Danica headlines 100th anniversary of Indy 500

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Danica headlines 100th anniversary of Indy 500

May 28, 2011
INDYCAR PAGE DRIVER PROFILES
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) When Alex Tagliani leads the 33-car field into the first turn of the Indianapolis 500, he'll be tugging along a century's worth of triumphs, thrills and tragedy.But in this, the 100th anniversary of America's most famous race, the focus is clearly on the future.RELATED: From wheelchair, Schmidt inspires others at Indy
The IndyCar series is showing signs of emerging from 15 years of irrelevance, a period of darkness that began with an open-wheel war between two feuding series and ended with a peace agreement hardly anyone noticed. The sport that produced such giants as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Rick Mears found itself relegated to niche status. Heck, there were even empty seats at the Brickyard, a sight no one could have envisioned a couple of decades ago."There was almost a lost generation," Andretti moaned. "There were those 15 years where things were precarious, at best."Now, there's a semblance of hope. Two new manufacturers will enter the series in 2012, powering a futuristic new machine. The field for this year's 500 is undoubtedly deeper and more talented than it has been since the glory days. Sponsorships are up, attendance is improving and an energetic new leader seems willing to try anything that might bring more attention to the sport.In a sense, Sunday's race can be seen as a jumping-off point to a new era (and, no, we're not talking about the giant orange ramp set up on the infield for a Hot Wheels promotional stunt before the green flag waves)."I'm proud of the series for what we've done, for all the hard work we've put in," said Danica Patrick, who has just one win in her career but remains the only driver widely known outside of IndyCar circles.Of course, the fact that everyone is wondering whether Patrick will bolt to a more profitable gig in NASCAR next year shows the checkered flag remains in the distance. No matter what happens, there's still plenty of work to be done.A third of the field is composed of part-time drivers, most of whom are doing Indy-only deals and hope it leads to something biggerLook at Dan Wheldon, a former race winner who should be in the prime of his career. He was squeezed out of his last job, and this is the only sure thing on his schedule in 2011. Look at Townsend Bell, who has finished as high as fifth at Indy and will start from the inside of the second row. Asked what's on his schedule for the rest of the year, he replied, "Well, there's Christmas. And New Year's, I guess."Good line, but not good for IndyCar."I stopped many years ago trying to rationalize or problem-solve the racing industry," Bell said. "I'm resigned to the fact that if I just go out and win the damn race, everything else will probably take care of itself."Randy Bernard, who was brought in from the Professional Bull Riders series to bring some pizazz to IndyCar, has certainly shown he's willing to shake thing up. One of his changes - double-file restarts, which are used in NASCAR - has drawn the ire of the drivers. They see them as impractical with the high-speed, open-wheel machines, which can't go banging into each other like the good ol' boys.Tagliani, the surprising pole-winner, was one of the most outspoken critics. He fears that Sunday's race could turn into a gruesome crashfest. He even went so far as to raise the possibility of debris flying into the stands and injuring someone in the massive crowd of more than 200,000."I don't want to be responsible for that," the Canadian said. "If our wheels touch while we're racing side-by-side, all of a sudden cars are going to be flipping."IndyCar officials have promised extra sweeping in the corners during caution periods to provide a wider racing groove, but they appear unwilling to back off from the double-file concept. If nothing else, it has given people something to talk about, which might have been the main purpose all along."It's brought a lot of new controversy and attention to the sport, in a good and positive way," Bernard said.There are other positive signs:- Tagliani was part-owner of a financially challenged team that appeared on the verge of folding before the season. Then it was bought by Sam Schmidt, a former racer who became a car owner after a 2000 crash left him a quadriplegic. The joyful celebration between Tags and his wheelchair-bound boss when the No. 77 car stunningly captured the pole will remain one of the most heart-warming memories of this May, no matter who wins the race.- Helio Castroneves will make another attempt at his record-tying fourth win. He struggled in qualifying, managing only the 16th-best speed, but look for him to make a quick charge through the field. He'll likely be joined by others starting farther back than expected, such as defending champ Dario Franchitti (ninth) and Ryan Briscoe (26th). "I think those guys will be up front pretty quickly," said Will Power, another of the favorites.- Patrick could be making her final start at the 500 if, as most people expect, she moves full time to stock cars in 2012. While coy about her future, she denied a report that a tentative NASCAR deal was already in place and insisted she has not made a final decision."We're very far from the finish line on any of that," she said.Patrick has always run strong at Indy, most notably her fourth-place finish as a rookie in 2005, but don't look for any DanicaMania this year. Her Andretti Autosport team has struggled all month to get up to speed. In fact, two of the team's four regulars didn't even qualify on bump day, leading to a deal that put Ryan Hunter-Reay in a car Bruno Junqueira actually qualified for rival A.J. Foyt Racing.Hunter-Reay, it turns out, might have a better chance in the No. 41 car than he would've had slipping into the field in an underpowered Andretti machine. He was faster than any of his actual teammates in the final practice session Friday.As for Schmidt, he's reveled all week in the attention that goes with putting a car on the pole, especially one that beat out powerhouse organizations run by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. Considering the personal side to the story, the team's qualifying run is even more inspiring."I do it because this is my passion," Schmidt said. "But if gets a lot of people out of bed, gets 'em active, gets 'em in shape, gets 'em back to work so they can be an active part of society, that's what it's all about."Although Schmidt's team has shown it can produce a fast car, a 200-lap race is more than pure speed. There's reliability. There's strategy. There's pit stops."It comes down to the total package," two-time winner Franchitti said. "You've got to be flawless. Every year, it's the same thing: To win this thing, you've got to be flawless. It's very unusual to make a mistake and come back from it."Which is why, despite the closeness of the field and the surprising strength shown by smaller teams in qualifying, the winner likely will be wearing the Penske (Castroneves, Briscoe and Power) or Ganassi (Franchitti and Scott Dixon) colors."Part of me wants to say the winner will come from outside of those guys," said Tony Kanaan, who's one of those outsiders. "But I know what they're capable of. I know Dario. I know Scott Dixon. And Helio, you can't count Helio out. Helio running from behind is something else. I would say it will be between those two teams, unfortunately for me."

