Column: IndyCar has stable feeling for first time in years

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) Two races into the IndyCar season and neither Penske nor Ganassi has been to victory lane. The slots instead went to smaller teams, Honda-powered teams, in fact, as the balance of power in the beleaguered series seems to have shifted.

Sebastien Bourdais, who once reeled off four consecutive titles in the defunct Champ Car Series, is the current points leader after a surprise win for tiny Dale Coyne Racing in the season opener at St. Petersburg. Then came James Hinchcliffe's victory Sunday at Long Beach - his first since he nearly bled to death in a 2015 accident at Indianapolis - to give Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports a rare win.

Yes, Honda is showing renewed strength after several years of Chevrolet dominance. Honda is headquartered in nearby Torrance and had to slink home the last two years embarrassed after Chevrolet took eight of the top 10 spots, including podium sweeps.

So the Honda celebration was sweet on Sunday when the manufacturer claimed three of the top four finishers, and the Chevrolet beating could have been a lot worse if not for a slew of electrical issues that plagued the four-Honda Andretti camp. (Michael Andretti at least one-upped his rivals this year with a palatial hospitality zone that he unabashedly called a ''100 percent investment'' in customer experience).

At long last, thanks in part to a more competitive circuit, IndyCar is heading in the proper direction.

''It's trending in the right direction, things are looking positive and there's traction,'' Ryan Hunter-Reay said, pointing to strong crowds at the two street races so far, plus the planning for a new car in 2018.

''The Honda-Chevy competition is as tight as it's ever been,'' he said, ''and it is anybody's guess who is going to win the championship or let alone who is going to win the next race.''

There's more, too.

IndyCar celebrated its kickoff by announcing that all four of its major partners - Chevrolet, Honda, Firestone and Dallara - signed multiyear contract extensions. American Josef Newgarden landed a plush new ride with Team Penske that should raise his exposure. Hinchcliffe's runner-up stint on ''Dancing With The Stars'' helped one of the most popular drivers reach a new audience.

AJ Foyt Racing and Andretti Autosport both announced Indianapolis 500 entries over the weekend: Indy Lights winners Zach Veach (Foyt) and Jack Harvey (Andretti) will both attempt to make their IndyCar debut.

On Monday, Indianapolis businessmen Mike Harding and Dennis Reinbold announced a technical alliance that created Harding Racing, giving Gabby Chaves a seat in the Indy 500. The Harding Group has been a partner with Indianapolis Motor Speedway in paving projects and client hospitality, but will be fielding a car for the first time.

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves feels the momentum in the series was built around last year's 100th running at the Brickyard.

''Finally we are getting in our groove,'' Castroneves said. ''Last year's Indy 500 probably caught a lot of attention from a younger group, and I think there's more room for us to grow. We still need to improve our TV numbers, the social media side, the marketing part, but we are making gains.''

Of course, everything hinges on next month's 500, the showpiece of the season. The 100th was rich in history, tradition and a renewed love around the American classic. The race even got a surprise American winner, Alexander Rossi, to boot.

There have been rumors of a ''showstopping'' driver parachuting into the event - Tony Stewart? Danica Patrick? A Formula One star? - but nothing has stuck. Still, this year's race could draw attention as the start of sendoffs for Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, who are celebrating their 20th seasons, or Juan Pablo Montoya, who lost his job with Penske but is driving the 500 for his former boss.

Roger Penske has discussed using Castroneves and Montoya if he fields a sports car team, and all three former winners could be shaping into Indy-only drivers. Not a single storyline will matter, Chip Ganassi said, if the weather is no good during the buildup to the race, so some Chamber of Commerce days will be needed to stir any early buzz.

From there, the marketing of the new Indy car, a sexier version of the current Dallara, must be the focal point in creating hype for the series.

''I like the job that management is doing,'' Ganassi said. ''I like the new car, I like the new attitude and I see a lot of buzz on social media. The ratings are a little better. All the signs are pointing in the right direction and, obviously, we have to have a good May.''

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More AP auto racing: racing.ap.org

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