IRL preview: Castroneves is right on target

The Indy Racing League may have opened two weeks ago in St. Petersburg, but the series’ arrival in Long Beach makes the season official. Not to dismiss Ryan Briscoe’s victory, but Spring Brake has been around three times longer than the IRL. If there is one marquee event on the schedule that’s not named the Indianapolis 500, this is it.

And so it’s with the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach that we find a few moments to offer up a preview of the 2009 season, completely dismissing what transpired two weeks ago.

Ganassi vs. Penske.

Is that simple enough?

The two best teams in the series will be there at the end in a three-man race for the championship.

Um, you say Helio Castroneves was acquitted of tax evasion charges on Friday?

The two best teams in the series will be there at the end in a four-man race for the championship.

Sorry, Will Power, but Castroneves’ arrival on the scene trumps all news of the day. Paul Tracy gets a ride at Indy? Page 2.

The 2009 season should have been authored by Chip Ganassi’s drivers, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, and Roger Penske’s Ryan Briscoe. Power, named as Castroneves’ replacement, might have been a top 5 contender, but the affable Australian would have been unlikely to contend for the championship at this stage of his career. He is not yet sharp enough on ovals. Still, Penske announced Friday that Power will be in a third entry at Indy. It’s great news and a nice consolation gift. Page 3.

Power is no Castroneves, and neither is Briscoe who, like Power, is an Aussie. That is, until his pit road dust-up with Danica Patrick at Indy. After that, Briscoe was an Awesome Aussie, and whether he was at fault or not with the princess of the IndyCar Series, it was pretty apparent that Briscoe dusted her from that point on; he outscored her by 106 points the rest of the season and won twice.

Patrick is hardly a contender either, for anything other than Most Popular Driver. She has already won the title multiple times, just like Sarah Fisher, and racescribe is already projecting her a winner in 2009 with millions of ballots still to be counted. Page 4.

Patrick finished sixth in the championship last season, the second-best performance by a driver for Michael Andretti, but for perspective she was closer to 19th place AJ Foyt IV than fourth-place Dan Wheldon. That’s how significant a difference there is between Ganassi, Penske and the No. 1 Andretti Green entry of Tony Kanaan. It also shows just how tight the field is behind her.

Expect the Champ  Car refugees to step up  this season, although it is a shame Oriol Servia, Bruno Junquiera and even Power don’t have rides for the full season. All could do some damage in a second go-round in these cars as shown at St. Pete by Justin Wilson’s third-place finish.

Kanaan is the only legitimate contender outside the red stranglehold. Until Friday, the bottom line boiled down to Dixon against Franchitti. Dixon is the reigning champion, but Dario is the 2007 champion and a terrific driver now with a terrific team. Let’s put it this way: Dario’s move is more significant to the championship than Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s switch to Hendrick Motorsports in NASCAR. Franchitti is a huge threat.

Yet Dixon, driver of the unmistakable Target Honda, maintains this seemingly unflappable resolve. Although he’s hardly batting 1.000, Dixon generally avoids bad luck – or flipping upside down as Franchitti is wont to do time and again. If you need a visual, check here and here.

Can anyone besides Dixon, Franchitti, Briscoe and Kanaan win the championship?

No. At least, that was the case until Friday. First Castroneves beat the Feds, who’s to say he can’t beat Dixon this season. I suspect he will drive with a resolve and passion heretofore unknown, and having seen Castroneves for a decade, that’s saying something. Two Indy 500 trophies and a Mirror Ball trophy pale to his victory in court on Friday.

Believe me, this guy is a winner. After losing the championship by a mere 17 points last season, there’s no way Castroneves won’t win his first IRL championship now.

That Dixon finished 16th in the opener means that Castroneves is only 14 points in the hole to the preseason favorite. Last season, Castroneves was 18 points down after one race.

Since the IndyCar Series champion is based on the total body of work, and not a gimmick playoff, there is sufficient time for Castroneves to make up the ground on Dixon, Franchitti (32), Briscoe (50) and Kanaan (30).

Until Friday, the pick here was Dixon, Franchitti, Briscoe and Kanaan in that order. Dixon was the safe pick, but there was no compelling reason to choose against him.

Until now.

Castroneves beat Eliot Ness. He can beat Scott Dixon, too.

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