The 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge has a deep field, so deep that separating one car-and-driver combination from the next is nearly impossible. Yet, there are realities.
Some drivers in Sunday’s race have more experience and/or a better success record on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s historic oval track. Others have stronger teams with more proven engineers and veteran crew members. Speed isn’t just essential on the track -- how quick pit stops are executed is always seems to be a factor late in the race. And luck? Some drivers seem to have it in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” while others are still in search of it.
Part of the fun of Race Weekend for fans is making casual predictions or bets with friends and co-workers about the winner of the race. Others participate in blind draw pools in which they pull the names or numbers of a driver or drivers, with the pool participant holding the winning name or number collecting a prize.
So, with that, we take a stab at sizing up the 33-car field that is the fastest in “500” history at an average speed of 230.294 mph. The drivers are ordered by their starting positions in the race.
- Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, No. 9 PNC Bank Honda: Dixon should be everyone’s prohibitive favorite. He is starting from the pole, led Miller Lite Carb Day practice and is third on INDYCAR’s all-time wins list, with one of his 51 career wins coming here in 2008. He finished second last year and is primed to break Al Unser’s record for career laps led. Dixon needs to lead 82 laps to break that mark.
- Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian, No. 26 Gainbridge Honda: Officially, Bryan Herta’s 21-year-old son has made two previous starts in this event, but his rookie year, in 2019, was marred by a mechanical failure that sidelined him on the third lap. Herta has four career NTT INDYCAR SERIES wins and is tenacious. He looks ready to start winning “500s,” and he might win a lot of them.
- Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, No. 21 Bitcoin Chevrolet: The winner of the GMR Grand Prix has qualified fourth and third in his two “500s,” and his talent is unmistakable. If he can avoid a mistake like last year when he overshot his pit box on Lap 62 and struck a crew member, he will be a handful if he is close to the lead in the final 50 laps.
- Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing, No. 20 SONAX Chevrolet: Carpenter has three career poles and a runner-up finish in the 2018 race, but he has been inconsistent in his 17 starts. But Carpenter is fast, experienced and talented, and he can win. If he does, it would be wildly popular with the fan base since he grew up in Indianapolis.
- Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing, No. 48 The American Legion Honda: The 2013 “500” winner expected to be retired by now, but here he is with his best opportunity since 2017. Can he win? Bet your Brazilian bucks he can. And if he does, the party might never end.
- Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, No. 10 NTT DATA Honda: Palou is arguably INDYCAR’s surprise of 2021, having won the season-opening race at Barber Motorsports Park and still second in the standings after five races, only 13 points behind the leader (Dixon). The 24-year-old Spaniard did a masterful job of managing his slide into the Turn 2 wall after qualifying Saturday. Yes, it was a ferocious impact with the SAFER Barrier, but it could have been worse if he didn’t keep the car flush with the barrier. Bottom line: He has the talent and the team to win.
- Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport, No. 28 DHL Honda: Indy’s winner in 2014 hasn’t won an INDYCAR SERIES race since the end of the 2018 season, but he looked racy last weekend during Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying. Having recently turned 40, he could become the 18th driver to win the “500” after celebrating that birthday.
- Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing, No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda: New team, new outlook. But will this be a new spark for the three-time winner at Indy? His average finish in three races since finishing second in 2017 is 18.7. Keep in mind that this team is aligned with Andretti Autosport and Honda, a combination with a strong recent record at IMS.
- Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda: The Swede has had a fast car all month, and his consistency ensures it isn’t unthinkable for him to win the race. But he will need to pass his three faster teammates first.
- Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport, No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda: The 2016 winner still has yet to show the strength necessary to win this year’s race, but his history here suggests he should not be underestimated. Of Rossi’s five races here, he has finished first, seventh, fourth and second.
- Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan, No. 18 SealMaster Honda: There is a reason Jones was eager to return to this team; they finished third together in 2017. Dale Coyne is a master strategist, so surprising the field to take the victory isn’t out of the question.
- Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP, No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet: The 20-year-old driver proved he could win a demanding oval race by capturing the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on May 2. Winning this race might not be in the cards this year, but O’Ward finished sixth last year with this team.
- Pietro Fittipaldi, Dale Coyne Racing with RWR: This rookie is one to watch for the future, but Sunday likely will be a day for gaining experience and building for the future. After all, even his two-time World Champion grandfather, Emerson Fittipaldi, finished 32nd as a rookie at Indy. But Pietro is the fastest rookie in the field, and it was only five years ago that a rookie named Alexander Rossi stunned the field to win.
- Felix Rosenqvist, Arrow McLaren SP, No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet: The Swede has led both of his “500s” for a total of 14 laps, but he has finished 28th and 12th. But he’ll need good luck and more speed to become the second Swede on the Borg-Warner Trophy, behind 1999 winner Kenny Brack.
- Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda: Yes, Sato starts 15th, and only one winner in the past five races has started as far back. But the winner of two of the past four “500s” nearly had another win in 2019 when he finished three-tenths of a second behind the winner in third place. That’s the best stretch of any driver in this field, and you know Sato will be on full attack. If he is in the lead group by the halfway point, we could be looking at the first repeat winner since Helio Castroneves in 2002.
- James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport, No. 25 Genesys Honda: You’d expect the car to be fast enough, but it hasn’t been this month, and Hinchcliffe is having a difficult year on and off the track. Still, Hinch has plenty of experience around the Brickyard, and a victory by the popular Canadian would be celebrated with gusto around the grandstands and beyond.
- Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, No. 3 Pennzoil Chevrolet: Did anyone predict the three-time Australian Supercars champion would be Team Penske’s top qualifier? Of course not. But as Rick Mears says, McLaughlin is an incredibly fast learner, and after finishing second in the May 1 race at Texas Motor Speedway, it wouldn’t be outrageous if he won this thing.
- Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, No. 15 United Rentals Honda: Last year’s third-place finisher has a history of racing better than he qualifies. He is as hungry to win Indy as any driver in the field and could become the second son of a winner to also earn a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy.
- Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing, No. 47 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet: The car is fast enough, and the driver has enough experience. If the combination gets the strength it showed before the boost was turned up last week, Daly could be a contender for the first Indiana-born victor since Wilbur Shaw in 1940.
- Jack Harvey, Meyer Shank Racing, No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda: Harvey could be the most likely next first-time winner this year in INDYCAR. But unlike O’Ward, it seems like Harvey’s first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory will come on a road course rather than an oval. Still, it was 10 years ago that the last Englishman to capture the “500” – Dan Wheldon – stunned the field with a last-lap victory.
- Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, No. 2 Shell Fuel Rewards Chevrolet: The two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion hadn’t shown a lot of speed this month before ending up third on Miller Lite Carb Day, but this is reminiscent of last year when he charged into contention and took fifth place. Newgarden always seems to hang around the front of the pack at Indy, scoring top-10 finishes in five of the past six races. But he needs more than that to win.
- JR Hildebrand, AJ Foyt Racing, No. 1 ABC Supply Foyt Stewart Racing Chevrolet: Hildebrand’s team used terrific strategy to nearly pull off the race win in 2011, and he is capable of executing a similar plan if it plays out this year.
- Santino Ferrucci, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, No. 45 HyVee Honda: The “500” hasn’t had a one-off winner since Dan Wheldon in 2011, but this is a combination worthy of that feat. The team has given Ferrucci a good car, and he has shown he knows what to do with one here. He finished seventh as a rookie in 2019 and fourth last year.
- Juan Pablo Montoya, Arrow McLaren SP, No. 86 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet: The pairing of the two-time “500” winner with standout engineer Craig Hampson looked like a strong contender, but this car has been mid-pack all month, perhaps because Montoya is still adjusting to being away for four years. But Sunday is Race Day, and that’s what Montoya has been preparing for. The man’s Hall of Fame resume suggests he can win in any car at any time.
- Marco Andretti, Andretti Herta-Haupert w/Marco & Curb-Agajanian, No. 98 Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana Honda: In 1973, Johnny Rutherford started on the pole but didn’t lead a lap. The next year he won the race from the 25th starting position. Andretti was last year’s pole winner, didn’t lead a lap and now starts from the 25th position. Hmm. Plus Andretti’s team found and fixed two major problems with his car after qualifying last Saturday, and he responded by soaring to fifth on the Miller Lite Carb Day practice speed chart.
- Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, No. 22 Menards Chevrolet: It’s really difficult to assess the chances of the 2019 race winner. Last weekend’s post-qualifying practice ended with Pagenaud’s car smoking, and it’s well-documented how Roger Penske’s organization has struggled this month. The Frenchman had a similar month in August, and he finished two laps down in 22nd. Yet, he was second fastest in Miller Lite Carb Day practice and shouldn’t be counted out.
- Sebastien Bourdais, AJ Foyt Racing, No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet: The four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion is donating his race-used helmet to support Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, where he and his family have lived for the past 20 years. It would be great if the helmet had dried milk spots, but that will be tough after a trying month that started with two crashes not of his doing in both races at Texas.
- Stefan Wilson, Andretti Autosport, No. 25 LOHLA SPORT/Cusick Motorsports Honda: Wilson is capable of pulling off a stunner as he nearly did in 2018 when he led Laps 193, 194 and 195. He again has an Andretti car, which has won five “500s” with five different drivers.
- Max Chilton, Carlin, No. 59 Carlin Chevrolet: It’s difficult to underestimate the achievement of qualifying for this race as a one-car team. Hats off to Carlin and others for doing so. Chilton also knows how to lead at Indy, pacing the field for a race-high 50 laps in 2017.
- Dalton Kellett, AJ Foyt Racing, No. 4 K-Line Insulators Chevrolet: After his qualifying speed on Saturday was withdrawn, Kellett ran nearly 1 mph slower and settled for the slowest average in the field. But he was able to exhale and avoid Last Chance Qualifying, focusing instead on the race. The only Canadian to win the race was Jacques Villeneuve in 1995; Toronto-area native Kellett would love to join that club.
- Sage Karam, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, No. 24 DRR AES Indiana Chevrolet: At least Karam knows what is ahead of him. This is the third consecutive year and fourth time overall that he has started 31st. He was fast during one of the early practice days in similar conditions to what’s expected on Race Day, so there is cause for optimism.
- Will Power, Team Penske, No. 12 Verizon 5G Chevrolet: No driver has won the “500” starting deeper in the field than 28th. Power, the 2018 race winner, is good, sure, but a lot would have to go right for him – or anyone else -- to break that record, as he’s starting 32nd. Still, Power showed strength in traffic on Miller Lite Carb Day, ending up sixth overall.
- Simona De Silvestro, Paretta Autosport, No. 16 Rocket Pro TPO Chevrolet: Earning a starting position was the goal for Beth Paretta’s “Female Forward” team. The race will give the team a chance to build momentum for the future with hopefully a dent-free car.
NBC Sports begins its Sunday coverage at 9 a.m. on the NBC Sports Network, with the race broadcast beginning on NBC at 11 a.m. The INDYCAR Radio Network also will come on the air at 11 a.m.