IRL headlines

1.      Depth of field will yield tight title chase

2.      If you missed it: Ryan Briscoe, Will Power & Will Phillips Conference Call

3.      Ed Carpenter Racing forms partnership with Hoosier Momma

4.      Panther Racing joins efforts to support heroes

5.      Guerrieri returns to Firestone Indy Lights

1. Depth of field will yield tight title chase: A.J. Foyt holds the record of seven season championships (all under USAC sanctioning), with Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti ranking second with four each.

"You don't think I know that?" Franchitti says matter-of-factly.

He also knows that to tie Bourdais for most consecutive championships at four will require consistently strong results on a diverse set of racetracks against what many competitors have projected as the deepest IZOD IndyCar Series field of talent and ability since the series' inception. Franchitti is tied with Ted Horn (1946-48 under AAA sanction) for consecutive championships, while Bourdais' title from 2004-07 were under Champ Car sanction.

The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver begins defense of his IZOD IndyCar Series title this week in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which he won in 2011 to light the path to the championship that featured a season-long duel with Team Penske's Will Power.

"I think there are as many as 15 cars capable of winning races and eight or 10 legitimate championship contenders," Franchitti asserts. "We've got our work cut out for us, but I can't wait for the season to begin."

The Scot contends that winning a fifth overall title - his first came in 2007 with then-Andretti Green Racing -- is only a number.

"I don't think about it that way," says Franchitti, who is one victory from tying Bourdais and Paul Tracy (31) for seventh on the all-time list. "We're going to try to win the first race and - I hate to be boring about it - we're going to try to win the championship by doing the best job we can. That's the way we go racing. There's no point getting carried away with the number. It could be the team's fifth championship in a row. That's not the way you go racing; not the way you think about it."

He does concede: "Five would be nice, I would say."

Power topped the driver list with a series record-tying six victories in 2011, and accumulated additional points by earning a series-record eight pole starts. For the second consecutive season, however, the Aussie came up tantalizingly short in the title chase. He overcame contact in consecutive races at Iowa and Toronto to take the points lead with a runner-up finish at Twin Ring Motegi. But 19th place after starting from the pole at Kentucky - combined with Franchitti's runner-up finish - left him 18 points arrears.

"I had a very close look at once again why we lost the championship last year because we won more races and more poles than anyone," he says. "I don't sit back and say it's bad luck because I don't think it's really ever about luck. If you're doing your job properly you tend to have good luck. Having another year with the same crew and then going into the year with (race strategist) Tim Cindric having worked with him for the second half of the year I think we'll be a really strong combination."

The unknowns of the new car and engine packages from Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus will accelerate the championship intrigue during the 16-race season. Power agrees with Franchitti that it will "be a different story" with multiple contenders to the end.

Two-time series champion Scott Dixon was third in the title race the past two seasons, while Oriol Servia caught quite a bit of attention with a strong fourth place in 2011. Tony Kanaan, the 2004 title holder, was fifth in the standings. All return, along with Bourdais (Lotus Dragon Racing) running all races but Milwaukee this season, perennial contenders Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Each is a race winner.

"The quality of the field has just gotten better and better and better," Power says. "It's kind of surprised me that it's been a two-horse race the past few years because there's a lot of guys in there who are bloody quick and capable of winning every weekend. It just happened to fall that way that Dario and I have made a bit of a point break.

"I think it's one of the toughest fields I've ever seen. The last two years you could see how competitive it was throughout the field. Usually you had the 26 cars stacked within one second in qualifying on the road courses. It's just great to see. You want to beat the best guys there not wankers.

"I think this year with the engine manufacturers, new car and all that it certainly will be mixed up. It's going to be very interesting and unknown until we do the first race and then we'll get an idea of which engine is the strongest on road courses, and until we get to Indy no one is going to have an idea of what's the strongest engine on an oval."

2. If you missed it: Ryan Briscoe, Will Power & Will Phillips Conference Call: Earlier today, IZOD IndyCar Series drivers Ryan Briscoe and Will Power and INDYCAR Vice President of Technology Will Phillips participated in a media conference call to preview the 2012 season and the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. A full transcript and a broadcast-quality MP3 are available at www.indycar.com/media. Selected quotes from the interview are below.

Q. I mentioned you won this race in 2010. You've won the last two poles here. What is it with this street course here in St. Petersburg that suits your style?

WILL POWER: You know, I guess it's like your typical street course. The thing about this track is there's really no fast corners. The fast corners we do, you're flat out on so you don't really consider them as corners.

