Today's IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines
1. Castroneves, Nalbandian trade strokes at Homestead-Miami Speedway
2. Firestone Indy Lights season preview
3. IndyCar Series fun facts from Homestead-Miami Speedway
4. Select quotes from drivers transitioning to the unified IndyCar Series
5. Select quotes from Danica Patrick press conference

1. Castroneves, Nalbandian trade strokes at Homestead-Miami Speedway: Helio Castroneves is a race car driver who plays tennis for fun and exercise. David Nalbandian is a professional tennis player who owns a race car team.

This was the perfect friendly match - the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion and the seventh-ranked men's player in the world -- on a makeshift court on the Homestead-Miami Speedway frontstretch.

"I'm going to play (toward Turn 1) so he might feel the power of my serve," Castroneves joked beforehand. "With that, I don't want to injure him because he's going to be playing (March 28) and I'll be racing."

Nalbandian, who won two ATP Masters Series tournaments in 2007, is competing in the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami this weekend. Castroneves, who much to the chagrin of the crowd didn't perform a few Foxtrot steps on his backhand, is competing in the GAINSCO Auto Insurance Indy 300.

"I felt relatively safe today, because even though we were playing tennis we were on the racetrack, where I'm most comfortable," said Castroneves, who has previously played exhibition matches against other top-ranked ATP and WTA players. "David is an incredible athlete, and it's great we had this opportunity with both our race and the ATP in town this weekend. I had a fantastic time, and I hope he does well this weekend."

Nalbandian also took a ride in the IndyCar Series two-seater on the 1.5-mile, variably banked oval with driver Davey Hamilton.

"I really enjoyed it," said Nalbandian, who owns the Tango Rally Team that competes in the World Rally Championships with driver Marco Ligato. "I'd like to drive one of the (IndyCar Series) cars. It's tough to do what these guys do on the course. You have to practice. You have to be able to spend hours here."

He wasn't able to; it was back to the practice court.

"It's great to see someone who appreciates our sport the same way I appreciate his sport," Castroneves said.

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2. Firestone Indy Lights season preview: In 2006, Firestone Indy Lights witnessed the closest championship battle in its history. In 2007, the series enjoyed a 48 percent increase in the number of cars on track. All indications are that 2008 will provide additional growth and intense battles on the track.

"Firestone Indy Lights is definitely one of the first places people look to further their racing careers," said Roger Bailey, executive director of Firestone Indy Lights. "We offer a balanced schedule of races on ovals and road courses, almost $4 million in prize money and a stringent cost containment program."

On the track, 2008 promises to be much more like 2006, when the championship was decided by two points.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which fielded championship-winning entries for Jay Howard in 2006 and Alex Lloyd in 2007, knows all to well the process of reloading for another championship run.

For 2008, the powerhouse team has signed three full-time drivers with legitimate chances at the Firestone Firehawk Cup.

Richard Antinucci, the nephew of 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever and a two-time race winner in 2007, will drive the No. 7 car formerly occupied by Howard and Lloyd. In addition, the team signed Australian James Davison, who finished second in Star Mazda in 2007, and Brazilian Ana Beatriz, a Formula Renault veteran.

Another Brazilian, Raphael Matos, figures to play a significant role in the championship race. The 26-year-old, who makes his home in Miami, won two Firestone Indy Lights races in 2006 and won the Champ Car Atlantic title in 2007.

He is set to drive for Andretti Green Racing, the winningest IndyCar Series team that fields Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Firestone Indy Lights graduates Marco Andretti and Hideki Mutoh.

Firestone Indy Lights veteran Bobby Wilson, who has finished fourth the past two seasons, also has his sights set on a championship. Wilson has teamed with Florida businessman Neil Enerson in a new venture, Team E.

Team E, based near Ocala, Fla., is one of two new teams taking the grid in Firestone Indy Lights in 2008, continuing the growth of the series off the track. The championship will be fought in a record-tying 16 races, including eight on ovals and eight on road/street courses.

The series returns to Kansas Speedway in April, site of the series' first race in 2002, and includes the sixth annual Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway two days before the 92nd Indianapolis 500.

"I'm very excited about the 2008 season," Bailey said. "We should see more cars on track, and in turn it should lead to highly competitive racing."

