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Champ Car refugees are coming around in IndyCar Series

Ex-Champ Car drivers accustomed to curvier road courses struggled after '08 merger with IndyCar. This year, with a better mix of road layouts and traditional Indy ovals, they should be more competitive.

February 05, 2009|Jim Peltz

The IndyCar Series enters its first full season of reunification with a shuffled list of racing venues and question marks involving several of its top drivers.

A year ago the series ended its long split with the nation's other major open-wheel racing circuit, the Champ Car World Series, by absorbing Champ Car and some of its teams and tracks. But contractual obligations prevented IndyCar from immediately adding Champ Car's crown jewel race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, in 2008.

Now that's all in the past and this year the race on Long Beach's seaside streets is the second stop on IndyCar's 17-race calendar.

And it means IndyCar's leading drivers, such as reigning champion Scott Dixon, Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon, will be in Long Beach for the race April 19.

The series opens April 5 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., where Champ Car transplant Graham Rahal won last year in his IndyCar debut at age 19.

But for the most part, the Champ Car drivers who came over in the merger struggled to be competitive, partly because Champ Car's tracks were mostly curvy "road courses" while IndyCar's mainstay venue was the oval track.

With the merger, IndyCar now has a blend of road courses -- such as St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Toronto and Sonoma -- along with ovals such as Milwaukee, Kansas and, of course, the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its construction this year.

Dixon won the Indianapolis 500 on his way to six victories, tying a season record, and his second championship (the first was in 2003). The year eased the pain of the New Zealander's 2007 season, when he lost the title to Dario Franchitti by running out of fuel on the final lap of the final race.

Now, Franchitti -- the 2007 Indy 500 winner who had a brief and disappointing stint in NASCAR stock car racing last year -- is back in IndyCar as Dixon's new teammate at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

"Winning [a title] is tough, but to defend is harder," Dixon said, but added: "Already the car is super fast and I have a new teammate joining me."

Franchitti replaced Wheldon in the No. 10 Ganassi car, while Wheldon, the 2005 series champion, moved to Panther Racing.

Dixon won last year's championship by a scant 17 points over Helio Castroneves of Team Penske, but it's highly questionable whether Castroneves will have a shot at the title this season. The Brazilian, a two-time Indy 500 winner, was indicted Oct. 2 by a grand jury on tax-evasion charges. The next day, Castroneves pleaded not guilty and was released on $10-million bail.

His trial is scheduled to start March 2, and team owner Roger Penske recently hired Will Power to replace Castroneves in the No. 3 car for preseason testing. Whether Power keeps that ride throughout the year depends on the timing and outcome of Castroneves' trial.

If Power stays in the car, he could give Penske a good start to the season because he is a road-course specialist. The first two races at St. Petersburg and Long Beach are on road courses, and Power won last year's Long Beach race.

Penske's other IndyCar driver is Ryan Briscoe, who won at Milwaukee and Mid-Ohio last year and a third time at the non-points season finale at Surfers Paradise in Australia.

Other teams, meanwhile, are hoping for much better seasons with the drivers they have -- most notably Andretti Green Racing, whose drivers include Patrick, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti.

Kanaan, the 2004 series champion, won at Richmond, Va., last year and Patrick -- the series' most popular driver -- made history by winning at Motegi, Japan, to become the first woman to win a major open-wheel race.

But otherwise it was rough sledding much of the year for Andretti Green, whose drivers (including Franchitti at the time) had won nine times in 2007.

Other familiar open-wheel names were being hit hard by the economy.

Rahal Letterman Racing, co-owned by 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and talk show host David Letterman, is struggling to find sponsorship to compete again this season. The team's lone car was driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay, who won at Watkins Glen last year.

Rahal's 20-year-old son, Graham, continues to drive for the Newman-Haas-Lanigan team. Graham became the youngest winner of a major open-wheel race in history with his victory at St. Petersburg last year.

But it was unclear at press time whether the team -- which dominated the final few years of the Champ Car World Series with driver Sebastien Bourdais before he moved to Formula One -- would field additional cars again this season.

Only Rahal remained under contract, meaning his 2008 teammate Justin Wilson was without a ride.

Wilson, the series' tallest driver at 6 feet 3, was frustrated for much of last year as he adapted to the IndyCar Series. But he broke through Aug. 31 by winning the Detroit Indy Grand Prix on the Belle Isle road course.

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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