Curry bounces back in blowout, wins point guard battle with Irving

Curry bounces back in blowout, wins point guard battle with Irving

OAKLAND -- No one among the Warriors had a deeper desire to beat the Cavaliers than Stephen Curry, and his performance Monday gave every indication that he wanted it as badly as he needed it.

And after losing the point-guard battle to Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving in four successive games, all Warriors losses, it was past time for Curry as the back-to-back MVP to stand up and make a statement.

His response was impressive: 20 points (7-of-20 shooting), 11 assists, four steals and a 126-91 rout by the Warriors. He was plus-23 over 31 minutes.

“He was making shots, it’s as simple as that,” Irving said. “In transition, off pick-and-rolls, doing what he does and that makes him a great player.”

Irving’s response: 17 points (6-of-19 shooting), two assists and a game-high-tying (with teammate LeBron James) six turnovers. Irving was minus-12 over 29 minutes.

“Steph was great,” coach Steve Kerr said. “A phenomenal first half, I think he had 10 assists. His energy was great and he set the tone. He put a lot of pressure on the defense.”

Curry has been playing with renewed vigor lately, his mentality changing shortly after the Warriors on Christmas Day in Cleveland blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, taking a 109-108 loss. Curry took only 11 shots, scoring 15 points.

He was particularly good in the first half, scoring 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, with 10 assists and three steals. Curry clearly came to destroy.

“It was a great way to start, just a foot on the gas pedal,” Curry said.

Curry’s game, along with the victory, may silence some of the narrative suggesting the Cavaliers have his number. Though he was displeased with one aspect of his game, Curry happily accepted the outcome. Or that Irving hadn't caught up to him.

“I obviously wanted to play well; I didn’t want to walk off the floor with anything more than what I think is a solid, aggressive game,” he said. “I didn’t shoot the ball as well as I wanted to. Some shots I normally make didn’t go down.

But I can live with that knowing I took care of the other stuff I was supposed to do on the floor. Really, what was all in my head was that I definitely wanted to leave this arena tonight with a solid performance and obviously get the win.”

Durant gets personal with stuffing of LeBron, stops any momentum for Cavs

Durant gets personal with stuffing of LeBron, stops any momentum for Cavs

OAKLAND -- There was a single play Monday night that delighted Warriors fans more than any other in a 126-91 win over the Cavaliers, and it was not any of five 3-point bombs dropped by Oracle Arena favorite Stephen Curry.

Nor was it the high-velocity collision between Draymond Green and LeBron James, which resulted in Green being assessed with a Flagrant Foul 1 and the Warriors cranking up their intensity to another level.

No, the most satisfying play of all was on defense, and it was made by offensive wizard Kevin Durant, who sent a resounding message to the Cavaliers and, moreover, to James, Cleveland’s superstar forward.

With 9:48 left in the third quarter and James driving in for a dunk, Durant responded by rising up and cleanly stuffing the shot, sending James sprawling helplessly to the floor as the Warriors gained possession and raced the other way.

“That block at the rim was definitely great,” Draymond Green said. “If LeBron dunks on him right there, the momentum swings, he’s excited and everything can possibly swing. Yeah, he made a stand. Got a big block for us and we got off to the races. That puts momentum completely in our favor.”

With the crowd pumping up the volume, the Warriors, already in control, finished the job. And don’t think Durant isn’t aware of the effect such a play has.

“Yeah, especially when you’re at home, when you get a block against anybody, the crowd is into the game and they really enjoy that,” he said. “Around the league now, in every arena, fans are starting to respect defense. They can sense that it’s a momentum shift when you get a big block or a huge steal or a block.”

It also put momentum, on a personal level, in Durant’s favor. Despite the fact that Curry has won the last two MVP awards, it’s widely believed that James and Durant are the top two players in the NBA.

James has three championship rings, while Durant has none. James has four MVP awards, to one for Durant. When the two met in the 2012 NBA Finals, when Durant was with the Thunder and James with the Heat, Miami won in five games.

Durant, who entered the league four years after James, is at the point in his career that he believes he’s ready for anything James may have. Furthermore, since coming to the Warriors last summer, Durant clearly embraces the opportunity to beat James.

Durant posted 36 points and 15 rebounds when the teams met in Cleveland on Christmas Day, and posted 21 points, six rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals on Monday. KD, on an individual basis, is now 2-0 this season against LeBron.

“Guarding one of the best players in the league, and somebody that can score in different ways and impact the game from different ways, whether it’s in transition or the pick-and-roll or (isolation), I just tried to stay locked in and relied on my teammates,” Durant said.