Intriguing stories surround several of the 33 drivers in this year's Indianapolis 500, and there's a strong chance they'll share one thing in common: An exceptionally fast and furious race.
Last year's race, won by Tony Kanaan, was the fastest in history and featured a record 68 lead changes, double the number in 2012.
Yet the field this year brought added speed to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 98th running of the legendary race.
In winning the pole position for the second consecutive year, Ed Carpenter posted an average qualifying speed of 231.067 mph on the 2.5-mile track, the quickest since Helio Castroneves' pole speed of 231.725 mph in 2003.
And the field this year is the fastest in history with an average qualifying speed of 229.382 mph, topping the record of 228.648 mph set in 2002.
That's notable not only for being a record but because the field includes Kurt Busch, the NASCAR driver making his first Indy 500 attempt, and Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve, two former Indy 500 winners who haven't driven in the race in more than a decade.
Busch, who starts 12th, plans to race in the Indy 500 and then NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 stock-car race at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway on Sunday night, becoming the fourth driver in history to complete "the double," or both races on the same day. The others are Tony Stewart, John Andretti and Robby Gordon.
Busch crashed during the Indy 500 practice Monday, but his Andretti Autosport team will have the car ready in time for the drivers' final practice, a one-hour session Friday.
Montoya won the Indy 500 in his only attempt in 2000 before he switched to Formula One racing and then NASCAR. The Colombian returned to the Verizon IndyCar Series this season with Team Penske and starts 10th Sunday.
"It's exciting to have the variety of drivers that are here," Montoya said. "It just makes it more interesting."
Villeneuve won his Indy 500 in his final attempt, in 1995, before becoming a Formula One champion in 1997. So he's returning to Indy at age 43 after a 19-year absence. The Canadian starts 27th after qualifying at an average 228.949 mph.
Scott Goodyear, a former IndyCar driver and now an analyst on ABC, which on Sunday will televise the Indy 500 for the 50th consecutive year, told reporters this week that he asked Villeneuve why he came back. "He said, 'Racing is my oxygen. I need to race something,'" Goodyear said.
IndyCar's biggest names remain favorites to win the Memorial Day weekend classic.
They include Castroneves, another Penske driver who's trying to become the fourth driver in history to win the Indy 500 four times. The other four-time winners are A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. Team owner Roger Penske has won a record 15 Indy 500s with different drivers.
Castroneves' teammate Will Power, the Australian who leads the IndyCar championship standings, also is expected to be a favorite to win Sunday. He won the series' most recent 500-mile race, at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana last October.
Kanaan also might be a repeat winner after moving to the strong Chip Ganassi team this season, where he joined Scott Dixon, the reigning IndyCar champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner.
Kanaan replaced three-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, 41, who retired after suffering a concussion and other injuries in a racing crash last October. However, Franchitti is driving the pace car for this year's race.
The Andretti team's James Hinchcliffe also suffered a concussion May 10 when he was hit by debris in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He was sidelined for a few days but, after being cleared to drive again, Hinchcliffe qualified second behind Carpenter at 230.839 mph.
Speaking of favorites, Sunday will mark the last time that entertainer Jim Nabors will sing "Back Home Again in Indiana," one of the pre-race traditions at Indy. Nabors, 83, who has struggled with health issues in recent years, will be singing the song in person for the 35th time.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an Indiana University graduate, will wave the green flag as this year's honorary starter.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times