- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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The IZOD IndyCar Series hosted its annual media day at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. The nine-hour meet-and-greet session preceded two days of IndyCar testing on Barber's 2.2-mile road course, and five main stories or themes stood out:
1. Team Penske's new era
One of the longest-running sponsorships in any sport has officially come to an end as Philip Morris has withdrawn its support of Team Penske's IndyCar program. PM and its Marlboro brand had sponsored at least one Penske Indy car since 1989 and an association with Penske Speedways dated to 1987.
"I guess today marks the end of Team Penske's red-and-white era," noted Penske Performance president Tim Cindric. "We have a new partner in Verizon for a full season and we also have a new and different relationship with what is referred to as Altria Engagement Services. That's not just with the IndyCar program but across the board.
"We've had some time to plan for this," he added. "It's been an ever-changing legal environment for Philip Morris and they've looked at their marketing programs and which way they need to go in the future. We've been able to put together a business plan this year that works and in the meantime, we're going to actively pursue primary sponsorship beyond 2010. Even in 2010 you might see the Team Penske cars look a little different."
This marks the first time since the 1994 CART-sanctioned Indy car season that Team Penske has fielded three full-time entries. In '94, Penske drivers Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Paul Tracy won 12 of 16 races (including the Indianapolis 500) and Unser won the CART championship.
Briscoe has been tabbed by many as Penske's strongest championship threat, but others believe Power could emerge as a force in his first full season for Indy car racing's most successful team. Power made six starts for Penske in 2009 and scored one race win before suffering a broken back in a practice accident at Infineon Raceway.
"I'm fully recovered now and ready to go," said Power. "We've got three really good drivers and we'll beat up on each other and learn from each other. I expect to be running up at the front all year and I'm sure we'll see a 1-2-3 at some point in the season.
"We had a taste of the three-car operation last year and it was very successful," added Briscoe, who won four races and finished second in the 2009 IndyCar standings. "I'm hoping to build on the successes of last year. It was a big learning year for me and I'm hoping to build on that and win it all this year. My main goal is to win the Indianapolis 500."
He'll have to beat defending Indy champion Helio Castroneves, who hopes to become the latest four-time winner of the Memorial Day Classic. Now entering his 11th season with the Penske organization, Castroneves thinks the expansion to three cars will benefit the team.
"We had a lot of fun last year and the results were there as well," Helio said. "I do feel we are going to have a very good year. It's going to be competitive within the team but that's what's going to take us to the top."
2. Danica Patrick, IndyCar driver
For Danica Patrick, facing the small pack of IndyCar beat journalists must have seemed like a vacation after the weeks of intense scrutiny she endured in the lead-up to her stock car racing debut.
After being surrounded at times by as many as 80 cameramen and writers during Daytona SpeedWeeks, Patrick sat in a small circle with eight local and IndyCar beat writers. Even with Danica on hand, the small turnout at Barber illustrates just how far IndyCar racing has to go to get back in favor with the mainstream media and the general public.
And not surprisingly, the main topic of the conversation was Danica's initial NASCAR experience -- on and off the track.
"A few people have been surprised by how crazy it can get," she said. "I guess I'm lucky that people care. I guess I didn't expect there to be quite so intense of a focus and following. That's part of what makes NASCAR exciting. It is a big platform so the stories do get out there. They do a good job of pushing their drivers and personalities and getting them out there. They have media relationships. It helps the whole process.
"Being in an Indy car is definitely my comfort zone right now," she added. "I understand the car and the technical changes we need to make it better. The stock car doesn't do much very well. It's very simple. It's got '70s chassis technology and it's just old."
Several of the other drivers were prompted to discuss Danica's NASCAR adventures as well. Most of them agreed that the amazing amount of attention being heaped upon her made the transition from Indy cars to stock cars even more difficult.
Some were happy to poke fun at the media circus. "You know how they say there are two kinds of oval drivers -- those who have hit the wall and those who haven't?" queried Tony Kanaan. "Well there's drivers who have had to answer Danica questions and those who haven't. And now in NASCAR they're getting a taste of what we got."
