Pick an Indy winner? Look at the first two rows on the grid

INDIANAPOLIS -- Starting up front is not a requirement for winning the Indy 500. That's the usual mantra, but following that logic this time isn't the smart play.

The 2007 Indy 500 has a six-pack of talent, experience and top equipment in the first two rows. Picking against them is a real gamble.

"We're talking about a group of guys who've been champions and been winners," said Tony Kanaan, who starts in the middle of the first row. "We know what to do out there."

The sextet at the front of the field includes pole-sitter Helio Castroneves, Kanaan, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Sam Hornish Jr. and Dan Wheldon.

They account for four Indy 500 victories and all six IndyCar Series championships in the last six years.

They race for the three top teams in the series -- Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. They hold down the top six spots in the 2007 IndyCar standings. No one outside this group has won a race this season.

Picking one of them to win Sunday is a no-brainer. But this is Indy and strange things happen over the course of 500 miles.

Wheldon looked unbeatable last year before a cut tire late in the race ended his chances of winning for the second consecutive year.

History tells us not to assume the frontrunners will win. Wheldon started 16th when he won in 2005. Eddie Cheever started 17th when he took the checkered flag in 1998.

Five of the last nine Indy 500 winners have started 10th or worse. Only three times in those nine races did the winner start on the first two rows.

But this situation is a little different. In past years, some top drivers in fast cars qualified in the middle of the pack or worse.

I don't think anybody is sure what anybody else can do. There's real uncertainty about it. People were playing some games out there in practice. No one wanted to show their hand.

Dan Wheldon

It was obvious this year that the best teams qualified on the first day in the top 11 spots.

The field has some legitimate contenders outside the top six, including Michael and Marco Andretti. But even Kanaan doubts his teammates can outrace the six guys who start ahead of them.

"Certainly Michael and Marco are capable of winning," Kanaan said. "But you have to assume all six of us [in the first two rows] will have major things go wrong. So for someone else to win the race, all six of us would have to have a problem. That isn't likely."

Consider this stat: Someone in the top six on the starting grid has won the last 22 IndyCar events.

Wheldon doesn't think that matters at Indy. He believes a poker match was going on most of the month.

"I don't think anybody is sure what anybody else can do," Wheldon said. "There's real uncertainty about it. People were playing some games out there in practice. No one wanted to show their hand."

Kanaan says forget all the nonsense. You can't bluff your way by him.

"Look, they know what I've have and I know what they have," he said.

Kanaan is one of three drivers in the front six who hasn't won at Indy, including Franchitti and Dixon. Kanaan was second in 2004, third in 2003 and fifth last year.

Dixon, the 2003 IndyCar Series champ, has yet to post a top-5 finish in four starts at Indianapolis. He expects more of himself than he's shown in the race he wants to win more than any other.

"Pressure for a driver often is self-inflicted," Dixon said. "So I try not to look at this as a race I have to win. I look at it as a race I should win."

But the clear favorite is Wheldon, the man who most observers believe is the best driver in the series. He won the league title and the Indy 500 two years ago for Andretti Green Racing before moving to Chip Ganassi's team.

Wheldon tied Hornish for the championship last year and won the last race at Chicagoland Speedway, but Hornish won the crown by virtue of more victories (four to two).

Wheldon has two victories in four races this year, along with a second-place showing in Japan. He's the leader of the six-pack, but each of them is capable of winning at the Brickyard on Sunday.

Many Indy 500s have been won or lost on pit road. Wheldon has lost a few times in the last two years because of mistakes in the pits, including Motegi, Japan, last month.

Roger Penske's two crews dominated the pit competition on Carb Day Friday when Castroneves' team defeated Hornish's team in the final round.

But doing perfect stops in a pit-stop contest is a lot different from performing flawlessly on stops during the race.

"All I know is it's going to be extremely tight racing out there this year," Castroneves said. "All of us up front have pretty much the same equipment. All the little things are going to count more than ever."

One of the teams for the six drivers up front probably will do enough things right to win the Indy 500. The drivers starting behind them have to hope all six get it wrong.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at