Oval racing should throw some curves
The Izod IndyCar Series returns to its roots this weekend for the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway, the first oval race of the 2010 season.
It's also the first round of IndyCar's recently announced championship-within-a-championship that will award a trophy and a cash bonus to the driver who scores the most points in the IICS' eight oval races. A similar prize is on offer for the most successful driver in the series' nine road races.
Team Penske's Will Power was dominant in the first four races of the season, all of which were run on road or street courses. But Power is relatively inexperienced at oval racing, and his overall championship lead will surely be challenged in the four oval races before the series begins its second road racing swing of the season at Watkins Glen International in early July.
That said, with Power now racing full time for the Penske organization, he'll have the best possible equipment at his disposal, and it would be a major surprise if he did not score his first oval triumph before the end of the 2010 campaign.
"I'm actually looking really forward to Kansas," Power said. "I'm pretty sure we'll have a good car. I'm well-aware the guys I'll be racing have more experience than me, but I'll be disappointed if I'm not running at the front. I really expect to be, and we'll see when we get there.
"As a driver, you've just got to keep learning and keep getting better because everyone else is. If you don't, you're going to get passed because that's how motorsport is -- forever evolving."
Power's Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe also will be heavy favorites at Kansas, along with the powerhouse Target Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Dixon is the defending Kansas race champion, and Franchitti is the reigning IndyCar Series titlist.
"I think Kansas as a circuit for the Target cars has been fantastic," Dixon said. "We've always had very good races there, and I think it's going to be a fantastic place for Dario and myself.
"We have some new faces in the series this year, so it'll be a good place to work at, see who you can race with at this point and who you can't, and who you want to give a bit more room coming into the month of May. Every race this year definitely counts."
One question that could start to be answered this weekend is whether the Andretti Autosport team's more competitive showing on road courses this year will translate to the oval portion of the schedule. Newly added Ryan Hunter-Reay is the only non-Penske driver to have won a race this season, and the American star is looking forward to what he believes is his best-ever chance of winning an oval race in the IndyCar Series.
"I'm definitely looking forward to having some fun turning left," Hunter-Reay said. "What I love about the Izod IndyCar Series is that you're always changing up disciplines of racing. It's the only racing series in the world that does that. It's really cool. I'm looking forward to it, and I think it'll be my best opportunity in oval equipment that I've ever had."
Andretti Autosport is running five cars at Kansas and in the Indianapolis 500, adding an entry for owner Michael Andretti's cousin John. But the focus of attention will be on Danica Patrick, whose 2010 season has gotten off to a miserable start on the road courses, highlighted by a fortuitous seventh-place finish at St. Petersburg.
Patrick, whose training came in road racing, has been much more successful on ovals since joining the IndyCar Series in 2005. She scored her first IndyCar pole position at Kansas in her rookie season and desperately hopes to turn her season around. Danica ranks 16th in the standings and, among the female drivers in the series, generally has been outclassed by rookie Simona De Silvestro.
"I am definitely looking forward to getting back to the ovals, I'm not going to lie," Patrick told SI.com. "I'm not going to let the first few races of the season dictate my year. We will look forward to a good weekend at Kansas to get it going on the upside."
Justin Wilson was a regular front-runner in the first four road races, and the Englishman hopes his new association with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing translates into success on ovals, as well.
"I think we have an opportunity of being close to the front -- maybe not challenging for the win, but I think we can be much further up, and I feel I've got a lot more confidence," Wilson said. "I know what I want from the car and how to get it.
"I'm looking forward to learning from Dreyer & Reinbold," he added. "They've done a lot of oval racing, and my engineer [Matt Curry] is more in tune with the oval racing -- that's where his background is. So I think the two of us working together is quite a good combination. There's a lot to learn, and I'm looking forward to it."
A record 27 cars are entered at Kansas this weekend as several teams look to get up to speed for the month of May and the Indianapolis 500. Drivers and teams have generally been happy with the way the IndyCar Series has grouped oval races and road races this year, making things easier for mechanics in terms of turning the cars around from week to week.
"After this race, we've done the first quarter of the season and move on to the second quarter," Power said. "I like how they've done things where you can get into a little bit of a rhythm on the road courses, then you move on to the ovals and get to build momentum there. I'm definitely looking forward to getting to Kansas and seeing what we have for everybody on the ovals."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.