Bruce Martin
Monday March 14th, 2011

LEEDS, Ala. -- With NASCAR taking the past weekend off, it was a great time for the IndyCar Series to stage its annual Media Day before this week's preseason test at Barber Motorsports Park. And, while this small community located east of Birmingham is the home of Charles Barkley, it's also the home of one of the most picturesque road courses in the United States. With the first four IndyCar races of the season on temporary street and road courses, this is the perfect venue for the IndyCar teams to dust off the cobwebs of a five-month offseason and prepare for the 2011 season opener at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 27.

Here are some "Snap Judgments" from IndyCar Media Day.

• Danica Patrick gets her share of attention, IndyCar Style -- It was nowhere near the size of the crowd she drew at Daytona 500 Media Day, but Danica Patrick returned to her role as "IndyCar Starlet" on Sunday as she took all the preseason pictures for news outlets, went through the broadcast bullpen and met with the print media during the long session at the Barber Motorsports Museum.

When she arrived at the table, she was whistling the opening of "Winds of Change" -- a 1990s ballad by Scorpion. When she was told, "If you whistle that song; people are going to ask if you have made your decision about which series you'll drive in next year," Patrick responded, "Why?" and was reminded the title of the song -- "Winds of Change."

"Oh, no, no, no, no," Patrick responded. "I didn't even know what that song was called."

Patrick is switching gears from NASCAR this week and returning to her No. 7 GoDaddy IndyCar for Andretti Autosport. She will climb back into the No. 7 GoDaddy Nationwide Series Chevrolet for JR Motorsports for Saturday's race at Bristol Motor Speedway. But on this day, Patrick wanted to focus on IndyCar and her goals for 2011.

"My goals for this season are to win," Patrick said. "I think we can make that happen. I've heard a lot of positive things from the team that they have done good work over the winter and the cars are a tick better than last year."

With Tony Kanaan out of the team and replaced by Mike Conway, Patrick may exert some of her own influence on the four-driver operation owned by former IndyCar star Michael Andretti.

"Definitely, Tony was a staple on the team," Patrick said. "We had our issues last year, but he was someone who helped push all the drivers and that was good."

IndyCar is introducing a series of rules changes this year that have come from NASCAR, including double-file restarts and slowing the cars down to 60 miles per hour and moving the field closer to the flag stand before the green flag is waved. Most of the drivers on Sunday predicted more crashes on restarts. IndyCar is also considering NASCAR's "Lucky Dog" rule, which would put the first car one-lap down back onto the lead lap.

"Whatever we have to do to get people to watch more and come to the races more is what we have to do," said Patrick, "because if you don't have the fans you don't get the sponsors, and if you don't get the sponsors you don't have the cars. I know it is a sport and we all want pure, but it's also a business. If double-file restarts make those things happen, then that's what we need to do."

Any Danica media availability wouldn't be complete without questions about where she will be racing next season, a decision that got even more interesting after her career-best fourth-place finish at the Nationwide race in Las Vegas on March 4. Patrick continues to reiterate she has no idea.

"I've always gone with what my gut tells me and where I have the best chance to win races, and it always tends to unfold as the year goes on, so I don't have any preconceived ideas what I want to do," Patrick said. "To me, the most important thing is to perform each weekend and get the most out of it and have the best results possible. Then, opportunities will come from that. My job is just to be a driver."

Takuma Sato's heart is elsewhere after the tsunami and earthquake struck his native Japan -- Back for a second season in IndyCar, former Formula One driver Takuma Sato is focused on making some dramatic improvements at KV Racing. But Sato, who's from Tokyo, admitted Sunday his thoughts are on his homeland as Japan attempts to recover from a devastating earthquake and tsunami that struck the country last Friday.

"The family and friends are OK as far as I know, but that is only a small part," Sato said. "The saddest thing is seeing the people who lost friends and family that are missing. This is a hard time. My heart is in Japan. I'm thinking of them a lot. I'm here for my job. I'm committed 110 percent for the next few days, but to me the Japan thing is big. It's incredibly hard to watch the video -- it doesn't matter if it was Japan or not. People are suffering incredibly and it is very hard to watch, especially places that I know.

"Earthquakes are common in Japan and I've experienced them hundreds of times, but nothing like that," he added. "Magnitude wise, I've experienced them half that size so I can't imagine what those people went through."

