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Drivers weigh their options, Patrick not the only star in Japan, more

TOKYO -- Opportunity time has arrived in the IZOD IndyCar Series as some drivers are ready to cash in on deals that will take them to another team and, hopefully, a more successful season.

The drivers at the center of this include former Indianapolis 500 winner and former IndyCar champion Dan Wheldon, former Formula One driver Justin Wilson and Graham Rahal, the youngest IndyCar winner in history.

Wheldon announced at Kentucky two weeks ago that he was not going to return to Panther Racing next year and has been rumored to be considering starting his own team or moving over to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Wheldon has been advised by his agent not to publicly speak about his future plans and held to that stance this past weekend at Twin Ring Motegi, site of Sunday's Indy Japan 300.

Wilson is currently with Dreyer & Reinbold but had been linked to Panther Racing as Wheldon's replacement or to KV Racing Technology. Wilson also said he could ultimately remain at Dreyer & Reinbold.

"Everybody has me going to Panther or KV but they are missing the most obvious choice and that may be to stay right where I'm at," Wilson told SI.com Sunday morning in the garage.

That gives team owner Dennis Reinbold confidence that he can keep the talented driver from England.

"We have talked to him about it and we are trying to work through it," Reinbold said. "I think we are in the mix to keep Justin, but I don't know what the outcome will be. I don't know what we are up against, which is why we are keeping all of our options open and talking to everyone. We have some things happening that we think we will improve next year. We could be a one-car team, a two-car team or a three-car team next year. I know we will be at least a one-car team and at least be a two-car team, but we have so many things in the air right now we are looking to work that out."

Panther Racing sources also confirmed an interest in Rahal to take over the No. 4 National Guard entry because of his talent and the fact that he would be the first American driver that would be sponsored by the National Guard since it became an IndyCar sponsor. In the past, the Guard has sponsored Vitor Meira of Brazil and Wheldon from England in that ride.

Rahal, however, said he would not be surprised to see a non-American driver, such as Wilson, get the Guard ride and doesn't believe it is an absolute requirement that the next driver for the National Guard be from the United States.

"I have an interest in driving for Panther Racing next year and we have discussed that possibility," Rahal said before Saturday's qualifications. "We continue to talk but there are a lot of other drivers, such as Justin Wilson, who are also interested in that ride."

Panther is also interested in adding Swiss rookie Simona de Silvestro to a second entry to go along with the No. 4 car next season. De Silvestro has been highly impressive in the HVM Racing car this season, especially on the street and road courses.

Target/Chip Ganassi Racing is also considering adding a third driver to its highly-successful tandem of two-time IndyCar Series champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon for 2010. According to the team's managing director, Mike Hull, a third car is always under consideration, but only if the proper sponsorship package can be arranged that won't detract for the other two drivers.

Ryan Briscoe of Team Penske could be the odd man out if the team goes back to a two-driver lineup next season after running three cars in 2010. Briscoe would likely be moved over to De Ferran Dragon Racing, which is co-owned by team owner Roger Penske's son, Jay. De Ferran Dragon would then become a two-car team with Briscoe joining Brazil's Raphael Matos.

Paul Tracy is also being heavily considered for one of Dreyer & Reinbold's IndyCars next season, according to team co-owner Dennis Reinbold. Tracy competed in Sunday's Indy Japan 300 for the team but finished 22nd after brushing the Turn 4 wall on lap 114.

"He has been great to work with," Reinbold said. "I've been nothing but impressed by him."

Tracy, however, is in the same mix as Wilson, Wheldon and others who are trying to lock in rides for 2011.

The 2011 season could see one of the highest car counts in recent IndyCar history because it is the last year the current chassis/engine combination will be used. Teams are willing to sell off some of its inventory or add more drivers to the lineup because after next season the fleet of cars that have been used since 2003 will be antiquated.

"That is possible because whenever there are obsolete cars involved you may as well use up your inventory," Reinbold said. "I know there are several people interested in coming in and having their own team and that is good for the sport. I hope it is sustainable to keep a lot of cars because it is better racing for the fans."

