IRL preview: Dario an investment in the future

What’s so special about the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season?

Will Power.

The third driver in the Penske stable should help the Captain, Roger Penske, win a championship.

The key word is should.

Extra technical information should be an advantage to Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, and there are times when Power will wedge himself between a Penske car and one owned by Chip Ganassi.

But if you’re projecting to early October, the championship comes down to Castroneves, Briscoe and Power vs. Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

Franchitti won the title last season. He also won in 2007 while driving for Michael Andretti’s team. In between was his foray into NASCAR, which didn’t go very well. In fact, it went pretty badly, and reflected more poorly on open wheel racers than it should have.

If Franchitti had the commitment from NASCAR team owner Chip Ganassi that Juan Pablo Montoya had received — not to mention the sponsorship — then maybe Dario would still be turning left. NASCAR’s loss is IndyCar’s gain, and it’s Franchitti’s gain, too, since Ganassi the IndyCar team owner has one of the two elite teams in the series.

The key for 2010 though, may be bigger than who wins the championship. Under new president Randy Bernard, the league must lay the foundation for growth. Missteps here could be disastrous to the overall growth of the sport.

To do that, the IndyCar Series must leverage Dario’s attributes and market him to the masses. For the league to grow, it must rise above Danica Patrick and create another star, or two (Graham Rahal?), at least on par with Castroneves, the Dancing With the Stars champion. Obviously, it’s going to have to be without a DWTS victory because that card has already been played.  If only Justin Wilson could have been part of Celebrity Apprentice.

Although Patrick may be a competent driver, she may be no better than the third-best on her team, behind Tony Kanaan — who is a legitimate threat to break up the Penske-Ganassi royal flush — and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who will finally be in equipment that can showcase his skills comparably with those drivers who carry a higher profile. If Marco Andretti finally clicks, he might even push Patrick to the 4-spot at Andretti Autosport. Andretti has not yet shown himself to be the same talent his father was, certainly not what his grandfather was. He has so much potential, it seems — not to mention the Andretti name — but he must step up or run the risk of being identified as just another guy. Casey Mears, anyone?

Patrick’s presence in the series is really all about the Indianapolis 500. That’s the only carrot dangled before her that matters. She may like to win a championship, but when she finished fifth last season, she was closer to 10th place than she was to fourth. There are a dozen drivers as good or better than her — obviously, not all in equal equipment — and she still has a long way to go. The distraction of NASCAR won’t help her. Neither will the road courses on the schedule: There are more of them with only eight ovals.

The league cannot afford to bank on Patrick alone raising IndyCar’s profile.

Watercooler talk of Patrick aside, the season still comes down to the Big 5 and Kanaan.

Dixon is steady.

Helio is due.

Briscoe is talented.

Power is driven.

Kanaan is hungry.

But Franchitti has won titles the last two seasons he has raced these cars, and he did it for different teams.

Different teams, and one of them wasn’t Penske.

That is proving yourself, and that’s the kind of track record that is hard to bet against, even if you’ve got the willpower to try.

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