Let's get straight to the point about who should win the 2012 Indianapolis 500. This is not a prediction. This is a wish list.
Here are my Top 10 picks for the best possible storyline – which is all that really matters to a sportswriter – for a winning driver in the race, which starts at noon today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:
1. JR Hildebrand. He had the race in his control last season as a rookie. He came out of Turn 4, literally seconds from glory. He hit the “marbles,” he hit the wall, he hit every driver's biggest disappointment. He slid across the finish line as Dan Wheldon passed him for the win.
Hildebrand then had two choices: Throw a temper tantrum or, much harder, display nothing but class.
He chose the latter, in part because he was driving for the National Guard car. He has since talked about how he knows he might never have such a close chance at a win again.
If Hildebrand were to get a second chance, and seize it, it would be the redemption story.
2. Tony Kanaan. One of the top IndyCar Series drivers over the past decade, he has been snake-bit in the Indy 500. He's respected and liked among drivers and others, which is not always an easy status to achieve. The emotion he would feel with a win would be palpable to anyone watching.
3. Helio Castroneves. If the affable former “Dancing with the Stars” winner were to take the checkered flag, he'd join the exclusive four-win club of A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Jr. He'd be on the Brickyard Mount Rushmore.
4. James Hinchcliffe. The guys exudes energy and personality and just so happens to be driving the GoDaddy car for Andretti Autosport made famous by Danica Patrick. He's the perfect face of the youth movement in IndyCar, capable of driving a media blitz like no other driver.
5. Marco Andretti. The Andretti family racing history has been rich and star-crossed at Indianapolis, from his grandfather Mario to his father Michael. This would be a great connection with Indy's past and the tradition of the Speedway.
6. Graham Rahal. You have to respect how Rahal says he doesn't drive for his father, Bobby, because he feels he needs to go out and prove he can compete on his own merits. Graham is often linked with Marco Andretti, due to their similar lineages. Rahal's personality would be a hit, too.
7. Ryan Briscoe. The pole sitter is another likable driver. (Truth be told, the series is full of them.) He drives for Team Penske, with all the advantages that entails. Yet he's never been considered as one of the elite drivers in IndyCar. A Indy 500 win would change that.
8. Dario Franchitti. He would tie Castroneves with a third Indy 500 win. He's an all-around smooth driver and great guy everyone respects.
9. Josef Newgarden. He's a brash rookie, relatively unknown but driving for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Fisher, of course, represents the sometimes neglected grass roots foundation of auto racing.
10. Ana Beatriz, Simona de Silvestro, Katherine Legge. Of course, it would be a major storyline if a female driver won the race the year after Patrick departed for NASCAR. I'd rank this higher if I thought it was really plausible.
Ultimately, this wish list probably means only one thing: Team Penske's Will Power is headed for Victory Lane, as the rich Penske legacy gets richer. Well, I guess that's a storyline, too, but just not quite as much fun.