Underdog Opportunities Abound in 103rd Running

Pit lane during final 2019 Indy 500 practice

Set to shine a spotlight on 33 drivers with varied backgrounds, the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 is layered with different opportunities for drivers at different stages of their career.

A whole weekend of qualifying included underdog stories coming to fruition with the race itself still a week away while the NTT IndyCar Series’ lauded “Big Three” mostly filed into their expected starting positions.

With 17 Indianapolis 500 triumphs in its 50-year history at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Team Penske takes on the 103rd edition of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” with an all-star lineup that maintains its position on another level from the all-new DragonSpeed outfit, for example.

Penske has won this race with 12 different drivers. DragonSpeed has only ever fielded one — young rookie Ben Hanley — in two total races previously in 2019. The presence of both on the same grid brings the possibilities of further success for powerhouse teams and big breaks for burgeoning teams — and drivers — to the same world stage. And in the current ultra-competitive era of IndyCar, any driver-team combination can earn their way to the front and be first to cross the Yard of Bricks on the final lap.

When singling out entrants that would be positively impacted the most by success at the famed Brickyard, the true diversity of the starting lineup for this year’s Indy 500 becomes clear: Out of 17 distinct teams, nearly a dozen are fielding drivers that would experience significant career advancement should they come out on top Sunday in Indianapolis.

Most of the pilots belonging to this group understandably will take the green flag near the back of the 11 rows, excepting prime candidates to overcome Penske and its primary rivals.

Jack Harvey gets ready to qualify at Indy
Jack Harvey earned his first IndyCar podium earlier in May 2019 and focused through practice and qualifying to carry that momentum into his most important drive of the year — and perhaps his career. | Photo: Jamie Sheldrick / Spacesuit Media

Driving for Scuderia Corsa in partnership with Indianapolis superstars Ed Carpenter Racing, Ed Jones is the only driver set to launch from the frontmost three rows that fans of underdog stories may elect to support. The Dubai-born racer competed full-time with Dale Coyne Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing in 2017 and 2018 but could use a boost to turn his part-time program into something more for himself and Italian sports car racing experts Scuderia Corsa.

Marco Andretti and Conor Daly will share the fourth row with Helio Castroneves. Both will race for Big Three member Andretti Autosport, but an Andretti triumph on the 50th anniversary of Mario’s win would be equal parts relieving for Marco and historic for IndyCar. Daly’s average finish in five “500” starts is 27th but, with Andretti, the Noblesville, Indiana driver has his best shot yet.

James Davison returned to Indianapolis with Jonathan Byrd and Brian Belardi in partnership with Dale Coyne Racing for just his seventh IndyCar start since finishing second in the Indy Lights championship a decade ago. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, Davison spoke multiple times in the lead-up to the “500” about the business side of racing that only a few drivers are lucky enough to not worry about.

“Oh, absolutely,” Davison told The Apex when asked about his interest in contesting IndyCar races beyond Indianapolis. “But it just comes down to what budget you’ve got behind you.

“I did Indy Lights with those guys — Hinch, Hildebrand, Kimball. You’ve either got the funding behind you or you don’t. There’s no more to it. That’s the only difference. The vast majority of the talent pool don’t get the break and you do the best with what cards you’ve got and that’s what I’ve been doing.”

Kyle Kaiser laps IMS with Sage Karam
After beginning practice week with a sponsor-less white Dallara IR-12, Juncos Racing dealt McLaren Racing its final blow on the second day of qualifying. | Photo: Peter Minnig / Spacesuit Media

Rows 7 and 9 will be the starting points for six drivers who would benefit greatly from finishing at or near the front. Oriol Servia, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand on the seventh row have IndyCar experience but more IndyCar action outside Speedway, Indiana could be in store for these drivers and Team Stange Racing, Carlin and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing who run their cars.

AJ Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist will start on the outside of Row 8 ahead of Jack Harvey and rookies Jordan King and Ben Hanley on the all-British ninth row. Leist’s Brazilian teammate Tony Kanaan was picked up by Ganassi and launched into stardom when he won the 2013 Indy 500 with struggling team KV Racing Technology.

Each driver on the row behind Leist is aboard a partial-season campaign in 2019 with the “500” marking King’s only outing. Success for Harvey and Hanley’s teams Meyer Shank Racing and DragonSpeed would mean explosive growth while Pippa Mann, the field’s lone female, will aim to explosively promote Driven2SaveLives after qualifying 30th with USAC team Clauson-Marshall Racing.

Sage Karam, James Hinchcliffe and Kyle Kaiser were the success stories in the Last Row Shootout a week before race day. Karam is as determined as ever to spark expansion for himself and the DRR team he belongs to while Hinchcliffe, already a full-time driver, seeks revenge after joining Mann on the sidelines last year.

Kaiser’s Juncos Racing crew is the little team that could — and did. When the Californian earned the 33rd starting position by bumping Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing from the field, he also earned a page in Indy 500 history. The sudden sponsor interest team owner Ricardo Juncos has already fielded could be multiplied if the Cinderella story continues for the driver and team who had only March’s Circuit of The Americas race and the “500” on their 2019 IndyCar calendar.

Only one of the 33 starters can win, but the promise of job security for Roger Penske’s drivers plus the allure of career transformation for some will make every second — and inch — count around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Motor sports immortality is on the line, as is the opportunity to change the face of IndyCar.

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