Commentary

From Dan to Danica, 2008 campaign won't be lacking in drama

Will Dan Wheldon do enough in '08 to attract a NASCAR ride in '09? Will Danica Patrick finally get to Victory Lane? John Oreovicz poses these questions and others as he examines the eight drivers to watch in the 2008 IndyCar season.

Updated: April 2, 2008, 12:07 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | Special to ESPN.com

With the stroke of a pen (proffered by Minardi brand principal Paul Stoddart, so he claims), American open-wheel racing has been unified under the Indy Racing League banner.

The addition of five Champ Car teams has swelled the entry list for the IndyCar Series season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway to 26 cars, up from 20 a year ago and the third-highest total for an opener in the history of the IRL.

Each of the 26 drivers slated to compete at Homestead has a compelling story. In the spirit of '08, here are eight in particular to focus on:

Dan Wheldon

Weldon

• 1. Dan Wheldon -- The 2005 Indianapolis 500 winner and IndyCar Series champion hasn't been shy about letting the NASCAR world know he is interested in grabbing a slice of the stock car pie. But he hasn't gotten a lot of attention in return, and he knows he needs a monster 2008 IndyCar season to maximize his value in a contract year.

Wheldon is certainly capable of it. No driver in the IndyCar Series is more spectacular and Daring Dan dominated the 2005 season in winning the championship for Andretti Green Racing, then almost duplicated the feat for Target/Ganassi Racing a year later. With road racing an increasingly important factor in the IndyCar Series, the question is whether a less-than-stellar 2007 campaign was an aberration or the start of a downward trend.

"There were a lot of instances last year where it just didn't go my way, and circumstances happened that kind of took me out of the championship hunt," said the 27-year-old Englishman. "I'm definitely going to be fighting for the championship this year, I have no doubt."

Wheldon craves the spotlight, and if the IndyCar Series grows faster than expected after open-wheel racing's long overdue unification, he might be tempted to stay -- regardless of whether NASCAR comes calling.

Danica Patrick

Patrick

• 2. Danica Patrick -- She's a winner on Madison Avenue, but Danica still hasn't found the way to Victory Lane in an IndyCar race.

Of course, as an instantly recognizable one-name star, Danica doesn't need to win races to be considered successful. But just imagine the hype that a victory would generate for her, particularly at a high-profile event like the Indianapolis 500, as well as the respect she would earn from her peers.

Problem is, now that several Champ Car teams are being added to the IndyCar Series field, the task of winning is going to get more difficult for America's favorite female racer. By midseason, there are likely to be another two or three entries capable of challenging the likes of Andretti Green, Penske and Ganassi on a regular basis.

"This is the most excited I've been going into a season and the most comfortable I've felt," she said. "Normally, every other year I was more nervous than anything, but I'm going into this one saying, 'If you want a shot at winning championships, you've got to get out of the box fast.'"

Danica's best chance of victory likely will come early in the season, at Motegi or perhaps even Indy. A small army of marketers have their fingers crossed.

Justin Wilson

Wilson

• 3. Justin Wilson -- A month ago, Wilson was the odds-on favorite to win the Champ Car championship. Wilson was stepping into the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing entry that Sebastien Bourdais had driven to the last four Champ Car series titles, and the 29-year-old Englishman was looking forward to what was setting up as a breakout season.

The end to the American open-wheel war put an end to those plans. Wilson will still have the benefit of joining NHLR, which, with eight championships to its credit since 1984, is undoubtedly one of the sport's top teams. But Newman/Haas/Lanigan has almost no IndyCar Series experience, and none whatsoever with the current Dallara/Honda spec package. And Wilson has run only five oval races in his career -- half the number he can expect to start over the next six months.

NHLR made things even tougher for Wilson and teammate Graham Rahal by skipping the first transition test session for Champ Car teams. They will make their official IndyCar Series debut at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 24, just five days before the start of the season.

"We've got a long road ahead of us trying to work everything out," Wilson said. "My personal aim is to do the best we can, whether that is trying to get a podium or pick up race wins. I don't want to overestimate and I don't want to underestimate. We've got to judge the competition when we get there and be realistic. These first few races will be very difficult."

• 4. Hideki Mutoh -- From Shigeaki Hattori to Kosuke Matsuura, Japanese drivers have posted a checkered record in IndyCar Series competition. But there are signs that Mutoh could rise above the mediocrity.

