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Ben Smith

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Indy 500
When: Noon Sunday
TV: ABC
Coming Sunday
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Associated Press
Tony Kanaan left, talks with former teammate and pace car driver Dario Franchitti, right, on the final day of practice for the Indianapolis 500 on Friday.

Fastest field could bring greatness or chaos

– The most accomplished Indianapolis 500 field I ever saw never made it whole through the parade lap.

It was 1992, and the mercury was down there where no mercury is supposed to go the last weekend in May – gasping and wheezing, struggling to clear 60 degrees – and suddenly there was your pole sitter, Roberto Guerrero, getting out of shape on cold tires, smacking the concrete. On the bleeping parade lap.

This was a bit like watching Peyton Manning throw a pick-six in warmups, and it was only the beginning. In a starting field with a record 10 former winners, six crashed, usually coming out of yellows on tires that wouldn’t heat up except at speed.

Mario Andretti crashed. Emerson Fittipaldi crashed. Tom Sneva crashed and Arie Luyendyk crashed and Gordon Johncock crashed and even Rick Mears crashed – Mears, the four-time winner who knew how to get around the square-as-Mayberry old Speedway as well as anyone.

In the end, nearly half the race (85 laps) was run under caution. Only four cars completed the full 500 miles.

So you can see why I’m looking at the field for this weekend and thinking that while this might be one of the best 500s in 98 years, it might not be.

You can see why I’m leery to predict this sort of thing, even if this is the best starting 33 in at least two decades. Six former winners fire the engines Sunday, including a couple for the auld lang syne crowd, Jacques Villeneuve and Juan Pablo Montoya. One of the rookies is a former NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who’s won 25 Cup races.

Three of the former winners (Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves) have led at least 200 laps at Indy. One (Buddy Lazier) is lining up for his 18th start. And in a race that has been international in scope since the very beginning – four of the first six 500s were won by either the Italians or the French – 10 nations are represented.

It’s like the United Nations on fast forward. Or fast-fast forward, given that 13 drivers qualified north of 230 mph.

It’s the fastest field in history. It’s also the closest by time, with just 2.1509 seconds separating pole sitter Ed Carpenter from the 33rd starter, Lazier.

And now I’m thinking of those 2.1509 seconds, and I’m thinking there are six rookies not named Kurt Busch in the field, and I’m thinking there are a whole bunch of others who haven’t seen these kinds of speeds in 10 years. And then I think of ’92 again, all those presumptions we had about the most accomplished field in the race’s history, and it occurs that Indy has a particularly cruel way with presumptions.

You think you’re going to get one thing, and you get something entirely different. It’s both the lure of this place and its curse, this tendency Indy has to bring down the full weight of its history where and on whom you least expect.

“You have to really understand how to run very close to cars, because that’s what you’ll be doing all day no matter where you are in the field,” Will Power said this month. “You can’t get away.”

And because you can’t … well, last year, 14 different drivers led the race. There were 68 lead changes. It was one of the great 500s ever, and, with this field in play, we may be looking at a repeat on steroids Sunday.

Or we may be looking at chaos, a la ’92.

The guy who watched ’92 unfold says wait and see. And the guy who’s older now but not particularly wiser?

He’ll take Door No. 1.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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