Indy 500 driver-by-driver one-liners

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The deeper analysis of this year’s Indianapolis 500 has already occurred. Now, MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar writers offer their final say on each of the 33 drivers ready to take the green flag at noon today. This year’s field is one of the deepest in recent memory, and it’s hard to be too high or low on anyone. So, without further adieu, our final take on the field of 33:

Row 1

20-Ed Carpenter (Ed Carpenter Racing/Chevrolet)

Tony DiZinno: He’ll be up front over the course of the race; for him, it comes down to positioning for the final 100 miles.

Chris Estrada: The Indiana native was a threat to win late last year, and if he can stay out of trouble, I see no reason why he can’t contend for at least a top five once more.

26-Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: With clean lines and a patient drive, a top-10 finish and perhaps Rookie-of-the-Year honors could follow.

CE: A Top-10 result would be a nice ending to a great month for the Colombian youngster, who has turned a lot of heads with his efforts.

25-Marco Andretti (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s never had a better chance to win, and his improved race focus and mentality should see him in contention until the end.

CE: The third-generation racer has grown considerably in maturity and in race craft, and he could definitely be in the mix for the win if he’s in position late.

Row 2

5-E.J. Viso (Andretti Autosport + HVM/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Viso is happier, cleaner and driving within himself, and should not be overlooked within the Andretti camp – a top-five would be a great result.

CE: Things have been coming together nicely for Viso this season, and his confidence should grow even more with a good finish.

2-A.J. Allmendinger (Team Penske/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Has everything to gain in terms of future full-time IndyCar prospects from a great race, and has the benefit of Roger Penske on his radio.

CE: I have the sense that ‘Dinger will be steady in his first ‘500’ and have a moment or two to really shine on Sunday. Give him credit for quickly embracing this race’s traditions.

12-Will Power (Team Penske/Chevrolet)

TDZ: In bizarro world, Power wins this year’s 500 to catapult himself back into title contention from the doldrums of the standings; in reality, his best case result is probably a solid top-10 finish.

CE: He could be the wild card in the Penske deck. He certainly has a chance with the team and talent he has, but hasn’t had the greatest luck here (or ovals, in general).

Row 3

1-Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s too good a driver to have not had better results in Indy, and might have the strongest of the Andretti cars in race trim.

CE: That same thing about luck at Indy goes for the reigning IZOD IndyCar Series champion, too. But like Power, he’s definitely aiming for the front.

3-Helio Castroneves (Team Penske/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He needs a comeback from the abyss of anonymity in the last three years, and he hasn’t looked particularly strong in race trim.

CE: Barring trouble on the track or in the pits, racing’s original “Spider-Man” stands a shot at joining some very illustrious company as a four-time ‘500’ winner.

27-James Hinchcliffe (Andretti Autosport/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Would be a popular winner, but more likely to finish from fifth through 10th given the level of competition around him.

CE: The Canadian has been part of a noteworthy month for Andretti Autosport, and he has the potential to be a dark horse late in the going.

Row 4

4-J.R. Hildebrand (Panther Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: A win – or being in the top-five late on merit – would do wonders to vault him into the spotlight for something other than his last lap accident in 2011.

CE: Few seem to be talking about the 2011 “500” runner-up, but his team has shown time and again that it knows the Brickyard very well. Watch that No. 4 car.

98-Alex Tagliani (Barracuda-BHA/Honda)

TDZ: As good a sleeper pick to win as you can make in this field – this team won two years ago and Tagliani has gotten everything and then some out of his Barracuda Honda this month.

CE: Outright speed hasn’t been a problem for Tagliani at Indianapolis, but he hasn’t been able to convert quality starts into really good finishes. Still, a top-10 is not out of the realm of possibility.

11-Tony Kanaan (KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet)

TDZ: The people’s champ, but he’s struggled to find a balance in race trim all month, and will need to rely on his usual passing and restart heroics to have a chance to win.

CE: A victory for TK at the Brickyard would trigger some of the loudest cheers this old track will ever hear. He can definitely have a say in how this race ends.

Row 5

22-Oriol Servia (Panther DRR/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s been Indy’s “ghost driver” in years past, coming from nowhere to contention in the dying stages, and will be extra motivated to do so again and potentially add more races to his 2013 schedule.

CE: The Spaniard has been sneaky quick in his last two tries at Indy, and charged from 27th to fourth last year. A steady car can put him in contention again.

19-Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)

TDZ: He’s downplayed his chances but some other Honda runners like his car in race trim – Wilson should be a top-10, possible top-five finisher.

CE: Wilson also came from the back of the field to a Top-10 result last year. His overall work on the ovals has improved and another Top-10 could be in the cards for him.

7-Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Despite a flashy chrome and red livery, Bourdais’ pace this month has not gotten the credit it deserves this month; the question is whether his team can keep him in contention for 500 miles.

CE: Nobody doubts the talent of the four-time Champ Car World Series champion but he has definitely been flying under the radar this May. Don’t be surprised if he makes his way toward the front on Sunday, however.

Row 6

9-Scott Dixon (Target Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Never rule him out, and if he isn’t in the top five going into the last 100 miles, it would be a surprise.

CE: Always there, always lurking. He’s won the “500” once before and if he has no issues, you can bet he’ll be fighting for a second victory at Indy.

10-Dario Franchitti (Target Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: His team found something on Carb Day but otherwise has struggled this month – that said, like Dixon, he’ll be there at the end in some way, shape or form.