While Media Day for any sport is usually one filled with promise and optimism, to talk to Sato and hear the concern and emotion in his voice was heart-wrenching.

Dario Franchitti upset with Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Paul Tracy not having rides -- With three IndyCar Series championships and two Indianapolis 500 victories, Dario Franchitti has established himself as one of the great stars in this sport's history. What he doesn't understand is how former champions Tony Kanaan, Dan Wheldon and Paul Tracy still don't have a ride in the series (though Kanaan is in the final stages of a deal to join KV Racing).

"I just get so angry with the situation you have with drivers the caliber of Tony, Dan and PT -- how does that happen?" Franchitti asked incredulously. "PT [Tracy] is a massive sell. He is 'Mr. Excitement.' We all know what he brings on and off the track. But Tony and Dan have been mainstays of this championship and put people in seats. They have huge fan followings and are bloody good drivers. They are sitting on the sidelines looking for drives. It's nobody's fault, but it is incredibly frustrating. It drives me mad."

Hopefully, Franchitti's words are heard in enough time that these three talented drivers and former champions are involved in the series -- if not for the season-opener, at least at some point in the season.

Firestone's return after announcing it was leaving is a significant step -- On March 4, longtime tire supplier Firestone announced it was leaving IndyCar at the end of this season. Seven days later, IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard had unanimous support from team owners to convince Firestone to stay, even if it meant doubling the tire lease from $275,000 to $550,000 for the next three years. The drivers and team owners believe Firestone's safety record was worth the price, especially with new cars and engines entering competition in 2012.

"We feel that this new supply agreement will benefit everyone," Bernard said. "It provides a proven, safe and reliable Firestone product for the transition to the all-new cars for 2012. We have to thank everyone at Firestone for working with us to help ensure the best for the long-term growth of our sport."

Three-time IndyCar champion and two-time Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti said the announcement was vitally important to the series.

"They got all the owners to agree on something and to agree on something that is going to cost them money, so it must be important," Franchitti said. "To the drivers, it was a no-brainer. We all knew what we wanted. That is a big weight off a lot of people's minds, especially with this new car coming in line. It was also important to Firestone because they became a performance brand again with their involvement with the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar."

Franchitti is right -- this was a very important decision. With turbocharged engines and new chassis hitting the track for testing in July, this was no time to bring in a new tire supplier. Tires are one of the most important factors in speed, performance and, most importantly, safety.

Ryan Hunter-Reay can sleep at night now that he has been rewarded for his efforts -- Last year at Andretti Autosport, Ryan Hunter-Reay was the most successful driver from the United States, winning the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and finishing seventh in the championship after being in the top-five in the standings for much of the first half of the year. Hunter-Reay operated on a "race-to-race" basis for the team and competed in all 17 races. That earned him a two-year contract with Andretti Autosport along with sponsorship from DHL. While the added security allows this talented American a chance to rest assured that he has a great ride for the full season, he isn't taking anything for granted.

"I've never gone through a full season and then come back the next season with the same group of people," Hunter-Reay said. "This is the first time I start the season with the same group of people. I hope this will make the difference. I want to challenge for the championship."

Hunter-Reay has the chance to lead the "American Revolution" in the IndyCar Series, which could help rebuild interest in the Heartland. Keeping Hunter-Reay in a high-profile ride at Andretti Autosport is a key part to this revolution.

Indianapolis may not be Zurich, but at least it has Corn Dogs -- Simona de Silvestro is from Switzerland, but has become a full-time resident of Indianapolis. After all, any young, aspiring driver trying to achieve success in this sport needs to be close to the home base of IndyCar.

Zurich and Indianapolis have little in common but their own unique charm.

"There aren't as many chocolate stands in Indy as there are in Zurich," De Silvestro said. "But I can't find a good Corn Dog in Zurich, either. My first Corn Dog was at the Indiana State Fair last year. Now, every time I have a good result, I want to have a Corn Dog at the end of the race on a street course. That is my reward for a good finish."

De Silvestro expects to win a race this season. During her rookie season in 2010, she scored two top-10 finishes and led four laps while running at the finish in 10 of the 17 races for the small-budget HVM Racing team. She started seventh at Edmonton last July.

"That is one of our goals, especially on the road courses because we have been running well and we have more resources this year," De Silvestro said. "But the field is really tough. To win a race in the IndyCar Series, everything has to go our way. Our goal is to finish in the top 10 this season, so we are going to push hard and try to win."

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