- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Until last summer, Ryan Briscoe was best known to American racing fans for surviving one of the most spectacular crashes in recent IndyCar history.
The accident occurred at Chicagoland Speedway in late 2005 during Briscoe's rookie IndyCar season as the third driver for Target/Ganassi Racing. Early in the race, Briscoe's Panoz-Toyota locked wheels with Alex Barron's car and was launched into the air. Upon hitting the catch fence, the car split in two and exploded into a fireball.
Fortunately for Briscoe, the cockpit section remained intact and the 27-year-old Australian emerged with relatively minor injuries. But in light of Briscoe's incident-filled rookie campaign, the Chicagoland wreck was the final straw for Chip Ganassi, who trimmed his operation back to two cars for 2006.
Briscoe was left with essentially nothing, but he patched together a program in 2006 that included racing in Grand Am sports cars, Australian V-8 Supercars and A1GP open-wheelers. He also made a pair of starts in the Champ Car World Series and ran the IndyCar Series road races for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, scoring a memorable podium finish for the team at Watkins Glen.
It was enough to capture the attention of Roger Penske, who hired Briscoe to drive one of his factory Porsche LMP2 Spyders in the American Le Mans Series in 2007. Briscoe responded by claiming rookie of the year honors in the ALMS, and he finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500 for Luczo Dragon Racing in what was essentially an unofficial tryout for Penske's IndyCar team.
"That was really kind of a report card for Team Penske to say, 'Is this a guy we want to bring on?'" recalled Penske. "Then with his experience in the team running in the ALMS and the consistency he showed in those long races, we felt that he was the right person to replace Sam [Hornish Jr.]."
Sure enough, when Hornish was transferred to Penske's NASCAR team at the start of 2008, Briscoe got the call to take over the No. 6 IndyCar. But the first half-season of his full-time return to the IndyCar Series looked a lot like 2005.
Finally, just a week after a highly publicized pit-lane clash with Danica Patrick at the Indianapolis 500, Briscoe scored a dominant victory at the Milwaukee Mile. He followed that win up later in the summer by triumphing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and again in the non-championship season finale at Surfers Paradise, Australia.
Suddenly, people were talking about Briscoe as a championship threat for 2009. That talk only intensified when Penske's de facto No. 1 driver, Helio Castroneves, was indicted by the U.S. government for tax evasion and fraud, with the possibility of being incarcerated and/or deported.
With Castroneves' career in jeopardy, Briscoe could find himself thrust into the role of Penske's team leader in 2009. But anyone who has watched the Australian mature on and off the track during his time with the Penske organization should recognize that Briscoe is prepared for that potential challenge.
"Last year, just from being given the opportunity to come on board at Team Penske, I knew it was going to be a massive step for me in my career," Briscoe remarked. "Last year was great, so I really am looking forward to this year. I know my equipment, I know my team and I think I improved personally over the course of 2008. I want to keep on that course this year.
"I know I've got the tools and capability to win," he added. "We've just got to get it right."
In the first half of that 2008 campaign, it appeared Briscoe was feeling the pressure that comes with driving for the most successful team in the history of Indy style racing. But the second half of the season showed that he is ready to add to Penske's total of 12 Indy-car championships and 14 Indianapolis 500 wins.
"Coming off some good races at the end of last year, we want to keep the momentum going into this season and just do everything possible to win the championship this year," Briscoe stated. "I gained a lot of experience last season, and this year we're going to go for it.
"I think every single driver would love to have the seat I have right now, so there is definitely a lot of pressure to hang on to it," he continued. "I just hope to have a lot of success and solidify my position here at Team Penske. I know how quickly things can turn around, and you've got to go out and make the most of the opportunities when they come."
The task of winning the IndyCar championship could be made more difficult if Castroneves is unable to compete this year. Team Penske has hired another Australian, Will Power, to handle preseason testing duties in Castroneves' stead, and Power will take over Penske's No. 3 car if Castroneves is sidelined by his legal woes.
"Hopefully it doesn't affect us too much," Briscoe said. "I feel bad for Helio; you can't spend a minute with him without laughing at something he's saying or doing, and he certainly keeps the spirits up within the team.
"But my goals are definitely the same," he added. "Obviously this is all new, but Will is a great driver who has experience and I have no doubt he'll be able to jump right in and start being helpful and useful to us in the team."
After the disastrous start to his 2008 campaign with Penske, when he ranked 19th in the championship after Indianapolis before rebounding to finish fifth overall, Briscoe knows he and the team have to get off to a stronger start in 2009.
"It always is important," he acknowledged. "It's always tough to fight back because then you start maybe trying too hard in some situations.
"It's really nice if you can start off with some good results and just be right up there because maybe there will be a critical situation in a race where you can have slightly more patience. That's where I think you can win championships. But you've got to deal with those situations. I think the key is to be well-prepared for the first race and then staying focused all season long."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.