UNIFICATION: YEAR TWO LOOKS TO BE EVEN MORE COMPETITIVE
With last year’s unification announcement coming just days before pre-season testing, teams and drivers new to the IndyCar Series spent months playing catch-up. They missed the February Open Test at Homestead-Miami and had a separate Open Test at Sebring, Fla. They went deep into the season acquiring parts and preparing back-up cars.
Despite the challenges, 2008 was a banner year that included breakthrough wins by rookies Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson. With a full year of unification in the rearview mirror, 2009 promises to be even more competitive. Teams entering their second season of IndyCar Series competition have had time to plan, build and test, while drivers return to familiar tracks. "I watched a lot from a distance last year to see what was happening,” said Dario Franchitti. “You saw the potential of the new teams, with Graham winning at St. Pete. I think as those teams get more and more used to the regulations in the IndyCar Series, you're going to see the field get even more competitive, the drivers get more used to driving on ovals. It's going to be tough.”
SEASON OPENER AT A GLANCEThe Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg marks the 14th season of IndyCar Series competition. This will be the first time the series will begin its season in St. Pete and the first time it will open on a temporary street course. Four different venues have hosted the IndyCar Series season opener, while six winners of the opening race have gone on to clinch the season championship that year. Year, track and race winners for past IndyCar Series season-opening races and championship points position:
Year Season Opening Track Race Winner Championship Standings2008 Homestead-Miami Speedway Scott Dixon 1st 2007 Homestead-Miami Speedway Dan Wheldon 4th 2006 Homestead-Miami Speedway Dan Wheldon 2nd 2005 Homestead-Miami Speedway Dan Wheldon 1st 2004 Homestead-Miami Speedway Sam Hornish Jr. 7th 2003 Homestead-Miami Speedway Scott Dixon 1st 2002 Homestead-Miami Speedway Sam Hornish Jr. 1st 2001 Phoenix International Raceway Sam Hornish Jr. 1st2000 Walt Disney World Speedway Robbie Buhl 8th 1999 Walt Disney World Speedway Eddie Cheever Jr. 7th 1998 Walt Disney World Speedway Tony Stewart 3rd 1996-97 New Hampshire International Speedway Scott Sharp 22nd 1996 Walt Disney World Speedway Buzz Calkins 1st (tie)
Additionally, four IndyCar Series champions have won the season-opening race the following year, while eight have finished in the top 10. Date, track, defending champion and finishing position:
Year Season-Opening Track Defending IndyCar Series Champion Season-Opener Finish2008 Homestead-Miami Speedway Dario Franchitti Did Not Compete 2007 Homestead-Miami Speedway Sam Hornish Jr. 3rd 2006 Homestead-Miami Speedway Dan Wheldon 1st 2005 Homestead-Miami Speedway Tony Kanaan 3rd 2004 Homestead-Miami Speedway Scott Dixon 18th 2003 Homestead-Miami Speedway Sam Hornish Jr. 10th 2002 Homestead-Miami Speedway Sam Hornish Jr. 1st 2001 Phoenix International Raceway Buddy Lazier 3rd 2000 Walt Disney World Speedway Greg Ray 17th 1999 Walt Disney World Speedway Kenny Brack 22nd 1998 Walt Disney World Speedway Tony Stewart 1st 1996-97 New Hampshire International Speedway Calkins/Sharp 2nd/1st 1996 Walt Disney World Speedway Inaugural Season Inaugural Season
CAN DIXION EARN BACK-TO-BACK CHAMPIONSHIPS?Last year, Scott Dixon became the second driver to earn multiple IndyCar Series titles. Now, as he begins the 2009 campaign, Dixon will look to earn back-to-back championships, something that has only been accomplished once in IndyCar Series history. With the level of competition at an all-time high, the two-time champion will have his work cut out for him. Here is a look at how previous 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. 5th 2005 Dan Wheldon 2nd 2004 Tony Kanaan 2nd 2003 Scott Dixon 10th 2002 Sam Hornish Jr. 5th 2001 Sam Hornish Jr. 1st 2000 Buddy Lazier 2nd 1999 Greg Ray 13th 1998 Kenny Brack 2nd 1996-97 Tony Stewart 3rd 1996 Buzz Calkins 10th Scott Sharp 22nd
FRANCHITTI’S RETURN ROUNDS OUT GANASSI’S ALL-STAR LINE-UP After a brief stint in stock cars, 2007 IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti returns to open-wheel racing, teamed with his long time rivals Scott Dixon and Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The team is the first organization in major auto racing history with drivers who have won both its sanctioning body’s Driver Championship (IndyCar Series) and its marquee event (Indianapolis 500) the previous two seasons. Dating to the first American Automobile Association-sanctioned Indianapolis 500 in 1911, the FIA-sanctioned Monaco Grand Prix in 1950 and the NASCAR-sanctioned Daytona 500 in 1959, no team has ever paired the previous two winners of the sport’s driver championship, and it’s respective crown jewel event, together on the same team.
