Track Talk: Indy 500 Picks

The 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 is this weekend. In this week’s TrackTalk we examine the favorites to win the race, but also look through the grid to see if there are any underdogs or dark horses with the ability to break through.

The Favorites

Scott Dixon: Scott Dixon is unquestionably the favorite to win the Indy 500. Sure he’s starting on pole and is the 1998 winner, but outside of that he hasn’t put a wheel wrong all May- not to mention that he has three podiums, and has finished no lower than 5th this season. He’s long overdue for a win in 2017.

Ed Carpenter: IndyCar’s resident oval-only driver, Ed Carpenter starts 2nd. A two-time Indy 500 pole winner, Carpenter usually qualifies and runs stronger than he actually finishes. If he can stay out of trouble, then expect to see him in the running at the end. If the Chevrolet engine truly is down on power to the Honda, then Carpenter’s qualifying run might be the bravest of the 33-car field.

Ryan Hunter-Reay: The 2014 Indy 500 champion has been consistently fast all month. He qualified fastest of the remaining 27 drivers with a time that would have put have put him 4th on the grid had he made the fast nine.

Will Power: Like Dixon, I’m basing much of my opinion on Will Power not on his performance at Indy, but how he’s managed to turn his season around. He’s clawed his way from the back to 3rd in points. He might have qualified slowest of the fast nine, but he’s more than capable of converting that into a win.

The Underdogs

Fernando Alonso: As a longtime IndyCar fan it’s difficult not to root for Fernando Alonso. A two-time Formula One world champion turns his back on the Monaco Grand Prix to run the Indy 500 as a rookie. How can you not love that story? While Alonso has taken to Indy like a veteran, there are still some areas he’ll need to adapt to. Specifically, how will he race in traffic? Sure he’s run in traffic during practice, but that’s far different than having to defend or challenge for position while others fight to remain on the lead lap. Pit stops are nothing like what he’s used to in Formula One. He’s going to have to contend with smaller pit boxes, more stops, and increased traffic coming in-and-out of the pits. As we’ve seen in year’s past, there could be more drama in the pits than on track. If he can deal with traffic and keep it clean in the pits, then Alonso might have a chance to win.

Alexander Rossi: The reigning Indy 500 champion is looking to add his face to the Borg Warner Trophy for a second time. We really only saw Alexander Rossi’s speed in qualifying. He may be the reigning champion, but consistency and bad luck have plagued him all season. He has the speed, but he’ll need stay out of trouble if he wants to repeat.

Tony Kanaan: The 2013 Indy 500 champion didn’t have the qualifying speed of teammate Scott Dixon, but he’s IndyCar’s ironman who knows how to finish a 500 mile race. Tony Kanaan might be starting 7th, but he’s always a threat to finish strong at Indy.

JR Hildebrand: JR Hildebrand is back in an IndyCar fulltime. The heartbreaking 2011 Indy 500 runner-up completes Ed Carpenter Racing’s 1-2 punch for this year’s race. He’s been racing Indy with Ed Carpenter since 2014, and ever since he’s finished the race in the top-10. Can he convert that streak into a win?

The Dark Horses

Takuma Sato: With Alexander Rossi and Fernando Alonso as teammates, it’s easy for us to forget that Takuma Sato- who qualified 4th, is a member of the Andretti Autosport six-car armada. He has the speed to win- and he almost pulled it off in 2012 before crashing on the last lap in 2nd place. Sato’s best finish is a 13th in seven starts.

Marco Andretti: Can Marco Andretti finally close the deal? He finished 2nd in his first Indy 500, and has four 3rd place finishes to his credit. Unless a crash or mechanical gremlin interferes with his race, you can usually rely on Andretti to finish in the top-5.

Simon Pagenaud: It’s weird having the reigning IndyCar champion and current points leader listed as a ‘dark horse’, but the only time Indy is kind to Simon Pagenaud is on the road course. He qualified in 23rd- last of his Team Penske teammates, and has only finished in the top-10 twice in six starts. An interesting fact about those six starts- Pagenaud is yet to record a DNF at the Indy 500. Could the reigning champion be a sleeper at the back? We’ll find out Sunday.

Victor Genova is the host of the Media People Podcast and a freelance racing writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @VicGenova