Ten days before the commencement of the 2011 Izod IndyCar Series season at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, storylines are beginning to crystallize that could meander all the way to the much-anticipated season finale in Las Vegas. There's Danica Patrick, of course. There are those Ganassi drivers again. There's Tony George. Huh?
Five things we learned in the IndyCar preseason:
1. Danica Patrick and Michael Andretti have agreed in principle ... to not say much. The now two-sport celebrity has one season remaining on a two-year deal with Andretti Autosport and a mutual option for a third. She's in the final season of a two-year contract to race in the NASCAR Nationwide series for JR Motorsports. Team owner Michael Andretti has said about Patrick's next move, but says he has no deadline for re-signing her. While insisting that she's made no decision and is "just about trying to have the best chance to win and be happy," her business team is at least entertaining multiple options, which figures to include IndyCar possibilities with Andretti and other teams, as well as Nationwide and Sprint Cup.
"We're not bound to do anything. (My representatives) can talk to whoever they want," said Patrick, who finished second in IndyCar races twice despite leading just one lap in 2010. "There's no rules on what we can and cannot do."
Patrick, who set a NASCAR gender best with a fourth-place finish in her most recent Nationwide race at Las Vegas, admits it is "yet to be discovered" if she should race at least another partial schedule in that series before attempting Sprint Cup. What once seemed like a logical eventual path to Sprint Cup, if she had the interest and aptitude, is not so systematic anymore, with Kasey Kahne slated to replace Mark Martin (with whom she shares the GoDaddy sponsorship) in the No. 5 Chevrolet in 2012 and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates all seemingly secure ... unless, of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was prophesying when he spoke somewhat cryptically about racing off into oblivion at JRM if he underperformed for a fourth season at Hendrick.
Patrick's ability to attract and provide value for sponsors makes her as much a key component of a business plan as a driver. So this is complicated. Andretti senior vice president of racing operations Tom Anderson is in the least-involved and therefore most liberated position to analyze the situation: "Right now, fortunately, I don't have to worry about that. I know Michael and John Lopes, our commercial director, and a cast of attorneys are all working on that situation right now. ... Absolutely, the goal is to keep her here, keep her happy. She needs to win. She got really close a couple times last year. She's ready. We need to create good situations for her and show her this is where she needs to be."
2. The varsity wants dibs. Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon need not apologize for their concern over the doubling of Ganassi Racing's driver roster or their assumption that they will remain the organization's top priority, what with them merging their peak-of-career ambition and performance to make it a dynasty and all. Since Franchitti returned to IndyCar with Ganassi in 2009 -- after an unfulfilling NASCAR junket -- he and Dixon have combined to win two series championships (both by Franchitti, with Dixon second and third once) and 16 of 34 races (eight each). Franchitti, 37, is the champion of the last three IndyCar seasons he's contested and two Indianapolis 500s. Dixon, 30, won his second series title and the Indianapolis 500 in 2008.
So they're intrigued by Chip Ganassi accepting a set of sponsor pitches and adding talented 22-year-old Graham Rahal, a winner at St. Petersburg in 2008, and Charlie Kimball, 26, to a satellite team run out of a different shop. But they clearly don't want it to ruin their good thing.
"It's a great opportunity for them. I'm not really sure what we get out of it," Franchitti said. "Scott and I have a good thing going. The team functions very, very well. I don't see ... I think we've got to keep our focus on what we do to try to win races, championships."
Franchitti said the move and a possible dilution of resources was "always a concern."
"Chip would not let it happen. You have to react quickly," he said. "The Target team has done that better than any other team in IndyCar. For selfish reasons, I want that to continue."
Dixon asserts that the additions "as a whole will be beneficial for everyone" with "more cars, more data, good drivers." But he expects the "pyramid scheme" of engineering and development out of his and Franchitti's shop to benefit their cars first.
"Team's not meant to change," he grinned. "We'll see."
3. Tony George is not open wheel's agent provocateur, says IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. George resigned from the board of Hulman & Co. in June 2009 after his sisters and mother reportedly wrested away his financial power over Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what is now called the Izod IndyCar Series. Subsequently began a cascade of events that led to the hiring of Randy Bernard's new leader and a generally positive period of growth in open wheel racing. George's unexpected return to the Hulman board of directors in February therefore created great foreboding in the provincial open wheel community, as his presence was forecast to be at least distracting, perhaps disruptive and, worse still, devastating to all that had been accomplished in re-branding the series.
Bernard said both George and the board deferred, however, on an opportunity to interfere when he was negotiating to bring Firestone back as tire supplier.
"I stayed so confidential on negotiations with Firestone because I didn't need them leaked in any capacity that could hurt our relationship. It was very difficult and stressful," Bernard said. "I could have seen if he was going to get involved in wanting to know more, and he stood behind me. They all have. I have to give him 110 percent of my time. I want this series to succeed so much. If it fails, they won't say it's because of them. It's because of me. So far they've been outstanding, hope it continues to go that way."
Bernard said he found George "very gracious" during a three-hour dinner, discussing family and personal lives more than racing business.
"He's family. He should be a part of it," Bernard said. "I think I remain optimistic they continue to let me do my job as they have. He has not tried to interfere. Not that I don't want his advice. If he has good advice, of course. I'm sure we'll talk more."
George's son and namesake, the manager of business development in the league's development series, bristled at the notion that George and fellow board appointees Andre B. Lacy, Michael L. Smith and Jerry W. Throgmartin would form a bloc to manipulate Hulman business.
"They're not my dad's buddies. They're responsible guys in the community who have a passion," George Jr. said. "They feel they have a responsibility as Hoosiers to contribute to our business. It's honorable and respectable."
4. A.J. KO. Richard Petty said former open wheel standout A.J. Allmendinger, currently driver of his No. 43 Ford in Sprint Cup, can vie for the $5 million bounty on a win in the IndyCar finale at Las Vegas by a non-series driver if he wants. Sort of. The Vegas race would be run the day after a Chase for the Championship Sprint Cup event at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"That'd be his call," Petty said. "Comes down to end of deal, we'll be looking where we're at in points and Chase. Lot of decisions made around there."
But if Allmendinger, who is currently ninth in points, makes the cut ...
"We'd want him not to, and he wouldn't want to," Petty said. "The odds of winning (the Las Vegas race) are pretty slim."
Allmendinger won five of 13 races entered in his final Champ Car season in 2006 before undertaking NASCAR.
5. The 2012 is getting there. Consultant Tony Cotman, project manager for the new car IndyCar is slated to debut next season, expects a prototype to be tested by an as-yet-unnamed driver by early August.
"I would say the first car will have a Honda (engine) in it, because the Honda engine is ready before the others, it looks like," he said. "But soon thereafter there will be a Chevy on-track, followed by a Lotus. ... Then it will go into engine manufacturer testing and they'll test the remainder of the season. The teams will see their first cars hopefully by December."