Franchitti's return, Helio's availability highlight Surfers Paradise finale

After 17 years of Indy-style racing on Australia's Gold Coast, one thing is certain:

Expect the unexpected.

Ever since John Andretti claimed his first and only CART Indy-car victory in the inaugural event in 1991 on a street course in the beach resort city of Surfers Paradise, the Australian Indy-car race has often produced improbable or unlikely results.

That's not likely to change this year, when the Nikon Indy 300 is run for the first time under Indy Racing League sanction. In fact, this year's race could be a bit of a free-for-all, given that it will not count toward the IndyCar Series championship. Along with Long Beach and Edmonton, the Australian race was one of three Champ Car World Series events that transitioned to the 2008 IndyCar Series schedule, but the lateness of its addition precluded it from joining the others as a championship round.

On several occasions, the wild-card nature of the Gold Coast race had a major effect on the point standings, but recently crowned IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon doesn't have to worry about that. The winner at Surfers Paradise went on to be the eventual series champion only six times in 17 years, and Sebastien Bourdais (2005 and
'07) is the only two-time winner of the event.

Three drivers in this year's 24-strong field -- which includes Helio Castroneves, who received special dispensation from a federal judge to travel outside the United States in the wake of his recent indictment on conspiracy and tax-evasion charges -- will have the opportunity to join Bourdais as a multiple winner in Australia: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Bruno Junqueira and Dario Franchitti, who makes his return to the IndyCar Series this weekend after a brief foray into NASCAR.

Franchitti has signed on as teammate to Dixon at Target Chip Ganassi Racing, marking the first time that a team will field the two most recent IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champions.

"It is quite ironic that I will be making my return to open-wheel racing with Target Chip Ganassi Racing at one of my favorite events anywhere in the world," said Franchitti, who won the 1999 CART race from the pole position. "I know this year's race is not for championship points, but that will not make one inch of difference when it comes to race time. Without championship points, [the fans] might even get a bigger show than they were expecting."

Franchitti won't be the only driver in the field who is getting a jump-start on 2009 with a new team. Dan Wheldon, whom Franchitti replaced at Ganassi, will return to Panther Racing for the first time since 2003, while Vitor Meira will make his debut with Foyt Racing after driving for Panther the last three years.

"We're looking for an impressive debut with the Delphi National Guard and Panther crew," Wheldon said. "We had a great test on the oval at Indy, and at Sebring as well.

"Whenever you join a new team with new personnel it always takes time to adapt, but because of the testing, we were able to get through some of that learning process," he added. "I can tell all our guys are excited about this weekend."

The Surfers Paradise track measures 2.795 miles and is regarded as one of the finest street courses in the world. The defining features are relatively long straights broken up by three markedly different chicanes, most notably a four-turn complex on the back straight.

It is quite ironic that I will be making my return to open-wheel racing with Target Chip Ganassi Racing at one of my favorite events anywhere in the world.

-- Dario Franchitti

"The most difficult part of the track is the sequence of high-speed chicanes on the beach," observed Alex Tagliani of Conquest Racing.
"The Turn 8 approach is about 160 mph, and when we're entering the chicanes and attacking the curbs super-aggressively at 130 mph, it becomes very easy to make mistakes if the car is not right, because it has to respond quickly without being upset."

Race organizers have tried several different ways of preventing the drivers from riding the curbs to short-cut the chicanes over the years. Suspension breakages on road courses have been a problem with the Dallara spec chassis used in the IndyCar Series this year, and that could prove to be a factor this weekend.

One thing the IndyCar drivers won't need to worry about this year is inclement weather, with the forecast calling for warm and windy conditions.

The forecast for fine weather should produce record crowds at one of the most popular racing events anywhere in the world. The four-day attendance is expected to top 300,000.

Another factor likely to boost attendance is the presence of three "local" drivers: Australians Will Power and Ryan Briscoe and Dixon, who is a citizen of New Zealand but was born in nearby Brisbane, Australia.

For Team Penske's Briscoe, it represents a rare opportunity to race in his home country.

"I really haven't done a lot of racing in Australia," said the Sydney native. "I started out in go-karts but moved to Europe at 15 and really raced in Europe and America my whole career. The Champ Car race [in 2006] and a support class race for the Australian Grand Prix in
2002 are the only two races I've ever done in my own country outside of the junior go-kart level."

KV Racing is running both of its cars in Team Australia livery this weekend, with Spaniard Oriol Servia joining Toowomba native Power in the distinctive green and gold.

Power claimed pole position for the last two Champ Car races at Surfers Paradise but failed to finish both years.

"It's a track where I've been very quick but just can't break that streak of bad luck there," he said. "It means a lot to me to be racing in Australia. We have a house there on the Gold Coast and I've been going there my whole life, been hanging out there.

"It's a great event for me. I just want to finish what I've started for the last two years."

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