by Trevor Whenham - 05/24/2006
It's almost the Memorial Day weekend, which means that it's almost time for the Indianapolis 500. The incredibly confusing qualifying process is over and 33 drivers have earned the privilege of competing in the 90th edition of 'The Greatest Spectacle in Racing'. By late on the afternoon of May 28, one of those drivers will be drinking the best bottle of milk they have ever tasted. Here's a look at some highlights of the field that is set to start the 2006 Indy 500:
Sam Hornish Jr. - The pole sitter, who will try to become the 10th Penske driver to win the race, has owned the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway so far this year. Hornish had the fastest time in all but one of the practice sessions and absolutely scorched the field on Pole Day, averaging 228.985 miles per hour over four laps. The next best average was almost a full mile per hour slower at 228.008 mph. Hornish qualified second last year, but has upgraded his car dramatically this year by switching from the Toyota engine of last year to the Honda engine pulling him around the track this year. He'll be hoping that his race goes better than last year when he hit the wall on lap 146. In fact, Hornish has never made it to the finish line in six career starts. He clearly has the best car in the field and no one will be in front of him at the start. If you think no one will be in front at the finish, either, you can get 4/1 at Bodog.
Helio Castroneves - He will start in the middle of the front row beside Penske teammate Hornish, proving without doubt which team is running best right now. The Brazilian has been red hot, counting two wins and a second in the three races so far this season. His car is physically identical to the one Hornish drives, though it isn't running quite as fast. Still, Bodog has Castroneves installed as the 7/2 favorite. We almost need more betting options because, the way they are going, a Hornish-Castroneves quinella would be an attractive bet right now.
Dan Wheldon - Last year's champ is back to try again, but he's wearing different colors. He traded in his Andretti Green car for one from the Target Chip Ganassi team. He won from the inside of row 6 last year, so his outside position on the front row will seem like a luxury. He has a first and a second this year, and he is the only driver other than Hornish to post the fastest lap on a practice day, so he hasn't lost a step with his new car. He's the third choice in the field at 9/2.
Scott Dixon - People who like a darkhorse at a decent price might be looking towards Dixon at 10/1. He's Wheldon's teammate on the Target Chip Ganassi team and he qualified just one spot below his teammate, putting him on the inside of the second row, right behind the pole. He's had a good start to the season, he qualified well and, with a bit of luck, could win it all here.
Danica Patrick - Need proof that the world has Danica-mania? She will be releasing her autobiography this week. At age 23! With one year of driving experience. Should be a thin book. She started in the second row last year, but hasn't enjoyed the same luck or speed this year. She did manage to string together her four fastest laps of the month to qualify on the inside of the fourth row, but she will likely have the same problem she has had all season - she's driving well, but her car just isn't fast enough. She's at 18/1. Her Rahal Letterman Racing teammate Buddy Rice, who won the Indy 500 two years ago, is having similar problems and will start a row behind Danica at odds of 16/1.
The Old Guys - If you don't look at the grid too carefully, you might wonder what year it is. There are some old-timers that we haven't seen in a few years back behind the wheel. Michael Andretti has climbed into one of his own Andretti Green cars so he can share the track with his son Marco, a 19-year-old rookie. Son bested father in qualifying - Marco is in the outside of the third row, while Michael is inside of row five. Michael is at 12/1, which is more of an indication of his experience than his car, while Marco has been grouped into the field. Other veterans coming off the sideline are former Indy winners Al Unser Jr., starting in the ninth row at 35/1 in his first race in two years, and Eddie Cheever, who is riding in his own Cheever Racing car this year after packing it in in 2002. He'll start in the 7th row as part of the field.
P.J. Chesson - The rookie starts in the seventh row and stands little chance of a victory, but he will be of interest to NBA fans anyway. His Hemelgarn Racing team is partly owned by Denver Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony. Melo fans likely won't like the 3/1 odds you have to settle for with Chesson as part of the field.
The Field - With 33 cars in the race and only 18 getting betting action, Bodog has lumped 15 cars into one betting interest. Getting 15 cars for the price of one is a good thing. Having to accept 3/1 for the privilege may not be so good, especially considering that the best performer in the field is rookie Marco Andretti on the outside of row three. Still, if you like to have lots of cars to cheer for without laying down a ton of action, this may be just the thing for you.
Thiago Medeiros - He stands virtually no chance of winning, but Medeiros is one of the best stories in the field. He got the last spot on the grid late on Bump Day when he narrowly beat the required speed. The rookie making his first IRL start almost didn't get the chance, though. On May 18 he hit the wall hard, wrecking his car and leaving little to be salvaged. He had no backup car. Undeterred, his PDM Racing team acquired a Panoz chassis from Fernandez Racing on May 19, got parts from several teams, and started building a car. It was an around-the-clock effort, and they missed the last day of qualifying on May 21. The next day was Bump Day, when the last spot in the grid is secured. Qualifying went until 6 p.m., and PDM didn't get the car approved and ready to run until 5:08. Despite the tight time frame, Medeiros managed a 215.729 mph average, which was way off the pole, but enough to get him in the field.