Brant James
Wednesday April 1st, 2009

After a long offseason, the Indy Racing League is primed for a big return Sunday at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. With reunification complete and a budding crop of young stars, here are the top 10 things to watch for in the IRL in 2009.

He was supposed to be a star because his father was. That doesn't always work out.

But Graham Rahal strode from the shadow of three-time CART champion, and 1986 Indianapolis 500-winner Bobby Rahal last April when he became the youngest person to win a major North American open wheel race at 19 years, 93 days. More impressively, the win came in his first IndyCar start -- the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

He did it after recovering from a spin earlier in the race, dissecting the field in a rain storm and doggedly defending his lead from two-time St. Petersburg winner Helio Castroneves on the final lap. As Rahal was led off to the trophy presentation, looking very much like an awed teenager, his father found his boss, legend Carl Haas, standing unbothered by the race car, a chomped-out cigar hanging from his lips.

"Thanks for the driver, Bobby," Haas said.

"Thanks for giving him the chance," Rahal replied, hugging him.

Graham Rahal had arrived.

A first full IndyCar campaign behind him and now the leader of his Newman/Haas/Lanigan team, Rahal remains precocious, accepts the pressure and expectation that will only heighten this season.

"I think I've always had the pressure around me, and I'm ready to take it and try to carry the torch, so to speak," he said. "But certainly there is going to be more pressure to follow. Once you do one good thing you're expected to do more. Now I have the challenge to do that."

Rahal, Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay have won races (all but Andretti last season) and all are in position to compete for more. The IRL will never possess an all-domestic lineup, especially with the inclusion of more non-ovals in its schedule and the dearth of training grounds for such a regimen in the United States. But that group is solid.

As for rivalries, there's always the simmering Patrick-Dan Wheldon tiff, and Rahal admits there are few drivers he wants to beat more than Andretti. Apparently it's just a genetic thing.

"A lot of the rivalry stems from the fans because the fans get so into the rivalries in the past," he said. "It becomes something you want to continue. It's just a fact. No matter what anybody says, it's there. With Dad, there's nobody that dad wanted to beat more than Michael [Marco's father]. You grew up with that mindset in him and it just carries on."

This 'we need Americans' mantra really becomes a bore when a talented, affable driver like the 28-year-old New Zealander can enjoy a peaceful lunch in a sidewalk café without being mobbed. Certainly, he enjoys the peace, but he deserves some attention. Dixon won the IRL title in 2003, finished second to Dario Franchitti by 13 points in 2007 -- when he ran out of fuel in the final stretch -- but he reclaimed the prize last season. He's increased his win total by two each of the past three seasons, winning six times last year. He has 10 wins and 22 podium finishes in his last 34 races over two seasons.

The 35-year-old Scot won the 2007 championship and Indianapolis 500, then flirted with NASCAR. He soon departed Andretti Green Racing and moved in to Chip Ganassi's stock car paddock. The experiment was a disaster for numerous reasons. A broken ankle after a Nationwide Series crash cost Franchitti a month of races, and by July, after he finished 32nd or worse in nine of 10 Sprint Cup starts, his sponsorship ran dry.

Re-energized and enjoying the broken-in-glove feel of an IndyCar, he gives Ganassi an unprecedented lineup containing the winners of the series' last two championships and marquee race.

Reunification was last year. The final vestiges of Champ Car -- races in Long Beach, Toronto, Edmonton, etc., a few teams, and several drivers -- have been assimilated. No more acclimation. Everyone should be up to speed and sufficiently snarky.

The conventional wisdom of open wheel racing declared that its discipline couldn't begin to reclaim the position of prominence it once held in American motorsports without reunification. NASCAR raced in to fill the void -- and to fill Indianapolis Motor Speedway with stock car fans -- when the regime split into Champ Car and IRL camps in 1995.

That's no longer a valid excuse for lagging behind. NASCAR remains one of the nation's most popular sports, but there is room for the IRL to find a niche. And IRL teams' ability to produce a championship-caliber race car for about $8-million (a Sprint Cup equivalent costs about $20-million) could make the series an attractive option for potential sponsors in a vicious economy.

"We've got no excuses now," Michael Andretti said. "I still say we have the best form of racing out there and it's our time to show what we can do."

She's the most recognizable face and the most marketable figure in the IRL, one of the elites in American sports. She poses for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and unabashedly defends her right to exploit any resource at her disposal -- her looks, her driving skill, her power as a spokesperson -- before those finite resources expire.

Patrick finally validated her place in racing -- as if she needed to, already commanding high-dollar sponsors and convincing title-winning team owner Andretti to put her in a car -- by winning her first race in the IndyCar series last year at Motegi, Japan.

That'll do it for any possible Danica Patrick intrigue, right? Well, no.

She understands as well as anyone that she has to prove that victory -- borne of strategy and fuel mileage -- was no fluke.

Oh, and she's a free agent at the end of the season.

She says she wants to come back. Andretti wants her back. She won't come cheap. And you just know those NASCAR rumors will start again soon enough.

"[AGR] is a great team, a competitive team and a fun team," she said. "Working there is fun, if you can call it work, I guess. I also have to evaluate all of my options and all of the opportunities out there. And just as I did the last time the contract came around, you have to know your worth, you have to know who wants you, you have to evaluate where you want to be."

Ring-ring. Call for Ms. Patrick.

The federal government doesn't often lose tax evasion cases. The two-time Indianapolis 500-winner and Dancing with the Stars champion has a lot more to worry about right now than missing the season-opener.

Dan Wheldon, the 2005 series and Indy 500 champion has a new team and a "family" atmosphere at Panther Racing. He also has a new son named Sebastian, who was born on Feb. 1. His new contentment and a quest to regain his footing as one of the IRL's most successful drivers could put Panther back in victory lane for the first time since 2005.

An all-ovals circuit for its first decade, the IRL expanded onto a street course for the first time at St. Petersburg in 2005, and in the process likely sowed the seeds of reunification. Later that season, the IRL proved it could compete at permanent road courses at Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, and with the amalgamation of former Champ Car venues, will race this season at storied Long Beach and Toronto. Seven of 17 events will be contested off sterile concrete and steel ovals this season, bringing racing back to a more tactile, carnival mode. There's something inherently chic about watching an IndyCar careen past a favorite pub or bagel shop, and Andretti Green Promotions' success in St. Petersburg had a lot to do with embedding that mindset within the IRL.

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