CE: Franchitti’s run at Indy over the last few years has been sensational. Remember, he was knocked to 28th last year after an early pit road incident and still came back and won. Never count this guy out.

14-Takuma Sato (A.J. Foyt Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Driving at the top of his game right now, and buoyed by the confidence of his run last year, should once again figure into the top five in the last 100 miles.

CE: His emergence this season has been one of the better stories from the IndyCar paddock. I can see him being up toward the front again at Indy like he was in 2012. Expect a lot of cheers if he is there.

Row 7

83-Charlie Kimball (Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Has finished 500 miles both of his first two starts, and another in the “sleeper top-10 finisher” category this time around, if not the outright fastest.

CE: He bagged a solid Top-10 finish last year in the “500,” but with this competitive of a field, a Top-15 may be the most likely target this time around for Kimball.

16-James Jakes (Rahal Letterman Lanigan/Honda)

TDZ: All I can say about Jakes is that no one expected Bertrand Baguette and Takuma Sato to be in the winning frame late for RLL the last two years, and if the team again plays the strategy cards right, this is your “über-sleeper.”

CE: The thing that strikes me about Jakesy is that he keeps out of trouble. That could play to his advantage if there’s a higher rate of attrition on Sunday.

77-Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports/Honda)

TDZ: Very strong in race trim, and with a year’s worth of oval experience behind him, Pagenaud has the confidence and team to contend for a top-10, perhaps top-five, run on Sunday.

CE: He was the fastest man on Carb Day and considering how wide-open the grid is, a top-10 finish is definitely doable for IndyCar’s reigning rookie of the year.

Row 8

60-Townsend Bell (Panther Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: If his pit crew can keep him in the frame for all 500 miles, Bell is the one of strongest of the Indy-only entries.

CE: The veteran driver has proven to be a steady and reliable one whenever he’s called upon. A top-10 finish would be far from unexpected for him.

8-Ryan Briscoe (Chip Ganassi Racing/Honda)

TDZ: He’ll have a fresh engine but hasn’t had the smoothest of months; in a one-off entry, it’s hard to see him doing much better than 10th.

CE: Last year’s “500” pole winner has had to deal with qualifying difficulties and a blown engine this month, but he’s had success here in the past. He could be a sleeper as the race plays out.

78-Simona de Silvestro (KV Racing Technology/Chevrolet)

TDZ: She needs race laps more than anything else, and a finish of any kind would be a boost after two challenging race days the last two years.

CE: The Brickyard hasn’t always treated her well – and that may be putting it mildly. But now that she has a competitive engine, expect her to come away with a finish better or close to her Indy best of 14th (2010).

Row 9

21-Josef Newgarden (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Another sleeper, Newgarden’s maturation process is noticeable from his first to second years, but he and the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team need to avoid reliability pitfalls.

CE: The social media maven can rise up the pylon on Sunday but with his starting position, he’ll definitely need a good car in traffic to do it.

15-Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan/Honda)

TDZ: Like Jakes, Graham has the benefit of RLL strategy in his camp, but has struggled for pace; most likely, a borderline top-10 finisher at best.

CE: A win from him would make the Rahals the second father-son combo to win the “500.” One wonders how that would make their rivals, the Andrettis, feel.

6-Sebastian Saavedra (Dragon Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: Just finishing his third Indy 500 start would be a victory for the Colombian and his spiked hair; finishing ahead of Katherine Legge, whom he replaced at Dragon, would be a bonus.

CE: The most memorable moment of the month for Saavedra may wind up being his chrome silver and blue paint job literally going to pieces in a practice session.

Row 10

55-Tristan Vautier (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports/Honda)

TDZ: Given he’s the only full-season rookie in the field, just needs race laps and a finish from his first 500, with anything 15th or better a bonus.

CE: The Frenchman needs to show a lot of patience as he makes his way from Row 10. Finishing this race on the lead lap would be a good showing for him.

18-Ana Beatriz (Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)

TDZ: With three DNFs from the first four races, Beatriz is another in the “needs a finish first” camp, and would go a long way for her participation the rest of this season.

CE: Beatriz has had finishes of 21st, 21st and 23rd in her first three Indy appearances. That would appear to be right where she’ll likely be again.

63-Pippa Mann (Dale Coyne Racing/Honda)

TDZ: After her car had a vibration on Carb Day, Mann just needs to run 500 trouble-free miles this Sunday.

CE: The Englishwoman did a great job getting her car into the show, but she’s going to need a strong race car in order to keep from being lapped.

Row 11

41-Conor Daly (A.J. Foyt Racing/Honda)

TDZ: Good name, good genes, but a rough month for Foyt’s rookie; if he cracks the top-15, it’s a good result.

CE: The mission is simple: Run as many laps as you can, bring it back in one piece, enjoy the experience.

91-Buddy Lazier (Lazier Partners Racing/Chevrolet)

TDZ: He’s fit and his car looks sharp, but he’s unlikely to trouble the leaders at any point.

CE: Does the 1996 Indy winner have another good run left in him at the Speedway? Lord knows, he’ll try. Much like Kanaan, he’s a bulldog. A top 20 sounds right.

81-Katherine Legge (Schmidt Peterson Pelfrey Motorsports/Honda)

TDZ: There’s nothing to lose for her, with a car that was quick on Carb Day and wanting to again prove herself in her first IndyCar start of the year; she potentially could finish in the 10th-to-15th range.

CE: A nice showing on Carb Day (eighth-quickest) may indicate that she has something decent for the race.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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