May 25, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
At most Indianapolis 500s, there are distinctive tiers for the field of 33. Usually there are three or four headliners, five to seven “contenders but not favorites,” a dozen or so “they could be there if not for one thing or another,” and the rest who are there to make up the numbers.
In 2013, throw any such tier breakdown out the window.
As Townsend Bell, NBC Sports Network analyst and driver of the No. 60 Sunoco/ “Turbo” the movie Chevrolet for Panther Racing, told me on Thursday in Indianapolis, there could be anywhere from 25 to 28 cars that could win this year’s race.
He’s among them. You could consider Bell an “under-the-radar” threat, but he’s always been adept at getting up to speed quickly and managing the race in what is often his first IndyCar start of the year.
“The quicker I can get up to speed, going big early, then the sooner I can trust things and really start drilling into the finer details,” he explained. “Sometimes it takes a couple outings. But if you can go fast early, you’ve got that out of the way.”
Like Bell, another top-10 finisher of a year ago who some in the field project as one of this year’s top “sleepers” is Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson. Wilson, whose oval skills have increased over the last couple years, downplayed his chances in advance of the weekend.
“To be honest, last year the first two stints, I thought we were terrible,” he admitted. “But then we made a couple changes and we started passing everyone. The track continuously changes and you have to keep up with it.”
Another two drivers in the “sleeper” camp are fellow Honda runners Josef Newgarden (pictured, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) and James Jakes (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).
Neither’s really a household name – Newgarden could be in time – but they are a pair of sophomores who now have a year’s experience under their belt and know how to run the race. A year ago, Newgarden was the fastest Honda qualifier, while Jakes’ RLL squad nearly won the race with Takuma Sato. Jakes has been the quickest in the RLL camp all month.
“This year we’ve had a much better focus on my end. I just understand the process a lot better,” said Newgarden. “We’ve prioritized our race package over everything. When we didn’t qualify well, it didn’t bother me because that wasn’t where we needed to be strong. I think it would be a ‘shock’ for those on the outside, but I feel confident we can win.”
Strategy has always been RLL’s strong suit; despite a pace gap all month, Jakes and/or Graham Rahal will likely move forward as a result of some good pit calls.
“That’s everything here,” said Jakes. “They’ve been so close the last two years. It’s massive for me to have had a year under my belt now and know how it works, what the team does, and experiencing what this race is like.”
There are others who’ve had good under-the-radar months – Alex Tagliani (Barracuda Racing), Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon Racing) and his 2012 teammate Katherine Legge (Schmidt Peterson Pelfrey) starred on Carb Day, for instance – but no one really knows how the race will shake out yet. Suffice to say it’s going to be hard for anyone in the 33-car field to break away.