Yeah, it seems to suit me. I enjoy it a lot. So I guess I get speed out of it.

Q. You've finished second in the last two championships to Dario Franchitti. How important is it for you to get off to a good start as you chase your first IZOD IndyCar Series title?

WILL POWER: It's the same every year. You have to try to get off to a good start and get the most out of every race, whatever the race gives you. Don't try to take too much because maybe you won't have the car to win every weekend.

For me, I think we've just got to minimize our really bad weekends and obviously capitalize when we have a really good car.

Q.   Something that is different this year is the new IZOD IndyCar Series car, which will roll out this weekend here in St. Petersburg. You've driven the car a fair amount in winter testing. What kind of race do you expect with the new car and with the engine competition here on the streets of St. Petersburg?

WILL POWER: Yeah, I think it's going to be pretty interesting for everyone, just to see where the engine manufacturers actually stack up, where everyone stacks up. It was very difficult to tell during testing if anyone had a clear advantage.

So really, for me, I'm actually excited to see which engine manufacturer is the quickest, and I'm hoping it's us because I think Chevy has done a really good job of development and they continue to do so.

We'll see this weekend. Just try to maximize whatever happens, get the most out of the weekend.

Q. Ryan, you'll hit a milestone this weekend in St. Petersburg. You'll become the Australian driver with the most starts in IndyCar racing. Talk about that accomplishment and passing a guy like Geoff Brabham.

RYAN BRISCOE: It's really cool. Hopefully I still have a lot more races ahead of me. Really got to thank Team Penske so much for letting this happen. They sort of dug me out of a hole many years ago and gave me this ride in IndyCar. We've had a lot of success together. Hopefully we have much more success down the road.

But it's great. I feel like I've been learning a lot at Team Penske and IndyCar, representing my country well. We'll be going for our first championship this year, that's for sure.

Q. I mentioned that you are a former winner here at St. Pete. What does it take to be successful on this street circuit?

RYAN BRISCOE: You know, it's a pretty tricky track. It's interesting because the racing is usually quite good around here. You've got the front straight, which is long and wide. There's good passing down to turn one. You've got a couple sections of track where it's really open and it doesn't feel too straight coursey.

The middle section of the track is really tight. You're sort of apexing from wall-to-wall. Small mistakes are very costly. You need to really keep it clean through there.

It's a track that's got a little bit of everything. As Will said, no real high-speed corners that are too challenging, but certainly technical. You need to be able to have proper turns in 90-degree corners.

Q. The same question I asked Will. You've done a fair amount of testing in the No. 2 car. What kind of race do you expect this weekend in St. Petersburg?

RYAN BRISCOE: Well, I mean, I expect it to be a good race. I think there are a few unknowns still. We have more bodywork, much bigger front wings. We have fenders behind the rear tires. It will be interesting to see how strong all that bodywork is. If it is strong, you might start to see a little bit of bumping on these road courses which could make the racing interesting.

But I think right now the question mark is how much attrition there's going to be due to reliability. I feel like with Chevy, they've been doing a great job. We've had some hurdles to overcome. But I feel like they've had a pretty good handle on reasons for some of the issues that we had during testing, and solutions have been come up with.

Everything's brand-new. Everything is new. There's certainly some unknowns. As far as performance goes, I feel like we've done a great job in testing. We've been very fast at all the tests we've gone to. I don't think we've left a test not being on top of the time sheet, which has been promising. But we haven't tested on the same days as Ganassi. They've led their tests. We've led ours.

But, no, I think it will be interesting after qualifying in St. Pete to see how we stack up against Ganassi. I'm sure it's going to be a tight battle again all year long.

***

Q. From the INDYCAR perspective, you have to be pleased with the way everything has gone since the team testing process has begun.

WILL PHILLIPS: Yes, pleased especially since the last test a couple weeks ago in Sebring. We've had a few bumps in the road but found a way around them or a solution to them. Having 26 cars running at Sebring in the last two weeks without major drama was very pleasing to see.

Q. Can you talk about some of the new features of the car, some of the features people might notice.

WILL PHILLIPS: Visually the car is obviously very different. It's a different aerodynamic concept that Dallara has produced for this car. Safety-wise, the guys and people that watch the series won't necessarily be able to tell, but certainly from the chassis perspective a huge amount of effort has gone into improving the safety.

