It was a minor victory for Buddy Rice's Rahal-Letterman crew, and it came in a contrived event.

But Ricardo Nault, the chief mechanic for Rice's G-Force Honda, did not dismiss beating Helio Castroneves' Penske crew in the final round of Thursday's Pit Stop Challenge, an event that measures a team's ability to quickly change four tires and add fuel.

"You look at [Team Penske] as the team to beat," Nault said "They've got all the money, all the prestige, all the cash. So it feels good to go out and spank 'em."

Doing it Sunday in the 88th running of the Indianapolis 500 will be a much taller order. Team Penske has won 13 Indy 500 titles, including three in a row since a five-year absence from the Brickyard resulting from the split between the Indy Racing League (IRL) and Championship Auto Racing Teams series (CART).

Sunday, Team Penske will be looking for its unprecedented fourth consecutive Indy win with drivers Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr., who will run from the Nos. 8 and 11 spots, respectively.

"If you have the best of everything, you're expected to win," Hornish said. "You know it's not put on the drivers by the team; it's put on the driver by outside people because everybody sees what they have."

Castroneves won the 2001 and 2002 races before finishing runner-up to teammate Gil de Ferran last year. At the end of last season, de Ferran retired, and he was replaced by Hornish, the man considered the future of U.S. open-wheel racing and the best candidate to become the first American to win at the Brickyard since Eddie Cheever Jr. in 1998.

Hornish, who won the 2001 and 2002 IRL championships, has struggled here. His best finish was 14th in 2001, and he has yet to lead the race. He won his debut with Penske in February at the first event of the IRL season at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a late pass of Castroneves.

Rahal-Letterman and Andretti Green Racing seem to have the best chances of unseating Penske in a race that has the deepest field since the IRL-CART split. Those two teams have six cars in the first four rows of three.

"I think the trend is certainly that multiple-car teams are the way to go in this series," said Bobby Rahal, who owns Rahal-Letterman with television personality David Letterman. "We were in that area in the '90s, and I think we're getting into that area again. It's just like NASCAR. You have the haves and the have-nots."

In addition to the pole-sitting Rice, Rahal-Letterman has Vitor Meira and Roger Yasukawa in the Nos. 7 and 12 spots, respectively.

Andretti Green Racing, meantime, has three of its four cars among the top five slots. Dan Wheldon, last season's rookie of the year and the current IRL points leader, is considered one of the hottest drivers entering Sunday's race. He will start next to Rice in the No. 2 slot, and to his right in the No. 3 slot will be teammate Dario Franchitti, who missed last year's race because of an injury.

Tony Kanaan, who is second in points and has one win in the first three races of the year, is in the fifth spot, directly behind Wheldon.

While the race is considered wide open with numerous possible winners, one thing is certain: Sunday's race will be slower than those in recent years. And that is by design.

Kenny Brack was seriously injured at Texas Motor Speedway in last season's final race, and 10 days later, Tony Renna died in a private run in Indianapolis. In response to those accidents, specifications were altered to make cars safer. Maximum engine displacement was reduced from 3.5 liters to 3.0, and chassis were adjusted to create more downforce, which will help keep the cars from getting airborne.

The changes have worked. Rice's pole speed (222.024) was more than nine mph slower than Castroneves' last year. The average speeds of the qualifiers were approximately 10 mph slower than the record set in 2002.

The new specifications should have several effects on the race. First, since fuel tanks have been reduced from 35 gallons to 30, most expect the number of pit stops cars make -- in past years, six -- to be anywhere from six to 10. Second, the cars will be more difficult to handle, according to drivers, especially in turns and poor weather conditions (rain is likely). Third, loss of momentum will be harder to recover from, so maneuvering in traffic will be critical.

"I think it puts more of a role back on the driver," Rice said.

Driver Buddy Rice is congratulated by car owner and former Indy 500 champ Bobby Rahal after Rice's pole-winning May 15 qualifying run of 222.024 mph.