Reinbold and other team owners see an early opportunity season as a good thing and an indicator that IndyCar is enjoying growth while other racing series are being hit by the economic downturn.

While Danica Patrick and three-time Indy 500 winner and "Dancing with the Stars" champion Helio Castroneves are the two most popular IndyCar Series drivers in America, they both pale in popularity to Takuma Sato in Japan.

Sato was hailed as a racing hero and surrounded by mobs of fans all weekend. He was the highest-finishing of the three Japanese-descended racers in the field. Hideki Mutoh of Newman/Haas Racing was 14th and Japanese-American driver Roger Yasukawa started 21st and finished 20th for Conquest Racing. Sato started 10th and finished 12th.

"It was a tough race but a great result in the end for the Lotus - KV team," Sato exclaimed. "It was a difficult start with the tight pack and the slippery track. I needed to be patient, but I did a lot of overtaking today. That was great fun. Overall, it was a great achievement for the whole team, and I want to thank them for everything they have done this weekend. Finally, I want to thank all the fans for their tremendous support."

Sato was the focal point of Saturday's practice and qualifications by the large and enthusiastic group of Japanese race fans at Twin Ring Motegi. The former Formula One driver is one of the most popular racers in Japan because of his blazing speed and exciting style of racing. But Sato's Saturday took a big hit just three laps into the morning practice session when a broken oil line clamp spewed oil onto his tires, sending him into a crash in Turn 1.

His KV Racing crew had to rebuild the damaged race car. They were finished in time for Sato to take a few laps in the final practice session to get the race ready for qualifications.

"There was nothing I could do, but to be able to qualify where I did is really gratifying," Sato said. "The fans have been fantastic here. This is a moment I've been waiting to do in Japan and I've been waiting for three years."

To truly understand how this form of racing is greatly appreciated in countries such as Japan or Brazil, one needs to venture outside of the United States to experience it for themselves. The beautiful Twin Ring Motegi is located in a hilly, rural region of Japan, about three hours from Tokyo. While drivers, team owners and select series officials are able to stay at the track at the Twin Ring Motegi Hotel just past the third turn, crew members, media and other officials stay about an hour away in either Utsunomiya or Mito.

After hitting the 5 a.m. bus on Sunday for the long ride to the track, the scene in the early morning hours was impressive as Japanese race fans spent the night sleeping in their cars or on the flatbed of pickup trucks and other vehicles, reminiscent of what NASCAR fans do at Talladega Superspeedway.

As each of the buses pulled onto the property, the Japanese fans all lined up to wave. Many of them may have thought that the drivers of the IndyCar race were on these buses or maybe it was just a way to show their appreciation to IndyCar for bringing this form of racing to their country. No matter the reason, it was a touching display of appreciation that gives a unique perspective on the tone of this culture.

Once inside of the track, the fans were as colorful as any found at a NASCAR race or an NFL game. One man spent the entire weekend wearing one of Tony Kanaan's racing uniforms that he had purchased. And then there are the "Super Fans" that have come to this venue ever since the first CART race in 1998.

My favorite were two adorable Japanese youngsters who ride in the back of a red-and-white wagon painted up like Scott Dixon's Target/Chip Ganassi IndyCar complete with the rear wing.

In the pre-race ceremony, "God Bless the USA" was played while a video on the IndyCar Series was shown. And there is no greater feeling than to hear the United States National Anthem played while standing on foreign soil. It's a spine-tingling feeling that simply doesn't happen when attending most sporting events in the United States because it is an expectation of the event.

A trip to Japan from the United States is one of the most physically grueling ordeals, but to experience this culture and to see how the Japanese love IndyCar are memories that will last a lifetime making this annual trip worth the exhaustion.

"I'm going to kick your ass at Homestead." -- Team Penske IndyCar driver Will Power to Dario Franchitti after the race. Power has a slim 12-point lead over Franchitti heading into the last race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Oct. 2 that will determine the IndyCar championship.

After getting reacquainted with my own bed and taking the weekend off, I'll have the chance to check out NASCAR's Chase for the Championship at Dover on television on Sunday. After a dramatic conclusion to Chase race No. 1, this could be one of the more wild Chases since NASCAR began this format in 2004.

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