Some of the more visual aspects, there were the passive safety features, if you like, the rear wheel guards, the side pod wings, all to prevent wheel interlocking. That's something people will probably pick up on straightaway.

Q. What has the response from the drives been so far?

WILL PHILLIPS: They've been instrumental in making some of the improvements that we've had. Some of them have ranged from the visual aspects, their visibility in the car, their exposure to the wind, et cetera, turbulence, right through to the performance of the car, the handling characteristics, brake issues, differences that have come up.

They've all contributed and we've tried to keep an open dialogue with them to address any issues.

Q. Will, you talked about the interlocking. Can you give us a sense for how much you feel like you solved as much as you can? Surely you don't think you can ever control all of the possibility of wheels running over each other, but you feel like you've gone a long way?

WILL PHILLIPS: You're quite right, you can never eliminate all the potential scenarios. But in terms of the simple ones, if you like side-by-side, the fact that the underwing and bodywork comes out just half an inch wider than the wheels, in the simple side-by-side scenario running down to a brake zone, if they do touch, the less likely they are to have wheel-to-wheel contact. Front-to-rear contact with the rear wheel guards and front wing (indiscernible). That should help avoid the wheel-to-wheel contact. That's our intention with it, not having cars leave the ground.

3. Ed Carpenter Racing forms partnership with Hoosier Momma: Ed Carpenter Racing announced March 20 that Hoosier Momma, with a line of Indiana-made premium Bloody Mary mixes, has become of a corporate partner in 2012 for the Indianapolis-based IZOD IndyCar Series team which debuts this weekend in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Carpenter, the only team owner and driver in the IndyCar Series this year, will pilot the No. 20 Fuzzy's Vodka/Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet in all 16 races in 2012. Carpenter captured the last completed IndyCar race last October in Kentucky to record his first series victory.

"We are very pleased to add Hoosier Momma, another Indiana-based corporation, to the team," said Carpenter. "We have a strong association with Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka and this new partnership with Hoosier Momma make for a perfect blend on and off the track. We hope the race fans get the opportunity to try our sponsors' products."

Hoosier Momma LLC is a fast-growing Indiana company with distribution and sales already throughout Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Louisiana in less than two years. Hoosier Momma products also are gaining national praise in the media including Time Magazine online and Los Angeles Times. In addition to the top restaurants, bars and hotels, the company's signature Bloody Mary Mixer is available at selected retail chains, grocery stores and package liquor stores.

"Just like our company, Ed Carpenter Racing is young and aggressive and Indiana- based," said KC Cranfill, principal for Hoosier Momma. "We see a lot of potential with Ed's team and we believe working with ECR and Fuzzy's Vodka will be a tremendous combination for promotion and exposure. It is exciting to kick off the IZOD IndyCar Series this weekend in St. Petersburg with this new partnership."

4. Panther Racing joins efforts to support heroes: Panther Racing announced March 21 it has teamed with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the White House on two nationwide initiatives to combat the unemployment issues challenging members of the National Guard and their spouses.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden's Joining Forces initiative - which mobilizes all sectors of society to support service members and their families - and the U.S. Chamber's Hiring Our Heroes initiative - which helps veterans and their spouses find meaningful employment in the private sector - will combine forces with the team to help raise awareness through PSAs, job fairs, at-track seminars and social media campaigns.

"This is an initiative that all of us in this country need to get behind, and we're going to do everything in our power to help the tremendous efforts already in place with Hiring Our Heroes and Joining Forces," Panther Managing Partner John Barnes said. "As Americans, and employers, we need these service membersto know we have their back when they get home. Some of the most qualified employees, the best leaders, and our brightest young minds are those who serve in the National Guard. These are men and women who understand pressure, responsibility and selflessness - and in my business those are the best attributes that I look for in a potential employee. We're thrilled about this new relationship with Hiring Our Heroes and Joining Forces and we're ready to help raise awareness, and educate, the local community on how they can make a difference and reward these Heroes with the employment opportunities they deserve."

Last season, Panther began a program where it hosted local employers at each respective race venue to help educate the community on the need, and benefits, of hiring military members. This season, in conjunction with Hiring Our Heroes, the team will be expanding that effort by hosting upwards of 50 local business leaders at each domestic IndyCar Series event, and by supporting hiring fairs held in local race markets and around the country. Hiring Our Heroes has conducted more than 90 hiring fairs since its inception in March of 2011 and has connected nearly 90,000 veterans and military spouses with 4,600 different employers in 44 states and the District of Columbia. To date, these hiring fairs have helped more than 8,000 veterans and military spouses secure jobs, and Hiring Our Heroes plans to expand from 100 hiring fairs in its first year up to 400 in local communities across America in its second year.

