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Kanaan, Rahal among drivers to break out in IndyCar 2011

Much of the focus will be on the two dominant teams in the sport -- Target/Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske. Both have a deep history of success and account for eight Indianapolis 500 wins (Team Penske five, Ganassi three) and five IndyCar titles (Ganassi four, Penske one) since 2000.

While Penske and Ganassi return with their talented lineup of drivers for 2011, expect to see a strong challenge from some of IndyCar's newer teams and drivers when the season kicks off at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 28.

The addition of 2004 IndyCar champion Tony Kanaan to De Ferran/Dragon Racing could be a signal this team is ready to take a big step foward. It began as Luczo Dragon Racing in 2007 with partners Jay Penske -- Roger Penske's youngest son -- and Internet entrepreneur Steve Luczo. While drivers like Ryan Briscoe and Tomas Scheckter helped lay the foundation when the team ran a limited schedule in 2007 and 2008, it went full-time with Brazil's Raphael Matos in 2009.

Two-time CART champion and 2003 Indy 500 winner Gil de Ferran joined the team as a partner last season and is in charge of day-to-day operations. And while Matos showed glimpses of promise his first two seasons in the cockpit, the addition of proven veteran Kanaan may provide the extra horsepower this young team needs to become a serious threat.

After a promising career in CART, Kanaan came to IndyCar with what was then known as Andretti Green Racing in 2003. He won the series title in 2004 and established a record by finishing every lap of every race that season. He is generally considered one of the best true racers in the series and his fearless determination is almost a throwback to the way IndyCar drivers were in the 1960s.

"From my standpoint, Tony brings many things to the team," de Ferran said. "We are a very young and developing operation with big ambitions. I think Tony brings us a wealth of experience and I think we can benefit a tremendous amount from that. He's also a champion. He's a race winner. He's driven all sorts of cars under many situations. I have no doubt that not only he'll bring his speed and determination, but his experience will help us shortcut a lot of the development process and hopefully bring us a little closer to our dream of becoming a major force in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

While De Ferran Dragon Racing is a young team to watch, there is another new team that is set to challenge for victories.

Chip Ganassi has started a second team in addition to the highly-successful Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. The new team includes talented young drivers Graham Rahal -- already the youngest winner in the sport when he won his very first IndyCar race in 2008 at 19 -- and Charlie Kimball, who moves up from the Firestone Indy Lights Series.

Ganassi will own four cars in IndyCar in 2011, but the second two-car operation will be based in a separate race shop in Brownsburg, Ind. -- about 25 miles from the Target shop in Indianapolis.

"I think to have Charlie and Graham is a big, big shot in the arm for our team," Ganassi said. "I'm certainly not throwing out Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti by any stretch. But I mean these guys probably represent the next generation of drivers that are coming in and going to be around IndyCar racing for a long time. So what better than to get started now from a couple of guys that want to learn like two veterans like Scott and Dario. It's just a good opportunity for us."

The 22-year-old son of three-time CART champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, he was hailed as the "Poster Boy of Unification" after the old Champ Car Series joined forces with the Indy Racing League to form what is now IndyCar back in 2008. Rahal has the pedigree and the talent to become a big winner in this sport and now he has found a team that is capable of putting him into Victory Lane on a frequent basis.

"It's a huge relief to find a home with a team of this quality," Rahal said. "Certainly time and time again has been the best in this series. And as Chip mentioned, to have guys like Dario and Dixon to learn from, I don't think there is a better combination. You have five championships and countless race wins between them. It's a huge relief, and it's a great step forward in my career. Certainly now that the work really starts as far as making sure that we cannot only fill the shoes that have been left before us here. I know it's an expansion team, but certainly the success that this team has had speaks for itself, and will certainly make our sponsors proud.

"I feel like these next few months are going to take forever until we get on the race track once again, but I really cannot wait."

Rahal will team with Kimball a 25-year-old from Camarillo, Calif. who finished fourth in the Firestone Indy Light standings in 2010. It was his second season in the series after Kimball moved up through the ranks. In Europe, he raced in such prestigious series as A1GP, Formula 3 Euro Series, and World Series by Renault, and Formula Ford.

