Month of May packed with things to watch for

INDIANAPOLIS -- Times change and traditions slowly fade, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway rang in the month of May on Sunday as usual with opening day for the 91st running of the Indianapolis 500.

IMS management stubbornly clings to the notion that a three-week buildup is necessary for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. For the competitors, the sensation of time depends on how their cars are handling. If the car is dialed in, the month can tend to drag and race day can't arrive soon enough. But for those fighting an imbalanced chassis, more than 80 available hours of track time aren't enough.

Some things remain the same year after year at Indy: The weather messes with people's minds, a few small-timers scraping into the field make for good copy and Penske Racing runs at the front. But even though Sam Hornish Jr. is the defending Indianapolis 500 champion, he and Roger Penske's juggernaut are racing for second place this year.

Here are some predictions for this year's race, along with other things to watch for this month at Indy:

1. Dan Wheldon is the overwhelming favorite
In the last three years, Dan Wheldon has nosed ahead of Hornish as the IndyCar Series' most formidable oval ace. Wheldon dominated the 2005 season and came within a point of making it two straight titles, losing out to Hornish on a tiebreaker for the 2006 crown.

This year, Daring Dan has led 484 of 700 oval laps and is within a couple tenths of a second of going three-for-three in races.

Wheldon said he wants to dominate the 2007 season and the only thing that could conceivably cost the 28-year-old Englishman victory at his beloved Indianapolis is a lapse by Target/Ganassi Racing similar to the radio failure that compromised their strategy at Motegi.

Is Wheldon motivated to win his second Indy 500? That's like asking whether he has self-confidence.

2. A third of the grid are legitimate contenders
As mentioned, Team Penske is a perennial Indianapolis front-runner, as its record 14 wins in the Memorial Day Classic would indicate. Hornish got the Indy monkey off his back last year, and Helio Castroneves is a two-time race winner (2001-02), but the red-and-white cars haven't sustained the pace of their Target/Ganassi competition in 2007.

As such, Ganassi's Scott Dixon is the top dark horse candidate for victory. The 2003 IndyCar Series champion doesn't get the attention that Wheldon draws, but Dixon doesn't care. What better way to turn the tables on his teammate than with a win at Indy?

Then there is the five-car Andretti Green Racing armada, with team owner Michael Andretti returning for his annual run at Indy. At age 44, Michael's odds of winning are probably longer than those of AGR's Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti, but he showed last year that he can still perform at a top level. And yes, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick are included in the group of second-tier potential winners behind Wheldon.

Others in the group of contenders? Panther Racing's Vitor Meira, Tomas Scheckter in the lead Vision Racing entry and Ryan Briscoe in Team Penske's satellite car run under the Luczo-Dragon Racing banner.

3. We'll finally get to see the "new" qualifying format
Long-range forecasts for Pole Weekend are optimistic, meaning that the qualifying format introduced by IMS for 2005 could be utilized for the first time. The untested system permits 11 drivers into the field on each of the three qualifying days and will hopefully include "bumping" on each of those days. By 5:30 Saturday afternoon, we should know exactly how much pole position at Indy means in the overall scheme of things: Will a previously qualified driver withdraw his or her time and take another shot at the top spot?

4. There will be a traditional 33-car field
The last few years have been filled with pessimistic pre-May stories about how the Indy Racing League will struggle to fill the field. This year, by hook or by crook, it's going to be different.

On opening day, only 27 drivers were nominated for this year's race, but the availability of sweetheart second-week Honda engine leases should ensure a full grid of 33 entries. Still, those who claim that the depth of the 500 field is anywhere close to what it was prior to 1996 are kidding themselves. When Davey Hamilton comes back from severe foot injuries or Jimmy Kite and Stephane Gregoire make their annual race appearances, it's a nice story. But they don't really add anything to the competitive balance of the race.

5. Female drivers will dominate the headlines
For the first time in history, the Indianapolis field is likely to include three female drivers. None of them -- even Danica Patrick -- can be considered a serious threat to win the famous race, but they are likely to dominate the media coverage of the month. Danica is a media magnet, Sarah Fisher is the IndyCar Series' most successful woman racer and Milka Duno is the latest flavor of the month. Duno could end up with one prestigious honor because Phil Giebler is the only other rookie driver entered in this year's race. If she becomes rookie of the year, she'll join an illustrious list that includes Mario and Michael Andretti, Jackie Stewart, Rick Mears, Nigel Mansell and Juan Pablo Montoya. And -- putting things somewhat into perspective -- Lyn St. James and Patrick.

6. The IRL will wrap itself in a green flag
Ethanol is trendy in political circles, especially in the Corn Belt. And the IndyCar Series is a key part of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council's campaign to promote the alternative fuel. Every car in the Indianapolis 500 will be powered by 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol, replacing the methanol blend used for the last 40 years. The only gasoline used on race day will be in Patrick Dempsey's Chevrolet Corvette pace car and the IRL's fleet of Honda Ridgeline safety vehicles.

7. What you won't see is a blown engine or tire
The days when the Indianapolis 500 was lost by an engine failure or a bad set of tires are long gone. IndyCar may be a spec series these days, but it has the strongest possible engine and tire partners and not making headlines for the wrong reasons is the highest compliment companies in those fields can be paid. You won't hear much about engines or tires throughout the month of May, but in this case, that's a good thing.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.