Earlier in the week, Mario Andretti told us at the Firestone Garage that this was the deepest and most talented pool of drivers that he's ever seen in the series. Considering the era Mario drove in, that's some high praise.
How many drivers actually have a shot at winning the greatest race in the world? I did my best to break them into five different tiers:
Tier 1: The favorites
Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden
Of these five drivers, only Newgarden isn't a previous 500 winner, but he's been the best driver in the series for a year-plus now. Although Castroneves isn't full-time anymore, no one is discounting his chances to win his fourth. Hunter-Reay perhaps had the best car in the race last year, but like many others, fell victim to his engine giving out. Rossi is off to a terrific start in 2018, and Dixon is pound-for-pound the best veteran driver in IndyCar.
Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves set the fastest speed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an afternoon practice session disrupted by the threat of lightninghttps://t.co/ISAh85hJBn— Autosport (@autosport) May 15, 2018
Tier 2A: Have the talent and/or the team to win
Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastain Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens, Graham Rahal, Ed Jones
I had trouble separating the second and third tiers, so I melded them into an expansive tier which covers drivers with talent/team behind them and drivers with a terrific track record here. This would be the former category, as many of the drivers on this list haven't had a lot of Indy success. Will Power is the most obvious on this list, with an average finish of 13th. Pagenaud has had a rocky beginning to his season and really needs a good run here to give him a boost. Bourdais/Hinch have been victims of awful crashes in year's past, and Wickens is perhaps the most intriguing talent in the entire series this year. Rahal's Indy history is a mixed bag, but he has the talent. Ed Jones was good enough to get up on the podium in his only start here, and now has Ganassi backing him.
Tier 2B: Drivers who have run well here
Takuma Sato, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, Danica Patrick, Ed Carpenter
Every driver on here is capable of winning this race, although Kanaan (2013) and Sato (2017) are the only ones to actually do it. Andretti hasn't won an IndyCar race since 2011, but always seems to be knocking on the door in Indy. Munoz has two runner-ups and four top-tens in five career starts, while Danica has five top-tens in six career starts. Carpenter is always quick (he's won two Poles), but has rarely stayed clean.
Tier 4: Would need everything to go right
Oriol Servia, Max Chilton, JR Hildebrand, Spencer Pigot, Stefan Wilson, Zach Veach, Sage Karam, Charlie Kimball, Gabby Chaves
Here's where we get to the bottom-half of the field. While any of these drivers winning the race may not be a total shock, it seemingly would take a lot for it to happen. Servia nearly jumped into Tier 2B, having run well here in the past, and is the best of this group. Chilton, like Jones, put together a magnificent run last year and led the most laps in only his second start. We all know how close Hildebrand came to a win - no explanation needed there. Andretti teammates Wilson and Veach have the team behind them, Karam has the speed (needs to be smarter, though), while I wanted to put Kimball and Chaves at the bottom of the "they have a Hail Mary shot" category.
Tier 5: Would be the biggest surprise ever
James Davison, Conor Daly, Jack Harvey, Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Jay Howard, Pippa Mann, Kyle Kaiser
To be fair to these drivers, most of them don't have the team to give them a realistic shot, and all of them are one-offs.