarden, a 21-year-old rookie from Henderson, Tenn., starting seventh in a Dallara/Honda for Sarah/Fisher Racing, was impressive in practice and in qualifications, but race day may be a different matter. He has quickly adapted to his race course as well as any first-year driver in recent Indy 500 history.
Alex Tagliani started on the pole for last year's Indy 500 but will start 11th this year driving for team owner Bryan Herta -- the defending Indy 500 team owner when the late Dan Wheldon scored his surprising victory in the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 in 2011.
J.R. Hildebrand nearly won the race in his first attempt last year before he crashed in the last turn on the final lap. Hildebrand is back for Panther Racing and starts 18th.