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IndyCar 2016 preview: Honda Grand Prix for starters, Indianapolis 500 turns 100

By The Sports Xchange   |   March 9, 2016 at 10:06 AM
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Finally, IndyCar gets back to racing this weekend.

It will have been more than six months since the checkered flag dropped on the final race of last season, a layoff testing the patience of competitors and fans alike.

But there are storylines galore in the 22-driver field that has gathered for Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, including another expected duel of Ganassi Racing and Team Penske.

Roger Penske's team led last season virtually wire-to-wire with Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya before Chip Ganassi's ace, Scott Dixon, swooped in at the last minute and stole the season title. The two drivers actually tied in points, but Dixon took the crown on the strength of more race wins: three to two.

Dixon now has four series championships, good for a tie for second on the sport's all-time list. Only A.J. Foyt (seven) has more. Dixon also is fifth in career wins, with 38. His next one ties him with Al Unser for fourth place. Michael Andretti (42) will be Dixon's target after that.

"That's all stuff for the future," Dixon said. "First, we've got a season to start, and the competition should be as good as it's ever been."

Fifteen of the 22 drivers lining up in St. Petersburg have won races in this season, including Helio Castroneves, who will have another chance to tie the Indianapolis 500's record for event wins. He has been trying for a record fourth since winning in 2009. Foyt, Unser and Rick Mears won four each. Montoya has two.

The 500 will be held for the 100th time and much fanfare is expected. But that doesn't mean the drivers will try any harder.

"With no disrespect to this year's event, we want to win the same whether it's the 95th, the 100th or the 105th," Castroneves said.

So much has changed in IndyCar from a year ago, and yet it hasn't. Chevrolet still has the preferred engine and chassis combination until proven otherwise. Team Penske remains loaded with talent but lacking the expected results (only three wins last year despite four standout drivers). The schedule still isn't as long as its fans desire.

Yet, some things appear to be better. Honda should be stronger on the road courses, street circuits and short ovals thanks to offseason modifications allowed by IndyCar. The rookie class figures to be the series' best in several years. The season, while still only comprised of 16 races, will start two weeks earlier and end three weeks later than in 2015.

Of course, Justin Wilson won't be on the grid. The veteran driver lost his life in a fluke accident Aug. 23 at Pocono Raceway (he died the next day of head injuries suffered when a piece of flying debris struck his helmet). IndyCar responded by tethering many of the suspension pieces susceptible to scattering on impact, including the nose cone like the one that came off Sage Karam's car and hit Wilson.

Wilson was expected to drive the fourth car of Andretti Autosport this year. That ride has been filled by Alexander Rossi, who ended up without a Formula One seat when Pascal Wehrlein and Rio Haryanto secured the funding to work with the Manor team.

Rossi, a Californian who has lived and raced in Europe since he was 16 years old, got his first chance to drive an Indy car during a March 1 test. Certainly, he will have his work cut out for him to be as competitive early on as he expects to be.

The other members of the rookie class include Max Chilton, who got 35 starts with Marussia over a pair of F1 seasons. He will drive for Ganassi in what figures to be an interesting pairing. Unlike Rossi, who has never driven on an oval track, Chilton won an Indy Lights race last year at tiny Iowa Speedway. He also has received considerable tutelage from four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti.

Conor Daly (Dale Coyne Racing) is IndyCar's other full-time rookie; Matthew Brabham has two races scheduled with KVSH. Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot will join Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for at least three races.

IndyCar will return to a pair of historic tracks - Phoenix International Raceway (April 2) and Road America (June 26) - and has added a street race in Boston's Seaport District (Sept. 4). Actually, everything about this season feels new since it's been so long without a race.

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