Commentary

Storylines aplenty in 2009 Indy 500

Updated: May 23, 2009, 3:44 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Something special can happen Sunday. Whatever your fancy, this Indianapolis 500 can provide it.

The Cinderella story, a historic achievement, a triumphant return, a family tradition, a rising star, an overdue win, payback and redemption.

Take your pick.

These are good days for American open-wheel racing. Great days? No, not yet. So much ground was lost, so much damage done in a 12-year feud with separate leagues.

But one year after unification, things are looking up. The stars and would-be stars are here, and they have a story to tell.

Want the Cinderella tale for the 100-year anniversary of the Brickyard? It could happen. Helio Castroneves is your man.

A month ago he was looking at possible deportation or a prison term for tax evasion. His career was in jeopardy. A long and difficult trial ended joyously for Castroneves when he was acquitted in April.

Now he's on the pole and favored to win the Indy 500 for the third time.

"In some ways, it's like my life started all over again," Castroneves said. "Instead of being 34, I'm 20 again."

On the surface, Castroneves seems like the same happy-go-lucky guy who remains one of the most popular drivers in the IndyCar Series.

[+] EnlargeTony Kanaan/Dario Franchitti/Scott Dixon
AP Photo/Tom StricklandTony Kanaan, left, longs to join 2007 Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, center, and 2008 winner Scott Dixon in their exclusive club.

A skillful race car driver and a national celebrity after winning "Dancing With the Stars," Castroneves was on top of the world. But he came close to losing it all. The past six months were the most trying period of his life.

"I'm definitely different," Castroneves said. "I came back different. It feels different. I don't know how to tell you. I wish I could explain, but I can't."

He thought about it for a moment, and then tried to explain it.

"I appreciate all the little things now," he said. "I've learned that you can't let any opportunity go by because you never know if you'll get another one. You have to go for it. And I don't judge anybody."

The No. 3 Team Penske Honda is Castroneves' salvation.

"I love racing with all my being," Castroneves said. "What helps me more than anything is doing this. It makes me happy and helps me be who I am."

Castroneves could become the first person in 21 years, and the ninth in Indy 500 history, to earn his third victory in the event.

But you want a truly historic day? Danica Patrick just might provide it.

Racing's most famous female usually is a contender here. Her victory last year in Japan made her the first woman to win a major open-wheel race. But a win at Indy would make her immortal.

It's no exaggeration to say Patrick would instantly become one of the most celebrated athletes in the world were she to win Sunday.

Two other women -- Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno -- also could become the first female to win the Indy 500. But their chances are slim and none. Slim for Fisher, none for Duno.

Maybe the triumphant return is your favorite storyline. Dario Franchitti is the guy trying to fulfill that role.

Franchitti is the prodigal son of Indy car racing, back this year after one nightmarish season in NASCAR. He's defending his 2007 Indy 500 victory one year late. Better late than never.

And who doesn't like seeing family glory return in the next generation? Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and A.J. Foyt IV want a winning name at Indy back in Victory Lane.

Marco has come close twice -- second in 2006 and third last year -- to ending the Andretti jinx. Grandfather Mario's 1969 victory is the only win for the family, even though Mario and son Michael (Marco's dad) came painfully close to winning several other times.

No current driver has come close more often without winning than Tony Kanaan. Many fans want to see Kanaan, a good guy and a top driver, finally get the big victory he deserves. He's due.

Looking for a true dark horse? Little-known Mario Moraes, a 20-year-old Brazilian phenom with tons of talent, might make a name for himself Sunday.

What about payback and redemption? Paul Tracy has waited seven years for a chance to get what he feels is owed him at the old Brickyard.

He still believes, and will always believe, he won the 2002 Indy 500. But the ruling went to Castroneves, who officially was ahead when a caution was displayed on the final lap.

"People always ask me if it still bothers me," Tracy said. "Not every day, but since I've been here this month, it's all come back to me. It's a race where I was wronged."

Tracy believes politics were involved in giving the 2002 victory to Castroneves. Tracy was racing in Champ Car at the time, the rival league that had boycotted the Indy 500 after a bitter open-wheel split that began in 1996.

But Castroneves and Team Penske left Champ Car to join the Indy Racing League in 2002, one year after Castroneves won his first Indy 500 while still in Champ Car.

"When I came back to Indy in 2002, I got booed a lot," Tracy said. "It was still in the height of the split war. But I have a lot of fans here now. They want to see me do this. I just want to seize the moment. I'm here to win."

Tracy didn't race at Indy from 1996 through 2001, six of the best seasons of his career. Six more seasons went by before this chance to erase the memories of 2002.

"Things could have been a lot different, but it's a waste of time even thinking about it," Tracy said. "The split divided teams and drivers, and people took sides. But everyone is trying to do the right thing now. It's a new day here."

And something special could happen. Take your pick.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter