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Five emerging IndyCar storylines as series shifts to U.S.; more notes

While the NASCAR Sprint Cup season is in full swing -- and that means Eight More Months of Jimmie Johnson -- the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the United States after a smashing season-opener in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

And that is why Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg should be recommended viewing for any auto racing fan who is in need of seeing something different.

NASCAR fans love their short track racing and that means some fender-banging action at Martinsville Speedway. That Johnson is already a six-time winner in his 16 trips to ClayCampbell's flat track makes him a heavy favorite to win on Sunday, which would give him four wins in the first six races as he continues his Drive for Five.

Face it, the Johnson Domination, albeit impressive, has become monotonous. And while it is unfair to classify NASCAR fans as auto racing fans because they are interested in NASCAR only, it's the small number of fringe fans that watch all of auto racing that can tune in at 3:30 p.m. Sunday to watch a variety of storylines developing in the IndyCar Series.

Try these on for size.

1. IZOD Has IndyCar Dressed For Success

With a strong sponsor finally able to sell its series, IndyCar has become fashionable again. This is a mainstream sponsor that deals with what is in style and when Mike Kelly, the executive vice president of marketing at Phillips-Van Heusen came to the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in 2008, he was hooked on the sport.

Now he is investing an estimated $100 million over the next six years to promote IndyCar with a specific focus on the sexiness of the sport and the glamour of its stars. The series is fresh off a highly-successful debut in Brazil two weeks ago and heads to St. Petersburg, Fla., for IndyCar's spring break.

This event has been one of the highlights of the season because of its local, winding around Al Lang Stadium on the shores of Tampa Bay. The course also includes a runway of Albert Whitted Airport and turns onto the streets of St. Pete.

A chance to bask in the sun means plenty of fun for the large crowd that comes to this race every year making it as much an event as an auto race.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is IZOD's posterboy and will drive car No. 37 for Andretti Autosport on Sunday. He finished second at St. Pete last year and got a dress rehearsal for this week as he finished second at Sao Paulo in the opener.

2. Graham Rahal Is Back

Two years ago Rahal made history when he became the youngest driver ever to win a major open-wheel race. He was just 19 years old when he put the Newman/Haas/Lanigan entry into victory lane in just the second race after unification. It was Rahal's first IndyCar Series race.

As the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART champion Bobby Rahal, he was IndyCar's great American hope. Young, fast and handsome, Rahal was the driver that could leave IndyCar into the future and give American racing fans reason to rally around the flag.

That remains his only win, however, and when he was unable to strike a deal to remain at Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Rahal began the season on the sidelines.

Enter Sarah Fisher, who like Rahal is a native of Ohio and the owner/driver of Sarah Fisher Racing. She was set to begin the season in car No. 67 but realized that street and road racing are not her strong points. So she approached her sponsor, Dollar General, and put Rahal in her car for the street race at St. Pete and the road course race at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Alabama on April 11.

"Being that there is one race, other than the Indianapolis 500, I don't want to miss every year is St. Pete," Rahal said. "So when the opportunity came from Sarah, I just had to jump right at it."

Rahal needs to be in IndyCar full-time but getting a chance to compete in the first two races in the United States may lead to a full-time deal later this season. The series needs Rahal, who at 21, has an impressive future if he can get a fulltime ride on a competitive team.

3. Power To The People

It didn't take long for Will Power to prove that he was back as he won the season-opener in Brazil, his first race since suffering a fractured lower back in a crash at Infineon Raceway on August 22. Power drove with fearlessness and determination in the win, the same qualities that make him a favorite at St. Pete as he leads a powerful three-driver lineup at Team Penske that includes three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and championship contender Ryan Briscoe.

4. Can Danica Patrick Earn Her First Top-10 Finish Of The Season?

Patrick finished sixth in the season-opening ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway in February, but she has yet to finish higher than 15th in any race since. ARCA doesn't count as a top-tier racing series, so Patrick has finished 35th in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona, 31st at California and 35th at Las Vegas. She was 15th in a 24-car field in the IndyCar race at Sao Paulo.

Patrick is the face of IndyCar and remains the one driver that generates mainstream interest in the series. She won't be back in a NASCAR Nationwide race until June 26 at New Hampshire International Speedway. While it's true the IndyCar suits her style much better than the JR Motorsports Chevrolet, Patrick is driven to succeed which is why she enters St. Pete with a determined focus.

5. Franchitti And Dixon Hope To Be "On Target"

Just missing the top-five at Sao Paulo was the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing duo of two-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon (sixth) and defending IndyCar champ Dario Franchitti (seventh). Franchitti started on the pole and led 29 laps, while Dixon had to back after he was knocked off course in the first-lap crash that included MarioMoraes' car going airborne and landing on top of Marco Andretti.

The two Target drivers are among the class of IndyCar and should be considered serious contenders for the 2010 championship. And while the season is still early, both drivers want to continue their winning ways as IndyCar returns to the United States.

Calling it the "defining decision of this decade" Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard has formed an advisory committee that will help determine which chassis design will be the IndyCar of the future. Bernard made the announcement Sunday night while appearing on SPEED's Wind Tunnel, then spoke with SI.com.

William R. Looney, a four-star general in the United States Air Force, will be the chairman of a seven-member advisory committee that will include engine experts, chassis experts and one team owner from those currently in the IndyCar Series.

"Under General Looney's command he was responsible for the modernization of all United States aircraft," Bernard explained. "I thought there were a lot of similarities with that; how he developed a process. I don't want to make a mistake. I want to have a guy that knows what he is doing and I think he is the type of guy that does."

Bernard came to this conclusion over the last two weeks. Although General Looney is not involved in racing, he has a thorough understanding of innovation and safety aspects. Before the next generation of IndyCar is chosen, Bernard wants to make sure that there are no "laws of unintended consequences" involving the new car.

The radical design of the Delta Wing concept has led to many questions about its ability to perform and whether it incorporates the necessary safety aspects that IndyCar officials expect. In addition to the Delta Wing, new car designs have been proposed by Dallara, Lola, Swift and most recently BAT -- a new company formed by Bruce Ashmore, Alan Mertens and Tim Wardrop.

"We have to look at all this as part of the process and take away what we believe is helpful and successful for the League and look at the negative things, too," Bernard said. "The surveys the fans did will be very important and the surveys the OEMs did will be very important. We're going to stay on plan. If they come back to me and say it will be longer than 90 days I would rather get this process right than make a harsh decision for 2012."

Bernard doesn't want to give any preconceptions to the advisory committee. If they suggest delaying the new car until 2013, he would consider that. He also said IndyCar Series president of competition Brian Barnhart and IndyCar president, commercial division Terry Angstadt have been notified of the advisory committee and was in favor of the extra step in the process.

"There will be representation from the IRL on this advisory board, most likely Brian," Bernard said. "I think they liked the idea. They like the idea that there are going to be experts involved to make the decision and will solidify the process that I call the Iconic IZOD IndyCar.

"I'm not calling it the 'Car of Tomorrow.'"

Bernard also said he has tremendous respect for Honda Performance Development, the current engine supplier for the series. Honda is currently the single-engine manufacturer in the series. Through a lengthy process known as the "Engine Manufacturers Roundtable" other engine companies expressed interest in considering an IndyCar Series program but so far, Honda is the only company moving forward.

"The advisory committee needs to sit down and understand everything from the economic impact of having a sole source as opposed to an open source," Bernard said. "The fans would love the idea of an open source. If it is not an economic hindrance to the team owners I think it is important to try that. But that will be a decision made by the advisory committee."

Bernard also plans to listen to the fans -- those that continue to follow the sport and even those disgruntled fans that feel alienated from the split that began with CART when the Indy Racing League began competition in January 1996.

"The fan is very important," Bernard said. "People ask me all the time, who is our competitor, and I say 'Anyone who is in entertainment.' We really need to understand the pulse of the fan out there and what they want. We put 6,000 of those surveys out and we're waiting for the feedback. I think we should have some answers this week, exactly what those results are. I think the fan will be important part of process as well as team owner, drivers and experts."

Erik Berkman, president of HPD, is on vacation and unavailable for comment. HPD spokesman T.E. McHale said Sunday night a reaction from the company would be made after hearing more details about Bernard's plan.

For anyone who witnessed the horrifying sight of 57-year-old former NASCAR driver Larry Pearson getting T-boned by 71-year-old former Charlie Glotzbach in an exhibition race at Bristol on Saturday, it is a memory that can't be erased.

Thankfully, both drivers survived but Pearson's injuries include a fractured ankle and pelvis. He was released from Bristol Regional Medical Center late Monday afternoon and was admitted into Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC, according to his family. Glotzbach remains hospitalized Monday in Bristol, where he is listed in good condition.

Despite the fact that the Saturday Showdown is a charity race and the intentions of track promoters were noble, this is one sport that should never have an Old-Timers Race.

The cars used for the legends race at Bristol were from the USAR Pro Cup Series (formerly known as the Hooters Pro Cup). They were simply way too fast for drivers that have been out of competitive racing and now range from their mid-50s to mid-70s in age. These cars were lapping the .523-mile Bristol Motor Speedway in the 15-second range -- speeds equivalent to the NASCAR Nationwide Series race.

This is auto racing -- a sport that is dangerous by nature. It's not Old Timer's Day at Yankee Stadium with Bobby Richardson and Joe Pepitone trotting onto the field for an exhibition game.

In spite of the dangers, those who participated defended the event.

"It's our choice to race," said race winner Rick Wilson. "You get older and they say you're reaction time goes down, then you see a 19-year old do something on the track and say, 'What is he doing?'

"Nobody makes anybody get these race cars. I love it. It's a chance you take."

But in this case, it's an unnecessary risk.

"I have absolutely no respect for Kevin Harvick. I think he's a bad person. That's my opinion. I've told him that. We've had our deal before and his actions through that interaction were so devious and underhanded and cowardly that, it's like; I just have no respect for him. When people like that question me, it makes me feel better because if those people were lined up patting me on the back I'd be on the wrong side of what's right and wrong. And I truly believe that."--NASCAR driver Carl Edwards in response to Harvick saying he was "fake as hell."

"It's really simple: I treat everyone the best way I can possibly treat them, that's the way I was raised, but I stand up for myself. I am not trying to be a good guy or a bad guy, that's just who I am. All those people that say whatever they say, know that if I have an issue with them, I go speak to them. I don't run around behind their back and talk like little girls. That's what a lot of them do. I learned that wasn't cool in about fifth grade."-- Edwards responding to his image issues.

"I think the majority of the reason the wing is being changed is because of the way it looks. That means I believe the wing could have worked and we've seen that. If you look at the races at the end of last year, the middle part on last year, you look at the racing we have seen this year, all those races that we have had that have been really good have been with the wing. So it doesn't mean we can't be successful with the wing nor does it mean we can't be successful with the spoiler."-- Jeff Burton on NASCAR's last race with the rear wing on the current generation race car.

It's off to St. Petersburg for IndyCar's spring break. Who doesn't enjoy a trip to Florida in March when the sun is warm but not blazingly hot?

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