"Hiring Our Heroes is excited about joining forces with Panther Racing to raise awareness on the staggering unemployment rates facing America's veterans and military spouses and to help them find meaningful careers," said Kevin Schmiegel, founder and executive director of the U.S. Chamber's Hiring Our Heroes initiative.  "Panther Racing has a tremendous track record in supporting military families and particularly those serving in the National Guard and Reserve.  We stand together in recognizing that this is more than a jobs issue, it's critical to our national security.  The unemployment rate among National Guard and Reserve members is far too high. Keeping America safe and secure starts with making sure the men and women who have served have job security at home.  We look forward to working with Panther Racing to make a difference in the lives of veterans and military spouses in local communities across the country."

The White House's Joining Forces initiative, led by the First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, reaches out to all sectors of society to give our service members and their families the opportunities and support they have earned. Joining Forces assists with securing employment amongst military members by highlighting the workforce potential of veterans and military spouses, expanding employment and career development opportunities and helping employers create military family-friendly work environments. To date more than 1,500 companies around the country have committed to hire 150,000 veterans and military spouses in the coming 2 years.

"With American hiring once again, this teaming effort with Panther Racing and the US Chamber of Commerce represents a tremendous opportunity for the nation's employers to reach out and serve our troops and families as well as they have served us. We are thankful for Panther Racing's leadership and look forward to hiring America's veterans and their spouses in the months ahead," said Captain Brad Cooper, Executive Director of Joining Forces in the First Lady's Office.

Indianapolis-based Panther Racing, winners of two IndyCar Series championships and 15 races, has finished runner-up in the Indianapolis 500 an unprecedented four-consecutive times. The streak includes last season's dramatic second-place finish with reining Indy 500 Rookie of the Year JR Hildebrand, a 24-year-old Californian who just completed his first full season in the IndyCar Series. In 2011, Hildebrand was named a national spokesperson for the National Guard's Youth ChalleNGe Program - an evidence-based program that assists with high school dropouts - and was a key speaker when Panther hosted potential military employers at the track last season.

"For me it's just been an unbelievably humbling experience to be able to interact and represent the National Guard and its service members, and we've witnessed first-hand the importance of making sure they have jobs when they get home," Hildebrand said. "This season, with Panther working with Hiring Our Heroes and Joining Forces, I know we're going to be able to make a bigger difference across the country. As soon as employers get connected with the National Guard and Reserve service membersthat are looking for work they're going to quickly find some of the most skilled, selfless and dedicated employees in the country. I'm just looking forward to the opportunity to raise awareness and empower both employers and the general public to do everything they can to give back to an amazing group of people."

5. Guerrieri returns to Firestone Indy Lights: After a successful rookie season in Firestone Indy Lights, Esteban Guerrieri is back for an even better result in 2012.

Guerrieri, who scored three race wins, six poles en route to a runner-up finish in the championship, will return to the series with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and will pilot last year's championship-winning car. He will drive the No. 11 ACTC/PISTAS ARGENTINAS entry at the season-opening St. Petersburg 100 on March 24.

"I felt comfortable in every aspect with Sam Schmidt Motorsports," Guerrieri said. "I felt comfortable with them as a group, which is the most important, and I feel respected. They try to do the best for you even in tough situations, and I work very good with my engineer. I know which way we're going with the cars, and with the setups, and that was basically it."

Prior to joining Firestone Indy Lights, in 2010 Guerrieri participated in the World Series by Renault and earned a 3rd place finish in the point standings after six victories, nine podium finishes and three pole positions.

Last season, he won at Milwaukee, Edmonton and Trois Rivieres, and finished second in the point standings to his teammate Josef Newgarden, who moved to the IZOD IndyCar Series as a result of the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship program.

"My goal is to make it to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2013, so I felt like driving again for Sam in Indy Lights is the best thing for me to do this year," Guerrieri said. "Though I will be focused on winning the championship in 2012, it will be good for me to spend another year in the INDYCAR paddock and at their tracks before stepping into an Indy car.

"Sam's team is a wonderful organization, and it provides me a professional team in which to learn and grow. I look forward to working with all the SSM guys again. I also have to thank Argentine Association of Turismo Carretera (ACTC) and Iron Box S.A., an Argentinian company, for supporting me this season through its brand - Pistas Argentinas."