With an aggressive new title sponsor on board and its most popular driver finally confirmed as coming back, the Izod IndyCar Series is starting to shape up for the upcoming season.
Much will remain the same in 2010, most notably the Dallara-Honda-Firestone spec car package, which heads into its eighth season of competition. But there are two new road-racing events (Birmingham, Ala., and Sao Paulo, replacing a pair of popular ovals) and Honda and Firestone have promised to improve the push-to-pass horsepower boost and red-sidewall alternate tire programs that were successfully introduced in 2009.
Major changes to the technical package won't be coming until 2012 at the earliest, but Indy Racing League officials are confident that the arrival of marketing-savvy Izod and the potential growth of television partner Versus (which shares the IndyCar Series' U.S. television rights with ESPN/ABC) will help America's top open-wheel series start to regain the stature it enjoyed before the crippling, 13-year CART/IRL war that helped NASCAR become synonymous with racing in the United States.
Although the first race of the 2010 season is still more than three months away, the IndyCar Series field is starting to take shape.
Here's a look at the confirmed team/driver combinations, along with some projections as to how next year's grid might shape up:
• Target Chip Ganassi Racing: The winner of the past two IndyCar Series championships again will field a pair of two-time series champions, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon. Franchitti's deal has not officially been confirmed, but an announcement is expected to come in the next week or two.
• Penske Racing: Indy car racing's most successful team again will field Team Penske entries for Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe, but the big news is the addition of a third car with Verizon Wireless sponsorship for Will Power.
• Andretti Autosport: The team formerly known as Andretti Green Racing looks likely to continue with four cars. Returning drivers include team leader Tony Kanaan (sponsored by 7-Eleven), Danica Patrick (with new backing from GoDaddy.com) and Marco Andretti, whose car will run in the colors of Venom Energy drink. Efforts are ongoing to secure sponsorship for a fourth car; team boss Michael Andretti says Ryan Hunter-Reay, with at least a partial sponsorship package from Izod, is the No. 1 choice for the seat.
• Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing: Although there has not been official confirmation, look for the NHLR attack to again be headed by Graham Rahal. Alex Lloyd, who made his NHLR debut in the 2009 season finale at Homestead, is likely to secure the second seat, with sponsorship from HER Energy Drink.
• Dale Coyne Racing: Look for Justin Wilson to return to this team on the rise in 2010. Coyne would like to run a second car, and his recent history indicates he's likely to select the best available driver rather than just taking a wad of cash from a rent-a-racer.
• Panther Racing: Dan Wheldon has been confirmed to return to the No. 4 car, and team director John Barnes would like to run a second entry if funding can be found.
• Vision Racing: The economic crisis even affected the Hulman-George family, and at this juncture, IRL founder Tony George's team looks unlikely to add a second entry to accompany Ed Carpenter on the 2010 grid.
• A.J. Foyt Racing: Vitor Meira, who missed most of the 2009 season after suffering a broken back in the Indianapolis 500, is slated to return to the team for 2010.
• Luczo Dragon Racing: This growing team co-owned by Roger Penske's son, Jay, is set to continue with 2009 IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year Rafa Matos. A second car is possible but unlikely.
• KV Racing Technology: KVRT has been the most consistent of the transition teams that came over from the defunct Champ Car series in
2008, and team bosses Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven would like to expand from one to three cars. Rapidly improving Mario Moraes is likely to return for a second season with KVRT, while efforts are ongoing to secure a full-time seat for popular veteran Paul Tracy.
Additional expansion is contingent upon a driver bringing a budget.
• Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: D&R probably will continue with at least two cars, though nothing had been confirmed. The three drivers the team fielded in 2009 (Mike Conway, Tomas Scheckter and Milka Duno) are all in the frame for 2010 race seats.
• HVM Racing: Look for Keith Wiggins to extend his relationship with driver Robert Doornbos for one car, while E.J. Viso is apparently looking elsewhere for work after two seasons with HVM. His possible options include Dreyer & Reinbold and KV Racing.
• Sarah Fisher Racing: Expanded backing from Dollar General has team owner Sarah Fisher planning to run a total of nine races in 2010, including all the ovals, while a second, four-race program has been confirmed for former Indy Lights champion Jay Howard.
• Team 3G: Expect Hollywood stuntman Stanton Barrett to return for a partial program. Jaques Lazier and Richard Antinucci, who contested the remainder of the 2009 season for Team 3G, are the probable choices for events Barrett does not contest.
• Fazzt Race Team: This new operation that includes actor Jason Priestley in the ownership group acquired equipment from Roth Racing and plans to contest the full 2010 schedule with open-wheel veteran Alex Tagliani.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.