Indy 500 preview: Storylines to follow during the Greatest Spectacle in Racing

Scott Dixon of New Zealand leads the field through the first turn on the start of the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, May 30, 2021. (Darron Cummings/AP)

The Indianapolis 500 is known as the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing" for a reason, as a testament to speed and endurance with a history steeped in tradition and lore like no other.

Thirty-three drivers look to become the one to don the wreath, enjoy a refreshing glass of milk, kiss the yard of bricks at the start/finish line and add their likeness to the Borg-Warner Trophy.

Coverage for the Indianapolis 500 begins Sunday at 11 a.m. ET on Sportsnet ONE, Sportsnet 360 and Sportsnet NOW with the green flag expected to drop at 12:45 p.m. ET.

Here are some storylines to follow during the 106th running of the pinnacle event on the IndyCar Series calendar.

Penske, Chevy in charge this season

It’s been a Chevy-dominated season in the winner's circle — specifically Team Penske with Josef Newgarden victorious in back-to-back races, Scott McLaughlin also taking the checkered flag once, and Will Power leading the championship standings.

No team owner has won the Indy 500 more than Roger Penske and it’s not even close with the "Captain" holding 18 victories and no one else near to cracking double digits.

Which driver could bring Penske a record-extending 19th win? Power (+1400) starts 11th and won in 2018 although the odds point towards Newgarden (+1000).

Newgarden, who will be right behind Power in 14th, has the most race victories among active drivers (22) without winning the Indy 500 and will look to shake off that dubious distinction.

Will Power, of Australia, kisses the yard of bricks on the start/finish line as he celebrates winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis Sunday, May 27, 2018. (AJ Mast/AP)

Ganassi, Honda heating up

Recent history at the track leans towards Honda, however, with six wins in the past 10 races.

Honda-powered Chip Ganassi Racing starts 1-2 with Scott Dixon on pole position and reigning series champion Alex Palou right beside him. Ganassi also has Marcus Ericsson (P5) and Tony Kanaan (P6) starting on the second row plus Jimmie Johnson in P12. (More on Johnson in a little bit).

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the six-time series champion Dixon has won the Indy 500 just once — in 2008 from pole position no less. Dixon also started P1 last year but dropped out of contention early when a caution flag closed pit lane right when he was scheduled to make a stop and his car ran out of fuel. When it rains it pours and Dixon's car also stalled during an emergency service.

Dixon will be looking to make up for the one that got away. With 51 race victories, one more will tie Mario Andretti for second on the all-time wins list.

A record 21 drivers have won the Indy 500 from pole position and Dixon is the favourite at +550, but keep an eye on the rest of the front row — Palou (+650) and Rinus VeeKay (+1100) of Ed Carpenter Racing — as there have been 11 winners from P2 and 13 from P3.

History shouldn't necessarily dictate future results, however, with over 100 years of data we're not exactly talking about small sample sizes here.

Castroneves' drive for five

Helio Castroneves is the defending race winner after earning his record-tying fourth Indy 500 victory one year ago. Castroneves now aims to surpass A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears for sole possession of first place.

Castroneves will start 27th, hence the +2200 odds, but who doesn’t want to see "Spider-Man" make a historic climb up the catch fence after victory?

Speaking of multiple-time Indy 500 winners, Juan Pablo Montoya has rejoined the series and reunited with McLaren in a part-time entry. Montoya, who was victorious in 2000 and 2015, also starts near the back of the pack in 30th with +4900 odds to win again.

Helio Castroneves of Brazil climbs the fence at the start/finishing as he celebrates after winning the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday, May 31, 2021. (Paul Sancya/AP)

"Rookies" to watch

The last rookie to win the Indianapolis 500 was Alexander Rossi in 2016. Rossi was no newbie though having raced in Formula One during the previous season.

This year sees two "rookies" who were already in IndyCar last year but missed out on the marquee event: former F1 driver Romain Grosjean and NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson.

Both bring a vault's worth of experience and in Johnson's case, his career results have their own Wikipedia page. Johnson has even won four times at the track already in the Brickyard 400 but IndyCar is a completely different beast, and the seven-time NASCAR Cup series champion still had to complete rookie orientation for the Indy 500.

Grosjean (+2200 to win) starts ninth on the outside of row three while Johnson (+1600) is right behind the Frenchman in P12.

Johnson already had the biggest save during qualifying when he pulled off an evasive manoeuvre that would make Han Solo proud.

Can Herta pull off Indy sweep?

Michael Andretti may never have won the Indy 500 as a driver — and his father Mario only won it once — but the infamous “Andretti curse” doesn’t extend to his team.

Andretti Autosport has been victorious five times — most recently in 2017 with Takuma Sato. Among Andretti's current crop of drivers, the aforementioned Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500 in 2016.

Colton Herta is coming off of a race win on the Indy road course earlier this month and now looks to go 2-for-2 on the track. Herta has somewhat favourable odds (+1400) even though he struggled in qualifying, starting on the inside of row nine in 25th, and history isn't on his side. Just one driver, Johnny Rutherford in 1974, has won from that starting position and only two have taken the checkered flag from 20th or beyond since then.

In this May 28, 1995 file photo, Jacques Villeneuve drinks milk in Victory Lane after winning the 79th running of the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Al Behrman/AP)

Can Con

The only Canadian-born driver to win the Indy 500 is the great Jacques Villeneuve in 1995 — en route to capturing the series championship and the first of his two Lou Marsh trophies as Canada's top athlete of the year. Scott Goodyear came close a few times and yes, some diehard CART fans will still argue Paul Tracy was robbed in 2002 after a caution flag erased the Thrill from West Hill's pass on Castroneves for the lead on the penultimate lap. (Let's not reopen that can of worms even though it is the 20th anniversary.)

Two Canadians are in the 2022 edition with Toronto's Devlin DeFrancesco and Dalton Kellett of Stouffville, Ont.

DeFrancesco, who drives the No. 29 Andretti Autosport car, will start 24th, which also happens to be where he sits in the championship during his rookie season.

Kellett, piloting the No. 4 car for A.J. Foyt Enterprises, starts 29th. The Queen's University grad finished 23rd last year after starting 30th and, for what it’s worth, Kellett's career best finish so far was 12th at the Gateway oval last year.

Both are considered the longest of longshots, with DeFrancesco's odds at +9900 to win and Kellett at +19900. Is it too late to crowdfund a one-off entry for James Hinchcliffe?

Springboard for O'Ward?

If McLaren driver Pato O'Ward looks to make his aspirations of racing in Formula One a reality, an Indy 500 win would certainly boost his chances. Villeneuve and Montoya both launched their racing careers to the moon with their victories.

O'Ward has finished within the top six in his two previous Indy 500 appearances and already has one victory this season in Alabama. The Mexican driver is among the favourites at +900 and starts on the inside of row three in P7.

All odds courtesy of Coolbet as of Friday afternoon.

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