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Friday, March 27, 2009
Unser rates 2009 IndyCar drivers


Want the inside scoop on rating the 2009 IndyCar Series drivers? Ask Al Unser Jr.

No one knows more about the drivers in the IndyCar Series than the former Indy car star. The two-time Indy 500 winner is a consultant and driving coach for the Indy Racing League.

Unser works with many of the younger drivers, teaching them the intricacies of the sport, and he closely observes the veteran drivers. Unser offered his opinions of the IndyCar racers earlier this week.

Here's a look at how he views some of the big names in IndyCar entering the season:

• Scott Dixon, 2008 Indy 500 winner and defending IndyCar Series champion. "He's definitely a favorite to win the championship. Scott has been quick since the first test of the season. The team hasn't lost anything over the winter. All his competitors see him as the guy, and they're all aiming for Scott."

• Dario Franchitti, 2007 Indy 500 winner and 2007 series champ, returning after a year in Sprint Cup. "He's with a great team [Target Chip Ganassi Racing] and has lots of experience. He's going to win some races and is one of the favorites to win the championship."

• Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to win a major open-wheel race last year at Motegi, Japan. "I was fortunate to be in Japan and see her make history. She can win races again. Look for her to win, especially on the high-banked ovals, where she really seems to shine. She's won several poles at those facilities, so they kind of favor her style of driving. She's a contender to win more races."

• Ryan Briscoe, won twice and finished fifth in the standings last year in his first season at Team Penske. "Ryan is definitely one of the favorites to win Indy and the championship. Roger [Penske] brought him into the IndyCar Series for a reason. Great talent. He's proven he can win races."

• Marco Andretti, third-generation Andretti racer who finished second in the 2006 Indy 500 and third last year. "I feel like he really wants to bring another Indy 500 win to the Andretti family, [which] has eluded them for so many years. He's got the car, he's got the team [Andretti Green Racing], and he's got the talent. It would be a great thing to see an Andretti win the Indy 500, and Marco has the capability to get that done."

• Tony Kanaan, 2004 IndyCar Series champion who has 13 career victories. "Man of steel. This guy is physically the strongest man out there, and he will drive the car as such. He tends to go places that few men dare to go. If there's a No. 1 at AGR, it's Tony Kanaan. He's one of the favorites to win Indianapolis and the championship. He's really focusing on Indy, the one that has eluded him. If anyone is owed -- if effort and all of that comes back, and it does in racing -- TK is one of the favorites to win the Indy 500 this year."

• Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. He became the youngest (19) winner of a major American open-wheel race with his victory last season at St. Petersburg. "Graham moved into the No. 1 seat at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Graham can do it. From what I've seen. Newman/Haas/Lanigan has closed the gap over the winter. As one of last year's new teams, I feel they have made the most improvement over the winter. Graham is in a real good spot to follow his father's footsteps on a national championship and an Indy 500 win."

• Dan Wheldon, 2005 Indy 500 winner and 2005 series champ. "Dan is a proven winner. We could possibly see a repeat of the Cinderella story of Sam Hornish and 'The Team That Could.' He's going from Target Chip Ganassi to Panther Racing, but Panther is still very, very capable of winning, and Dan is, too."

• Milka Duno, Venezuelan racer whose career-best finish was 11th at Texas in 2007. "Milka is the most improved driver, without question. She's trying very hard, she's very passionate, and she loves driving these cars. She's going to do all right. Milka asks a lot of questions. From where she started to where she is today is a huge gain. It's really a pleasure to see the gains that she has made from year to year."

• Will Power, winner of the final Champ Car event last year at Long Beach and the driver holding Helio Castrovenes' seat at Team Penske. "Will is definitely up-and-coming and has a great opportunity with Team Penske. Expect great things from Will in the future. He's very talented, and now he's got the team behind him who sets the standard for years."

• Justin Wilson, former Champ Car competitor who won the road race at Belle Isle last season. "He won Detroit fair and square. He comes from a road-course background. The more time they have with the car, the faster they're going to get. If a guy can make up for a car that's not quite there, it's on the road courses and it's Justin Wilson. He's a brilliant road-course racer."

There you have it, from a man who knows these drivers as well as anyone in the sport.