2018 IndyCar season kicks off with new car, new champ, one new track

IndyCar drivers will be chasing defending champion Josef Newgarden in the season opener on Sunday in St. Petersburg, Florida. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 IndyCar season opens in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Sunday (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC), and one thing people will notice right away: There's a new car.

The 2018 car, designed by IndyCar and Dallara, looks different. The front wing has been reshaped, the side pods have been moved forward to create a more longneck shape, the engine covers are lower and the bumper pods behind the rear wheel are gone. There's a lot of throwback -- and additional crush protection -- in this car.

The cars will drive differently. Much differently. They are a handful, at least at the moment.

"It's quite difficult to put a finger on it yet, on exactly what the car does in every situation," 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud said during a test at Phoenix. "It seems to be doing different things at different tracks -- I think the problem is we've been used to having so much downforce, it's been overshadowing everything [else]."

The change in downforce -- the 2018 cars have approximately 20 percent less downforce than a year ago -- could result in different winners and losers.

"[It gives us] the opportunity to showcase the drivers now because the downforce was so high on the existing cars in '17 and before," said team owner Roger Penske. "I know all the drivers that have tested it, both on the Honda side and the Chevy side, are giving us great reviews."

Penske likes it for another reason -- the aerodynamic kits that are placed on existing chassis cost $100,000-$200,000 apiece rather than $400,000-$500,000.

New faces, new places

• Chip Ganassi Racing went from four cars to two, keeping Scott Dixon and adding Ed Jones, while Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball have all departed.

• Kanaan will drive for A.J. Foyt with rookie teammate Matheus Leist, giving that team an all-Brazilian lineup. Former Foyt driver Carlos Munoz does not have a ride except for the Indy 500 with Andretti. Chilton and Kimball will race for a new team owned by Carlin Motorsports as it expands its program from the IndyLights series.

• Roger Penske also has cut back his number of cars from four to three, which resulted in Helio Castroneves moving to the team's sports car program. Castroneves will drive in an additional Penske car for the Indianapolis 500.

• At Andretti Autosport, Zach Veach moves up to full-time competition as a rookie, replacing Takuma Sato, who has joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which expands to two full-time cars.

• Replacing Jones at Dale Coyne Racing will be rookies Zachary Claman DeMelo and Pietro Fittipaldi (Emerson Fittipaldi's grandson). Coyne keeps Sebastien Bourdais in a car that he will now co-own with Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan.

Spencer Pigot will now be a full-time driver at Ed Carpenter Racing while rookie Jordan King fills Pigot's role as a road-course driver in the car split with Carpenter driving the ovals. JR Hildebrand, who drove for the team last year, does not have a full-time ride.

• Rookie Robert Wickens has joined Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a teammate to James Hinchcliffe. The team had several drivers in that car a year ago.

• Juncos Racing has joined the IndyCar Series and will have Rene Binder and 2017 IndyLights champion Kyle Kaiser in the car.

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing, who did three races together last year, will team for a full season.

• Michael Shank Racing, working with Schmidt Peterson, will field a car for rookie Jack Harvey for a partial schedule.

One future part-timer

Danica Patrick will return to the series for the 2018 Indianapolis 500 with Ed Carpenter Racing. It will be the last race of her career.

Patrick has not competed in an IndyCar race since the 2011 race at Las Vegas, where Dan Wheldon was killed.

Read more here on what IndyCar drivers had to say about Patrick's return to the series for one race, including Dixon saying Patrick is in "for a fun May, and I'm sure she will be just fine."

One new track

Portland International Raceway replaces Watkins Glen on the circuit for a Sept. 2 race date. The Glen was a last-minute replacement after the Boston race fell through in 2016, but ticket sales fell dramatically for the 2017 race.

The last IndyCar race on the 12-turn, 1.967-mile course was in 2007.

New No. 1

Josef Newgarden, the defending champion, will change to the No. 1 (as the champion) for 2018. Guess No. 2 just didn't seem to fit.

The change in aerodynamics shouldn't hurt Newgarden, considered one of the most talented drivers on the IndyCar circuit, who flourished in his first year at Penske and seventh overall on the circuit.

Newgarden was the youngest (at age 26) IndyCar champion since Dixon won the 2003 title at 23.

Races to watch, other than Indianapolis

Phoenix and Mid-Ohio. The teams tested the new aero package at Phoenix, and hopefully it will be racy there on the 1-mile oval.

Mid-Ohio is late in the year and always has a great atmosphere. The street courses are a little tighter, but it's fun to watch drivers handle them.