- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

Last year’s Indianapolis 500 was decided by a mere six-hundredths of a second, but drivers said today’s race could be one of the most competitive in the history of the event.

With seven drivers qualifying within a second of the pole position, no driver appears to have the speed edge to dominate the race for 200 laps.

“If you compare my pole time to the next six or seven guys, it’s really, really close,” said Helio Castroneves, the 2001 and 2002 winner who qualified the fastest at just under 226 miles per hour. “I don’t think it’s going to be one of those races where the guy’s leading and he says ‘see you later.’ ”

It will be tough to beat the drama of last year’s race, when Sam Hornish Jr. mounted a furious comeback to beat teenager Marco Andretti in the second-closest finish in Indy 500 history. But drivers have labeled this as one of the deepest fields in recent memory with six previous winners and only two rookie drivers ready to line up at the Brickyard.

It’s also the first Indy 500 to feature three women drivers, as Venezuelan Milka Duno qualified for the race for the first time, joining Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher. From a racing perspective, Duno is unlikely to have much impact on the race, but drivers took note of the historical significance.

“From the inside, I can’t say I care, but that’s just the driver in me,” said Patrick, who made headlines in 2005 by becoming the first woman to lead laps at Indianapolis. “From the outside looking in, it’s good for young girls, it’s good for people trying to break the mold, and it’s good for those types of people. I’m happy to be a part of that.”

For Duno, the goal will be to simply finish the 200 laps. She ran her first IRL race at Kansas Speedway in April and finished 14th.

“This championship is really competitive,” said Duno, who has experience primarily on road courses. “Maybe because it’s oval and so high speed and you’re so close tire-to-tire, it increases the risk of the situation and makes [something] difficult even tougher.”

Patrick, however, expects to compete for the checkered flag after moving over to Andretti Green Racing for the 2007 season. Her qualifying speed of just more than 224 mph places her in the middle of Row 3.

“I’m much happier this year,” said Patrick, who finished eighth in the Indy 500 last year as a member of Rahal Letterman Racing. “I’ve made a very good change. The car is fast.”

Some of the buzz over Patrick has subsided — she expressed relief that fewer media commitments this year have given her more time to concentrate on her car — but race fans still are anxious to see if she will break through to become the first-ever female winner at Indianapolis. Fellow drivers give her a fighting chance and agree she has the car and team capable of winning, but bristled at the suggestion that she must win now.

“Honestly, there’s just a lot of good people out there,” said Dan Wheldon, the 2005 winner who will start in the outside of Row 2. “It’s not that easy. When you’re racing against talented people, it’s hard to win.”

Wheldon is one of several drivers racing with some extra motivation, as he aims to extend his current IRL points lead, while exorcising the demons of the 2006, when he led the most laps at Indy but finished fourth.

“I had a really frustrating season last year,” said Wheldon, a member of the Target Ganassi team. “We let a lot of results slip. We tied in the points championships but we let a lot of points get away. This year, I don’t want that to happen again. There’s no excuse for it.”

Hornish, who edged Wheldon in a tiebreaker for the IRL championship last year, is desperate for a win after falling to sixth place in points after four races. Plagued by bad luck, Hornish has yet to win a race and has led just three laps all year.

“I obviously wish we were doing better,” he said. “The way I look at is that we easily could have finished third in every race this year and been right there with an opportunity to lead in the points, but it just hasn’t worked out for us.”

Other drivers in the first three rows include Tony Kanaan, who has three top-five Indy 500 finishes, and Scott Dixon , who is second in this year’s IRL point standings but is looking to shed his reputation as a road-course specialist.

And then there’s Andretti, the product of one of racing’s most revered families, who appeared to have last year’s race won before Hornish’s furious charge on the last straightaway.

“To be able to show that we were there in the end helped us,” said Andretti, who will start on the outside of Row 3. “I really think the only thing we were lacking was speed, and it seems like we found that. I really feel like I have all the tools to win the race, but I know a lot of guys do, and that’s the tough part.”

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