Indy 500 buildup really begins now

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Centennial Era has begun at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the first major event of a three-year-long celebration is the 93rd running of the Indianapolis 500 (May 24, noon ET, ABC).

IMS opened in 1909, and Speedway officials have added an extra dash of commemorative pageantry to the traditional Month of May festivities.

But once the green flag drops on race day for 200 laps of the Brickyard, it will be all business as 33 contenders vie for the Borg Warner Trophy and a likely payday of more than $3 million.

Those drivers and teams will have only three days of practice -- weather permitting -- before Pole Day, set for Saturday. But they'll still have the usual four days of qualifying.

Pole Day offers plenty of excitement, as the event's recently revamped qualifying format creates battles for the outright pole as well as the last of 11 guaranteed starting spots.

Forty cars and 32 drivers are entered as Wednesday's opening day looms, topped by defending race and IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. Dario Franchitti, the 2007 Indy 500 and series champion, gives Target Chip Ganassi an unusually formidable lineup going into the biggest race of the season.

Dixon, who won the IndyCar Series' most recent race at Kansas Speedway, said he believes he and his team are ready to make a stout title defense.

"I know the team has been doing all the same development and trying to better the car," he said. "They've been working very hard on body fits and things like that, trying to clean the cars up. It's tough to try and improve on cars that you've had. It's hard to keep finding those little pieces, but that's why our team is so competitive. They're just relentless going after those things."

Three other former Indy 500 winners are entered: Helio Castroneves, a two-time champion (2001 and 2002) and pole winner (2003 and 2007); Dan Wheldon (who won in 2005, then won the series championship that season); and 1996 winner Buddy Lazier, who has the unique distinction of winning the great race in a classic 2.65-liter turbocharged car but under Indy Racing League sanction.

Penske Racing, where Castroneves teams with Australians Ryan Briscoe and Will Power, promises to be Ganassi's strongest competition throughout the month. But at least half the field should be quick enough to vie for a first-day qualifying berth.

Andretti Green Racing fields its usual four-car attack, led by Tony Kanaan, Indy car racing's equivalent of the best driver who has never won a major.

If there is such a thing as a sentimental favorite to win, it's the 34-year-old Brazilian, who has seen a 500 victory slip through his hands on at least two occasions.

But Kanaan insists he won't put extra pressure on himself to win the big one.

"It's no different than in years past," he said. "I proved that I can win that thing by leading every single time I've been there. Always something happens, but I'm not going to put any extra focus on that because I've never left anything on the table the last six times I was there.

"I can't create that … not a bad vibe, but a weight on my back saying, 'Oh, I've gotta do this.' Yes, I want to win. I know I can and I know what I need to do, because I've put myself in that position every time I've been there. That's all I can do."

Kanaan's teammate Danica Patrick (with a car sporting a new paint scheme and branding for Motorola's Boost Mobile cell phone service) and Marco Andretti have traditionally performed well at Indianapolis.

Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing has significantly upped its oval game for 2009, as witnessed by its 1-2 start at Kansas Speedway. Graham Rahal is definitely one to watch, and Robert Doornbos leads a field of four first-time competitors fighting for rookie of the year honors.

Veterans returning to competition at Indianapolis include former pole winner Scott Sharp (who joins Wheldon at Panther Racing) and Paul Tracy, whose last visit to IMS ended in controversial circumstances.

Tracy finished a disputed second to Castroneves in the 2002 race, and the colorful Canadian is sure to wind up his nemesis throughout the month, driving for his pal Jimmy Vasser's KV Racing team.

Veterans still searching for a ride include Oriol Servia, former pole winner Bruno Junqueira and former race winner Buddy Rice. Vacancies for a driver (or sponsor to fund one) exist at the Rahal Letterman, KV Racing, Vision, Dale Coyne, Conquest, Foyt and Roth teams.

With 32 drivers already entered and several quality pilots ready to step in, there should be less drama than in recent years in terms of being able to fill the 33-car field.

The past four Indy 500 winners have gone on to win the IndyCar Series championship. Although Kanaan hasn't won a race this year, he currently leads the standings with 100 points, followed by Briscoe (who's one point behind), Franchitti (four points behind) and Dixon (19 points behind).

But it's safe to say TK would trade a second series championship (he won in 2004) for a first Indy winner's ring.

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