5 drivers to watch in the 2017 Indianapolis 500

The greatest day of the auto racing year is fast approaching. Sunday’s racing slate includes 1,268 miles of greatness in the Monaco Grand Prix, Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600.

The 500 will likely be the most entertaining race of the three. The prestigious race had 54 lead changes over 200 laps in 2016 and with similar aerodynamic rules in place you can expect the 101st Indy 500 to approach that crazy number.

A lot of attention has been paid to F1 champion Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 debut. And while Alonso can be one of the favorites in Sunday’s race, these five drivers may have a better chance at winning. 

Ed Carpenter: If you’re looking for another part-time driver to watch outside of Alonso, Carpenter is the obvious choice.

The stepson of Tony George — the founder of the Indy Racing League and former president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway — Carpenter owns two cars that compete full-time in the IndyCar Series. But in a series dominated by road and street courses, Carpenter has only driven on ovals since the beginning of the 2014 season.

Carpenter has shown a bunch of speed at Indianapolis in those three years as a part-time driver and even started first in 2014 and was battling for the lead when he crashed out in 2015. But the results haven’t been there. His 27th-place finish in 2014 — also after a crash — is his best finish since 2013. If Carpenter can avoid accidents and mechanical failure he’s got a shot at a win.

Helio Castroneves: Only A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. have won four Indianapolis 500s. Castroneves joins them with a win on Sunday.

Castroneves last won the 500 in 2009 and came close to getting his fourth Indy win three years ago when Ryan Hunter-Reay made a daring pass for the lead on Castroneves with less than five laps to go.

Castroneves isn’t starting near the front of the field, however. He’ll roll off 19th and the 500 has been won from worse starting positions just 10 times in its 100-year history. But Hunter-Reay started 19th in 2014 and it’s conceivable that Castroneves can work his way through the field just like he did given the amount of passing we expect to see on Sunday.

Scott Dixon: Sunday’s polesitter won the 2008 Indianapolis 500 and should be considered the favorite.

Dixon, 36, is perhaps the most underrated racer in modern North American auto racing. Since starting his career in CART in 2001, Dixon has won 40 open-wheel races and his sixth-place finish in the points in 2016 was the first time since 2005 that he’d concluded a season outside the top five.

Yet the understated Dixon isn’t the most recognizable IndyCar driver — likely because he hasn’t done Dancing with the Stars like Castroneves and James Hinchcliffe. But he’s the best. With a Chip Ganassi Racing Honda that’s potentially the best car in the field, Dixon should be a mainstay at the front throughout the day.

James Hinchcliffe: A year after he was impaled by a suspension part in a frightening Indy practice crash, Hinchcliffe came back and won the pole for the 2016 Indianapolis 500. He starts 17th on Sunday and lost an engine during Friday’s final practice session.

The Honda engines have shown more raw speed than the Chevrolet engines throughout practice and qualifying for the 500. But Hinchcliffe’s engine failure could be a hint of possible reliability issues over the course of 500 miles on Sunday. If his new engine can be reliable enough, expect Hinch to lead laps at Indy for a fifth-straight start.

Will Power: If Scott Dixon is the IndyCar Series’ best driver, then Power isn’t very far behind. The 2014 champion has 28 wins in less than 10 years in IndyCar.

He’s also in the fastest Team Penske car if qualifying is any indication. Power starts ninth, the only one of the five Penske cars to make the final round of pole qualifying.

Penske has 16 Indianapolis 500 wins, most recently with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015. If Power wins on Sunday he’d be the 12th driver to win at Indianapolis for Team Penske.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!