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3. IndyCar Series fun facts from Homestead-Miami Speedway:

7 - IndyCar Series races at Homestead-Miami Speedway, including the last six as the season opener

4 - Homestead-Miami race winners who went on to win the IndyCar Series championship the same season

25 - Starters entered for the GAINSCO Auto Insurance Indy 300

6 - Drivers entered who have won an IndyCar Series race (totaling 51 race victories)

8 - Drivers entered who will be attempting their first IndyCar Series start

55 - Career oval starts by eight drivers transitioning into the IndyCar Series (Servia 27, Junqueira 21, Wilson 5, Power 2)

86 - IndyCar Series oval starts by Helio Castroneves

3 - Consecutive races won by Dan Wheldon at Homestead-Miami Speedway

103 - Laps Dan Wheldon must lead to become the IndyCar Series all-time lap leader at Homestead-Miami

80th - Career start for Scott Dixon

94th - Consecutive start for Helio Castroneves, the reigning IndyCar Series "Iron Man"

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4. Select quotes from drivers transitioning to the unified IndyCar Series:

BRUNO JUNQUEIRA (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing): "Since I came to America in 2001, all the drivers really wanted to get both series together, so I'm very happy about that. I'm delighted. That's the way to go, that's the way people can recognize us better as IndyCar Series drivers and the series can start to grow again. We have a full field of 26 cars. For the Champ Car teams, it was really hard. We got the cars three weeks ago. It's a completely different car. You had to not just build the car for the ovals or the road courses, you had to build for both for the test at Sebring and for Homestead. Our guys did a good job to prepare the cars. At Sebring, we were very competitive. Unfortunately, we didn't have much track time here. We lost Monday and just went on the track at 8:30 on Tuesday. I did just over 50 laps, so I didn't get much experience with the car, but I certainly have some experience on ovals. I try to ada pt myself and try to find a good setup tomorrow so we can be reasonable. I don't think any Champ Car teams are going to be competitive this year, especially on the ovals. We are competing against very good (IndyCar Series) teams that have had this car for five years. So to have three weeks with the car we're going to be behind. I think we'll catch up and be really close the second half of the season. On the road courses, I was very surprised. Oriol's time, even Will Power and my time, we were competitive to the (IndyCar Series) teams. So, let's see what happens in St. Pete. We'll still be a little bit behind, but closer."

FRANCK PERERA (No. 34 Ares/Opes Prime): "For me, it's an experience. I've never raced on ovals. In Europe, it's not what we do and what we learn for. It's not even something we see on TV. I don't even have any experience in Champ Car. I just had a test two months ago. It was my first time with Conquest. When I heard about the merger, it's very good for the series. I'm also going to be the only French driver this year in this series. The team did a very good job to bring the car."

WILL POWER (No. 8 Aussie Vineyard-Team Australia): "It's all come together very late. It's like Oriol says, it's going to be a test session for the first half of the year on ovals for us. We're going to try and be really strong on all the road courses and get as many points as we can. On the ovals, my plan is just to finish the race, get as many miles and understand the car as much as possible. It became quite evident at the end of the two days of testing here that we're lacking quite a bit of speed in comparison to the (IndyCar Series) guys. We're learning, and we've got a few more things to put on the car. By the time we get to the Indy 500, we'll be starting to get up there a little bit."

(About working with Target Chip Ganassi Racing): "I don't know the extent that they've helped us, because that's Jimmy's deal, but we went straight out at Sebring and seemed to be reasonably competitive. The car had a nice balance. We came here and we had a pretty safe car, and easy to drive. I can't thank them enough."

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 06 Hole in the Wall Camps): "For us at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, it's been very busy, especially after I crashed on Tuesday. The unification was a great thing for us. I think everybody here is looking forward to it, but certainly the situation wasn't really ideal because of how quickly we had to get ready for this weekend. We missed last week's test at Sebring. Obviously going into this weekend and also St. Pete, it was going to be quite the challenge. I think out of the box on Monday things went pretty well, we were running pretty quick, and also on Tuesday until my shunt. Unfortunately, I won't be racing this weekend, but overall I think the team has done a great job preparing these cars. We're looking forward to next week and building the car for St. Pete. I think we all have a shot at winning one of the first two races it was going to be St. Pete. So, we're going to work on that now."

