IRL headlines

Dixon will battle “usual suspects” in attempt to repeat title Romancini to drive for RLR/Andersen Racing

1. Dixon will battle “usual suspects” in attempt to repeat title: Scott Dixon will attempt to become the second driver in IndyCar Series history to follow up one championship season with another. To do so, he’ll have to battle what most fellow drivers refer to as “the usual suspects.”

Those usual suspects include Dixon’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti, Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe, Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan and Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon. Of those five drivers, four have won the IndyCar Series title in the past, accounting for five of the last six titles. Only Briscoe, who will be in his second season with Team Penske has yet to hoist the trophy.

A strong case can be made for any of the drivers considered contenders.

Dixon put together a record-tying six race victories in 2008 en route to becoming only the second driver to win multiple championships in the IndyCar Series. The New Zealand native also won the title as a rookie in 2003.

“The only way that you can try and do better than last year is to try and repeat.” Dixon said. “To try and repeat 2008 is going to be very tough. It was definitely a stellar season for myself and the team. I think (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) has a fantastic lineup if you just look at it as we’ve got the last two (Indianapolis) 500 champions, last two series champions.

“We definitely are going to have the target on our backs. It’s going to be a hard season, with a lot of the new people as such from last year, have had a lot of time in the cars now, and the teams have been able to prepare the cars maybe a little bit better, the competition level is going to be a lot tougher. 2009 is going to be an exciting season. I see a lot of different winners.”

2007 champion Franchitti, who joins TCGR after a year away from the IndyCar Series, will provide much of the competition. Franchitti has eight victories in his IndyCar Series career, including four in 2007.

“I think having Scott and I on the same team is good,” Franchitti said. “Scott is a great competitor, and he’s going to push me on. We’re going to push each other, for sure. We both believe we can do the job, Chip (Ganassi) believes we can do the job, the guys on the team believe we can do the job.”

Briscoe will attempt to bring Team Penske its second IndyCar Series title, although the team has had three runner-up finishes, including last year with driver Helio Castroneves. After getting acclimated to the team early in 2008, Briscoe finished the season with six consecutive top-10 finishes and recorded his first two series victories, finishing fifth overall. He started the offseason with a victory in the non-points race in Australia.

“I’m sure it’s going to be very tough this year, at least as tough as last year, and I think we’re all pretty sure it’s going to be more competitive. All of the equipment is exactly the same. We had a lot of new teams last year that all have a lot more experience, along with the drivers, so it’s going to be challenging. Team Penske has been working hard over the offseason, and I’ve been working hard and know where I need to improve on last year’s performances. Hopefully we can go out and be one of the guys running for the title.

“I think Scott’s going to be no different than how he’s been in previous years. He’s definitely excellent on any track we go to. I certainly look up to that, and it’s where I’m trying to get to. Hopefully, throughout the year I can keep improving and be right there with him.”

Kanaan seeks to return to the championship stage for the first time since 2004 when he dominated the series by completing every lap of every race, winning three times. Last year, Kanaan finished third overall with two race victories and 11 top-five finishes.

“I think more than ever this year it will be about winning races,” Kanaan said. “(Last year) Helio showed how consistent you can be and still not win a championship, and Dixon showed that winning races is the best way. It’s a combination, but winning races this year is going to be more important.”

Wheldon also promises to be in contention throughout the season. The 2005 champion migrates from Target Chip Ganassi Racing, where he won two races last season en route to fourth in the championship, to two-time championship-winning team Panther Racing.

“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could win it,” Wheldon said. “It’s going to take some hard work. I think the team finished 13th in the championship last year, so it seems like a big jump, but it’s not somewhere that is certainly out of the realm of possibilities. The team has shown that they can win championships before, and so have I, and I think with the combination and hard work and determination we can definitely do it.”

Despite the stiff competition, the edge heading into 2009 may have to go to Dixon, who has guided the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing machine to Victory Lane in 10 of the last 26 races. If he can maintain that pace, a second consecutive title would be within reach.

A look at how IndyCar Series champions have fared the year following their championship-winning season:

Year/ Champion/ Finish Following Year2007 Dario Franchitti Did Not Compete2006 Sam Hornish Jr. 5th2005 Dan Wheldon 2nd2004 Tony Kanaan 2nd2003 Scott Dixon 10th2002 Sam Hornish Jr. 5th2001 Sam Hornish Jr. 1st2000 Buddy Lazier 2nd1999 Greg Ray 13th1998 Kenny Brack 2nd1996-97 Tony Stewart 3rd1996 Buzz Calkins 10th Scott Sharp 22nd


2. Romancini to drive for RLR/Andersen Racing: RLR/Andersen Racing co-owner Dan Andersen announced that 21-year-old Mario Romancini will drive his team's No. 5 car, which will be sponsored by Allied Building Products Corp., Win Brazil Marketing and Revita, a recycling company for paper, plastic and aluminum beverage bottles and cans.

"I think we will be able to fight for wins this year," Romancini said. "I feel comfortable with the car and with the guys, and now we'll just keep working so we can start the championship off on the right foot. I'm very happy to be running with RLR/Andersen Racing. I want to thank Dan and John Andersen and all the team members for trusting that I can do the job. I will do my best to fight for the title this year."

Romancini, who raced in the World Series by Renault in 2008, is expected to be a contender for for both the Firestone Firehawk Cup and the series' Rookie of the Year award. He has already won two other Rookie of the Year awards in other open-wheel series, as he was the top rookie as well as the series runner-up in the South American Formula 3 series in 2007. He earned the ride with RLR/Andersen Racing after four impressive test days last month.

"I was extremely pleased with Mario's performance in the four days of testing on both road courses and ovals that he just completed with our team," Andersen said. "He learned oval driving techniques much faster than most drivers do, and in fact, was the fastest driver out there when running without the benefit of a draft on the final Open Test day when all 18 drivers were testing. He is very smooth. He has excellent hand movements, which is very important on ovals where steering input affects car speed so much.

"Mario also demonstrated a focused, positive attitude, and he works very well with our entire crew. We're looking forward to a great season with Mario driving the No. 5 car for RLR/Andersen Racing."


           The 2009 IndyCar Series season opens April 5 with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The race will be telecast live at 2 p.m. (EDT) by VERSUS. The 2009 Firestone Indy Lights season begins with a doubleheader race weekend April 4-5 at St. Petersburg.