What to watch for: Indianapolis 500

One century is complete. On Sunday, another century begins.

Last year, the late Dan Wheldon capped the first 100 years of the Indianapolis 500 with a stunning victory that, sadly, proved to be his final bow. But while he cannot defend his title tomorrow, one of his final legacies — the new Dallara DW12 IndyCars that he helped develop prior to his death last October — will make their mark on the race he loved so much.

Leading up to Race Day, they’ve been the focus of teams and drivers, who have had to recreate their “notes” on the Brickyard. One of the things they’ve discovered is their ability to create serious drafting opportunities, and as a result, the importance of having a good car in traffic. On the other side of the coin, there’s the chance that somebody could get in over their head thanks to the draft and make an ill-advised attempt to pass that triggers a multi-car wreck.

There’s been some angst about having the DW12′s first oval race be at Indianapolis due to its high-speed nature. Fortunately, the DW12 has protected the drivers well enough despite having taken some pretty good whacks against the SAFER Barrier this month. But in three of those incidents, the car managed to slightly get off the track after impact, causing Dallara’s decision to cut three slots in all of the cars’ underwings to lessen its lateral stiffness. We’ll see if that will help matters in the event of an accident.

Chevrolet has been perfect so far this IZOD IndyCar Series season, with four wins in four events. For Sunday’s event, they’ll have all but one of the nine starting spots in the first three rows (the Honda-powered rookie, Josef Newgarden, starts seventh).

That said, last weekend’s qualifications had the cars obtain higher boost levels that clearly benefitted Chevy more. With boost levels back to normal for Race Day, Honda stands a better chance of delivering its first win of the season at the biggest race of them all. Friday’s final practice saw two Hondas, driven by Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, lead the session, which ended with four Hondas in the top six.

But Chevy still has the edge in two factors. In terms of depth, Chevy seems to have a deeper roster of teams that can fight for the win than Honda does (although Honda, with the aforementioned TCGR and Newgarden, plus the defending ’500′ champs at Bryan Herta Autosport, isn’t lacking contenders, either).

Then there’s the matter of fuel mileage. In a 500-mile race, being able to stretch out a green flag run an extra one, two or three laps is like mining in the river and coming away with gold. With the two manufacturers producing relatively equal power from their engines, Chevy’s ability to stay off pit road for just a little longer has given them a clear advantage — and Honda knows it.

On Sunday, we’ll see how hard Honda’s been working on their mileage and if it will pay off in the end.

The Indianapolis 500 is INDYCAR’s chance to bring in eyeballs from the mainstream, which is naturally going to navigate toward the big names. And despite Danica Patrick’s exodus to NASCAR, there’s still lots of them in this ’500′ field.

A win from third-generation driver Marco Andretti (who starts fourth) or second-generation driver Graham Rahal (who starts 12th) would go over well with the casual fans, who would also likely enjoy an American like Andretti or Rahal winning the race for the first time since 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.). Then there’s the story of second-year driver J.R. Hildebrand. If he wins on Sunday after his infamous final-lap crash last year at Indy, don’t be surprised if you see a movie out of it in a few years — maybe Dreamworks could use it for a Turbo spin-off if the first one rocks.

INDYCAR would also get a nice boost out of a history-making 4th Indy triumph from the fence-climbing Helio Castroneves or a third ’500′ win out of Dario Franchitti, known to many outside the racing circles as the husband of noted actress Ashley Judd.

Yeah, it’ll be weird not to see Patrick on the grid for Indy (a possibility to return still exists in her mind). But INDYCAR has maintained that with her out of the picture, the spotlight can shine on more drivers and their stories. Tomorrow, they’ll get the spotlight.

The Indiana weather is nothing to sneeze at: Destructive tornadoes, bone-drenching downpours and blistering heat are all part of the game out there.

This year at Indy, that third one has the potential to play a big role in the outcome of the race. Temperatures are expected to creep into the high 90s for tomorrow’s event, which could prove to be the hottest in ’500′ history.

And as fans know, the heat has a heavy impact on car and driver alike, from creating a slick track that robs precious grip to testing the mettle of even the best conditioned racers. In such an environment, physical and mental strength — not to mention hydration — comes to the fore.

Hot temps have had their impacts on the race in the past (one of them, a tragic one). Could it happen again?

And if you’re going out to the track tomorrow, remember: Agua es vida, and beer is not your friend.