3. Who's missing?
The most notable absentee is Graham Rahal, who was not renewed by Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing due to a lack of sponsorship. NHLR appeared at Barber with only one car, for two-year IndyCar Series veteran Hideki Mutoh.
Only four American drivers tested at Barber, three of whom lined up for Andretti Autosport. But the absence of Rahal, who is the IndyCar Series' youngest pole and race winner and one of its most marketable stars, did not reflect well on the series.
"It's so unfortunate and it shouldn't be," commented Marco Andretti. "The guy deserves it so much. It's almost a reality check for how tough times are right now and how money makes the world go round."
"The fact that Graham is not here is not a good situation," agreed defending series champion Dario Franchitti. "He deserves to be here and hopefully that works itself out. But the car count is up, and that's good."
Twenty-one cars and 22 drivers ran over the two days at Barber. Partial Indy 500 programs were also announced for rookie Sebastian Saavedra (Bryan Herta Autosport) and veteran Davey Hamilton (De Ferran Luczo Dragon Racing).
And while Rahal -- with race wins on his résumé and a famous name in Indy car circles -- was not in a car, the likes of Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, James Rossiter and Mario Romancini were.
Rahal's only shot at participating in 2010 appears to be if he can raise enough sponsorship on his own to resurrect Rahal Letterman Racing's mothballed IndyCar team.
Dale Coyne Racing was also absent from the Barber test after Coyne was taken by surprise when sponsor Z-Line Furniture and driver Justin Wilson moved to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Vision Racing is another notable absentee, though team owner Tony George was expected to arrive in Alabama on Wednesday.
Paul Tracy, who is expected to confirm a limited IndyCar schedule that includes the Indianapolis 500 and the two Canadian races, weighed in from home at Las Vegas via his Twitter account: "4 drivers from this continent at the first test i think there is 3 wins for all of them put together as guys like rahal, rice and me get to stay home and watch. if thats what you fans want enjoy."
4. What's going to happen this year?
From a competitive standpoint, the big question is whether anyone can end the dominance of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and the expanded Team Penske, which won 16 of 17 races in 2009. Ganassi's Franchitti and Scott Dixon won five races apiece.
"I'm definitely re-motivated after coming so close last year," Dixon said. "Last year was great for the team with Dario and me finishing 1-2 in the championship and this season we're obviously trying to do the same. I think the team has been working even harder this offseason to try and make the car better and I can't wait to get started."
Franchitti said he believes the competition will be closer to Ganassi in 2010. "The Andretti team will be back on the pace, Penske will be as tough as they have ever been and we have to do our absolute best every week. If that's good enough, then we'll be looking good."
Dixon singled out KV Racing despite a completely revamped driver lineup in which Brazilian up-and-comer Mario Moraes has been replaced by Viso and ex-F1 driver Sato. Rossiter tested for KV at Barber and hopes his sponsors will fund a full-season campaign.
"A lot of teams have two years of experience with these cars now," Dixon said. "KV on ovals were very fast at the end of last year and with the current drivers they have they should be strong on road courses."
5. The DeltaWing concept
There was no sign of the DeltaWing concept at Barber, but it was still the center of attention two weeks after its debut at the Chicago Auto Show.
"It caught my attention and it's getting people talking," stated Franchitti. "I like the fact that it got discussions going and got people thinking. I like the idea behind it of efficiency as well.
"Things have changed from 10 or 15 years ago when it was all about bringing out a new car every year that was 1 or 1.5 mph quicker than the old one. Because it's a one-make thing you have to look at other ways to make it relevant."
Franchitti's Ganassi Racing teammate was also outspoken about the issue of the new IndyCar technical formula, which is still being debated prior to a planned 2012 introduction.
"I still can't see why you can't have more than one manufacturer," Dixon said. "The best days in Champ Car were like that. People come back to 'Well it costs too much ' and blah blah blah, but if they make it to the price they need to achieve, it doesn't make any difference to me."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
It's looking like a season of transition in the IndyCar Series, with five stories emerging. Some big ones? New sponsors for Penske, Danica's comfort zone and where's Graham Rahal?