After a lengthy six-month break, the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season gets underway this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla.
This year's IndyCar schedule includes 19 races in 16-event weekends. The season will feature three weekend doubleheaders, two new racetracks and a "Triple Crown" bonus program.
Much has happened in the sport since its 2012 season-finale in Fontana, Calif. As Ryan Hunter-Reay spent time celebrating his first championship, IndyCar had a major shakeup during the offseason. Randy Bernard stepped down as CEO, while Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Jeff Belskus took over Bernard's role in the interim. IndyCar hired Boston Consulting Group, a widely recognized management consulting firm, to help in its strategic planning process, with hopes of restoring stability in the sport.
Politics aside, IndyCar officials are eager for the season to start. Teams have recently tested at Sebring International Raceway in Florida and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. So now it's time for the series to get back on track.
HUNTER-REAY SEEKS ANOTHER TITLE
Hunter-Reay became the first American driver to win the IndyCar championship in six years after beating Australian Will Power by just three points. Hunter- Reay had a remarkable season last year, scoring a series-high four wins, including three in a row. The Andretti Autosport driver won on the ovals at Milwaukee and Iowa as well as the street circuits in Toronto and Baltimore.
Identifying him as the reigning IndyCar champion, Hunter-Reay will drive the No. 1 car this year. That number is reserved for the defending entrant (owner) champion in the series. Team owner Michael Andretti was the last to use the No. 1, doing so for 2005 titleholder Dan Wheldon in the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
Following his preseason tests, Hunter-Reay has high hopes of winning another IndyCar championship.
"We're definitely optimistic," he said. "I'm encouraged how well our test went at Barber. That's a track that we have regularly struggled at. Will (Power) obviously led testing there, and we have to close the gap a bit. But I'm very encouraged how everything has been going as a team, and we have a good direction heading into St. Pete."
Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Power as well as the Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon will once again be Hunter- Reay's toughest opponents. His Andretti teammate, James Hinchcliffe, might also be in the title mix this year.
"I learned a lot about dealing with the pressure of championship fights and kind of channeling that into positive energy to make it really benefit you when you need it," Hunter-Reay said. "It's something that I'll use in the future for sure going forward.
"I had a lot of fun in the fight with Will and Scott (Dixon), and it was something I hope we can do many times again, because that's what auto racing is all about, and that's why we are here doing it."
FOURTH TIME A CHARM FOR POWER?
After finishing second in the point standings the past three years, Power is tired of being the bridesmaid.
Power held the points lead heading into each season-ending race from 2010-12 but lost the championship two times to Franchitti and then last year to Hunter-Reay.
What does Power plan to do differently this year?
"My approach to the season is really no different than it's been the last three years," he said. "Just going to keep chipping away, and hopefully at some point, we can get the thing done."
With two races to go last year, Power held a 36-point lead over Hunter-Reay, but Hunter-Reay won in Baltimore and then finished fourth in California. Power's title hopes were shattered when he crashed early and finished 24th in the season-finale.
"I think you learn to finish second," Power said. "I've finished there three times. A week after the race (at California), we were back in the shop talking about next year already. I have to say it was the most relaxed offseason I've ever had. I just kind of enjoyed it.
"It is what it is. I get to compete at a high level with probably the best team year after year, and it's just an enjoyable thing to do. It's cool that we are always there in the hunt for the championship, and it's a real motivation to try and get that done."
Luckily for Power, there are 13 road/street course races compared to six on ovals this year. While the road/street circuits have been Power's forte, the ovals continue to be his Achilles' heel.
TWO NEW TRACKS, A TRIO OF DOUBLEHEADERS AND A POSSIBLE BIG BONUS
IndyCar will return to Pocono Raceway for the first time since 1987 and Houston's Reliant Park since 2007. Pocono, a 2.5-mile triangular track, will host a 400-race on July 7. Houston's 1.7-mile, 10-turn street circuit is one of the three doubleheaders, scheduled for Oct. 5-6.
For the first time, IndyCar will run two full-distance races at a track on the same weekend. The street circuits in Detroit and Toronto will join Houston as the doubleheaders. Detroit is scheduled for June 1-2, and Toronto is slated for July 13-14.
All but one of the 15 tracks that hosted IndyCar races last year return for this season. Edmonton was dropped from the schedule.
New for IndyCar this season is the Triple Crown bonus, which pays $1 million to a driver who wins the Indianapolis 500 (May 26), Pocono and the season- ending race in Fontana, Calif. (Oct. 19). A driver who wins two of the three Triple Crown events will be awarded $250,000.
FAMILIAR FACES IN NEW PLACES
Several IndyCar drivers played musical chairs during the offseason. After driving for Chip Ganassi Racing the past two years, Graham Rahal has joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which is partly-owned by his father, Bobby Rahal, who is a three-time IndyCar champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner. James Jakes moved over from Dale Coyne Racing to RLL. Rahal Letterman Lanigan will also field an entry for Mike Conway in the April 21 race in Long Beach, Calif.
Takuma Sato left RLL and joined A.J. Foyt Racing. Simona de Silvestro signed with KV Racing Technology following her year with HVM Racing. She'll pair with Tony Kanaan at KVRT. And Sebastian Saavedra returned to IndyCar this season. He will team with Sebastien Bourdais at Dragon Racing.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports expanded to a two-car operation this year. Simon Pagenaud and Tristan Vautier, who is the only full-time rookie in the series this year, will drive for the team. Last season, Pagenaud finished fifth in points and earned rookie-of-the-year honors in IndyCar, while Vautier won the Indy Lights championship.
With the addition of E.J. Viso, Andretti Autosport now has four full-time drivers in its fleet. Viso, who drove for KVRT this past year, is teamed with Hunter-Reay, Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti.
ALLMENDINGER's RIDE WITH PENSKE
A.J. Allmendinger returns to open-wheel racing after a six-year absence. Allmendinger, who competed in the Champ Car World Series from 2004-06, is scheduled to drive in at least two races for Penske this season -- the Indianapolis 500 and next month's event at Barber Motorsports Park. He tested for Penske at Sebring and Barber.
Allmendinger is also competing in NASCAR this year, driving a partial schedule for Phoenix Racing in the Sprint Cup Series. He finished 13th last weekend at Bristol and 11th earlier this month at Phoenix.
"There's a lot that goes into it and going back and forth between a Cup car and an Indy car," Allmendinger said. "All I can do is be physically and mentally prepared for whatever race car that I'm getting in, whether that's looking at data or video or back at the shop, whichever shop that is, just doing that. It's all I can do."
Allmendinger drove for Penske in NASCAR's premier series last year but lost his ride with the team after the first 17 races when he was suspended for violating the sanctioning body's substance abuse policy.