RAHAL TAKES THE LEAD AT NEWMAN/HAAS/LANIGAN RACINGAfter a rookie season that saw Graham Rahal win in his first IndyCar Series start, the youngest winner in open-wheel history returns to Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, this time as the team’s lead driver. Paired with rookie Robert Doornbos, the pressure is on for the 20-year-old, as he is the only driver on the team roster to complete a full IndyCar Series season.
WHELDON RETURNS HOME TO PANTHER Seven years after Dan Wheldon made his IndyCar Series debut with Panther Racing, the 2005 IndyCar Series champion returns home to the team that gave him his start. Wheldon signed with the team originally in June 2002 under a testing agreement and ended the season with two IndyCar Series starts. The following year, Wheldon moved to Andretti Green, where he claimed the titles of Bombardier Learjet Rookie of the Year, Indianapolis 500 champion and IndyCar Series champion. After three successful seasons with Target Chip Ganassi Racing, where he scored six wins, Wheldon finds himself in a new position for the first time in his IndyCar Series career – a single-car team.
VIVA VISO As a rookie in the IndyCar Series in 2008, E.J. Viso experienced a roller coaster season that saw daring moves on road courses, aggressive charges on ovals, a case of the mumps that sidelined him for one race and on-track run-ins with several drivers. But through it all, the HVM Racing driver proved to the competition that he is a force to be reckoned with for the 2009 season while catching the eyes of the fans around the world. With a full season of IndyCar Series competition under his belt, which included his inaugural year of oval racing, Viso looks to capture his first IndyCar Series win. Once categorized by many as reckless, Viso now enters the IndyCar Series season viewed as fearless in the eyes of his competitors.
ANDRETT GREEN'S LINE UP REMAINS THE SAME For the first time since 2005, Andretti Green has retained the same driver lineup for a second consecutive season as it looks to strengthen the team’s chemistry. Former IndyCar Series champion Tony Kanaan returns for his seventh year, while 2008 Bombardier Learjet Rookie of the Year Hideki Mutoh enters his second season with the team. Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to win a major open-wheel race, is again behind the wheel of the No. 7 car and Marco Andretti looks to build on his momentum from last year, which saw him amass four podium finishes and become the youngest pole sitter in IndyCar Series history.
POWER LANDS COVETED TEAM PENSKE SEATDuring the off-season, Team Penske announced that Will Power will fill in for Helio Castroneves behind the wheel of the No. 3 Honda-powered Dallara, one of the most coveted seats in all of motorsports. Paired with championship contender Ryan Briscoe, Power joins one of the most the successful teams in IndyCar Series history, which has included drivers such as Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi, Danny Sullivan, Mark Donohue and Paul Tracy. Power’s IndyCar Series rookie season saw him earn the pole for the non-points race in Surfers Paradise and win the Champ Car World Series finale on the streets of Long Beach.
TEAMS PREPARE FOR FIRST SEASON OF INDYCAR SERIES COMPETITIONSeveral new teams look to make their full-season IndyCar Series debut in 2009. Luczo Dragon Racing, which ran a partial season last year with Tomas Scheckter, pairs with 2008 Firestone Indy Lights champion Raphael Matos. Team 3G will make its debut with stock car driver Stanton Barrett behind the wheel.
DRIVERS LOOK TO AVOID SOPHOMORE SLUMPThe unification of open-wheel racing under the IndyCar Series banner produced 13 rookies, the largest class since 1997. Two rookies – Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson – claimed victories during their freshman campaign while Hideki Mutoh walked away with Bombardier Learjet Rookie of the Year honors.
Now Rahal, Wilson and Mutoh, along with Will Power, E.J. Viso and Mario Moraes, will look to avoid the sophomore slump. In addition to 2003 Bombardier Learjet Rookie of the Year Dan Wheldon, several sophomore drivers have experienced breakout seasons during their second year of IndyCar Series competition. Both Sam Hornish Jr and Kenny Brack went on to claim the IndyCar Series title during their sophomore season. Hornish scored three wins, two poles and 11 top-five finishes with Panther Racing on the road the 2001 championship. Teamed with Foyt Racing, Brack earned three wins and five top-five finishes on his way the 1998 title. Rookies of the year and how they fared in their sophomore season of IndyCar Series competition:
Year Reigning ROY Wins Poles Top Fives Championship Standings2008 Ryan Hunter-Reay 1 0 1 8th 2007 Marco Andretti 0 0 6 11th 2006 Danica Patrick 0 0 2 9th 2005 Kosuke Matsuura 0 0 0 14th 2004 Dan Wheldon 3 2 12 2nd 2003 Laurent Redon - - - Did Not Compete2002 Felipe Giaffone 0 0 8 4th 2001 Airton Dare 0 0 1 10th 2000 Scott Harrington 0 0 0 35th 1999 Robby Unser 0 0 1 10th 1998 Jim Guthrie 0 0 0 33rd