|Ganassi chases record 4th straight IndyCar title|
|Written by Admin|
|Wednesday, 23 March 2011 10:21|
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Let the IndyCar race begin.|
Chip Ganassi is chasing a fourth straight series title. Dario Franchitti is trying to become the first four-time league champ. And everyone else including Danica Patrick wants to, well, just catch up to the Ganassi cars.
Good luck doing that in 2011.
``While our race team has done phenomenal things, we haven't even scratched he surface of what others have accomplished,'' said Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing.
It's hard to imagine how Ganassi's team could outdo its recent accomplishments.
Franchitti and teammate Scott Dixon have won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s, though Franchitti's first win in 2007 came while he was driving for Michael Andretti's team. Franchitti's back-to-back points championships since returning from his failed NASCAR experiment give him three overall. Dixon has won two titles, one fewer than Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr., the only three-time winners in series history.
Last season, Ganassi became the first team owner to win the Indy 500 and Daytona 500 in the same season, then topped that off by winning the Brickyard 400. And he's already won the one race that got away last year - the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.
Now comes the encore.
In December, Ganassi expanded his IndyCar team by adding two young American drivers, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, as he looks toward a possible milestone season and beyond.
``We can't duplicate what we did last season and we can't look backwards,'' Franchitti said after picking up his Indy champion's ring last week. ``Last year was a helluva year for Chip's teams. We just want to win the first race.''
That would be Sunday on the road course at St. Petersburg, Fla.
But this season already promises to be different.
The circuit has officially changed its name to the IndyCar Series and has instituted double-file restarts despite complaints from some drivers. The new restarts will be used for the first time this weekend.
New rules will require drivers to qualify with times closer to the pole-winner than previous seasons, and starting fields will be capped at 26 for all races except, of course, Indianapolis' traditional 33-car field. Drivers from other series also are being encouraged to compete against IndyCar drivers at Las Vegas with a $5 million bonus at stake if they can win.
The series also could benefit from the recent NBC-Comcast merger. League CEO Randy Bernard believes the races shown on Comcast channel Versus, now run by NBC Sports, will create better promotional opportunities with NBC such as Helio Castroneves' appearance Wednesday on ``The Today Show.''
``It's an instant credibility in the sports world,'' Bernard said. ``They understand what they want to grow the network, and that's exciting to me.''
Even the longtime face of IndyCar racing - team owner Roger Penske - is making changes. Penske driver Castroneves, the three-time Indy winner from Brazil, will ditch the familiar red, white and black car he's driven for a new yellow car sponsored by Shell. He'll drive that car in several races, including Indy, this season.
``One thing's for sure, they're going to know where I'm going,'' Castroneves joked recently. ``I'm not going to be able to get lost, and nobody is going to be able to steal my car.''
What hasn't changed yet is the perception that this series will continue to be dictated by two teams - Ganassi and Penske.
Over the last two seasons only three of the 34 race-winners came from outside those two teams' garages.
But driver movement, deeper fields and more multicar teams could make a difference.
Brazilian Tony Kanaan, the 2004 points champ and a one-time winner last season, left Andretti and landed with Jimmy Vasser's KV Racing Technology-Lotus team this week after a deal with Gil de Ferran fell through.
Could he and Vasser finally break the Ganassi-Penske lock on Victory Lane?
``I think we as a team, and a couple of other teams, have a chance to break Penske and Ganassi's streak on races this year,'' Kanaan said. ``I know we say this every year, but I think this year will definitely be the most competitive.''
And what about Danica?
After finishing sixth in the points in 2008, the season she won at Japan, and fifth in 2009, Patrick slid to 10th last season as she tried to juggle her IndyCar and NASCAR commitments.
She's doing both again this season and has switched engineers with teammate Marco Andretti, hoping that will help her get back into Victory Lane.
But everyone wants to know whether she'll be around next season when IndyCars will expand from a one-engine series.
``I might be, sure,'' she said in January.
There's no doubt about Ganassi's future.
The team expects Franchitti, a Scot, and Dixon, from New Zealand, to keep winning races and presumably championships, and they have Rahal and Kimball to help the eventual transition to the next generation of drivers.
Nobody will say when the conversion may start, but given the results of the past three seasons, there's no reason to suspect it will begin in 2011.
Instead, Ganassi's team is chasing history.
``Winning validates what we've done, but it doesn't guarantee you anything,'' Hull said. ``We haven't created the roadmap for what to do, we've followed what others have done and we're racing against a team (Penske) that has done phenomenal things.''
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