A snapshot look at the 2011 IndyCar season

March 26, 2011|By Jim Tomlin, St. Petersburg Times

IndyCar launches its 17-race schedule at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Sunday. The teams owned by Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske are expected to dominate the series once again.

Drivers to watch

Dario Franchitti: Going for his third championship in a row and fourth overall, Ganassi's Franchitti won the title last year by five points over Penske's Will Power and by 55 points over third-place Scott Dixon, Franchitti's teammate. Franchitti won three races last season, including the Indianapolis 500. Power is the defending champion in St. Pete.

Danica Patrick: IndyCar's most-popular driver, Patrick has left her part-time stint in NASCAR stock-car racing to rejoin her IndyCar series team of Andretti Autosport. She drives the No. 7 Team GoDaddy.com Honda Dallara.

Tony Kanaan: The 2004 series champion, formerly drove for Andretti Autosport before losing the ride after last season due to lack of sponsorship. But KV Racing Technology-Lotus said Monday it had signed Kanaan to drive for that team this year.

Rookies to watch

Sebastian Saavedra, Conquest Racing: The youngest driver in this weekend's field at age 20, Saavedra last year became the first driver born in the 1990s to compete in the Indianapolis 500. He also won in Indy Lights at Iowa Speedway, driving for Bryan Herta's team. In his rookie year in Indy Lights, 2009, the Colombian won twice driving for Michael Andretti's team. He has been fast in qualifying, making the top four on the grid seven times in 11 Indy Lights starts last year.

JR Hildebrand, Panther Racing: The 2009 Indy Lights champion has some big shoes to fill at Panther, the team that once employed Sam Hornish and Dan Wheldon. Of Hildebrand's five Indy Lights victories, four came on road courses, but if Panther's history is anything to go by, the 23-year-old Californian might be a force on ovals. Wheldon was the Indianapolis 500 runnerup the past two years running for the team.

Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing: The 26-year-old Californian landed a top ride after accumulating 10 top-10 finishes in two seasons in Indy Lights. He also landed sponsorship from Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company which, among other things, makes products to aid diabetics. Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007 and briefly halted his racing program, but got back behind the wheel in 2008.

Network news

Versus, the TV network that airs 12 of IndyCar's 17 races, is expanding its coverage this season.

The cable network said last week that it will extend the live television window from three to five hours. Versus will also present a weekly one-hour studio show starting May 3.

Wally Dallenbach Jr., formerly a NASCAR analyst when NBC carried Sprint Cup, will join the Versus broadcast team. He'll be in the booth with Jon Beekhuis and play-by-play veteran Bob Jenkins. Longtime open-wheel reporter and Speed Channel regular Robin Miller also will join Versus' coverage for some races.

The other five races are on ABC including St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis 500.

Change is coming

Honda, the sole engine supplier to the IndyCar series since 2006, will enjoy one more year of solitude.

In 2012, the manufacturer will have company.

Chevrolet and Lotus have announced plans to join Honda in building engines for the series next year. The engines can be turbocharged, which also will be a switch from this year's formula.

Chevrolet last raced in the series in 2005 and won that year at Texas with Tomas Scheckter behind the wheel.

Dallara will remain the chassis manufacturer but is building a new model. Firestone, which initially announced that it would pull out of the series next season, will stick around for 2012 as well.

Two-wide life

IndyCar will have side-by-side restarts at all venues, the series announced this month.

Cars will restart side-by-side on street and road circuits for the first time, beginning Sunday in St. Petersburg.

The series made the rule change after consulting with drivers and teams, said series president of competition Brian Barnhart.

"Most of the ovals we run two- and three-wide anyway so what's the difference?" driver Graham Rahal told IndyCar.com. "It will make it more exciting for the fans, there will be more passes and there will be more crashes. It's a fact for those team owners."

By the numbers

2

Consecutive championships for Dario Franchitti, matching Sam Hornish as the only drivers with back-to-back titles

3

Total titles for Franchitti, also tying Hornish for the series record

10

Seasons with at least one IndyCar victory for Helio Castroneves; last year he broke a tie with Scott Sharp to set the record

20

Age of Sebastian Saavedra, the youngest driver in the series

38

Age of Alex Tagliani, the oldest driver in the series

147

Series starts for Castroneves, again tying Sharp; the Brazilian will break the mark Sunday

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