Jeff Olson

INDIANAPOLIS – It’s fine if you consider Simon Pagenaud the favorite to win Sunday’s race, according to Simon Pagenaud.

“If people say that, it means I’ve got a good car, and that means I’ve got a good chance,” the Team Penske driver said. “Yes, I welcome it. If nobody talks about you, that’s usually not a good sign. I’m excited. I think we’ve shown that we’re favorites, the whole team.”

So there you have it. Simon Pagenaud is going to win the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Count it. He’s starting second in the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, is consistently fast and is at peak Pagenaud. Simon it is.

But wait a minute. Tony Kanaan had the fastest lap in Friday’s Miller Lite Carb Day practice, the final warmup before the race. He’s clearly the favorite. Yeah, that’s it. Kanaan for the win in the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet for the legendary A.J. Foyt team.

But hold up. Even he isn’t so sure.

“The series is so competitive,” Kanaan said. “You have one hiccup and somebody else doesn’t, they’re going to win. That’s the way it’s been for a while, if you think about it. Rarely you see a guy that dominates a lot nowadays. Back in the day, people would have problems in the pits, but then they’d come back because you only had only like two or three cars that had a chance to win. Now you have 15 guys.”

So look around the field. Honda is comparable to Chevrolet in race trim, so Scott Dixon is clearly your favorite in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. He’s won it before, is the most successful driver of his time, obvious choice. Yep, Dixon’s the man. Bank it.

Hold on. Change in plans. Will Power is your clear-cut favorite. He was fastest without a tow during practice, clearly on the cusp of an Indy breakthrough, starting on the front row in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, confident, accomplished, ready.

“I feel like I have a good shot this year, I really do,” Power said. “I think we have a great shot at winning the race. It’s going to be a very hot day, which makes the car very slippery and hard to drive.”

Ah, yes. It’s going to be hot, man. Brutally hot. That means a veteran who knows how to adjust the anti-roll bar and weight jacker to make the car handle better has a distinct advantage. Nobody knows how to engineer a car behind the wheel than Sebastien Bourdais. That’s it. Seb’s your winner in the No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda.

Ummm, but then there are six Andretti Autosport cars in the race. Marco Andretti is always fast here. He’s been fast since the first practice May 15. Ryan Hunter-Reay is a past winner, fully capable. Heck, Alexander Rossi laid down four laps at 224 mph Sunday in a car with a cut tire, dropping him from 10th to 32nd starting grid, then turned around Monday and was silly fast in practice. That’s the call. Rossi from the back row. Or any of the six Andretti Hondas.

Crap. Forgot to mention Josef Newgarden. Reigning series champion, wicked fast, great talker, even better racer. There it is. Final call is Newgarden in the No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevy.

Hold up again. All three drivers at Ed Carpenter Racing are capable of winning. Carpenter is on the pole in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. Danica Patrick, driving the No. 13 GoDaddy Chevrolet, is starting seventh in her farewell. Spencer Pigot is good, kids. Darn good. So there’s your final answer. Anyone from ECR.

Hang on a sec. Vegas is hinting strongly that Sage Karam should be on this list. He’s dropped to 15-1 on the board. Obviously, somebody knows something. Bada boom, bada bing, Karam it is in the No. 24 WIX Filters/DRR Chevrolet.

“We have had some sort of moments of optimism,” Karam said before getting to the point of all points so far this month: “But like a lot of other guys, we have had a hard time really getting it in the window and keeping it there relative to how we have grown to expect race cars of being capable of running through traffic the last few years.”

In other words, nobody has a handle on how this new universal aero kit handles in traffic at Indy. Nobody. It’s a very narrow sweet spot, and conditions will play an influential impediment in finding that spot. It’s going to be hot and slippery, the comfort level with passing isn’t established, and there are four rookies and eight others in the field with limited experience at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This race is utterly unpredictable. Always has been, always will be.

Few can correctly call the winner of this race before it happens. Every driver listed above is capable of winning it. Every driver in the first five rows could be considered a favorite. Three years ago, Juan Pablo Montoya started 15th and won. Two years ago, Rossi started 11th and won.

So let’s just pick someone we want to see win it. In that case, it actually is a clear choice: Helio Castroneves.

And not just because this could be his final 500. Or that he’s won it three times and a fourth win would tie the record shared by A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. Or that he’s thoroughly on board with being called the race favorite.

“It’s a great thing to be called the favorite,” said Castroneves, who’ll be aboard the yellow No. 3 Pennzoil Team Penske Chevrolet. “I don’t have a preference, but if people believe that you can make it happen, I can only confirm what they believe. I know what I can do, and I know what I did in the past. I won’t disappoint them.”

During a media luncheon Thursday at Team Penske’s hospitality tent at IMS, team owner Roger Penske told Castroneves that if he won Sunday’s race, he’d be asked to return in 2019 to go for a fifth.

It was a bit unclear to everyone – Helio included – whether Penske was joking.

“You heard him,” Castroneves said, bursting into laughter. “You guys witnessed it. If something else happens, I’ll go back to you guys and say, ‘Hey, you guys heard it.’ But I believe so, yes. When Roger says something, he’s not playing around. When he says it, he means it.”

We can all agree on one thing. We’d like to see that happen, please.