Underdogs and one-offs aim for Indy 500 glory
Every year, a few obvious choices jump out on the list of favorites to win the Indianapolis 500. Such choices include Team Penske, Andretti Autosport, and Chip Ganassi Racing, especially in recent years.
Since 2000, only three times has the winner come from a team that wasn’t a part of the Penske, Andretti, or Ganassi stables - 2004 (Buddy Rice, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), 2011 (Dan Wheldon, Bryan Herta Autosport), and 2013 (Tony Kanaan, KV Racing Technology).
And even one-off efforts from Helio Castroneves (Penske), Ed Jones (Ganassi), Carlos Munoz (Andretti), and Stefan Wilson (Andretti) are stout in their own rights.
Castroneves qualified eighth and is most certainly one of the favorites for the win on Sunday. Ed Jones, despite qualifying 29th, represents quite the darkhorse after a strong run to third last year. And the same could be said of Munoz, who has finished second in this race twice.
Even Wilson, in his first IndyCar race since the 2016 Indy 500, could make some noise on race day after running solidly all through practice.
That said, while the Penskes, Andrettis, and Ganassis of the world are still the favorites, there are plenty of underdogs who could challenge them.
Leading that pack is Ed Carpenter Racing. It seems hard to believe that a team that put a driver on the pole and two others in the top nine in qualifying would be an underdog of sorts, but ECR would certainly fall into that category.
Despite regularly qualifying well, the races historically haven’t. Outside of 2016, when Josef Newgarden and JR Hildebrand finished third and sixth for the team, the organization only has four other top 10s in total, and no other top fives.
Indeed, that is something the team will want to change, and this may be the year it happens. Team owner Ed Carpenter starts on the pole, with Spencer Pigot in sixth and Danica Patrick in seventh.
In as much, Carpenter himself feels very bolstered in knowing that the team is so well-prepared heading into Sunday’s race, and he acknowledged the team’s herculean effort to make all three ECR Chevrolets so stout.
“I’m super proud of the team. It’s one thing to build a fast car here. It’s a whole ‘nother to build three fast cars, especially one of them not being a full-time crew,” he revealed in his post-qualifying press conference. “So the effort that (general manager Tim Broyles) and the whole team put together to have everybody prepared and giving myself, Spencer, Danica all really good cars and equal chances to be in the Fast Nine and go compete for a pole, that’s all you can ask for as a driver and as a team owner.”
And Danica Patrick, despite driving a one-off entry after not driving in IndyCar since 2011, has looked quite impressive, steadily getting quicker during practice and qualifying an impressive seventh.
Her finishing record at Indy is also strong, with finishes of fourth, eighth, eighth, third, sixth, and tenth (2008 is the only year in which she DNF’ed, finishing 22nd after contact with Ryan Briscoe in pit lane).
A victory seems almost a little too far-fetched, given the fairy-tale ending it would give her career, but it certainly is not impossible.
Rest assured though, if a team is to knock off one of the “Big Three,” it could be someone from the Carpenter outfit.
Another full-time IndyCar effort that could play the underdog role is A.J. Foyt Racing. Though they have struggled to find success for over a decade, full-time drivers Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist have been fast all month, and qualified an impressive 10th and 11th respectively.
On the driver front, a Kanaan victory wouldn’t be too big of a shock, but when combined with the struggles of the Foyt team, a Kanaan triumph would most certainly send shockwaves through the paddock.
And a Leist victory seems highly unlikely, although stranger things have happened - for example, JR Hildebrand infamously nearly won this race as a rookie in 2011.
In short, either of Foyt’s cars could have a say in who wins on Sunday.
One other full-time entrant to watch in the role of the underdog is the No. 88 Chevrolet of Harding Racing. In the hands of Gabby Chaves, this is a team just quietly goes about their business and stays out of trouble.
It’s a sound strategy given the team’s relative inexperience - the team was only formed last year - but it has already paid dividends.
Chaves and the Harding outfit survived a chaotic 2017 Indy 500 to finish an impressive ninth on the team’s debut, and their second race - at Texas Motor Speedway - saw them evade similar chaos to finish fifth, their first top five.
For Chaves, if the team can keep things clean and improve the car as the race goes, they’ll have a chance for at least another solid result, if not more.
“We just need to keep improving (the car) and keep working forward,” he said after qualifying. “The car has been pretty competitive all month and so that’s the important thing, so we just need to take it from there.”
Yet more underdog prospects emerge in analyzing the one-off entries, and maybe the most likely competitor from this group is Dreyer and Reinbold Racing.
In Sage Karam and JR Hildebrand, the DRR stable has a pair of hungry drivers eager to prove themselves to reignite their IndyCar careers.
Karam in particular could be a big darkhorse. The 23-year-old has demonstrated an inclination for going fast around Indianapolis, particularly on race day. He charged from 31st to ninth in 2014, and came from 23rd to run as high as sixth in 2016 before crashing out just shy of the halfway point.
With the rock-solid JR Hildebrand in the mix as well - Hildebrand has four top 10s, including his infamous second-place in 2011 - this is a potent driver combo.
Combine all of that with DRR’s desire to become a full-time IndyCar team again, and you have an operation that has motivation in spades.
Qualifying did not go quite as well as they hoped - Karam lines up 25th and Hildebrand in 27th - but as Karam described after this past Monday’s practice, the race cars may be pretty sporty.
“I think the car is pretty good. We always have a really good race car. I was able to make some passes, run with the fast guys that were fast in qualifying. I ran with them pretty steadily, ran some good laps,” Karam explained.
One-off entries, like those from the Dreyer and Reinbold camp, don’t usually end up in Victory Lane, but one did make it happen 2011, with Wheldon and Bryan Herta Autosport. And if there’s a one-off team that could pull off a big upset, Dreyer and Reinbold may fit the bill.
Notable one-off performances from past Indy 500s include Kurt Busch (Andretti) in 2014 (he finished sixth as part of the Indy 500/Coca Cola 600 double), Carlos Munoz (Andretti) and AJ Allmendinger (Penske) in 2013 (they finished second and seventh), Scott Goodyear (Tasman Motorsports) in 1995 (he finished 14th, but was leading when he jumped a restart with 11 laps remaining), and Al Unser Sr. (Penske) in 1987 (he filled in for an injured Danny Ongais after beginning the Month of May without a ride).
In all, while teams like Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti might be the heavyweights and the favorites, there are plenty of underdogs and one-off efforts that appear very capable of challenging them.