Plenty of dark horses lurking at Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – When the green flag flies on the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, pole sitter Simon Pagenaud plans to use the speed he showed in qualifying to keep the 32 other drivers in his mirrors and ride that momentum to victory.

There's no doubt the biggest threat to that scenario playing out likely comes from the other drivers who made the Fast Nine Shootout a week before, but Pagenaud admits he will also be keeping his eye on a few drivers starting deeper in the field – starting with Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, a three-time Indy 500 winner.

“Helio picked it up, and as usual, figured it out (in practice) on Monday,” Pagenaud said. “He is going to be a force to be reckoned with.

“I was impressed by (Santino) Ferrucci. He's been running really well. He's got an interesting line that differs from others. It's either going to work or not, but so far it's been working well for him.”

There may be something in Pagenaud's observations after Ferrucci ended Miller Lite Carb Day practice Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway second fastest overall behind in the Tony Kanaan, who starts 16th.

Helio CastronevesCastroneves starts 12th on Sunday, while Ferrucci's will be in 23rd. Castroneves' incentive to beat his Penske teammate to the finish is clear: A win puts him in an elite club of four-time Indy 500 winners along with A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser.

“I won here starting in 11th. I won here starting from 13th. I had a great race in 2017, starting from 19th,” said Castroneves who finished second two years ago.

“Patience is the hardest part for a driver because, in one stint your car can be really good, and then in the next stint the other guys make their car better. It's constantly changing and it's important to stay calm and think ahead to your next move.”

The record for winning from the worst starting spot is held jointly by the first Indianapolis 500 winner Ray Harroun (1911) and three-time champion Louis Meyer, who drove to victory from 28th in 1936. That triumph made Meyer the first three-time winner and he also began the tradition of drinking milk in victory lane, downing a bottle of buttermilk to quench his thirst.

The driver that pretty much all the others pegged as one to watch is Scott Dixon, who always seems to find a way to get to the front no matter the race or the track. The five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion, however, has only one Indy 500 win, in 2008.

“Dixon is going to be there, for sure,” Pagenaud said. “He's a five-time champion, and he's not a five-time champ for no reason. Obviously, you expect him to be there.”

Dixon's 18th-place start is his lowest for the Indy 500, although he as quick to point out that he started 15th in 2012 and ended that day second behind then teammate Dario Franchitti.

“I think there are many dark horses,” Dixon said. “I think our race car has been really good, and I think this year should be easier to move up than last year. The racing should be better and closer, but still I think you will see the better car win.”

Ed Carpenter, who starts alongside Pagenaud in the middle of Row 1, thinks any driver who’s won the Indy 500 before needs to be watched, no matter where they take the green flag. A case in point is Takuma Sato, who starts 14th but was third fastest on Carb Day.

“The hard part about assessing this field is it's strong all the way through,” Carpenter said.

“(James) Hinchcliffe is on the last row. I won't be surprised to see him in the front at some point. He's got a good car. That's what makes this race so challenging in this era: The quality of teams from top to bottom and drivers is just so tight.”

Tickets remain available for the 103rd Indy 500 at IMS.com and at the track ticket office. Live coverage begins at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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