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What we know heading into the new year

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Let the countdown begin. We're now inside a week from the start of the 2009 IndyCar Series season in St. Petersburg, Fla. The last few weeks have seen teams preparing on both ovals and road courses for the season through IRL Open Test sessions at Homestead-Miami Speedway and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, as well as private tests on other tracks. While the season is finally upon us, we should take one more look at the tests as a whole. The Big Three teams of Andretti Green Racing, Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Team Penske are poised to continue their rivalry at the top, but if these sessions were any indication, a number of teams — led by Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing — are within striking distance going into the 2009 campaign. At the same time, the driver situation for some squads continues to be fluid at this very late stage. But if you've followed the IRL for a while, that's not surprising, is it? So what did we learn?

1. Ganassi has the edge — but only slightly

Both Ganassi and Penske looked stout in the open tests. The Homestead sessions saw defending series champion Scott Dixon take the top spot on Day 1 and then on Day 2, Penske's Ryan Briscoe was the fastest. At Barber, Dixon once again led the first day and was followed on the second day this time by Will Power, who's filling in for Helio Castroneves. Andretti Green didn't quite have the same results, but they also had productive tests. Marco Andretti, who's looking to overcome two straight seasons marred by crashes and other problems, was third-fastest overall in the two-day Homestead run behind Briscoe and Dixon. He was also the fastest of AGR's four-car armada at Barber, going seventh-fastest overall there. With the times so tight, the edge should probably go to the champions at this point. Dixon and new teammate Dario Franchitti (who himself placed in the top five overall in both tests) can be a devastating combo to the rest of the field if they live up to their abilities. Power needs to perform better on the ovals, so Briscoe may be Penske's lone hope for a title as the season wears on. However, if Power can do well on the street courses of St. Pete and Long Beach to start the year, it could set him up as a darkhorse. As for AGR, they've done a lot of shuffling behind the pit wall, which has included among other things, Michael Andretti becoming Danica Patrick's race strategist. Will that help them escape all the problems that dubbed them "Team Turmoil" during the 2008 season?

2. Newman/Haas/Lanigan is legit

The Big Three may become Four in short order. After putting up some strong times at Homestead, the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team kept ascending during the Barber tests with Graham Rahal and Robert Doornbos going fifth and sixth-fastest overall respectively. But that's if you only believe the IRL timing system. According to Rahal, the team's own timing system had them "second or third" on the charts since their beacon was in a different spot on the track. However, no matter which is right, there's no doubt that the team is heading into St. Petersburg in a much better situation than last year — having to cobble together their lone race car after Rahal crashed it during a test session at Homestead. "I think that we feel pretty confident," said Rahal. "I think everybody's gotta be pretty happy with the fact that we're right there with the Ganassi and Penske boys. That's something that was going to be a huge challenge for us in the offseason and the guys have done a heck of a job making it happen." Rahal said that finding the sweet spot on the Dallara chassis was "definitely not an easy challenge" and gave full credit to his engineers for finding the newfound speed since he -- and the rest of the drivers, for that matter — have had limited test time over the offseason. "As far as from my perspective, really, it comes down to the engineers," he said. "We've worked pretty hard in developing the car to where we feel confident that it's gonna be competitive this season with all the other teams." There are still a few questions to answer, though. Can Rahal be as strong on the 1.5-mile ovals as he is on the twisty tracks? Also, Doornbos may be fitting in well at N/H/L so far, but he's a speedway novice too. How quickly can he pick up the art of high-speed oval racing?

3. Driver situation still not set in stone

The biggest situation involving rideless drivers was finally solved this weekend as Ryan Hunter-Reay signed to race the No. 21 at Vision Racing according to SPEED Channel's Robin Miller. Considering that a multi-million dollar promotional campaign by Hunter-Reay's sponsor IZOD was probably on the line, it shouldn't be surprising that IRL founder Tony George has stepped up to take on the young American at his team. But beyond Hunter-Reay, there are a couple of matters to be decided on the grid. Milka Duno, who appeared set to be the third driver at Newman/Haas/Lanigan, is apparently searching for a ride again after reported sponsorship issues. If she doesn't have as much money as expected, she still may have enough to create a second car at smaller teams like Dreyer and Reinbold or Dale Coyne Racing. Speaking of DCR, we've yet to see an official announcement that they're running Detroit winner Justin Wilson full-time — although since he's done both open tests with this team, this may be a given. During the offseason, Conquest Racing owner Eric Bachelart mentioned the option of splitting one car between two drivers for 2009 — Jaime Camara and perhaps Champ Car veteran Alex Tagliani. Will he choose that option or keep Camara full-time in his lone entry? Another one to watch is Buddy Rice, who has been linked to drive for the new Rubicon team if sponsorship can be found.

4. Barber next up for a race date?

Plenty of fans and media gave the aforementioned Barber Motorsports Park some great press during the recent open test. An announced number of 10,300 showed up for last Sunday's test session, which is pretty good considering that the NCAA Basketball Tournament and a NASCAR Sprint Cup race were going down at the same time. Going to Barber would check off a few items on the proverbial list. The Southeast needs an IRL date after the series left Nashville Superspeedway and replaced it with the reborn Toronto street race. Also, engine supplier Honda has a manufacturing plant not too far from BMP's location in Birmingham, so they would be satisfied. But will they be able to get a 2010 date on the schedule? Barber will have to contend with two former Champ Car venues, the venerable Cleveland Grand Prix at Burke Lakefront Airport and the street race at Houston, Texas. IRL commercial division president Terry Angstadt also threw out Phoenix and a proposed street race in Nashville, Tenn. as possibilities to The Indianapolis Star newspaper this past week. Needless to say, there's still some work to be done for the Barber team.
Tagged: Dario Franchitti, Danica Patrick, Alex Tagliani

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