"Moving up through the pinnacle of motorsports in North America, here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the crown jewel of auto racing, really, with the Indy 500, it's a dream come true to step up to this series," Kimball said. "And to do it with a team like Chip Ganassi Racing, legends in their own right with the opportunity for me to learn from the champions they've had on their roster the last few years with Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, and also to take advantage of Graham Rahal's experience, it's a great opportunity for me to learn and try to help me up the steep learning curve in IndyCar."

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While De Ferran/Dragon Racing represents a fairly new team ready to take the next step and the American duo of Rahal and Kimball lead the way for younger drivers, keep an eye on an impressive group of talented newcomers to the series in 2011.

J.R. Hildebrand, the 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, takes over the prestigious Panther Racing ride this season replacing Dan Wheldon. There is a lot of success in the No. 4 car, first with Scott Goodyear in the late 1990s. When Goodyear left that team, a young driver from Defiance, Ohio took over that ride named Sam Hornish, Jr. He won IndyCar titles in 2001 and 2002 before moving to Team Penske in 2004. Vitor Meira and Wheldon have also driven for Panther Racing.

Hildebrand hopes to continue that success at Panther. In Indy Lights, he showed he had the speed and the patience to succeed. Now, he has to prove that at the next level.

J.K, Vernay, the 2010 Firestone Indy Lights Series champion, recently tested with Conquest Racing at Sebring International Raceway and is vying for the driver's seat at team owner Eric Bachelart's team. Vernay won the title in his first season on the strength of eight podium finishes, including five victories, 10 top-5 finishes in 13 races and led a field-high 172 laps.

"I tested at Sebring last year with my Indy Lights team so I'm able to concentrate on driving the car and not have to worry about learning the track," Vernay said. "I'm looking forward to learning as much as possible about the car and working well with my engineer and the team all while putting in good lap times. It will also be nice to return to a road course."

Before joining Firestone Indy Lights with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, Vernay competed in Formula 3 Euro from 2007-09.

Another Indy Lights driver poised to make the move to IndyCar is James Hinchcliffe of Canada, who has had two test sessions with Newman/Haas Racing during the offseason.

"I got my first chance to do my first full-fuel run in an Indy car," said the 24-year-old Hinchcliffe after his second test. "It was another day dedicated to continuing my learning process and another great test with Newman/Haas Racing which makes me that much more anxious and eager to get a deal done."

Simona de Silvestro was so impressive in a rookie season that included the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award she was in high demand from many team owners in the paddock. But the driver from Switzerland is back with HVM Racing for 2011. Because of her road racing background, de Silvestro was at her best on the street and road courses, but by the end of the season she also showed dramatic improvement on the ovals.

"We discovered and saw the potential in Simona and we all were behind it and believed in her," team owner Keith Wiggins said. "It gives us as a team the reassurance knowing where we are going for the next couple of years, and the planning that allows us to do on the technical perspective, and just getting ourselves organized and building. We know we can do it."

There is plenty of youth in the IndyCar paddock including last year's series Rookie of the Year Alex Lloyd. After winning the 2007 Firestone Indy Lights championship, Lloyd had to wait three years before getting a full-time opportunity in IndyCar when he drove for Dale Coyne Racing last year.

Lloyd entered the 2010 season with two goals -- to have a good run in the Indy 500 and the win the Rookie of the Year in IndyCar. He was able to accomplish both with a fourth-place finish at Indy and the rookie title at the end of the season. He finished a season-high fourth in the Indy 500, one of his three top-10 finishes in 2010.

"Certainly there are some points in the year that was disappointing and we didn't get what we hoped out of it," Lloyd said. "But that's a rookie campaign for you. And it's working with new guys. You've got to blend together and get everything working right and we did that."

Lloyd called his fourth-place finish at Indy the turning point of the season.

"It's very rewarding," Lloyd said. "It was a big goal going in."

There are many more young, talented drivers in IndyCar that could make 2011 a breakout season including Ana Beatriz of Brazil, Mike Conway who on Feb. 1 signed a full-season deal with Andretti Autosport, Mario Moraes, E.J. Viso and Mario Romancini. While some of these drivers have not finalized deals for 2011, they should be included in any list of young drivers ready to showcase their talents this season.