Old Guard Stars in New IndyCar Season


On a regular day in St. Petersburg, FL, going much in excess of 30 miles an hour will land you a ticket.

As the Verizon IndyCar Series takes to the city’s streets Sunday, however, top speeds nearing 200 miles per hour will be the ticket to victory.

Winning the season opener is a nice thought after a winter’s news lost the original one, scheduled to take place in Brasilía three weeks ago.  With momentum now building on the strength of eye-catching aero kit reveals and bolstered by a new fantasy racing game, now marks the time for IndyCar’s redemption.

Contrast that with the headliners for this weekend’s race.

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Redemption’s no story for Will Power or his Team Penske stablemates Simon Pagenaud, Hélio Castroneves, and Juan Pablo Montoya.  Unless they’ve brought some bottles and cans to the local Publix, there’s nothing to redeem for four drivers who all finished 2014 in the championship’s top five.

Timesheet-topping in preseason tests and Friday’s practice, during which Power, Montoya, and Castroneves locked out the top three, paired with the apparent pace advantage of the Chevrolet bodywork only make the brainstorming exercise of who can beat Team Penske more demanding.

If there’s to be an answer, the best one might be themselves.

While racing for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports last year, Pagenaud clashed heavily with Power.  Each contended for the title, ultimately claimed by Power, but just as often shared the spotlight for avoidable contact and some unavoidable fireworks.  Pagenaud blamed Power.  Power blamed Pagenaud.  The relationship of a pair who once teamed at Walker Racing strained.

That was not unique for Power.  Teammates Castroneves and Montoya both had grievances about restarts, blocking, and other tactics that have made perceptions of Power so divisive.

Two on a team, fighting each other for the title, has been explosive enough in series like Formula One where Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost or Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have let their closest allies on paper be their number one targets in battle.

To try it now with four might be crazy.

But then how often do you get a chance to field the defending champion, one of the best-regarded road racers, an all-time Indianapolis great, and a legend of open-wheel oval racing?  It’s an excellence that overflows, and that’s a treat for fans of teams they just might talk about years and years of new seasons into the future.

Writing that folklore might be worth the risk in the end.  Now, in the beginning, everyone outside Team Penske hopes to author a different conclusion.

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Truth be told, Penske’s not without strong challengers.  Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing are perennial favorites.  Ryan Hunter-Reay will be Honda’s main ace with Andretti Autosport.  Sébastien Bourdais finally won again in 2014 and may parlay his experience with higher downforce cars into aero kit success.  Shots in the dark like Josef Newgarden, aided through the merger of his Sarah Fisher team with Ed Carpenter’s to form CFH Racing, or Jack Hawksworth, last year’s rookie standout now in A. J. Foyt equipment, just might surprise in a league filled with parity.

There’s the move of James Hinchcliffe to Schmidt Peterson, too, adding intrigue, while other shuffles see Luca Filippi splitting the #20 with Carpenter and the debuts of rookies like Stefano Coletti, a GP2 veteran.  Sage Karam and Simona de Silvestro each have auditions in top teams, courting sponsorship in an all-or-nothing bid to stand out the way each has in past IndyCar races: Karam, in his debut at the Indy 500, and de Silvestro in flashy finishes both here and at Houston throughout her years in the series.

Team Penske, though, has won six of the 10 races it has contested in St. Petersburg.  It’s a new season on the verge of old news if their victory is imminent, even amidst that strong field.  In week one, any and all may return home defeated.

Still, for a sport founded on over a century of history, a little repetition’s no unwelcome entity; it’s practically inevitable, and it wouldn’t hurt to photocopy 2014, with its 11 different winners from a season that opened with nothing less than a Team Penske triumph.

Indeed, starting the season with the favorites on top, especially with new, manufacturer-fueled development wars in aero kits, does not mean they’ll stay there forever.  Whether through their own volatile relationships or by the will of competitors, Team Penske has ways to lose the title.

The season, after all, may be new with the same, old rivals, but it only begins, not ends, in St. Petersburg.

There, for one weekend only, speeding won’t lead to a police chase.  Speeding will instead be key in the chase, and it’s Team Penske they’ll all be pursuing in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Sunday, 3:00 PM Eastern, on ABC.