INDIANAPOLIS -- AJ Allmendinger is being mentioned as one of the favorites in the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, even though it is his first time in the big race.

The Indy 500 rookie qualified fifth, ahead of Team Penske teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves. His car has been so good that Power even used Allmendinger's setup for his own qualifying run.

"He's been the strongest of the three of us this month," Power said. "He definitely does have a shot to win the race."

It has been noticed beyond the Penske garages and throughout the paddock, with other drivers moving Allmendinger higher on the list of contenders.

Justin Wilson, a former teammate of Allmendinger's in the Champ Car series and a current teammate on their Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona team, had no doubt that Allmendinger, a South Bay native, would get comfortable quickly at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"He's come in and done a great job, and I thought he would," Wilson said. "He adapts quicker than anyone I know to different situations. Whether it's going from Champ Car to NASCAR or a sports car, or NASCAR to an Indy car. Every year he jumps into a sports car and he's on the pace within a lap. His ability to adapt is impressive.

"He's with a good team, they've got the car sorted out, and he's done a great job getting the most out of the car. And he's also been developing the car, too, and helping the team. I never doubted he'd be able to do that."

Allmendinger left the open-wheel Champ Car series after his five-win 2006 season to join NASCAR. He bounced around with a handful of teams before landing last year at Penske Racing in the best job of his life. But a failed NASCAR drug test got him suspended, and Penske fired him.

But Penske has a soft spot for the likable Allmendinger and has given him a second chance with his IndyCar team.

Graham Rahal said Allmendinger would be a popular winner.

"I think everybody likes AJ, he's a good guy, deep down he's an open-wheel guy and has been his whole life," Rahal said. "You've got to give it to him, he's kind of lucked into a ride with the best team. He got a second opportunity with one of the best rides, and that's Roger, he's very loyal and has been extremely nice to A.J. and given him a great opportunity."

Wilson said he wouldn't be surprised to see Allmendinger in Victory Lane on Sunday and would go to congratulate him.

"I think it's totally possible. He's strong, he's good in traffic, he's in the right moment, he's more than capable, he's got a good drive, and he can go win the bloody thing," Wilson said. "He's a good guy, he's made mistakes, but he's worked it out. So I'd be very happy for him. I'd also grab him around the neck and get him in a choke-lock."

  • Last year, Takuma Sato and Dario Franchitti nearly touched entering Turn 1 of the final lap while fighting for the lead. The result was Sato spinning into the wall and Franchitti zipping to his third victory in one of the greatest Indy 500s ever. Overall there were 34 lead changes -- 15 in the final 75 laps -- and passing throughout the field.

    "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."

  • Franchitti and Castroneves are vying to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears as the only four-time winners of the Indy 500, a feat last achieved with 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."

  • Franchitti and Castroneves have five Andretti Autosport cars standing in their way, two starting 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 one win -- by grandfather 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."