INDIANAPOLIS, May 24 (UPI) -- After a month of hype, controversy, speculation and intrigue, race day at the Indianapolis 500 arrives Sunday with one of the deepest fields in its history.
With just enough car and driver combinations to fill the 33-car starting lineup, quality, not quantity, is the key ingredient to this year's field.
With many of the top teams from CART moving over to the Indy Racing League IndyCar series the past two years, the power shift has created a very competitive environment for this year's race.
"While I believe you could say there is an asterisk behind the winner's names from 1996-2000, you certainly can't say that any more," said 1986 winner Bobby Rahal, a team owner in both the IRL and CART. "Everybody who is anybody is here."
At the top of that list is Helio Castroneves, who attempts to make history by becoming the driver to win the world's most famous race three years in a row.
In his quest for a "three-peat," Castroneves will start from the pole position after running a four-lap average of 231.725 miles per hour on May 11. He will compete in a Dallara/Toyota for team owner Roger Penske, who has a record 12 Indy 500 poles.
Tony Kanaan will start in the middle of the first row and may be the favorite to win the race. Despite suffering a radial fracture of his wrist when he crashed with Scott Dixon at Twin Ring Motegi on April 13, Kanaan has been fast all month in a Dallara/Honda for Andretti/Green Racing.
NASCAR Winston Cup driver Robby Gordon starts on the outside of the front row and will attempt to compete in both the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. during the same day. Gordon completed the double last year and is one of four drivers at Andretti/Green Racing.
Michael Andretti will compete in his final race as a driver on Sunday. He will concentrate on team ownership after the Indy 500 and has no regrets about retiring at 40.
Andretti has led 398 laps in the Indy 500 but has never won the prestigious race. His father, Mario, won just once before he retired in 1994.
"If I don't win it, then it just wasn't meant to be," Michael Andretti said. "As far as highlights, I hope I'm still waiting for the best one. The first year I was here was definitely a highlight. Another one at the top was the family thing in 1991.
"We all were very proud there was four of us out there. I mean, what are the odds of four family members being in the same race like that? Those are years you'll remember for life."
Andretti has many reasons to inspire himself in Sunday's 500, but if his day does not end in victory lane, he will not let that be a detriment to his career.
While the IRL has seized control of American open-wheel racing from CART, 17 of the 33 drivers have participated in CART during their career.
"There are a lot of familiar faces in this lineup, that's for sure," Rahal said. "It's a small sport. We like to think it's a big sport, but it's a small sport. I see guys in the Infiniti Series and the Formula Atlantic Series and these are guys who were in CART at one time.
"I said the other day to somebody, it's like musical chairs - everybody changes places, but nobody ever leaves the room. That's just the reality of it. You certainly can't deny the quality of this year's 500."
One of the reasons for the strength in the lineup is the addition of Toyota and Honda to the IRL this season. Both Japanese engine manufacturers have dominated the first three IRL events while Chevrolet teams have struggled.
Sam Hornish Jr. is the two-time defending IRL champion, but will start 18th. He is the highest Chevy driver in the lineup after qualifying at 226.225 mph for four laps.
That was not the fastest Chevy in qualifications, however. Vitor Meira's four-lap average of 227.158 mph was the fastest, but his attempt came on Bump Day, which meant the second-round qualifiers line up behind those who made the field on the first day.
Brian Barnhart, the vice president of operations for the Indy Racing League, is proud of the fact there have been just two engine failures in 14 days of practice and qualifications at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Barring crashes, if the engines prove to be reliable in the race, there could be an unusually high number of cars finish the race, adding to the assertion that this is one of the deepest fields at Indy in years.
"Some of those years when we had what we thought were deep fields, we had a lot of attrition," said Scott Roembke, team manager at Team Rahal. "But with the motor companies lining up, it's pretty strong from top to bottom."
There are nine rookies in this year's race - the same number as last year. But some of those newcomers are well-seasoned veterans from CART, such as Scott Dixon of New Zealand and Tora Takagi of Japan.
Dixon will start on the inside of the second row after qualifying at 230.099 mph in a G Force/Toyota for Target/Chip Ganassi racing. It will be his first three-abreast start.
"I think the grid will be a lot more spaced and you will have a lot of room," Dixon predicted. "I think being such a big race, most people are fairly cautious, anyway."
Caution has been stressed by Barnhart to the newcomers in this year's race, especially Dixon, who was criticized for his role in a two-car crash at Twin Ring Motegi with Kanaan. Dixon suffered multiple fractures of his wrist and arm and Kanaan had surgery on a broken arm.
"They've stressed that a lot," Dixon said. "They were stressing that in previous races at Phoenix and Motegi and we're going on with that. They are definitely stressing that. I personally think I was singled out for that. I had a long talk with Brian Barnhart about it and I still have to sit down and talk to Johnny Rutherford and Al Unser. I don't think I was in the wrong. It was just one of those racing incidents."