Then came a massive economic crisis.
Thus, going into the 2009 season, IndyCar fans are again filled with apprehension. The offseason was dominated by two events. The first was Helio Castroneves’ indictment and subsequent trial for tax evasion. Said trial is going on right now, meaning Helio will definitely miss this weekend’s opening race. What happens after that is anyone’s guess.
The second was the endless game of “Will that team and/or driver get enough sponsorship money to run this year?” Deals were being made this very week, just days before the season starts. The specter of money inhabits just about every driver switch this season, and the end result appears to be 22 cars starting at St. Pete. Given the economic realities, this feels almost like a victory. Still, Rahal/Letterman will be on the sidelines this year, and the following quality drivers still do not have rides: Paul Tracy, Buddy Rice, Oriol Servia, Bruno Junqueira, AJ Foyt IV. Ouch.
For now though, it’s finally time to look ahead to the stories of the 2009 IndyCar Series.
Ganassi Dynasty, Part Two?: Quiet as always, Scott Dixon won the Indy 500 and series championship last year. Still just 27, Dixon is just entering his prime of his career, and with Helio’s issues, is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as champion. Joining Dixon this year is Dario Franchitti, back from a stint in NASCAR everyone would just as soon forget. There doesn’t seem to be any rust from Dario though if preseason testing showed anything. This pairing gives Ganassi both the last two Indy 500 winners and last two series champions. Ganassi looks almost as dominant as they were in CART in the late 90s, when they won four straight championships. The pieces certainly are there.
Penske Instability: Helio’s tax issues have put a dent in the normally well-oiled Penske machine. The team has signed Will Power as a substitute driver, and at this point he’s confirmed for the opener. After that depends on how the trial is ultimately resolved. Either way, the missed race or races for Helio, or Power’s lack of experience on ovals should keep the #3 car out of title contention. Thus, Penske turns to Ryan Briscoe. Known more for being the Guy Who Took Danica Out of last year’s 500, Briscoe came on strong after that, and many are picking him as the guy with the best shot to pass Dixon.
IndyCar’s New Home: While ABC will still broadcast the Indy 500 and four other races, the remaining 12 events will be broadcast on Versus. Taking things deeper than the usual snickering that occurs when Versus is mentioned, the network has promoted the series in the last two months more than ESPN has in a long time. It’s nice seeing things like promos, qualifying shows, and other related programming. As the season goes, we’ll truly see if it’s better to be a big dog on a small network, or a redheaded stepchild on the giant network.
The Only Two Drivers You Actually Care About: Here’s what you need to know about Danica this year: her contract is up at the end of the season, and she signed with IMG. In other words, welcome to the feeding frenzy. The IMG deal prompted SPEED’s Robin Miller to predict already that Danica is headed to NASCAR in 2010. This story could dominate the post-Indy season, in addition to whatever antics she gets into this year. Will she win a race? Maybe, but it sure doesn’t feel she’s working towards improvement. That said, I’ll be doing the Resigning Dance, as I know how critical she is to the series.