The trip to kiss the yard of bricks awaits the winner of the 96th Indianapolis 500 (Photo Credit: Dan Helrigel)

The trip to kiss the yard of bricks awaits the winner of the 96th Indianapolis 500 (Photo Credit: Dan Helrigel)

The 96th running of the Indianapolis 500 takes place this Sunday, and after the late Dan Wheldon's memorable win on Memorial Day last year, 2012 marks the first time since his death that an Indycar race has taken place on an oval.  With the new DW12 chassis named in his honour also making its oval racing debut this weekend, it is a field of unknowns which faces the Indycar field this weekend.

Starting on pole is Ryan Briscoe, the Australian having been somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of his countryman Will Power to Team Penske in 2010.  After a stunning 2009 season where he narrowly lost the title to Dario Franchitti, Briscoe has been largely underwhelming in recent years, with his last win coming as long ago as Texas in 2010.  By contrast, Power has won 14 times in the last three years, and arrives at Indy having scored three wins on the bounce, and with Helio Castroneves' emotional win on the streets ofSt. Petersburg, the affable Briscoe is the only man in the Penske camp yet to win a race this year. But should he hold on for victory, Briscoe would become the first Aussie ever to have his face engraved on the famous Borg Warner Trophy.  That in itself is motivation aplenty.

Alongside Briscoe on the front row is fan-favourite James Hinchcliffe, who won the Rookie of the Year Award last year with the Newman-Haas team.  'The Mayor' missed out on pole by a scant 0.0023 of a second driving the Go-Daddy car run by Andretti Autosport which was vacated by Danica Patrick in the off-season, but was often the fastest man around the Speedway in the lead up to qualifying.  The Canadian, who carried one of his late compatriot Greg Moore's gloves inside his fire-suit on his qualifying lap, is certainly one to watch.

After being bumped from the field by his team-mate Marco Andretti in 2011, third place was a fantastic result for Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Californian continuing his promising start to 2012.  Marco was not far behind in fourth, and is still looking to score his first win at the Speedway, having been pipped to the post on the final lap in 2006 by Sam Hornish Jr. He hopes that the Andretti family curse, which prevented his father and team-owner Michael from ever winning the race – despite leading more than two race distances around the Brickyard – will end this weekend with him.

The rest of the Penske brigade, Power and Castroneves, complete the second row.  Championship leader Power finally ended his oval jinx with victory at Texaslast year; however this owed much to a somewhat fortuitous 3rd place grid draw, with the rival Ganassi cars marooned down in 26th and 28th in the random ballot. Still needing to prove that his oval-racing ability can match his phenomenal road-racing skill, where better thanIndianapolis to prove his doubters wrong? 

Castroneves has a special affinity with Indy.  After shocking everyone to win on his Indy debut in 2001, his 2002 victory was a highly political affair; just ask Paul Tracy.  It took Helio a while to join Bobby Unser and Jonny Rutherford in the three-time winners club, but in 2009, after missing the first few rounds of the season while he was investigated for tax-evasion charges, he made an emphatic return to climb the fence a third time.  Further success has since eluded him, but the Brazilian should never be discounted.

Rookie Josef Newgarden was the only non-Chevrolet powered car to make it into the top-9.  The reigning Indy Lights champion, who also won the Freedom 100 at the Speedway last year, has made a great start to his Indycar career with the tiny Sarah Fisher Racing outfit, and won many admirers after his attempts to surprise Franchitti on the first lap at Long Beach spectacularly back-fired.  With SFR having taken their first victory with Ed Carpenter at the wheel on the Indycar series most recent oval race at Kentucky Speedway in 2011, Newgarden could be a dark horse for victory.

Rounding out the top 10 are the KV Racing Technology Chevrolet cars of Tony Kanaan, EJ Viso and F1-convert Rubens Barrichello. Success at the Brickyard has always somehow eluded 2004 Indycar champion Kanaan, and it is fair to say that his bad luck almost registers on the Andretti scale.  His fighting spirit was epitomised in 2010 when he charged up to second from 33rd and last on the grid, but was four laps short on fuel and dropped to twelfth. Venezuelan Viso has emerged a new man in 2012 after silly accidents, including a misjudged three-wide pass early in the 500, blighted his 2011 season, and has become a consistent all-rounder under Kanaan's tutelage, which is also benefitting 39-year old Barrichello, who despite his colossal F1 experience will be making his first start on an oval on Sunday. So long as he doesn't copy Kanaan's luck, Rubens should do just fine. 

