What to expect from IndyCar's return to U.S.

BY foxsports • March 18, 2010

It'll be another week and a half before the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the track and makes its 2010 American debut on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. Considering the craziness of last Sunday's season opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the extended break may be a godsend.

The rain-shortened affair, which became a timed race and was won by Will Power when he passed Ryan Hunter-Reay with less than four minutes remaining, had just about everything. After a first-lap incident that saw Mario Moraes' car wind up on top of Marco Andretti's, the Penske and Ganassi juggernauts were pushed throughout the race by multiple dark horses. A thunderstorm caused a power failure at the 2.6-mile Anhembi Park street course and split the race into two halves with a 36-minute red flag. And through all the mayhem, the Brazilian fans hooted and hollered, saving the biggest cheers for their countryman and podium finisher Vitor Meira.

It was an entertaining mess of a race and there's a lot of storylines from it that can develop even further in the Sunshine State.

The resurgent Andretti Autosport

While it was a given that Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing were going to be major players once again, Andretti Autosport was a question mark going into 2010. While the team streamlined itself over the offseason, their ability to hang with the "red cars" was arguably in doubt. But if Hunter-Reay's runner-up performance in Brazil is any indication, then they'll be a force to be reckoned with on the street circuits. Former IZOD IndyCar Series champ Tony Kanaan was also running well before he was caught in an incident involving Alex Tagliani and Dan Wheldon. He battled back to finish tenth and it appears he'll give team owner Michael Andretti at least two good chances at a win in St. Pete with him and Hunter-Reay. If Marco Andretti can stay out of trouble, his dad might have three chances.

Sleepers can stun the field

Andretti Autosport isn't the only group capable of beating Penske and TCGR in St. Petersburg. Just look at the top two Brazilians in Sao Paulo, Meira of A.J. Foyt Racing and Luczo Dragon/de Ferran Racing's Raphael Matos, who placed fourth overall. Meira's podium run could serve as a major psychological boost for the rest of the season and Matos showed that he is a true threat in the concrete canyons. Another driver that can score an upset is Alex Tagliani, who was running fifth at Sao Paulo in his first race as co-owner of the new FAZZT Race Team before Wheldon hit him going into Turn 5 on Lap 29. If that doesn't convince you, then remember how close he was to winning in Toronto last year with Conquest Racing. He is one of the best "street fighters" in the paddock, along with Power and TCGR's Dario Franchitti.

Graham Rahal returns

Sarah Fisher was already one of the IRL's most popular drivers, but when she gave up her own No. 67 Dollar General machine to Graham Rahal for St. Petersburg and the April 11 race at Barber Motorsports Park, she just about turned into a hero amongst the fan base. While Rahal's schedule beyond his two-race stint with Fisher's team has yet to be finalized, the American star is keeping focused on the opportunity coming at him at St. Pete, where he won in 2008.

"I'm extremely excited and, obviously, very enthusiastic about everything that's gone on at or with SFR so far," he said during a teleconference Wednesday. "And I think as we look to St. Pete and Barber, I think a lot of people are pretty optimistic. I feel like we should have a pretty good run at both places."

As for Fisher, the decision to take herself out of the road course races was one she felt had to be made for the good of her team.

"The whole point of what we're trying to accomplish here is really big-picture thinking with the team and where it's going, and trying to have a shot at having good results," she said. "I didn't see that as being a part of the big picture when I was testing [in February] at Barber...My team is a whole lot more important to me than my ego, and Graham's going to do a better job than I would have at the wheel for those two particular events."

Redemption for Ryan Briscoe?

The final stages of Sunday's race were a heartbreaker for Ryan Briscoe. Holding the lead with less than 15 minutes to go on the clock, Briscoe was leading when he locked up the brakes on his No. 6 Team Penske special and skidded into the tire barriers at Turn 5. That incident gave his teammate Power second place and the opportunity to eventually pass and dust Hunter-Reay by 1.85 seconds at the checkered flag. But Briscoe will likely be a major factor in the outcome at St. Petersburg, where he's the defending champion. Last year, he had to hold off assaults from Hunter-Reay (then driving for Vision Racing) and Justin Wilson (then with Dale Coyne Racing; now with Dreyer and Reinbold Racing) in order to win. We'll see if he can shake off his gaffe at Sao Paulo and produce another winning moment in St. Pete.

Other cool stuff

Versus is back on the air in households served by DirecTV after the channel's owner, Comcast, and the satellite television provider announced an agreement earlier this week. The IRL's cable television partner went MIA on DTV last fall and IndyCar fans with the service were forced to find alternate means of watching Sunday's season opener…KV Racing Technology has begun a technical and commercial partnership with Lotus and Cosworth that will see the former's iconic "Racing Green and Yellow" livery go on their No. 5 machine for Takuma Sato. The Lotus IndyCar will debut at St. Petersburg…Hunter-Reay will keep busy during the series' off week. He'll be in this weekend's 12 Hours of Sebring sports car race, where he'll drive the No. 95 Level 5 Motorsports LMP Challenge class entry with teammates James Gue and Scott Tucker. Reigning Firestone Indy Lights champion J.R. Hildebrand is also racing at Sebring for Genoa Racing in the same class...