Five Drivers That Could Surprise Us at Indianapolis

By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer

The historic 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil has the potential to produce some very compelling headlines. Possibilities include a fourth win for Helio Castroneves, back-to-back wins for Juan Pablo Montoya, a second win for Scott Dixon or Tony Kanaan, or even a first-time winner like Will Power or Simon Pagenaud.

The one thing that these scenarios have in common is that they are all highly plausible, and would not be unexpected.

The very nature of a 500 mile race opens the possibility for a surprise win for a driver that runs a solid, clean race all day, and winds up in the right place at the right time.

Case in point: In 2011, Dan Wheldon became the benefactor of smart fuel strategy, and a crash by the leader in the final turn. Wheldon was credited with leading lap 200, but the fact of the matter is that he only actually led from the area just past turn four to the start/finish and was declared the winner.

Case in point: In 1992, Al Unser Jr. was a full lap down to Michael Andretti with less than ten to go. When Andretti suddenly slowed, Little Al was vaulted into the lead and held off a charging Scott Goodyear, making Indy history in the process.

Could we have an unexpected winner this year?

Let’s take a look at five drivers in that have the potential to pull off a stunner in the 100th running.

1 ) Charlie Kimball

In five previous starts at the Indianapolis 500, American driver Charlie Kimball was running at the finish four times. He finished in the top-ten three times, including a third place in 2015.

Since signing with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2011, Kimball has driven in the shadow of some very successful teammates, including 500 winners Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. Despite the ‘third-man’ status, Kimball has been carving out his own place in the Verizon IndyCar Series, taking a dominant win at Mid-Ohio in 2013.

With the Chevrolet package, the brain-trust of one of the best teams in the business, and a solid finishing record, Kimball is a serious dark horse candidate for the win.

It goes without saying that a Kimball win would be incredibly popular. His refusal to allow the diagnosis of Type One diabetes stand in the way of his racing dreams has given tremendous inspiration to many that suffer from the disease. His tireless efforts to raise awareness has also endeared him in the hearts and minds of many, giving him a fan-base every bit as loyal as any other driver in the series.

2 ) Takuma Sato

Could you imagine a better snapshot than A.J. Foyt smiling in the winner’s circle after his car had taken a victory in the 100th Indianapolis 500?

Admittedly, it appears like an uphill battle for Honda-powered teams at this juncture.  However, with some crafty pit strategy, well-timed cautions, and a little luck, this can be anybody’s race.

While A.J.’s driver, Takuma Sato, is about as far removed from the tough-as-nails, all-American, Texas boy image of A.J. Foyt as you can get, don’t count him out.  Sato’s aggressive nature, and his ability to get more speed out of a car than seems possible is reminiscent of…well, a young A.J. Foyt.

Before the old-timers crucify me for making that comparison, allow me to point out that, in 2013, Sato brought the Foyt team back to victory lane after ten winless seasons. Despite the fact that they are worlds apart in culture, both A.J. and team manager, Larry Foyt, have confidence in Sato’s abilities.

In 2012, Sato came within three corners of winning the 500. He had the fastest car in the dwindling stages of the race, but touched wheels with Dario Franchitti attempting to pull off the biggest pass of his career. A win at the Speedway for the Japanese driver would indeed erase that heartache.

3 ) Josef Newgarden

Ed Carpenter Racing is, arguably, the strongest of the so-called ‘smaller’ teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series. When the team merged with Sarah Fisher’s operation in 2015, driver Josef Newgarden took two wins on the season. While Newgarden excelled on the road courses, the association with Ed Carpenter certainly improved his oval program.

Under the tutelage of oval-specialist Ed Carpenter, Newgarden took podium finishes at both Iowa and Pocono.  While his finishes in the 500 haven’t exactly been stellar, the Tennessee-born driver is actually no stranger to victory lane at Indianapolis. Driving in the Indy Lights series, Newgarden took the win at the Freedom 100 in 2010.

With Sarah Fisher no longer in the picture, the Carpenter Team will be entering three Chevrolet-powered cars in the 500 for Newgarden, Carpenter, and J.R. Hildebrand.

A win by Newgarden would be huge for the Series. The young driver, with his good looks and engaging personality, has the potential to become the face of IndyCar over the next decade.

 4 ) Marco Andretti

While the entire Andretti Autosport team seems to be struggling mightily at the moment, 29-year old Marco Andretti always seems to rise to the occasion at Indianapolis.

While his ten previous 500 starts have yet to produce a win, the third generation driver has seven top ten finishes, including four in the top three. He came within a few feet of winning the race as a rookie in 2006, and would like nothing more than to put that memory behind him.

During a recent test at the Speedway, Andretti ran the fastest time in his Honda-powered car, amidst claims that the Chevrolet teams were sand-bagging.

Forty-seven years have passed since an Andretti won the 500 as a driver, and seeing Marco in victory lane at the 100th running would be an epic story.

Despite the team’s recent struggles, if all the cards fall just right, Marco is entirely capable of getting the job done.

5 ) Graham Rahal

Any discussion regarding Honda versus Chevrolet in IndyCar must include Graham Rahal and the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing team.

While some of the Honda-powered teams are left scratching their heads, this one-car team has consistently led the charge for Honda since the debut of the aero-kits. RLLR seems to be able to do more with less, and their ‘never-say-die’ attitude brought them two 2015 wins and put them in solid contention for the title.

Entering 2016, Rahal and company have continued to fight the good fight, as Graham battled for the lead in the most recent race at Barber Motorsports Park, taking second place.

The history of the team, that nearly disbanded in 2009 due to lack of sponsorship, has marked a rise over adversity. That gritty determination remains to this day, as this little team refuses to go away. Couple that with the fact that Graham Rahal’s race-craft is at a career high, and it’s hard to bet against these guys.

The roar of the IndyCars will grace the The Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning on May 12th with practice for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, to be held on May 14. Practice for the Indianapolis 500 will commence on Monday, May 16th with the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing scheduled on May 29.

 

Image: Michael Roth/INDYCAR

 

 

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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