The IndyCar Series kicks off the 2008 season with 26 cars entered at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Dan Wheldon will seek an unprecedented fourth straight victory.
Wheldon topped the speed charts during a recent open test at Homestead, making him the odds on favorite to win the Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 on Saturday night. Wheldon debuted at Homestead in 2004 with a third place finish. Since then he's recorded three straight victories on the 1.5-mile speedway.
Wheldon's Target Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon will be looking to improve upon his second place finish last year. Dixon, who was second fastest during testing, won at Homestead in 2003.
While the Ganassi duo topped the testing charts at Homestead, the red cars of Team Penske earned the top spots in preseason testing on the road course at Sebring. Ryan Briscoe joins Helio Castroneves in the Captain's cars this season. Briscoe was the fastest driver at Sebring, nipping his teammate by 0.0329 of a second for the best lap of the test.
Despite leading in the five of the last six races at Homestead, Castroneves has yet to score a victory at his home track. Castroneves will look to continue his streak of six consecutive top-ten finishes at Homestead with a victory on Saturday.
It goes without saying that the four red cars of Ganassi and Penske that dominated the 2006 IndyCar Series will continue to be serious contenders throughout 2008.
After their spectacular performance in 2006, pundits were quick to claim another rout for the red cars in 2007. Andretti Green Racing spoiled the predictions by regaining their 2004 and 2005 championship form, winning 9 of 17 races and the 2007 championship.
No one is counting AGR out this year, with many predicting 2008 to be Tony Kanaan's year to shine. The veteran returns with Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and newcomer Hideki Mutoh, who has one IndyCar race under his belt. Mutoh, who finished 8th in his IndyCar debut at Chicagoland, will pilot the No. 27 AGR entry vacated by 2007 IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti's move to NASCAR.
Mutoh has shown great speed, tenacity and intelligence in the Indy Lights series*, qualities that will translate into good finishes in the Indycar Series.
Danica Patrick has admitted that she's been more nervous than excited in the past, but this year she's showing a great deal of confidence and poise. Lowering the tension factor and raising the fun factor should provide the boost she needs to win her first race.
One of the biggest surprises to come from Homestead testing was A.J. Foyt IV's fifth place on the speed chart. Foyt has continued to show speed on the ovals as the Vision team has vowed to turn it up a notch with a series of new sponsors coming onboard.
In addition to Menards sponsoring Ed Carpenter's Vision Racing entry, the team will enjoy sponsorship from CardioChek, DIRECTV and MUUD Coffee.
One day before stepping into his race car for qualifying at Homestead, Vitor Meira will celebrate his 31st birthday. He'd rather have something to celebrate on Saturday. Meira returns to Panther Racing after three top five finishes in 2007. He's long overdue for a victory and if it wasn't for bad luck, he might have notched a couple. He led 72 laps at Iowa before a suspension failure ended his day early. Miscommunication due to a faulty radio kept him from contending for victory at Watkins Glen two weeks later. Extremely talented, Meira will remain calm and focused, positioning himself for his first victory.
With the addition of Milka Duno at Dreyer and Reinbold Racing, Buddy Rice can now be called the Indy Racing League's new lady's man. In the past Rice has been a teammate to both Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick.
Rice remained optimistic after testing at Homestead, where he placed 12th on the speed chart. "I think it's good to just get back in the car and get into the swing of things," he said after the test. "On the first night, we were pretty happy with how things went. We established a good baseline setup to work from with the car. A few gremlins hurt us a bit on the second night. We know how to address those things, and we'll have them taken care of by the time the race comes."
Most two car teams share setup information but Duno, a relative newcomer to the IndyCar Series, has struggled to find speed and may not be much help when it comes to information sharing. This, and the team's inability to land a sponsor for Rice, could hamper Rice's efforts for 2008.
Duno will run a partial schedule this season at Dreyer and Reinbold with Townsend Bell in the car for the first time at St. Pete. Both drivers are expected to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the reigning Bombardier Learjet IndyCar Rookie of the Year returns with Rahal Letterman Racing in a single car effort. After the Sebring test Hunter-Reay said. "I thought we'd be a little quicker overall, but we'll go back and find out more to help us and come out strong when the season opens."
RLR Technical Director Jay O'Connell said the Sebring test, where Hunter-Reay was 12th fastest, gave the team "a lot of data to review between now and the first race." O'Connell was confident the Sebring test would provide information that would be beneficial at Homestead and St. Pete.
Darren Manning never found the handle on the Foyt Racing entry during Homestead testing but the team managed to put together a solid run at the Sebring test. "We were able to try quite a few different set-ups over the two days," at Sebring said team owner A.J. Foyt. "When the rain came at the end of Thursday's test, we had already called it quits. We were happy with what we learned and feel good about our basic road course set-up. Darren is really strong on the road courses and he knows what he wants in a car; he felt good about what we gave him at Sebring. So I think he is looking forward to St. Pete--we all are."
Manning will have his work cut out for him at Homestead, where in 175 laps of testing, his best was just under 209 mph.
Several others will have their work cut out for them at Homestead as nine drivers from the Champ Car World Series will be racing in the unified IndyCar Series for the first time.
Many of the drivers transitioning from Champ Car have never competed on an oval. "It's like I just started racing for the first time," said Conquest Racing's Franck Perera. "It looks so easy on TV, but it's not."
The five new IndyCar teams received their equipment late and will need some time to get up to speed. In the recent Homestead test, Oriol Servia was the fastest of the transitioning group but his time was 16th overall on a combined chart of all IndyCar drivers who tested on the oval just after the unification was announced. The incoming teams were given recent test time at both Sebring and Homestead, allowing them to acclimate to their new race cars.
Testing times can be deceptive. The veteran and transitioning drivers tested on different days and under different conditions. Drivers from the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team, the class of the field in Champ Car, did not do well at the test. Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson, both extremely talented drivers, attained speeds under 210 mph.
It may take a few races, but it won't be long into the season before the entire starting grid is covered by less than a second on the fast oval tracks. The Homestead opener may be an anomaly with regard to comparable speeds, but there will be no comparison to the excitement generated by having all the open wheel drivers together on one track.
*Note: As of March 26, 2008, Firestone and the Indy Racing League have revived the Indy Lights name; it was Indy Pro Series.