IndyCar's finest gear up for 'most competitive season in history'

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That was the often-used proclamation during the first major shakedown of cars two weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala. But considering there are four cars for team owner Chip Ganassi, three for Team Penske and four for Andretti Autosport, it will be a challenge for any other team to even break into the top 10.

There will be a new look to the series as the field won't get the green flag until its within sight of the flag stand. Drivers will approach the flag stand at 60 mph, not the 100 mph in year's past. Also, IndyCar has adopted the double-file restart rule that has been used in NASCAR.

"With the double-file restarts we have this year, it may not be all about qualifying," said Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport. "I think we're going to have a lot of contact this year."

One driver who hopes to get back on the winning track is Brazil's Tony Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar champion who lost his ride at Andretti Autosport at the end of last season. He signed with Gil de Ferran in December but was out of that ride in February when sponsorship didn't materialize.

Kanaan is considered one of the most fearless and determined drivers in the sport and that determination was rewarded earlier this week when he signed with KV Racing Technology to be part of a three-driver effort that also includes E.J. Viso of Venezuela and Takuma Sato of Japan.

Waiting until the last moment provided Kanaan with moments of high anxiety. "Somebody said, 'Well, it was a scary moment.' I said, 'It was beyond scary, it was desperation at the time it came,'" Kanaan admitted on Tuesday. "I have to say, I always believed it was going to happen. Obviously, I didn't know where I was going to land, especially this late in the year. To have a team like KV to pick me up like that, I don't think I can express how happy and thrilled I am with GEICO coming onboard and a lot of my sponsors back in Brazil. After the thing with Gil dropped, I started getting phone calls from sponsors trying to help. That doesn't happen very often.

Team co-owner Jimmy Vasser realized that when a driver of Kanaan's caliber becomes available, changes need to be made to add him to the lineup.

"He's a champion, a multi-time race winner," Vasser said. "He's a professional, a pro. He's been out of the car all winter long. He jumps in the car and his lap times are right there and very consistent, so we're not surprised at all with that. He's got a great reputation around the paddock and the sport as being the sport's best teammate."

Vasser is hoping the combination legitimizes KV Racing to a higher degree. He hopes it helps the team cut into the success enjoyed by Penske and Ganassi.

"Where we land on that path this year of cutting into Chip and Roger's dominance, basically, of the sport remains to be seen," Vasser said. "But certainly having Tony Kanaan on the team is a step forward for us."

When it comes to winning, Ganassi has had the most successful team in the series since 2003 and returns with three-time champion and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti and two-time champion Scott Dixon. Ganassi has also doubled his effort by adding Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball to the operation.

"I think it's a great opportunity for them but I'm not so sure what we get out of it," Franchitti said. "Scott and I have a good thing going. The Target team functions very well together. I think we have to keep our focus on what we do and try to win races and championships.

"I'm not ready to give up the throne, but there are a bunch of drivers that want it. I have to do everything I can to keep it. Hopefully, we have improved the cars and hopefully I've improved. We want to give it hell and see what happens. Personal improvement is funny because it changes from year to year. I've really focused on thinking where I can improve and try to put it into practice."

It was three years ago that at 19, Graham Rahal became the youngest driver in IndyCar history to win a race. That came in his very first start in the series, at St. Petersburg. Now 22, Rahal believes he has the best ride of his career and is ready for this to be his breakout season in IndyCar.

"It has to be," Rahal said. "I felt like 2009 was a breakout year for me. A lot of people have overlooked that. In 2009 it was very rare that we weren't in the top six in qualifying, very rare that we weren't right toward the front, right behind Ganassi and Penske during all the races. When I look at that, I certainly feel like we've got a better chance and opportunity this year. We've got better equipment, better personnel. My engineer, Martin Pare, is the same guy that will be with me now. He was with me in '09, as well.

