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updated: 5/25/2013 6:40 PM

Could this Indy 500 be better than 2012 epic?

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  • Takuma Sato, of Japan, signs a checkered flag for a fan during an autograph session before the public drivers meeting for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

      Takuma Sato, of Japan, signs a checkered flag for a fan during an autograph session before the public drivers meeting for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Saturday, May 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • IndyCar driver Takuma Sato, of Japan, laughs as he talks with a member of his crew before the start of the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

      IndyCar driver Takuma Sato, of Japan, laughs as he talks with a member of his crew before the start of the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/AJ Mast)

  • Dario Franchitti, of Scotland, framed through a stack of tires, talks with his crew following the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

      Dario Franchitti, of Scotland, framed through a stack of tires, talks with his crew following the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves, right, celebrates on the pit lane after winning the Pit Stop Challenge for a record sixth time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Gary Mook) NO SALES.

      IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves, right, celebrates on the pit lane after winning the Pit Stop Challenge for a record sixth time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Friday, May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Gary Mook) NO SALES.

 
By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- They raced 1-2-3 in line, trading the lead a whopping 15 times over the final, frantic 75 laps. All three drivers had a last-lap plan in mind when they zipped past the white flag, and it was Takuma Sato who acted first with a bold move for the win.

Sato pulled out of line, dipped inside of Dario Franchitti and tried to pounce as they headed into the first turn. Scott Dixon watched and waited from third, figuring he was now in position to slingshot past both for the victory.

Instead, Sato and Franchitti nearly touched.

Sato spun out and into the wall and Franchitti zipped to his third victory in one of the most dramatic Indianapolis 500 finishes in memory. Some even argued it was one of the greatest Indy 500s ever.

It sure won't be easy to top today.

"I got a lot of comments from drivers in NASCAR and Formula One saying it was the best 500 they'd ever seen," Franchitti said. "But I think this year will also be a very, close exciting race."

The bar was certainly raised at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last year with 34 lead changes, passing throughout the field, Franchitti rallying from the back to win and three close friends of the late Dan Wheldon sweeping the podium. So perfect it could have been a Hollywood movie script.

But the IndyCar Series has given every indication this season that today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be another thriller.

The series is off to a terrific start this year with three winners in the first four races, and for the first time since 1991 none of the winners drive for the mighty Penske Racing or Chip Ganassi Racing teams. Instead, it's been 3 wins for resurgent Andretti Autosport and 1 for A.J. Foyt Racing, which celebrated Sato becoming the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race.

So steady this season, Sato goes into today as the series points leader. And, he'll start from the sixth row -- right next to Franchitti and Dixon.

Sato, who calls last year's race "an unforgettable day," has the chance to give Foyt his first Indy 500 victory since Kenny Brack in 1999. Sato's win at Long Beach last month was the first for the Foyt organization since 2002.

"We're here for it. We are here aiming to win the 500, so there is no reason why we cannot," Sato said. "Winning, I was so close last year. Knowing that now, how to get there, what you need there, so it's been a tremendous experience last year to hopefully I can translate it to ... this year's performance."

The field is stacked, though, and has a pair of drivers trying to join the exclusive club of four-time winners. Franchitti and Helio Castroneves are each vying to join Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the Indy 500, a feat that's not been done since Mears' 1991 victory.

"What an incredible opportunity for the fans to have not only one, but two guys trying to make history," Castroneves said. "Forget about the names, forget about who it is. But imagine people who didn't even see the last time when the guy won four times."

They've got five Andretti Autosport cars standing in their way and two of them start from the front row.

Carlos Munoz, a 21-year-old Colombian making his IndyCar debut, will start second alongside Marco Andretti, who is once again considered a favorite but must overcome a curse that has limited his famous family to 1 win -- Mario Andretti in 1969 -- in 80 starts.

Andretti feels far more comfortable about his chances this year than he did last season, when he called the race "mine to lose." Graham Rahal, the other half of the closest rivalry in the mild-mannered series, doesn't consider his nemesis the favorite.

"Do I think it's Marco's race? No. Marco hasn't led in the pack all week," Rahal said. "He just sits in the back and runs a big lap time and pits."

Instead, Rahal thinks everybody is overlooking AJ Allmendinger, who will make his Indianapolis 500 debut seven years after he left open-wheel racing for NASCAR. A failed drug test cost him his NASCAR ride last summer with Roger Penske, but the team owner has given him a second chance with this IndyCar opportunity.

"AJ Allmendinger is a very good race driver. He's had quite a bit of experience," said Foyt. "I met his daddy the other day, I said, 'Why did you handicap that kid putting A.J. on him?'"

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