ORIOL SERVIA (No. 5 KV Racing Technology): "I'm excited to get back on the ovals. I was missing them a little bit the late years in Champ Car when we didn't have any. This was actually my first oval ever in 1998. I liked it right away. These last couple of days were very helpful to be on the oval. We had two full days to learn the car and to fight against the other teams that have had these cars for five years. We have a great group of engineers that did a great job figuring the setup for Sebring - the car worked really well. It was quite good here. We're just missing speed that will come with time. Hopefully, we'll finish the race and add more miles to our testing, because this is the way it is for all of us here - the first few races are actually testing, learning the cars."

(About perspective of Indy car racing overseas): "I think the Indianapolis 500 is great around the world. It's well regarded everywhere as a race. It's one of the top three races ever with Monaco and Le Mans. They respect ovals, but you don't get to see it that much on TV. Hopefully now they'll be showing it in Spain. Oval racing is something you don't really appreciate until you come and you see it live. Then you have fans for life. I've found people from Spain have come in the past when I was doing Indy Lights. They saw and they realized it's a good show, good driving, a lot of skill. But it takes for them to come and watch."

JUSTIN WILSON (No. 02 McDonald's Racing Team): "I'm very grateful for the team and the effort they've put in over the last four weeks to get the cars prepared and to get them to a standard that is very high and the usual Newman/Haas/Lanigan standard. It's going to be a tough season. The main thing is being realistic, staying calm and trying not to rush things. We'll see what happens, but I'm very excited about being one series, the merger. It gives everybody a good opportunity for the future."

(About weight rules) "I think it's very important. I feel it's the first step in making things fair. In every form of motorsport I've come across, especially Formula One, the weight is so critical. The combined package of the car and driver, usually on a road course 10 pounds equals one-tenth of a second, so if you're 100 pounds heavier than somebody it's a second a lap you're giving away. I'm fortunate, and quite a lot of the drivers here are fortunate, that the IRL has seen that and made some adjustments to help make it equal. They haven't gone all the way, but it definitely it gets closer in line with the rest of the world on weight."

ERNESTO VISO (No. 33 HVM Racing): "Everything happened in a very strange way in the last two or three weeks. My plan was almost done with Minardi, but then the merger came on and everything changed. On the 19th, it was my birthday and I wasn't driving. Everything came together that day. I was in Barcelona and spoke with my manager. He told me I needed to fly the next day, to do a seat and go racing the next weekend. It's my first time in an oval, and it's amazing. I never expected it to be that way. It's just a different mentality of racing, you have to think a different way than what you do in normal racing. You need to depend on the other cars. You have to have a long plan. I'm very excited."

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5. Select quotes from Danica Patrick press conference:

(About being fastest at last month's Open Test at Homestead-Miami Speedway): "It's always nice to have a good run, but I think this oval racing is so tempermental that one weekend you're on, one weekend you're off, and sometimes you don't know exactly why. I'll take it. I don't think it's the magic pill that all of the sudden unlocks the season. I think it's a good thing, and it's a good sign. I'm happy with it, and I think ultimately what it does is give us some confidence. Confidence can take you a lot further than anything sometimes. We all feel pretty anxious and ready for this to start."

(About racing against so many new drivers): "The drivers who are more aggressive and take more chances I think it's going to be a little bit more of a rollercoaster maybe for that style of driving with more accidents probably, and also to be able to leap forward quicker (after pit stops) and get back to the front. It's probably all going to balance out in the end, but you're going to have to be really careful, especially until we get to know the tendencies of these drivers and who plays fair and who doesn't. I think it's going to be a tiptoe game at the beginning a little bit if you want to stay in the race, if you want to make sure you keep clean and stay in the race, which is the only way that you're going to win it at the end anyway. I think you're just going to have to be careful. On the other hand, we're going to show them the ropes. They're going to see what it's like out there. They're going to see in practice what it's like, how chaotic it can be and close we run and how often we run that close. It's probably going to be an eye-opener for us."

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The 2008 IndyCar Series season begins under the lights with the GAINSCO Auto Insurance Indy 300 on March 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 2008 schedule, one of the most diverse in all of motorsports, features races on ovals, permanent road courses and temporary street circuits, all broadcast worldwide through a comprehensive, long-term agreement with ESPN. All races in 2008 will be telecast in High Definition. The 2008 Firestone Indy Lights season also begins on March 29 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The 16-race schedule, which features eight ovals and four road/street course doubleheader weekends, will be televised by ESPN2.

-credit: irl