Mutoh is a product of Honda's Formula Dream program in Japan, and the 25-year-old has already spent several years racing small formula open-wheelers in Europe. He raced in the Indy Pro Series in 2007, winning twice on the way to second place in the series championship, and made a competent Indycar Series debut with an eighth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway for Panther Racing.

Honda has always backed a Japanese driver during its five years in the IndyCar Series, but this is the first time it has placed one with an absolute top team. Mutoh is stepping into the No. 27 car at Andretti Green Racing vacated by defending series and Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti.

"This is a championship-winning team, and the No. 27 is the champion's number," Mutoh observed. "That means a lot for me, for the Japanese and for Honda. I have very good teammates I can learn a lot from and I have no pressure at all. I'm really looking forward to the first race."

A.J. Foyt IV

Foyt

• 5. A.J. Foyt IV -- Two years ago, the grandson of one of Indy-style racing's most famous names was out of open-wheelers and looking for work in stock cars. When that didn't work out, Tony George offered "Anthony" a career lifeline with his Vision Racing team for the 2007 season, and the Foyt name started regularly popping up in the top 10 again, led by a third-place run at Kentucky Speedway.

Foyt and Ed Carpenter combined for 11 top-10s in 2007 and they hope to convert that into top-5s this year.

"Toward the end of the year, you could see we were getting better and more comfortable with each other," said Foyt, who despite having 65 IndyCar starts under his belt is still just 23 years old. "The goal for this year for Ed and me is to get Vision its first win. That would be a huge accomplishment and I think we have the opportunity to get that done."

• 6. Oriol Servia -- Seasoned Champ Car observers reckon this 33-year-old Spaniard could be the best bet among newcomers to challenge the elite IndyCar Series runners. Unless Paul Tracy lands a last-minute ride, Servia, who competed in Champ Car since 2000, has by far the most oval racing experience of the drivers switching series.

He's also been very racy on ovals, as anyone who witnessed his races against Tracy at the Milwaukee Mile will attest. KV Racing Technology, owned by Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven and managed by Mark Johnson, also boasts nearly as much oval track experience as Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.

KV's transition to the IndyCar Series got off to a great start when Will Power was fastest on Day 1 of Sebring testing and Servia was quickest on Day 2. His time of 52.7035 seconds was third fastest among all IndyCar spring testing laps this year.

"I don't think we should give that much importance to the lap times because there was a lot of rubber down. I am happy with the balance of the car and we ended up fast. I'm very happy that both cars ran trouble-free over the two days. That's a big accomplishment."

• 7. Ryan Hunter-Reay -- This 27-year-old Floridian thought his open-wheel days were past thanks to an acrimonious parting with Rocketsports Racing in mid-2005 that ended a two-win Champ Car career.

But when Jeff Simmons had a hard time keeping Rahal Letterman Racing's Ethanol-sponsored IndyCar off the walls, Bobby Rahal came calling. RHR responded with a series of consistent top-10 runs that earned him an invitation to return as Rahal Letterman's sole driver in 2008.

Without the benefit of teammates, Hunter-Reay faces a tough task against the two- and four-car teams that dominate the IndyCar Series.

"My basic goals are podiums and hopefully a win," Hunter-Reay said. "We have to build on what we did last year. We've got our work cut out, but if we keep going down the same road we're going on and keep the chemistry we have on the team, I see no reason why we can't have some great results this year."

Helio Castroneves

Castroneves

• 8. Helio Castroneves -- The IndyCar Series gained another major star in 2007, but it wasn't directly because of anything that happened on the racetrack.

Helio Castroneves began to rival Danica Patrick in the popularity sweepstakes after he participated in the television series "Dancing with the Stars." Well, not just participated -- Castroneves won the competition with partner Julianne Hough, and introduced his bubbly personality to mainstream America in the process.

A couple hours of primetime television did what two Indianapolis 500 victories arguably failed to achieve: It made Helio a household name.

Now 32, the Sao Paulo, Brazil, native is lacking one major accolade on his trophy case: the IndyCar Series championship hardware.

"I want to win the championship, and I want to win Indy a third time," Castroneves said. "I think it's being in the right place at the right time, and we have to continue working hard. One day the door will open, and hopefully it will open this year."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.