IRL: The road to Twin Ring

The Indy cars have arrived at Twin Ring Motegi's 1.5-mile paperclip of an oval and the third Japan Indy 300, race ...

The Indy cars have arrived at Twin Ring Motegi's 1.5-mile paperclip of an oval and the third Japan Indy 300, race #4 in a 17-event campaign.

Last year Dan Wheldon performed the miracle track owner and Indy Racing League IndyCar Series reigning engine manufacturer champion Honda had been waiting for since this multi-purpose venue opened: a win on home turf.

It hadn't been done in the CART era of competition (Ford had three victories, Toyota one) and Scott Sharp won the Indy Racing League's first visit in 2003 with Toyota power. Honda was getting discouraged but Wheldon broke the evil spell on the company.

That Wheldon performed this feat in convincing fashion, leading 192 laps and pacing teammate and champion-in-waiting Tony Kanaan across the checkers was just the beginning of a magical year for Honda, who won Indy and all but two of 16 races.

The return to Tochigi Prefecture isn't going to be a walkover for Wheldon or Honda, even though they'd like it to be. One will recall last year's Japan Indy 300 marked the end of the 3.5-liter discipline in IndyCar Series competition; the 88th Indianapolis 500 Mile Race ushered in 3-liter life.

Leading the point standings and coming in as defending winner, one has to go with Danny Boy and his ramped up #26 Klein Tools/Jim Beam team. They've got the Honda engine, a reworked and improving Dallara chassis and, like everyone else in the 23-car Twin Ring paddock Wheldon rides on Firestone Firehawk racing rubber.

While Wheldon is looking strong his Andretti Green Racing team will be operating without two of its phalanx of engineers, as both Scott Graves and Tino Belli must remain in the US following internal injuries sustained in an auto accident as the group made their way to San Francisco Airport following Infineon Raceway Sears Point testing.

For any other racing team, the loss of two racing engineers would be devastating; for AGR, which arguably has the deepest technical staff in of IndyCar Series competition, the beat simply goes on.

Wheldon won two of three races held to date on very diverse tracks: on the 1.5-mile banked Homestead-Miami Speedway oval and in the streets of his adopted hometown, St. Petersburg, FL. Sam Hornish Jr. is the Phoenix winner from the other side of the great engine divide: Toyota.

Toyota would like nothing more than to beat Honda a third time at Motegi and are, no doubt pulling out all the stops. Hornish and Marlboro Team Penske Dallara/Toyota teammate Helio Castroneves are howling at Wheldon's gate, as are his own three teammates: Kanaan, Bryan Herta and Dario Franchitti.

The Toyota camp will look a bit different this weekend as Target Chip Ganassi Racing has decided to use a Dallara chassis for one of its three entries: 2003 IRL IndyCar Series champ Scott Dixon, who won pole position here in his first, championship IRL season will be a guinea pig for the team, while Darren Manning and rookie Ryan Briscoe continue with their Panoz/Toyota packages. Briscoe sports new Pioneer backing and colors for this race.

Sharp, who appears to have rejuvenated his career with a move to Delphi/Fernandez Racing and the Panoz/Honda package could be right there in the mix on Saturday, as will the similarly shod Rahal Letterman Racing trio of veterans Buddy Rice, Vitor Meira and rookie Danica Patrick. Both Rice and Meira excel on the 1.5-mile ovals, as evidenced by their Kansas finish last July, the second closest in League history at 0.0051 seconds.

For the Japanese fans, two drivers make up the home team: Kosuke Matsuura for Super Aguri Fernandez Racing and Roger Yasukawa with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. The April 29th contest marks Yasukawa's third trip to TRM racing an Indy car and Matsuura's second. Both have Honda engines; Matsuura runs with Panoz power while Yasukawa sports a Dallara.

Yasukawa also has a new teammate for this race and the 89th Indy 500. Jeff Bucknum, son of Honda F1 hero Ronnie Bucknum makes his IndyCar Series debut here in a DRR machine. While not noted as an oval expert, Bucknum's racing genes should serve the veteran well as he carries family honor.

Chevrolet has sole representation from Panther Racing and the two Tomas', Scheckter and Enge. Chevy has been making strides in the power department and, while Scheckter still has an enormous case of the "yips" and is prone to hitting walls on most any racing occasion, his comrade Enge has been the quickest rookie at all three venues to date. Think Chevy doesn't want to beat Honda and Toyota at home? Think again.

Red Bull Cheever Racing's brace of drivers has good experience on this track; both Alex Barron and Patrick Carpentier competed on TRM's oval paperclip during the CART era, albeit without extraordinary success. Both are looking to turn that around this weekend, Carpentier's first with the Red Bull team's Dallara/Toyota package.

Ed Carpenter will make his first start with Vision Racing after competing for Red Bull's outfit last season on the Twin Ring oval. For a crew that came together within hiccups of the season opener, Carpenter, team manager Larry Curry and their crew have made some strides in getting to know one another, their Dallara/Toyota package and move up the IndyCar Series ladder.

Like Carpenter, another Menards Infiniti Pro Series graduate looking for turnaround results is A.J. Foyt IV, set for his third Twin Ring Motegi start and back in the Dallara/Toyota with which he is most comfortable after the experiment of running a Panoz in St Pete. Foyt is developing well as a driver but unable to show his true talents, due to the lack of engineering at his garage.

Finally, rookie Paul Dana and the Ethanol/Hemelgarn team return to IndyCar Series competition after a two-race hiatus. The team spent a good deal of time preparing their Dallara/Toyota entries for this race and Indianapolis, where their experience could bring results.

With a full field of 23 competitors, momentum is building toward Indy and the month of May. But before they can race in the heartland of America, the IndyCar Series drivers must master the Twin Ring Motegi oval. Who will win? Ask again after 200 laps are completed Saturday afternoon.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Darren Manning , Scott Sharp , Helio Castroneves , A.J. Foyt IV , Patrick Carpentier , Scott Dixon , Tony Kanaan , Bryan Herta , Alex Barron , Dan Wheldon , Roger Yasukawa , Buddy Rice , Ryan Briscoe , Kosuke Matsuura , Paul Dana , Jim Beam , Sam Hornish Jr. , Danica Patrick , Ed Carpenter , Vitor Meira
Teams Panther Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing