- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Daytona's Speed Weeks gained an unofficial new attraction this year with the addition of a two-day open test for the IndyCar Series.
Daytona International Speedway was so immaculate last Wednesday, it was almost impossible to believe that the track had played host to its famous annual 24-hour sports car race barely 70 hours before the open-wheelers took to a shortened version of the road course. Rain on Thursday afternoon prevented what would have been an interesting shootout for fastest overall honors, but nearly 1,700 laps of activity was enough to make early observations about the upcoming IndyCar campaign.
Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan turned the test's best lap on Wednesday afternoon, stopping the clocks at 1 minute, 12.2393 seconds for an average speed of 135.549 mph. The top five drivers were separated by less than three-tenths of a second as a total of 17 drivers participated.
Indy Racing League and Honda Performance Development officials declared themselves happy after the first full-field test using the 2007-spec 3.5-liter Honda engines powered by ethanol. The test even included a simulated caution period so HPD engineers could collect data for fuel mapping software.
In all, the Daytona test was beneficial for teams to get a baseline on their 2007-spec equipment and for drivers to shake off the winter rust after a four-month layoff. But it also proved that if the IndyCar Series and Daytona are serious about getting together, changes will need to be made to the cars or the track before a race can safely take place.
Here's a team-by-team rundown of who did what.
Helio Castroneves paced three of the four individual sessions, but he was second to Kanaan in the session that produced the fastest times. Castroneves, who still is chasing his first IndyCar championship, was remarkably consistent and ran nearly identical times in sessions 2 and 4 just over a tenth of a second off Kanaan's best.
As you would expect, the Brazilian was bubbling with enthusiasm about running at Daytona, as well as his prospects for the season ahead. He was particularly happy with the revised Honda engine.
"Honda has done a great job with the power," he said. "The car is much more fun to drive, much more challenging as well. A race might be follow-the-leader at first, but after 15 or 20 laps, you have to be very careful with the tires because you'll be sliding around a lot."
With road racing now representing nearly a third of the IndyCar schedule, three-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr. knows he needs to improve his right-turning form in 2007. Sam landed in the top five in the three sessions he ran, winding up fifth overall at 1:12.5033.
"Everything seemed to go well for us," Hornish said. "It was a new opportunity for me to try to learn a little more and try to get a little better. We just tried to stay out of trouble."
Target Ganassi Racing
Scott Dixon has compiled the best record in the six road races the Indy Racing League has staged in its history, but teammate Dan Wheldon had the edge at the Daytona test. Wheldon was third overall at 1:12.4121, while Dixon was sixth at 1:12.8365 as the Ganassi team worked on a road-course setup for the Dallara chassis after running a Panoz in the 2006 road races.
"We got a lot done, and running the road course in the Dallara had me feeling much more comfortable and confident," Wheldon said.
"Our car definitely has speed in it, but we didn't get a whole lot of track time or good testing done," said Dixon. "We basically had issues with every part of the car: clutch, gearbox, cables -- you name it, we broke it.
"We never got into the flow of testing, and then the rain just put a halt on everything."
Andretti Green Racing
AGR generally has had the fastest road racing cars over one lap, so it wasn't too much of a surprise to see Kanaan end up P1. Dario Franchitti was happy enough in fourth, Marco Andretti was eighth, while team debutant Danica Patrick struggled and wound up next to last.
"I'm glad we got to brag a bit, but we seemed to go back a step in the last session," Kanaan said. "We were not really too worried about where we were going to finish, but obviously when you finish at the top, it makes you feel good. It sure says a lot for all the work the guys did in the offseason."
Franchitti battled braking issues on the first day that limited his running in the morning session, but he generally was pleased with his car and its new orange and black Canadian Club livery by the end of the test.
"I didn't like the feel of the car when we started, and we turned in a car that I thought was not too bad," he said.
Andretti admitted it took him time to get back into the swing of things and he had just cracked the top five on Thursday afternoon when the rain came.
"Anytime I'm in the car, I obviously want to be at the top, so the first few sessions were a little bit frustrating for us," he said. "But in the last session, I felt like we found the balance of the car."
As usual, Patrick garnered most of the media attention, but she left some factions unhappy when she postponed a Wednesday news conference to focus on her car. Patrick missed most of the morning session with seating issues, something that surely should have been taken care of beforehand. When she was finally able to turn laps at speed, Patrick was more than two seconds off the pace and ahead of only Vision Racing's Ed Carpenter.
"We didn't make a very good seat for the road course car and I just didn't fit right," Patrick said. "On a road course, it's especially important to be comfortable because you're always pushing the limit. It's not like a 1.5-mile oval where you just put your foot down.
"It's been a tough couple days, for sure, but that's just all part of the learning process," she added. "We're taking a new team's car and learning what we need to get it right."
Panther Racing caused a surprise when Vitor Meira's No. 4 car appeared in the colors of Delphi Electronics, which is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorginazation. Meira, who was often the closest challenger to the Penske, Ganassi and AGR teams in 2006, again played that role at the Daytona test by running seventh-fastest at 1:12.9935.
"We've known the great folks at Delphi for a long time now and we're honored that they've become a partner with Panther Racing," team co-owner John Barnes said. "Our team knows that this is the kind of boost we needed to get Vitor to the front of the championship chase."
Kosuke Matsuura and his Super Aguri Racing team have joined forces with Panther for 2007 after three years with Fernandez Racing. Matsuura was 11th-fastest at Daytona, about 0.6 second slower than Meira.
Rahal Letterman Racing
Jeff Simmons is back in the Ethanol-sponsored No. 17 car, but that's about the only thing that remains the same at Rahal Letterman Racing. Gone are Buddy Rice and Patrick, replaced by IndyCar ironman Scott Sharp and a lurid, lime-green No. 8 car backed by Patron tequila.
"We thought about a high-banked track and a pack of 12 cars, and we wanted to get a car that stood out in a crowd," said Sharp, who cracked the top five in session 3 and wound up ninth overall. Simmons was right behind, in 10th.
Tony George's team took a page from NASCAR's book by running primer gray paint schemes at the Daytona test. A shiny black third car was also prepared for family friend A.J. Foyt IV to audition with the team. Foyt, who has not run an IndyCar road race since early 2005, surprised by leading the Vision effort with the 12th-best time.
"I think having time to test and get comfortable in the car here at Daytona is important," said the 22-year-old. "It will just take laps for me to get comfortable and more experience with these cars on a road course."
Tomas Scheckter missed the first session with mechanical issues and clocked the 13th-best lap of the test, and Ed Carpenter wound up dead last of the 17 drivers who ran.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises
With the team now managed by A.J.'s son Larry, the Foyt squad is planning a move to Indianapolis to be in the IndyCar mainstream. New driver recruit Darren Manning has energized the legendary but languishing outfit.
"It's nice to get back to a proper race team after a few years with some bigger organizations," said Manning, who ran 14th in the No. 14 car. "A.J. knows how to put a race car under a driver and he already knows what I want. We're going to be going after some wins this year."
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
On the eve of the Daytona test, D&R revealed it has signed 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Rice for the full IndyCar campaign, while Sarah Fisher is set to return for a partial schedule. After three years with Rahal Letterman Racing, Rice got acquainted with his new team at Daytona and was 15th-quickest.
"Dreyer & Reinbold is really trying to step up their program to make the team a front-runner full-time, especially with the engineers they have brought on board," Rice said, referring to Chris Finch and John Dick.
Fisher returned to run two IndyCar races for D&R in 2006 after driving full-time for the team in the past, and showed enough to be invited back for the oval portion of the 2007 slate.
"Sarah really showed us she had matured as a racer and we were eager to sign her to the team for 2007," said co-owner Dennis Reinbold.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
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