Eleven rows, eleven drivers to watch in the Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 15: The Borg-Warner trophy sits on display during Pole Day Qualifying for the IRL IndyCar Series 89th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 15, 2005 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

ROW 1: James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, RYAN HUNTER-REAY

An easy pick to me as a driver to watch out for. Andretti cars have been strong all month, and Hunter-Reay is peaking as the race approaches. His guile on the IMS oval was evident as he held off a charging Helio Castroneves to win the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

ROW 2: Townsend Bell, Carlos Munoz, WILL POWER

Will Power has been the best Penske driver throughout practice, and that means something to me. The strongest driver on the strongest team deserves a nod as one of the favorites. An Indianapolis 500 win is really the lone achievement Power has yet to grasp in a star-studded career.

ROW 3: MIKHAIL ALESHIN, Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves

The first big upset in terms of drivers I’m watching on Sunday. Pagenaud and Castroneves are certainly contenders, but Aleshin is fun to watch. He walks the tightrope between control and chaos brilliantly, with nervy passes and supreme confidence. I’ve become an Aleshin fan during these Indy 500 practices.

ROW 4: Oriol Servia, ALEXANDER ROSSI, Takuma Sato

Even as a rookie, Rossi was disappointed not to make the fast nine, and rightly so. He had a terrific car all week, but qualifying was a bit of a struggle. Now, the first-year driver for Andretti has some expectations, even in row four, and I’m eager to see how he handles them.

ROW 5: SCOTT DIXON, Marco Andretti, JR Hildebrand

The 2008 winner (along with teammate Tony Kanaan) is peaking at the right time. It had been a rough string of practices for Chip Ganassi drivers, what with Max Chilton’s wreck and some less-than-stellar speeds, but things seemed to take a turn for the better on Carb Day, as Dixon and TK were both top-three in speed in the final Indy 500 practice.

ROW 6: Charlie Kimball, JUAN PABLO MONTOYA, Tony Kanaan

In spite of Kanaan’s improvement as the race nears, Montoya demands this pick. In three Indy 500’s, the Colombian has won twice, including last year, when he came from the back of the pack after an incident near the start of the race. If Juan Pablo isn’t running top-five in the final five laps, I would be very surprised.

ROW 7: Sebastien Bourdais, ED CARPENTER, Gabby Chaves

Bourdais is stronger on road courses and Chaves was a consistent mid-teens finisher last year as a rookie. Carpenter has won the pole twice at the 500. He can find speed here.

ROW 8: Max Chilton, Sage Karam, CONOR DALY

We’re into the dark horses here, but I’ll be interested to see two things about Daly on Sunday: 1) How he follows up his career-best sixth-place finish last time out at the Grand Prix of Indy, and 2) What Pat McAfee tweets about his race car.

ROW 9: Pippa Mann, GRAHAM RAHAL, Matthew Brabham

An easy selection, as Rahal has struggled all throughout practice, but comes into this race with three top fives in his past four races. He’s racing well lately besides Indy 500 practice, and it’s strange to see Honda performing so well at IMS, while its standard-bearer in Rahal has struggled.

ROW 10: Bryan Clauson, Spencer Pigot, STEFAN WILSON

I’m watching Stefan not because I think he can challenge for a win, but because he has more than just a sponsor to tote around, but a platform everyone can get behind. He told me about #Driven2SaveLives and the Indiana Donor Network on the FOX 59 Red Couch.

ROW 11: Jack Hawksworth, Buddy Lazier, ALEX TAGLIANI

Tagliani crashed early in his qualifying run, and thus got pushed to the back of the field.  If his crew repaired that car to something close to pre-crash conditions, Tagliani should warrant some attention the first few laps, as he might be able to pass some slower cars ahead of him.

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