Castroneves one to beat, but watch out for Danica

Updated: April 25, 2006, 9:21 PM ET
By Rusty Wallace | Special to ESPN.com

(I want to first apologize to the IndyCar race fans for the technical difficulties at the start of the broadcast that caused the viewer to miss the first 18 laps of the Indy Japan 300.)

It wasn't a complete surprise that Helio Castroneves won at Motegi because he was the fastest in both practice sessions. He led a dominating 184 laps out of 200, and in Southern terms, that's a good old fashioned rear-end kicking.

Helio Castroneves
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesSpiderman has a 42-point lead over Dan Wheldon heading into the Indianapolis 500.

Helio's best competition right now is his Marlboro Team Penske teammate, Sam Hornish Jr., as well as Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon. Hornish, Dixon, Wheldon, and Andretti Green Racing drivers Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti are all in the same group as far as the way they are running on the track; but Castroneves just seems to be a notch above all of them right now.

One driver to watch next month is Danica Patrick. At Motegi she started 14th (based on points) and finished eighth. Patrick stayed on the lead lap and out of trouble. While the Rahal Letterman Racing Driver didn't have the track positions of the Penske and Ganassi teams, Patrick's lap speeds were almost identical to Castroneves' (around 198 mph).

I know Danica isn't going into the Indianapolis 500 feeling like she's in trouble. She's pretty good right now with the way they ran at Motegi, and very focused on the Indianapolis 500. I'm expecting big things out of her next month.

Motegi is the best indicator for how next month's Indianapolis 500 could turn out, so you have to consider Castroneves the odds-on favorite to win at the Brickyard. Wheldon won in Japan and Indianapolis last year. With the way they've been driving, I expect Ganassi or Penske will finish in the top two spots on pole day.

Personally, this is going to be exciting for me calling next month's race because I have never been to the Indianapolis 500. It's also the first time I won't be at the Coca-Cola 600 and it will feel weird. Calling the Indianapolis 500 will be one of the highlights of my career.

But as soon as the Indy 500 is over, I'm going to get in my plane and fly back to North Carolina and try to catch the rest of the Coca-Cola 600.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and select Nextel Cup races.

Former Cup champion Rusty Wallace will provide coverage for ESPN and ABC during this year's IndyCar Series and selected Nextel Cup races. You can check out all things Rusty at his constantly updated and upgraded Web site at rustywallace.com.

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