Bruce Martin
Wednesday March 28th, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Now that the long-awaited IZOD IndyCar Series opener has finally concluded, it's time to move away from the storyline that has cast its shadow over the sport since the tragic death of Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Beginning with this weekend's Honda Grand Prix, the new season marches forward. Here are three key questions to keep an eye on as the season progresses.

1. Who is most likely to break Dario Franchitti's championship streak?

This one's easy: It's his teammate, Scott Dixon, of course.

Ever since Dixon won the 2008 IndyCar championship, he's been prone to some dreadfully slow starts. He finished 16th, 18th and 16th, respectively, at St. Petersburg from 2009-11 and placed just 18th at Long Beach and 12th at Sao Paulo, Brazil last year. Though he fought back in the standings and managed to emerge as a serious championship contender, the early-season slumps proved to be too much to overcome.

That's why Dixon's second-place finish at St. Petersburg is so significant. It could put him in position to capture his third career IndyCar Series title in 2012.

"We feel like we have a good head start," said Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team manager Mike Hull, who calls Dixon's race strategy. "If we [have] better starts to the first race of the year it not only helps you with points but also positive momentum and that is what we have going into the next race of the season."

The team made it a mission to finish the season-opening race after previous crashes, and it performed admirably by using a brilliant fuel-conservation strategy. That success wasn't lost on Dixon.

"One more spot would have been nice but to defend Helio Castroneves for the final 30 lap would have been impossible," said the driver from New Zealand. "I've got a good 30 or 35 more points than what I [had when I] left here last year. Every race pays the same, but if I get off to a good solid, start that should help us for the rest of the year.

"I think it's important, especially for us. We've definitely struggled the last few years probably with the first four races. I think it's important to start the season strong. If you look backward with Dario over the last couple of years, that's what's won the championship."

IndyCar's "King of the Road", Will Power, could also break out as a dark horse contender. Power won his 25th career IndyCar pole at St. Petersburg but dropped out of the lead after the first 11 laps. Though he finished in seventh, he is a legitimate threat to win the 2012 title: all but five of the 17 races are on street or road-type tracks.

Of course, it's possible that no one will dethrone Franchitti, the driver who has won an astounding four IndyCar championships, including the last three in a row. He had little to say about his poor finish at St. Petersburg, but he was extremely excited for his teammate.

"I finished 13th; that's what I think," Franchitti said afterward. "We struggled. We have a lot of work to do. But Dixie came up to me [afterward and said] 'I finished, man, I finished.' He's had some really bad luck here so that's good to see for him."

Although Franchitti and Dixon have a tight bond as teammates, they may very well battle it out for the eventual IndyCar crown. And whether Dixon overtakes Franchitti or not, this much is clear: If these two are neck-and-neck until the end of the year, it will constitute the best racing this series has to offer.

2. Will IndyCar really miss Danica Patrick?

Patrick's absence was supposed to have long-term repercussions for the IndyCar Series, creating a publicity void of sorts after she decided to pursue a full-time NASCAR career. But, perhaps to everyone's surprise, Patrick's name was rarely mentioned on pit lane, on the paddock or even by the huge throng of media that was in attendance at St. Pete.

Instead, the driver that replaced Patrick at Andretti Autosport, Canadian James Hinchcliffe, was the one generating buzz. Dubbed the "Mayor of Hinchtown" on his unique interactive web site, Hinchcliffe finished fourth -- matching his career high from last season -- and flashed the type of personality needed to excite the sponsor of the car. He has both skills and character, and could be a viable contender for a victory starting in IndyCar's next race.

"He's doing a great job and I'm real happy with him and our whole driver lineup," Andretti said. "I think we are going to be strong this year. With Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe on our team, I think it's like the old days. The guys all get along. They go out together and do things together and that is so important. When they have that camaraderie that is when it all comes together. They are all championship contenders."

Hinchcliffe even poked a little fun at the fans, wearing a dark-haired wig similar to Patrick's hair during pre-race driver introductions.

"There were guys poking fun at me by calling me 'Danica' all weekend long," Hinchcliffe said. "I'm hoping 365 days from now people will be yelling 'Hinch' and not 'Danica' when I walk by."

3. What can we expect from the new car moving forward?

Despite extensive testing with the Dallara DW12 chassis and the return of a manufacturing competition between Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus, the new cars didn't actually race in competition for the first time until last Sunday. It was important for the series to have a clean race while trying to figure out the nuances of the new model, and there were only two moments of contact throughout the entire event.

That could change in races to come. Expect to see more aggressive driving as the series heads to a fast, tight natural terrain road course at Barber Motorsports Park.

"It is a totally different circuit so it's hard to know based off what's happened in testing," Dixon said. "Things change. Obviously the track will be a lot different, tires a lot different from what we tested last time we were there. I think we will be a little better suited there. I think we have a better package for a course like that. ... It's still a bit of an unknown 'till you get there and you see how qualifying sort of rolls out."

Dixon's car is powered by Honda, Hunter-Reay's by Chevrolet. By introducing manufacturer competition to the mix, IndyCar has changed the dynamic of the series tremendously.

"I think there was some aggressiveness today but everyone used their heads," Hunter-Reay said after the opener. "I learned quite a bit about it in the race and it's certainly going to help for my next race. The team did, as well. We learned about the fuel mileage, we learned about the battery charging issue -- there are so many things we need to fix just for next week to get it all right. That's a good thing. That's what we wanted to do. We wanted to learn, finish and head on to Barber."

That's a positive thing for IndyCar. As the series heads to Barber, attention can turn to drivers and cars and finally focus on the sport's bright and exciting future.

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