Dario Franchitti wearing the bull's-eye
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Izod IndyCar Series opens the 2011 campaign with open-wheel racing in a stronger position than it has enjoyed in many years.
With the so-called unification of Indy car racing now three full years in the past, IndyCar's focus is firmly on the future. With the sport's economic base improving, grids will be capped at 26 cars (except at the Indianapolis 500, which will feature its traditional 33 starters), and there is the tantalizing prospect of three engine suppliers and a new chassis with multiple body kits in store for the 2012 season.
In the meantime, the series hopes that minor tweaking of the competition rules -- mainly side-by-side restarts during all races -- will increase interest and excitement in 2011 in the final year of the Dallara-Honda spec formula.
This year is almost certain to again be dominated by Target Chip Ganassi Racing, and Team Penske, but Chip Ganassi has expanded his effort to four cars and other teams like Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and KV Racing Technology-Lotus are clearly gaining ground.
American involvement is growing, with highly touted rookies J.R. Hildebrand and Charlie Kimball earning a promotion from the Indy Lights championship. An effort is being made to attract United States Auto Club short-track stars to Indy car racing instead of NASCAR.
There's also a fascinating subplot involving female drivers, with Danica Patrick (in possibly her last season of racing Indy cars full time) fighting off challenges from Simona De Silvestro and Ana Beatriz.
In short, under the leadership of Randy Bernard, IndyCar is finally showing signs of re-emerging as a major player on the American sports landscape.
"We still have work to be done," Bernard said. "But what excites me the most is that we have a solid financial foundation, and we're not trying to take shortcuts to accomplish our goals. I want to see us continue to grow and keep up this feeling of momentum and improvement.
"We have to continue to push. We've got a long way to go to grow the sport, and it's not going to be easy. Everything we do must be about what's in the best interest of IndyCar."
Here's a team-by-team look at how the 2011 season is shaping up (R denotes rookie):
Chip Ganassi RacingCar number/driver/country
• 9 -- Scott Dixon, New Zealand
• 10 -- Dario Franchitti, Scotland
• 38 -- Graham Rahal, USA
• 83 -- Charlie Kimball (R), USA
To combat Roger Penske's three-car IndyCar effort, Chip Ganassi has taken a page from Rick Hendrick's NASCAR book. Ganassi has expanded his open-wheel effort to four cars, but they will operate as a pair of independent, two-car teams housed in separate Indianapolis race shops. Franchitti and Dixon will continue to anchor the operation in Target-sponsored cars, while Rahal and rookie Kimball have been presented with the opportunity to work with the most successful open-wheel team of the past 15 years. Although the teams will share information, Franchitti and Dixon have been keen to downplay the notion that the new additions will have an effect on their programs. Franchitti is gunning for his third consecutive series title and back-to-back wins in the Indianapolis 500, while Dixon is hoping to reverse the two-year trend that saw him beaten by his teammate for the first time in his 11-year Indy car career. Many observers believe that Rahal is poised for a breakout season.
Team Penske• 3 -- Helio Castroneves, Brazil
• 6 -- Ryan Briscoe, Australia
• 12 -- Will Power, Australia
Power is the junior member of Penske's three-car assault, but he emerged as the team leader in 2010 in his first full-time campaign with Roger Penske's legendary organization. Power's dominance of the IndyCar Series' road races last year was uncanny, and if he can become a regular front-runner on ovals, he will become a championship favorite. Castroneves was rejuvenated by Power's presence, and he remains one of the best Indy 500 drivers in history. Meanwhile, Briscoe's ride was somewhat in jeopardy after a disappointing 2010 season, but an influx of new sponsors (including Izod, Shell-Pennzoil, Guidepoint and Meijer) has given the Australian the opportunity to redeem himself.
Andretti Autosport• 7 -- Danica Patrick, USA
• 26 -- Marco Andretti, USA
• 27 -- Mike Conway, England
• 28 -- Ryan Hunter-Reay, USA
The IndyCar Series' dominant team from 2004 to '07 has fallen upon hard times, resulting in the dismissal of AA stalwart Tony Kanaan. Hunter-Reay, who joined the Andretti squad in 2010, is now the team's most accomplished driver, while 24-year-old Marco Andretti -- now the team's most long-standing pilot -- continues to seek his second career Indy car race win. Patrick closed 2010 with some strong oval performances, but the league's most popular driver is tipped to switch her full-time focus to NASCAR in 2012. Prolonged contract negotiations could adversely affect her focus this year. Conway takes over the team's fourth entry.
