Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Briscoe - Anne Proffit photoEnlarge Photo
Take, for instance polesitter Ryan Briscoe, arguably the No. 3 driver in Team Penske's vaunted stable. He's got far fewer wins than teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves and has come close to winning the iZOD IndyCar Series championship only once while Power has been on the verge several times, as has Castroneves.
Coming back from a horrific Texas Motor Speedway fence ride several years ago, Briscoe found himself out of a Ganassi ride and into a Penske one. The Australian ace has always been an excellent tester and racer, but the results just haven't been there.
After four road/street-course races this year Briscoe has earned a pole position he had to give up (thanks to an all-Chevrolet engine change) and a seventh-place result at Long Beach, a second place start at St Petersburg, finishing fifth, a difficult 14th place run at Barber Motorsports Park and a punt-out from ninth in Sao Paulo.
Now Briscoe has a week-full of glory to celebrate his pole run at Indy, with a four-lap average of 226.484 mph in his No. 2 IZOD Dallara/Chevrolet/Firestone Indy car. He earned that pole, Penske's 17th among 11 drivers, during the Fast Nine shootout with a single try. He won that pole by less than ten inches over 10 miles of running. Now that's close - the closest in Indy 500 history!
The guy who nearly took that $100,000 check away from Briscoe is James Hinchcliffe, driving the No. 27 GoDaddy Chevy for Andretti Autosport. Hinch's trip to this very fine place is a saga in itself; the personable - no make it truly funny - Canadian started last season a race late with Newman/Haas Racing due to sponsorship details and then rallied through the year, winning Rookie of the Year honors over JR Hildebrand.
Hinchcliffe was left "homeless" when NHR decided not to run the series this year; when Dan Wheldon died at Las Vegas in October, he had just signed for Andretti Autosport and the GoDaddy ride vacated by Danica Patrick. Not only was Hinch the best choice from a personality standpoint, but he has repaid the team was stellar results in the first four contests of the year, finishing no worse than sixth (twice at Barber and Sao Paulo), earning his first podium in Long Beach and missing podium by a single spot in the season opener at St Petersburg.
That he missed pole by seven-thousandths of a mile an hour over 10 miles (226.491) created a bit of heartache for Hinchcliffe, but starting on the front row at Indy? Priceless, he said. On the off-track side of the coin, Hinch is now in a battle to become the "face" of Go Daddy, competing with former Andretti Autosport driver Danica Patrick. To cast a vote for this real racer, fans can go to GoDaddy.com or to hinchtown.com, always a fun place to visit.
The third member of the front-row posse is Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has been an Indy car driver since 2003. He has 117 starts, five wins, a single pole position and was the 2008 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year with a sixth-place result from 20th grid spot. In his third season with Andretti Autosport, Driving the No. 28 DHL/SunDrop Chevy, RHR has two podium results (St Pete and Sao Paulo) in the first four 2012 races.
Everyone remembers what happened with Hunter-Reay at Indy last year. The entire Andretti Autosport team had a tough time figuring out the Brickyard race track - even with a tried and true package - and no matter what they did, the track just haunted them all. RHR didn't even qualify for the race and, in an AJ Foyt Racing car started at the rear of the field. He made up 10 spots in the exercise, but for the entire team (best finisher was Marco Andretti, who came from 27th to ninth) last year's Indy 500 was one they'd rather forget.
Fast forward to 2012 and there are two Andretti cars on the front row, Marco Andretti in fourth place and all five (!) cars qualified the first day. The new chassis and engine combination surely seems to work right for this group, doesn't it?
This front row is certainly an interesting one, filled with characters needing a chance - any chance - to make a mark in The Greatest Spectacle In Racing in just a few days. Taking advantage of a good starting spot is an opportunity that only comes to those who are prepared for success; in 2012, that nod goes to Team Penske, who have won five poles and the first four races in a 16-contest season. All along they've been hounded by Andretti Autosport - can that tide change on race day?