Expect the Big Five to dominate IndyCar Series again

Mar 26 2011 - 4:40pm

The series is more robust, with a deeper and more talented field of drivers and a buzz of excitement generated by changes to the lineup, schedule and rules.

All signs point to a great season for the IZOD IndyCar Series, even when you account for the way people tend to gush on the eve of opening day for any sport.

And yet as I try to form a mental preview of what is to come during the next seven months, the same loop keeps replaying and the same five cars flash past time after time.

Will Power is my pick as champion on the assumption he will continue to develop his oval-track prowess. His Penske teammates, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, will win their share of races as well. (Oh, yes, I'll take Castroneves for a fourth Indy. That will save me a minute come May.)

Dario Franchitti has taken the past two titles and four overall, and there's no reason to think he or Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon, the 2003 and '08 champion, can't do it again.

The five have combined to win all but three races in the past two years, and during the past five seasons, their teams have scored victories in more than three-quarters of the races while winning four titles.

"The goal is to try to break the dominance of the Penske and Ganassi guys," said Tony Kanaan, the 2004 champion who might as well have been speaking for the Andretti, Panther, Dreyer & Reinbold and Newman/Haas teams as well as his own KV Racing.

"I think the field this year, it's tighter than ever, adding a couple different combinations here and there. It's going to be a fun year."

The season opens Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., where the introduction of side-by-side restarts should prove quite interesting (if you buy "interesting" as a euphemism for "chaotic.") The 17-race schedule includes a return to the Milwaukee Mile for Father's Day, and the champion will be crowned in October at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Kanaan was fortunate to connect with KV at the last minute after losing two rides in the off-season because of a lack of sponsorship. He should provide the leadership young KV needs, but the team is still off the pace of the top two.

Four-time Champ Car title winner Sebastien Bourdais is scheduled to drive the non-ovals for Dale Coyne . Ganassi added a two-car spinoff team that includes Graham Rahal. Rock-solid Oriol Servia is back full time with Newman/Haas.

So there will be others challenging for wins, along with Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Justin Wilson .

But challenging is one thing. Catching Penske and Ganassi through the course of a season is another. And passing them . . . I'll believe it when I see it.

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International intrigue

With the first race on the calendar scrapped because of unrest in Bahrain, Formula One also opens this weekend.

The series will be hard-pressed to top last year, when four drivers went into the finale with a chance at the title and Sebastian Vettel overcame a 15-point deficit to edge Fernando Alonso and become the youngest champion.

"After two days of the final test, where Red Bull has been on top both days with both drivers (Vettel and Mark Webber ) and quickest or very quick in the first tests, the storyline could be a massive whitewash of the championship from the get go in Australia," said David Hobbs, analyst for F1 broadcasts on Speed.

"I certainly hope that is not the case, but it does not look too good for anyone else other than Ferrari, who also look pretty good."

Among the biggest technical changes this season is the arrival of Pirelli, which replaces Bridgestone as sole tire supplier, and the addition of driver-adjustable rear wings.

Testing isn't always an accurate predictor of a nine-month season -- Hobbs reserved the right to adjust his prediction after the first race -- and Alonso said he could envision as many as six teams capable of winning a grand prix this year.

"After three or four races you see much better that maybe only two or only three can really fight for the championship," he said Thursday in Melbourne, Australia. "I think the important thing for each team and for us especially is to do well and to be competitive in these three races and be in that smaller group of two or three (championship-level) teams after three or four races."

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End of an era

Then National Speed Sport News, a weekly staple of racing fans for three-quarters of a century, has published its final printed copy. The paper was a victim of high production costs and modern technology, publisher Corrine Economaki said. It will continue in digital form at www.nationalspeedsportnews.com.

 

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