KV Racing Technology-Lotus• 5 -- Takuma Sato, Japan
• 59 -- E.J. Viso, Venezuela
• 82 -- Tony Kanaan, Brazil
Following a crash-filled 2010 campaign with a relatively novice driver lineup, KVRT got just what it needed in the form of the experienced veteran Kanaan. The last-minute nature of the Brazilian's signing could lead to early struggles, but his presence should provide depth and stability. Takuma Sato and EJ Viso return for their second season with the team co-owned by Kevin Kalkhoven and former CART champion Jimmy Vasser.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing• 22 -- Justin Wilson, England
• 24 -- Ana Beatriz (R), Brazil
For the first time in his American career, Wilson returns for a second year with a team. One of the top road racers in the world, Wilson is tabbed as one of the likeliest non-Penske/Ganassi drivers to win in IndyCar this year. The highly regarded Beatriz gets her first shot at a full-time ride, while popular veteran (and 2003 CART champion) Paul Tracy has been confirmed by DRR for the Indianapolis 500.
Panther Racing• 4 -- J.R. Hildebrand (R), USA
Panther Racing enjoyed its most successful era from 2001 to 2003 when it employed a young American named Sam Hornish, and team principal John Barnes is operating out of the same playbook by jettisoning former IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon in favor of 2009 Indy Lights titlist Hildebrand. Expect an uneven season, but podium finishes are not out of the question.
Newman-Haas Racing• 02 -- Oriol Servia, Catalonia
After suffering through a tough 2010 campaign with Hideki Mutoh, one of American racing's legendary teams is bouncing back with a strengthened driver lineup. Servia is one of the sport's true good guys and a clean, fast racer, while personable Indy Lights graduate.
HVM Racing• 78 -- Simona De Silvestro, Switzerland
De Silvestro put together a competent rookie season in 2010 and often outpaced her more famous female competitor Danica Patrick on road courses. Keith Wiggins' HVM team gains stability this year with sponsorship from nuclear energy firm Entergy, and a year of experience should improve De Silvestro's finishing record.
Sam Schmidt Motorsports• 77 -- Alex Tagliani, Canada
Indy Lights stalwart Sam Schmidt makes his move into full-time IndyCar Series competition by taking over the Fazzt Race Team, including key assets Alex Tagliani and engineer Allen McDonald. This one-car operation could be sneakily competitive in 2011 and has the potential for growth when the league introduces its new chassis and engine in 2012.
Sarah Fisher Racing• 67 -- Ed Carpenter, USA
A very competitive oval driver in search of his first IndyCar win after a pair of heartbreaking second-place finishes, Carpenter will focus on the oval championship in his first season with Sarah Fisher's nicely presented team. Fisher may return to driving to compete in the Indianapolis 500.
Conquest Racing• 34 -- Sebastian Saavedra, Colombia
After fruitless negotiations with former CART champ Paul Tracy throughout the winter, Conquest Racing announced it would start the season with a single entry for rookie Saavedra. Tracy signed to drive a car for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing at the Indianapolis 500 and could yet surface in a Conquest entry.
Dale Coyne Racing• 19 -- Sebastien Bourdais, France
• 18 -- James Jakes, England
Four-time Champ Car World Series titlist Bourdais makes his return to American open-wheel racing, albeit for only the road-racing championship, while rookie Jakes is set for the full season. Coyne's team won a race with Justin Wilson in 2009, and Bourdais could be extremely competitive once he is fully accustomed to the Dallara-Honda Indy car.
A.J. Foyt Enterprises• 14 -- Vitor Meira, Brazil
Meira returns for his third season with legend A.J. Foyt, who hopes an increased emphasis on modern engineering techniques propels his single-car team further up the grid.
AFS Racing• 17 -- Raphael Matos, Brazil
A last-minute entry to the series featuring former Indy Lights champion Matos, AFS Racing is operating out of the old Forsythe Racing shop in Indianapolis, managed by ex-Forsythe boss Neil Micklewright and featuring race engineer Tom Brown.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.