Helio Castroneves' fence-climbing skills got a little rusty last season.
The two-time Indianapolis 500 champion performed his scaling
victory celebration only once last year. And that didn't come until
the IndyCar Series season finale, when "Spiderman'' won for the
first time in 19 races.
"It was hard, all season long waiting to win a race. ... It was
a great relief,'' Castroneves said. "I don't want to wait that
long this year.''
Castroneves won't have to if Team Penske can pick up with the
momentum it built at the end of last season.
Not only did Castroneves win the finale at Texas, he finished
the season with an IRL-record four straight poles. The Penske team
obviously was figuring out car setups with the smaller 3-liter engines
the series switched to after the Indianapolis 500, and are
unchanged this year.
"It was a learning curve, and we learned a lot with that
situation,'' Castroneves said.
Sam Hornish Jr. started on the front row alongside his Penske
teammate twice during that last four-race stretch and rolled off
from the No. 3 spot another time.
Penske had bookend wins last year, with two-time IndyCar Series champion Hornish winning his debut race with his new team -- just ahead of
Castroneves -- in the season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
But Andretti Green Racing's four-driver team dominated in
between, winning eight of the other 14 races with 36 top-five
Tony Kanaan became the first driver in a major racing series to
finish every lap -- 3,305 over 16 races -- and won the championship.
Teammate Dan Wheldon was second. Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta,
the other Andretti Green drivers, were sixth and ninth.
"Well, we set the standard for sure,'' Kanaan said. "Right
now, yeah, they're definitely looking at us, and they respect us.
But you know, we're also looking ... we're looking for Penske,
we're looking for Rahal.''
All will be at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Sunday (ESPN, 2 p.m. ET) for the start of the IRL's 10th season.
Hornish has won three of the four IndyCar races on the track. The
300-mile race is where Kanaan had his worst 2004 finish -- eighth in
the opener before 15 straight top fives that included three wins
and six runner-up finishes.
This will be the IndyCar Series' longest season with 17 races -- including
road-course events for the first time.
The league is breaking from its all-oval format in the third race
this season, on a temporary road course through downtown St.
Petersburg, Fla. The series also will run on road courses in
Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y., later in the year.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store,'' Castroneves said of the
chance to race on road courses again. "We're keeping the same
ovals, but people enjoy road courses. It's going to be
Former driving champion Michael Andretti, who co-owns the team
with Kim Green, got an IRL title in just his second season as an
Roger Penske won 11 national open-wheel championships over three
decades before moving from CART, but the car owner goes into his
fourth IndyCar season without a title. Buddy Rice finished third in
points and won the Indianapolis 500 for the team owned by former
driver Bobby Rahal and late night talk show host David Letterman.
There are 22 drivers on 13 teams this season.
IRL founder Tony George is even a team owner in the IndyCar Series now, having acquired the assets of Kelley Racing this offseason.
"Why? Because I believe in this series. I believe in the
opportunity it represents,'' George said, explaining his reason for
becoming an owner. "As the offseason wound down, it became obvious
that we needed a car count.
"We were going to need to keep all that equipment that Tom had for
sale in the system. There were a lot of teams looking at acquiring
bits and pieces of it. But I felt that the best opportunity was to
try and keep it together for someone.''
Ed Carpenter, George's 23-year-old stepson, will drive the car
for Vision Racing LLC. George has promised his ownership will not
influence decisions and rulings by race officials.
Scott Sharp, who drove for Kelley, has taken his Delphi
sponsorship and will drive a car for Fernandez Racing. Sharp is the
IndyCar Series' most experienced driver with 98 career starts and was a
co-champion in the series' first season.
That team will be separate from Fernandez's team for Kosuke Matsuura,
last year's top rookie.
But missing from the cockpit -- at least at the beginning of the
season -- will be Adrian Fernandez, the owner-driver who defected
from the Champ Car World Series to the IndyCar Series last March. Fernandez
won three of the last six races, including two in a row before the
finale, but he lacks sponsorship for this season.
Patrick Carpentier jumped to the IndyCar Series this season after eight
years in CART, joining Red Bull Cheever Racing as a teammate to
Alex Barron. Carpentier was third in CART last season.
Danica Patrick moves from the Toyota Atlantic Series to become
the third woman in the IndyCar Series. She's part of Rahal
Letterman's three-car team with Rice and Vitor Meira.