GK's Indy runners and riders

The 85th Indianapolis 500 takes place on Sunday with one of the more complete fields the race has enjoyed since the CART-IRL split in 1996.

GK's Indy runners and riders

This year Team Penske with Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, and a separate Panther Racing entry for Michael Andretti join last year's winner Chip Ganassi Racing as interlopers from CART.

It's the largest group of non-IRL entries since Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George formed his own Indy car series and everyone hopes this is the beginning of some type of coming together for America's divided world of Indy or Champ car racing.

After Indy rookie Juan Pablo Montoya and Ganassi's four-time champion CART team beat the IRL regulars in last year's 500, it's an open question as to whether a similar thing will happen this year. On the face of it, there appears to be little chance of a repeat of 2000's stunning demonstration by the hyper-talented Montoya. Penske's and Ganassi's cars have looked good in practice and qualifying, but none of them have hinted at producing anything like the speed and style Montoya showed last year.

In fact, there are no clear favourites for Sunday's 500.

If anyone has shown dominant speed this year it's pole winner Scott Sharp. The 32-year old Sharp won the SCCA's TransAm title back in 1991 and '93 and raced in CART without any success in 1993 and '94. He became an IRL regular in 1996 and has won five races since then, establishing himself as a journeymandriver who rarely seems to come through when it really matters.

Nevertheless, Sharp has been very quick all month and took the pole in convincing style aboard one of Kelley Racing's Ilmor Oldsmobile-powered Dallaras. Sharp and team mate Mark Dismore enjoy the most powerful engines at Indianapolis this year and the pole-sitter, who has never finished better than 10th in the 500, goes into this year's race as the slight favourite.

Greg Ray starts from the middle of the front row in one of John Menard's Dallara-Oldsmobiles. Ray has been on the front row at Indy the past four years, but has yet to produce any kind of result from the race. Menard's team is the wealthiest in the IRL and his cars have always represented the measure of the field, but Ray has yet to prove himself a real racer. He wilted badly last year under pressure from Montoya, crashing twice in the race! If the 34-year old can't show strength under pressure this year, his career in the big-time may need a little re-assessment.

On the outside of the front row is the talented but tempestuous Robby Gordon, who has joined A.J. Foyt's team for this year's race. Gordon has had a tumultuous career, bouncing from CART to the IRL to NASCAR and back again. Robby has become infamous for falling out with his team and hopes to salvage his career with Foyt, for whom he drove in CART back in 1993. Expect the 32-year old Gordon to surge to the front in the opening laps of Sunday's 500. He could well prove to be the man to beat, but the question is can he and the equally volatile Foyt keep it together to mount a serious challenge?

Poleman Sharp's teammate Mark Dismore starts from the inside of the second row. A solid journeyman, Dismore will surprise everyone if he's a major factor in the 500. CART champion Gil de Ferran starts beside Dismore as he and team mate Helio Castroneves herald the return of Team Penske to Indianapolis.

De Ferran and Castroneves are well prepared for the race and both should be serious contenders on Sunday. Clean, quick pitwork and sharp pit strategy could be powerful weapons for de Ferran and his young team mate who starts his rookie race at Indianapolis from the fourth row.

Beside de Ferran on the outside of row two is two-time Indy winner Arie Luyendyk, who has come out of retirement for this year's race. Luyendyk's experience should pay dividends, although he made a silly mistake in traffic in his last 500 two years ago.
Many people pick NASCAR star Tony Stewart as the race favourite. Stewart makes his lone Indy car start of the year on Sunday aboard one of Chip Ganassi's four GForce-Oldsmobiles. Stewart believes this is his best shot yet to win at Indianapolis and he's hoping that bad weather won't force him to miss or even abandon Sunday's 500 in order to meet his prior commitment to run the Charlotte NASCAR Winston Cup race later on Sunday afternoon.

Jimmy Vasser has rejoined Ganassi's team for Indianapolis and starts from the fourth row beside Castroneves. Vasser finished seventh last year in his first Indy 500 since 1995 and believes he has the car to win this year. Rookie team mates Bruno Junqueira and Nicolas Minassian start Ganassi's third and fourth cars from the seventh and eighth rows.

Who else might feature on Sunday? There's former winner and last year's runner-up Buddy Lazier who will start from the inside of row four. Lazier is one of the IRL's best racers and would love to avenge last year's defeat at Montoya's hands. Also worth watching is Sam Hornish Jr, the 23-year old Formula Atlantic graduate who scored two excellent IRL victories earlier this year. Hornish starts from the inside of row five with Sarah Fisher on the outside of that row. The 21-year old Fisher finished second to Hornish at Homestead last month and is the only woman in the Indy field this year.

Others to watch include veteran Scott Goodyear, who retired at the end of last year but has come back for Indy. The Canadian starts from the inside of row six. And on row seven are Al Unser Jr and Michael Andretti. Two-time Indy winner Unser is in the twilight of his career and few people expect him to feature in this year's race. Andretti is back at Indy for the first time since 1995. He's led almost four hundred laps at Indianapolis, but has never won the race and appears not to have the equipment to be a serious contender this year. Unser and Andretti will start the race from the seventh row with rookie Junqueira.

The only other man who might figure in this year's 500 is 1998 winner Eddie Cheever, who drives his own Infiniti-powered Dallara. The famously neurotic Cheever has not been anywhere near the pace this year, however, and will start from the inside of row nine. It will be a surprise to all if he works his way into contention.

The 85th Indianapolis 500 starts at 17:00 BST (11:00 Local time) on Sunday.

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