DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The engines have fired, the wheels have turned and the drivers have been debriefed.
It's back to business for the IndyCar Series, and a two-day open test at Daytona International Speedway demonstrated that the Indy Racing League could be ready to start the 2007 season next week if it had to be.
Instead, the 17 drivers who took part in the Daytona experiment will have to wait until March 24 to start their 17-race campaign at Homestead-Miami Speedway. At least they'll have two more test days (Feb. 21-22 at Homestead) and a media day to keep them busy over the next six weeks.
Nothing unusual happened at the Daytona test, which is good news from the IRL's standpoint. All 17 cars ran reliably, and a pair of popular veteran drivers confirmed they were returning to the series. An 18th entry (for Fernandez Racing and driver P.J. Chesson) should be on track for the Homestead test, while the startup Cahill Racing team continues to make preparations for its entry with a pair of rookie drivers. If anything, the IndyCar Series has at least maintained its status quo heading into the offseason, which is about the best the series can hope for in a difficult period for American open-wheel racing.
Before the Daytona test, we identified five things to watch for on the high banks. Here are the early clues as to who will wind up as the 2007 IndyCar Series champion.
1. Can anyone get closer to the Penske and Ganassi teams this year?
Andretti Green Racing's Tony Kanaan wound up fastest at the Daytona test, but that's not a big surprise because AGR has generally had the fastest road-racing cars in the IndyCar Series for the last couple of years -- over one lap, at least. Kanaan admitted that it was nice to have bragging rights for a couple of days, but ultimately, pacing the Daytona action was meaningless in the big picture. Andretti Green's progress won't be measured until the IndyCars hit the 1.5-mile Homestead oval, the type of track where AGR was badly outclassed by Penske and Ganassi in 2006.
Probably the most significant thing that came out of Daytona with regard to the IRL's top two teams from 2006 is what went on within them. Ganassi's Dan Wheldon has surprisingly struggled since the IndyCar Series added road races in 2005, but back in a Dallara chassis after a year using a Panoz on road courses, he was consistently faster at Daytona than his teammate Scott Dixon. Of course, the New Zealander has been the IRL's most successful road racer over the last two years, with a pair of wins, so if Wheldon can make progress in that regard, it should strengthen his championship challenge.
At Team Penske, Sam Hornish Jr. was closer to teammate Helio Castroneves' pace at Daytona than he generally has been for the last couple of years. Hornish still looked like a bit of a wild man, missing apexes and power-sliding his car much more than his team colleague, but at the end of the day, he was only 0.2 seconds a lap slower than the Brazilian.
The best of the rest -- Vitor Meira's Panther Racing car and the Rahal Letterman Racing entries driven by Scott Sharp and Jeff Simmons -- were generally about 0.7 seconds behind pacesetters Kanaan and Castroneves.
2. What impact will Danica Patrick's move to Andretti Green Racing have?
Danica's move hasn't gotten off to the best start, other than for its padding of her bank account. She suffered a minor crash in her AGR shakedown a month ago at Homestead when her car lost a wheel, and she was 16th of the 17 drivers who ran at Daytona.
Amazingly, Patrick didn't even post a hot lap in the first session at Daytona because she wasn't comfortable with her seat in the car, something that should have been identified before she hit the track. The gaffe caused her to postpone a lunchtime Wednesday news conference until the end of the day, which prompted the Daytona Beach News Journal to unfairly trash Patrick, AGR and the IRL PR staff.
"It wouldn't happen with NASCAR," wrote columnist Ken Willis. "Handlers for Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and maybe even Tony Stewart would've made it work, especially if they had something to promote -- like, say, an entire racing series."
Within the team, Patrick got along well with her three teammates and Dario Franchitti had nothing but good things to say about working with America's favorite female racer. That scenario might change if Danica kicks their tails on ovals, where she has traditionally performed best.
"I obviously want to win soon and get it over with so it isn't sitting on my shoulder and I don't have to answer any more questions," Patrick said. "What do I need to do? I was hired because I'm a driver so I need to do my best. I don't know what that's going to give me, but I hope it's a win, or running up front."
3. What's different about the cars this year?
Nothing, at least in appearance. But the Honda engines have a slightly less piercing exhaust note and Honda Performance Development continues to work on a muffler system that will make the IndyCar Series more fan-friendly.
Perhaps the biggest change is the smell of the engine exhaust, which is reminiscent of the malodorous corn-refining plant.
4. What is the significance of IndyCars testing at Daytona?
Despite all the talk from both sides downplaying the significance of the test, Daytona and Indy Racing League officials are taking a hard look at adding an IndyCar Series race to Daytona Speed Weeks in 2008. But it won't be as simple as it seems.
For all the glowing reviews the drivers gave the Daytona track as a test facility, several expressed concerns off the record about the feasibility of actually racing there. All you had to do was watch the cars as they porpoised and darted on Daytona's high banks to see how difficult they were to drive.
"The track layout is really challenging, but it needs a little massage in the safety aspect," Castroneves said. "On the banking, it's hard to keep the car in a straight line and you have to be really cautious if you want to pass someone out there.
"But this track has high speed, low speed, intermediate corners, bumps and everything you can have."
From Daytona's perspective, it comes down to whether the IndyCar Series would be a winner at the box office, and parent company International Speedway Corporation knows all too well what a tough sell IndyCar has been on most ovals. A few hundred fans paid $10 for the opportunity to watch the open-wheelers at Daytona, a far cry from the estimated 100,000 who filled the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for NASCAR's initial open test in 1993.
"Just like NASCAR wanted to race at Indianapolis, there's a reason we would love to race here," said Indy Racing League president Brian Barnhart. "We're definitely a long way from getting there and accomplishing everything we need to accomplish to put on a race here, but we've certainly taken the right steps. We've clearly proven we can run here safely and put on a good show. Our guys like the place, and we have a desire to be here. The ball is in [ISC's] court, for sure."
5. What else is new in the IRL?
IRL marketing officials are trying to phase out the "Indy Racing League" name because it has little recognition in the general public -- and negative connotations to many longtime American open-wheel racing fans.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing signed former Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice for a full 17-race campaign, while the series' three-time most popular driver, Sarah Fisher, returns to the Indianapolis-based team for at least a partial schedule. Fernandez Racing expects to be on track for the Homestead test, bringing the IRL field to 18 entries, while Cahill Racing hopes to join the series with rookie drivers Milka Duno and Jeff Mitrisin.
However, IRL officials are wary about the prospect of a startup team that features two drivers who have absolutely zero experience in this form of motorsport. The IndyCar Series has been reluctant to allow Marty Roth to compete over the last two years, so it seems unlikely it will approve Cahill's entry or driver lineup.
"Brian Barnhart will be keeping a very close watch on that rookie test," admitted an IRL spokesman.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.