On the right track

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Unpredictable.

That’s how many of the drivers in today’s Indianapolis 500 have characterized the race, which will feature one of the most complete fields in years but arguably one of the most inexperienced.

Among the 33 drivers vying for motorsport immortality are 11 drivers from the former ChampCar World Series, which merged with the Indy Racing League before this season. While all of the drivers boast on-track experience, none has raced on the 2½-mile oval at Indianapolis.

“They aren’t really rookies, but they’re rookies at the Indy 500, though, and that is a situation,” said Danica Patrick, who will start from the fifth position. “I think that they haven’t had time to work on these cars as we have. They’re not quite as quick. And so if some of them become lap traffic, you might see lap traffic come in clumps.”

Indeed, the fastest former ChampCar driver to qualify was Graham Rahal, who came in nearly 4 mph slower than pole-sitter Scott Dixon. Rahal will start in the 13th position, the inside of Row 5.

“I think it’s been quite tough,” said Rahal, the son of 1986 winner Bobby Rahal. “I think realistically we’re still a couple of miles an hour behind. … I think ultimately there’s still probably about 2½-, 3 [mph] on the big oval here.”

With the possibility of a slower pack of cars, handling and car balance will be equally, if not more important, than raw speed.

“Hopefully, we’ll be quick and work well in traffic,” said Penske driver Ryan Briscoe, who will start on the outside of the front row. “But you don’t really know until you get under way. The track can be unpredictable. I think there are five or six cars that have a legit shot to win this race and 10 or 12 that have at least an outside chance.”

Among those drivers given a shot are Penske’s Helio Castroneves, the winner at Indianapolis in 2001 and 2002, Andretti Green drivers Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti, Panther Racing’s Vitor Meira and LuczoDragon Racing’s Tomas Scheckter. This year’s race will be without the last two winners, Dario Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., who made the switch to NASCAR this season.

“I think we’re going to see a different Indy 500 than we’ve seen the last couple of years,” said Andretti, who finished a close second to Hornish in 2006 but exited early after a crash on lap 163 last year. “There’s a bigger discrepancy in speeds. I think there’s going to be groups of slower cars and groups of faster cars. It’s going to shake things up a bit.”

But a strong showing by the former ChampCar drivers would be an encouraging sign for the newly unified Indy Racing League, which is counting on the additions to boost the competitiveness of future races. Dixon, the pole-sitter who finished second in the IndyCar Series standings in 2007, didn’t discount the new drivers.

“It’s the 500. Anything can pop out,” Dixon said. “You have to realize those guys have had a tough time in the transition. For them to do it, it’s going to be a lot of hard work for them. But there’s definitely a lot of capable guys that have made the move.”

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