"I think St. Pete '08 was a long time ago, no doubt about that. I don't think anybody wants to win in this organization as badly as I do. St. Pete has been a good place for me. I'm going to hope that we kick it off correctly. I got my first win there, my first pole there. I think it would be a great way to start this year, by us having a very competitive showing there. I think we have to have a breakout season. I think we have to win races. We've got to be right up there with the Target cars and the Penske cars all year. If we're not, I think I'd be very disappointed, but also pretty surprised."

Will Power leads the three-driver effort at Team Penske that includes three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe. While he was the best road course driver in the series last year, he didn't win on an oval and that ultimately cost him the championship.

"I'll tell you right now there is no question in my mind I'll be more competitive on ovals," Power promised. "I know what to expect, I know what I want from the car and I know where to run in traffic. I feel a lot more confident coming into the season on the ovals than I did last year."

Power realizes how difficult the competition will be in 2011.

"This year will be the toughest year in IndyCar history because of the car situation, the quality of drivers and going back to the same tracks," Power said. "Add two more drivers to Ganassi and they are another two very competitive cars to the grid. They are championship-contending cars right there."

Hunter-Reay leads a four-driver effort at Andretti Autosport in 2011 with DHL sponsoring his No. 28.

"I'm at a great home with Andretti Autosport and I hope it will be a long-term deal into the future," Hunter-Reay said. "It is so hard to win a race in this series with the competition, especially on road courses. I feel that we can win on the ovals. I don't know if Penske and Ganassi have a stranglehold on the ovals but it's getting close to that. I look at road and street courses as my most realistic opportunities to get race wins. I'm dying to win an oval race and I think I'm getting there, but the big thing is on road and street circuits the competition is so close that you have to have everything go right on Sunday.

"My goal is to win two or three races but the underlying goal is to challenge for race wins consistently."

Hunter-Reay's teammates at Andretti include Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and Mike Conway, who is making a comeback from injuries suffered in a horrific crash at the end of last year's Indianapolis 500.

"Mike is extremely fast from his Formula One experience," Hunter-Reay said. "He is a great driver. I think he is getting used to IndyCar but he can lay down a lap with the best of them. The more you work with your teammates, the more it will work out for you."

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing features Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz on the two-car team. Newman/Haas has Oriol Servia of Spain and rookie James Hinchcliffe contending for the team's second ride. Sebastien Bourdais is trying to complete a deal with Dale Coyne, where he would compete in the road course races on the schedule.

As for single-car teams, Vitor Meira is back with team owner A.J. Foyt, and Alex Tagliani returns with a new team owner in Sam Schmidt.

Simona de Silvestro had an impressive rookie season in 2010 with one of the smallest teams in the series at HVM.

"It's pretty exciting to be back in the IndyCar Series again this year," De Silvestro said. "Our new sponsor is giving me an opportunity to do something great in this series. And to be back with HVM Racing is something pretty special because we had a great season last year together. We hope to have a strong season again this year, too."

A driver with some lofty expectations as a rookie is J.R. Hildebrand, who takes over the Panther Racing ride from Dan Wheldon.

"From my perspective, being able to come to a situation, joining a team that came in second in the Indy 500 the last three years in a row, they are capable of being on the top step of the podium," Hildebrand said. "That might be some added pressure for me but the way I look at it is I'm joining a team capable of doing all of these things. That boosts my confidence going out there, and I have a car under me that can accomplish that.

"Our goal is to be in a position capable of challenging for a race win. Is that a tall order for a one-car team? Yes it is, but our aim is to be fighting with the Penskes and the Ganassis. We want to be capable of fighting those guys at the front."

Hildebrand, who is a former Indy Lights champion, has the distinction of being an American rookie driver in the series.

"Panther Racing has had good luck with rookies before," he said. "Sam Hornish, Jr. is the example. If I could live up to the success he had on the team, that would be a pretty tremendous accomplishment. But this shows what the ladder system is capable of turning out. With Americans coming out of that ladder system, hopefully it bodes well for the series in the future."

With a collection of proven veterans, some old favorites and some potentially talented new drivers, the IndyCar Series attempts to continue its recent momentum and return to the glory it once enjoyed as a premier racing series.