Completing the fourth row are Alex Tagliani, last year's pole sitter, and Graham Rahal, the son of 1986 winner Bobby.  'Tags' returns to Indy this year with Bryan Herta Autosport, the team which ran Wheldon to victory last year, and has looked strong in practice despite getting only limited mileage.   After starting the season with the uncompetitive Lotus unit, BHA skipped theBrazil round while they negotiated a deal to run the Honda engine for the rest of the year.  Could another shock be on the cards?  His fellow Honda man Rahal was the quickest member of the Ganassi stable in qualifying, and finished third here last year.  He now finally looks something like the finished package, having raised expectations unfairly by scoring a shock debut win at a wetSt. Petersburg back in 2008, which remains his only triumph to date. 

Ana Beatriz was the top female qualifier in 13th.  The Brazilian is running a fifth Andretti-Autosport car, and looks comfortable as she prepares to race in her 3rd 500.  Next up was the second of the Ganassi B-team drivers Charlie Kimball, who unwittingly played a decisive role in the 2011 running of the race. More on that later.

And at last we find the Target Chip Ganassi super-team, way down in 15th and 16th places.  Scott Dixon, a winner back in 2008 and Dario Franchitti, who cleaned up in 2007 and 2010, have been off the pace and struggled to get to grips with the DW12 all season long.  Even 4-time Indycar champion Franchitti's pole-position start atLong Beach came courtesy of penalties for all the Chevrolet cars starting ahead of him.  Although Ganassi have worked miracles before, Penske look to have an indefinite stranglehold on the 2012 season and it is difficult to see the Target cars running anywhere near the front this weekend.

After failing to qualify last year, Briton James Jakes made it comfortably into the field on Pole Day in 17th place for Dale Coyne Racing, just ahead of JR Hildebrand.  Last year, the race was the Californian's to loose, and that was precisely what he did. After Bertrand Baguette proved to be just a few laps short on fuel, Hildebrand's National Guard car inherited a comfortable lead, and even with Wheldon closing at a rapid rate of knots, the rookie looked to have enough fuel in hand to cruise home in front.  But with just the final turn to negotiate, Hildebrand caught the lapped car of Kimball and made the split-second decision to attempt a pass on the outside.  On old tires and with the outside line treacherously slippery, Hildebrand slithered helplessly into the wall, gifting Wheldon a famous victory.  A year later, a pragmatic Hildebrand is hoping for a little less dramatic race come Sunday.

Fresh from scoring his maiden Indycar podium last time out in Brazil, Japan's Takuma Sato starts 19th, ahead of Townsend Bell, the NBC Sports Network's pit reporter, in the no. 99 car ran by Sam Schmidt and Davey Hamilton.  Justin Wilson is next up, ahead of Mexican Michel Jourdain Jr. making his first appearance at Indy since 1996, with Simon Pagenaud and Sebastian Saavedra completing the top 24.

With only 33 entrants, there was far less at stake on Bump Day. Having ditched the Lotus powerplant, Sebastien Bourdais ran fastest with a time that would have put him 15th had he set it on Saturday.  Instead, he lines up 25th ahead of Wade Cunningham in the AJ Foyt Enterprises no. 41.  A winner of the Freedom 100 a record three times, the Kiwi certainly knows his way around the Speedway and will be a contender for rookie honours. Next up, having also ditched the Lotus, was Oriol Servia, whose Dreyer and Reinbold team has entered into a technical partnership with fellow Chevrolet outfit Panther Racing. The Catalan qualified on the outside of the front-row here last year, but was one of several drivers to crash in the lead up to the race, another being 28th placed Ed Carpenter, driving for his own team.

After a frightening accident which broke his leg in 2010, and failing to qualify in 2011, Mike Conway has never really got on with the Speedway, but managed to make it into the field in 29th place with AJ Foyt. His fellow Briton Katherine Legge was next up in Dragon Racing's second car, and like Bourdais is now equipped with a Chevrolet engine. 

On the back row of the grid, we find USAC champion Bryan Clauson with Sarah Fisher Racing, ahead of the sole remaining Lotus runners.  After a fiery crash in practice last year, Simona de Silvestro has had a low-key Month of May so far in the HVM car, and will just be looking to log more mileage with an engine desperately short on grunt, while 47-year old Frenchman Jean Alesi in the one-off Fan Force United car must be wondering what he is doing at Indy in a car which is 16mph off the ultimate pace.