INDIANAPOLIS — Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to watch. So will Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer. NASCAR’s biggest names all plan to tune in to the Indianapolis 500 to watch Kurt Busch run the first leg in his attempt to complete The Double.
Millions of other casual fans will also turn their attention to Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, where Busch’s debut will bring new eyeballs to the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing.” Although the Indy 500 has always been the crown jewel of motorsports, the slumping IndyCar Series struggles to gain much traction outside the showcase race.
“I think he does bring attention, and I think the series does need that added attention,” 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay said of Busch. “The racing in the IndyCar Series has been called the best-kept secret in racing, and it is some of the best action out there, so I think it’s a great opportunity for some fans who wouldn’t necessarily tune in to check it out and see what it’s all about and how good the racing is.”
Fans will be treated to one of the most wide-open races in recent memory.
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No single driver or team has risen to the top this season. And with so much attention on Busch, who will become just the fourth driver in history to compete in both the 500 and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, so many other elements of this magical race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway have been somewhat overlooked.
“Even as a driver myself, I couldn’t even tell you who I would pick,” Graham Rahal said. “I have no clue.”
Indy is a race in which three owners — Andretti, Ganassi and Penske — typically have the cars to beat. That, at least, is no different this year as Andretti Autosport put three of its five entries in the top 10, while Team Penske got all three of its cars in.
“I’m sure we’ve got the winner sitting here,” Roger Penske said of Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power.
But Andretti feels just as strongly about its chances, especially after James Hinchcliffe qualified in the middle of the front row three days after he was medically cleared to drive following a concussion. He leads the five-car Andretti stable, which has Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz in the two rows behind Hinchcliffe.
Further back in the field is Hunter-Reay and Busch, the former NASCAR champion who will start 12th in Marco Andretti’s backup car because he crashed his primary on Monday.
Adding to the angst had to be the sudden emergence of the Ganassi cars, which finally showed the speed they’d been lacking for two weeks on Carb Day. After lagging behind and failing to move into the final round of qualifying, defending race winner Tony Kanaan and defending IndyCar champion Scott Dixon went 1-2 in Friday’s final practice session.
• Gabby Chaves from Belardi Auto Racing atoned for a heartbreaking defeat last year by passing Matthew Brabham on the final lap to win the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.