IRL: The racers are ready to accelerate into 2006

IRL: The racers are ready to accelerate into 2006
Mar 24, 2006, 5:47 AM

The start of the 11th IndyCar series season begins next week, one that promises to be different from years past. For one, the schedule was shortened from 17 to 14 races, basically eradicating the West Coast of any events. Races held at California ...

The start of the 11th IndyCar series season begins next week, one that promises to be different from years past. For one, the schedule was shortened from 17 to 14 races, basically eradicating the West Coast of any events. Races held at California Speedway, Phoenix International Raceway and the now-closed Pikes Peak International Raceway were dropped due to poor attendance following several years in decline. Following the withdrawals of GM and Toyota, Honda becomes the sole supplier of engines for the field, which will be powered by a mixture of methanol and ethanol for the 2006 season. The car count is at 20 for the first race and once again questions abound whether there will be enough cars to fill the traditional 33-car lineup at the Indianapolis 500. Questions aside, however, Homestead provides the season opener for the sixth time and getting out of the gate quickly has provided a springboard to the title.

In the six previous runnings of this event, the winner has gone on to win the championship each year but one. Sam Hornish Jr. (#6 Dallara-Honda) has been the most successful, winning in 2001, '02 and '04. The '04 campaign was his first for Penske in a year when he and teammate Helio Castroneves (#3 Dallara-Honda) book-ended the year with wins. However, their wins for Toyota were the only two for that manufacturer as Honda won the other 14 races. Now on Honda power, those two have as good a shot as any in the field to return to their championship ways.

Last year's winner of this race, the Indianapolis 500 and the series championship, Dan Wheldon (#10 Dallara-Honda), begins a new challenge for himself after leaving his seat with Andretti Green Racing. Chip Ganassi's team struggled mightily in '05, running five different drivers in their three cars. This year Ganassi has downsized to two, with Wheldon and Scott Dixon (#9 Dallara-Honda) aboard.

Despite not winning on the track, a big winner in 2005 was Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick. Patrick (#16 Panoz-Honda) put the IRL back in the national spotlight following her incredible month of May at Indianapolis. Throughout the rest of the year she was unable to match her 4th-place finish in the Indy 500, but scored three pole positions and made quick work of fellow rookies Tomas Enge and Ryan Briscoe. Patrick's teammate Buddy Rice (#15 Panoz-Honda) is eager to return to the winning ways of his 2004 season, when he won the '500. He was injured in practice for last year's event and had just two top five finishes. Those two are joined by Paul Dana (#17 Panoz-Honda), who ran four races in his rookie effort last year before also injuring himself in a practice crash at Indianapolis.

The Andretti Green juggernaut may have lost Wheldon but still provides a bulk of the field with four cars. Bryan Herta (#7 Dallara-Honda), Tony Kanaan (#11 Dallara-Honda) and Dario Franchitti (#27 Dallara-Honda) all won a race in 2005 and finished in the top ten in points. They are joined this year by 18-year-old Marco Andretti (#26 Dallara-Honda), who lit up the Infiniti Pro Series last season with three wins, all on road courses, from just six starts.

Fernandez Racing continues with two cars, though they are under different banners. Adrian Fernandez started a Grand-Am team during the winter and owns Scott Sharp's #8 Delphi entry. Sharp recovered from a difficult number of years for Kelley Racing to finish 5th in last year's points with his first win since 2003. While Sharp will run a Panoz, Kosuke Matsuura's Super Aguri Fernandez entry will be a Dallara. Matsuura's owner, Aguri Suzuki, has started the Super Aguri Formula One team so his role will lessen on the IRL side.

The last multi-car team that will take the green at Homestead is Vision Racing. Tony George's team has morphed from mid-packers to contenders this year with new co-owner Patrick Dempsey of ABC's Grey's Anatomy and new signing Tomas Scheckter (#2 Dallara-Honda). He will partner George's stepson, Ed Carpenter (#20 Dallara-Honda). Scheckter won the Texas race last year and joins his fourth team in five years of IndyCar racing. Carpenter begins his second season with Vision in a better position than last year as the effort was rushed together only a few weeks before Homestead.

Panther Racing and Cheever Racing each dropped from two cars to one but have interesting new acquisitions. Panther signed Vitor Meira (#4 Dallara- Honda), who became surplus from Rahal Letterman Racing with a lack of funds. Meira will run the Econova car. Cheever Racing has the most noticeable change, with both Alex Barron and Patrick Carpentier out of rides and team owner Eddie Cheever Jr. stepping back into the cockpit. Cheever (#51 Dallara-Honda), who like Fernandez also started a Grand-Am team this year, has not driven an IndyCar since 2002 but will run the first four races, including the Indianapolis 500 while searching for a sponsor. He will also run an Infiniti Pro Series team for current Florida State student Chris Festa.

Soldiering on with single car teams are A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. A.J. Foyt will run Felipe Giaffone (#14 Dallara-Honda), following his impressive performance at last year's Indianapolis 500. On short notice, Giaffone jumped in an unsponsored car and bumped Arie Luyendyk Jr. from the field. He finished 15th in the race. Dreyer & Reinbold will run 1996 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Lazier (#5 Dallara- Honda), who will have a full-time ride for the first time since being released from Hemelgarn Racing after the 2003 season.

Hemelgarn Racing finishes the 20-car lineup with rookie P.J. Chesson (#91 Dallara-Honda). The team ran midfield in 2005 with drivers Paul Dana and Jimmy Kite but should have an improved year with two major celebrities in the team. Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony joins former KISS front man and co-founder Gene Simmons as invested interests. The team should be one of the more entertaining over the course of the year.

The field gets the green flag on Sunday, March 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

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