INDIANAPOLIS — When the 88th Indianapolis 500 gets the green flag today, it will have one of the most competitive fields in years, yet at the same time one of the most unbalanced.
As many as 15 drivers, nearly half of the 33-car field, have the credentials, background and support systems to win. Most of the others are along for the ride, and it could be a short one.
No front row has had less experience than the line of Buddy Rice, Dan Wheldon and Dario Franchitti. All have been in the 500 only once. Only in 1998 when Billy Boat, Greg Ray and Kenny Brack were on the front row has there been such inexperience heading for the first turn.
And the first 16 drivers have been in a combined 21 Indy races. The next two, Al Unser Jr. and Robby Gordon, have combined for 25.
There is also a leveling quality to the field: all cars will be using untried 3-liter engines. Before today's race, all Indy Racing League cars had 3.5-liter engines, but after a number of high-speed accidents last year, the power ratio was reduced equally for the Honda, Toyota and Chevrolet power plants, starting with the Indianapolis 500.
Honda has appeared to have done its homework best because the fastest seven qualifiers are using its engine, headed by the 222.024-mph pole speed of Rice, lead driver for the Rahal-Letterman team.
But the speeds are for four laps, or 10 miles, and the race is 200 laps, or 500 miles. Reliability, perhaps more than speed, could be the deciding factor.
"New engines for everybody may result in more engine failures than we've had in the past due to the limited development," said John Faivre, Toyota's racing development manager. "Normally, development of this nature would take place in the off-season, but everyone has had to take a different course with the mid-season engine change" from 3.5 liter to 3.0 liters.
Rice's Honda-powered Argent-Pioneer team is on a roll, however. It took the pole, then followed that by winning the pit stop contest Thursday.
"Two out of three so far," said Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy winner turned team owner. "Sunday we'll go for the trifecta."
Roger Penske, the most successful Indy car owner with 13 wins, including the last three in a row, and Helio Castroneves, the most successful Indy car driver over a three-year period with two wins and a second last year, carry Toyota's hopes.
"I think the day we want to be fastest is race day," Penske said, noting that Castroneves qualified eighth and teammate Sam Hornish Jr. 11th. Hornish is Penske's replacement for Gil de Ferran, the 2003 winner who retired and is here working as a TV commentator.
Michael Andretti, here for the first time as strictly a team owner after racing in last year's 500 for the final time, has the hottest hand in the field, and also the largest. He has put together a four-car team with two of his drivers, Wheldon and Franchitti, on the front row. Tony Kanaan, who ran the fastest lap of the month, 223.224 in practice, will start fifth. Bryan Herta, the fourth Andretti driver, is back in 23rd after crashing during his first-day qualifying effort.
The team is also on a streak. In the last two IRL races, Kanaan won at Phoenix with Wheldon third and Wheldon and Kanaan finished one-two at Motegi, Japan.
As for today's race, Wheldon said, "I'm just going to make sure that I'm around until the last pit stop and then see what happens from there. I think that's the key, trying to position yourself for the end of the race rather than worrying about the start of the race."
Franchitti missed last year's 500 because of back injuries from a motorcycle accident near his home in Edinburgh, Scotland, last April.
"It's a much different situation coming back this year," Franchitti said.
"The car is definitely very difficult to drive and to make consistent. The way we're working together as teammates is very rewarding, but come Sunday we're out there to beat each other. It's all about you."
If there is a sleeper, it is the Super Aguri Fernandez Racing team of Mexican driver-owner Adrian Fernandez and his rookie Japanese teammate, Kosuke Matsuura. They have been among the fastest all month, and in Thursday's final test, Matsuura was first and Fernandez second.
"I think Kosuke will be a bit of a surprise Sunday," said Fernandez, a veteran of 10 years in CART before switching to the IRL this year. "I have been telling him a lot of different things, all of the different scenarios that could be presented to him. I think that he will be able to learn through the first half of the race and be able to be quite competitive and strong toward the end."
Matsuura is the fastest of eight rookies, including two sons of former winners, P.J. Jones and Larry Foyt; the stepson of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway president, Ed Carpenter; and two who have never driven in an IRL or Champ Car race, 45-year-old Marty Roth and Jeff Simmons, who has never been in a race with a pit stop.