With teams gearing up for Indy, here's what we've learned so far

INDIANAPOLIS -- Four races, four winners so far in the 2008 IndyCar Series. Actually, five and five if you factor in the Champ Car Long Beach Grand Prix, which counts toward the IndyCar championship.

The month of May at Indianapolis is often considered a championship within itself. But the season-long points battle is shaping up as a good one, with Team Penske's Helio Castroneves leading Target/Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon by six and nine points respectively.

Tony Kanaan is only 15 points back, while Danica Patrick finally won a race and ranks fifth in the standings.

Some teams and drivers place as much emphasis on the Indianapolis 500 as they do on the season championship.

And why not? A win at Indy has traditionally paid more prize money than the points title, and this year's Indianapolis purse has been substantially increased. This year's 500 winner is expected to take home upwards of $2.5 million, compared to the $1 million bonus the Indy Racing League pays to its champion.

The Indianapolis 500 winner also garners far more publicity than the overall IndyCar champion, which could result in additional endorsement income down the line.

But a driver who gets too keyed up for Indy and comes up short of winning the Borg-Warner Trophy runs the risk of suffering an emotional hangover for the rest of the season -- just ask Wheldon.

With the calendar about to turn to May, the obvious thing to do would be to focus on previewing the 500.

But there's more than ample time to do that in the days and weeks ahead. So let's instead reflect on the four (five?) IndyCar races to date in 2008 and assess what we've learned so far this year.

1. The big three teams still rule
Until rookie Graham Rahal scored a surprise tactical victory for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in the rain at St. Petersburg, the IndyCar Series' three powerhouse teams -- Ganassi, Penske and Andretti Green Racing -- had won 37 consecutive races dating to August 2005. Normal service quickly resumed, with Patrick winning for AGR in Japan and Wheldon for Ganassi at Kansas Speedway.

That's how it's likely to be for the rest of the season -- on oval tracks at least. Penske, Ganassi and AGR have so much experience and have invested so much money into developing their oval cars that the chances of an IndyCar newcomer winning a speedway race are remote at best. The Ganassi team has been particularly strong on 1.5-mile tracks this year, and four of the eight oval races arter Indianapolis are on tracks of that length.

The ex-Champ Car teams already showed signs of improvement at Kansas, as Justin Wilson was able to sometimes run with the lead pack on the way to a ninth-place finish. It will be interesting to see how quickly they can vault ahead of second-tier IRL teams like Panther Racing, Rahal Letterman Racing and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and whether they can start to match the big three on ovals by the end of the season.

One existing IRL team that has shown signs of improvement so far this year is Tony George's Vision Racing squad. An excellent qualifying performance for the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway was nullified by a technical infringement that sent Ed Carpenter and A.J. Foyt IV to the back of the grid, but the all-American Vision duo was strong in qualifying again at Kansas and will bear watching at places like Texas Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.

2. The Champ Car contingent can really road race
While Rahal's historic win in St. Pete (he became the youngest driver to win a top-level open-wheel race) owed much to strategy and good fortune, practice and qualifying for that race demonstrated that the so-called "transition" teams coming into the IndyCar Series from the defunct Champ Car World Series will be right on the pace on street and road courses.

NHLR's Wilson paced a practice session and qualified on the front row and Will Power of KV Racing Technology turned the fastest lap of the weekend; with five more road races (six if you include Surfers Paradise, Australia, which is expected to be run as a nonchampionship event) on the schedule, someone from the ex-Champ Car contingent is likely to break through again.

3. Danica is a work in progress
After three years of breathless hype, Danica Patrick finally won a race. Because it happened in Japan in a delayed race broadcast on ESPN Classic, the IndyCar Series didn't enjoy as much publicity as it would have if the victory had been on American soil (or on network TV).

But in Kansas a week later, it was 2005 all over again -- all Danica, all the time -- and champion drivers like Wheldon and Dixon already showed signs of displeasure about again playing second fiddle to a less-credentialed racer.

Patrick showed remarkable restraint and maturity by pacing herself during the final stint in Japan to make the fuel mileage she needed to make crew chief Kyle Moyer's gambling strategy work.

That bodes well for the rest of her 2008 campaign, and she should run regularly in the top six, on ovals at least. But she still needs to work on on controlling her temper; she complained vociferously when IndyCar returnee Tomas Scheckter raced her hard early in the Kansas event and she verbally trashed rookie E.J. Viso. Danica needs to learn that sometimes it might be best to zip her lip because she often comes off as impetuous and her words could come back to haunt her.

4. The racing isn't as close as it used to be
The IndyCar.com Web site proudly features video of the top 10 finishes in series history. But the most recent one to make the list happened more than two years ago at the 2006 season opener at Homestead, and the wheel-to-wheel racing that was a league trademark has largely disappeared in the past couple of seasons.

There are a few reasons for that.

For one, everyone now uses the same Honda engines, identically tuned to within 1 percent in terms of horsepower. In theory, that should make the racing closer, but what it has done instead is emphasize the difference between teams, and those teams that used to be able to mask chassis development deficiencies with a more powerful engine don't have that luxury anymore.

In addition, the overall downforce has been cut with aerodynamic rule changes, and harder Firestone tires have played a part as well, making the cars harder to drive.

The drivers don't have the grip they were accustomed to four or five years ago, and they don't have the horsepower to drive around the outside of a competitor. The positive aspect of more spaced out fields is that safety is improved.

5. A 26-car field looks better than an 18-car field
Just adding cars to the field has improved morale in the IndyCar Series this year.

Most of the pit boxes are occupied now, and the scoring monitor screens are filled from top to bottom. The show looks better on television, especially now that all IndyCar races are broadcast in HD, and as the season progresses, the larger fields are likely to improve the racing.

It will be tougher for the leaders to work through traffic, and in the second half of the year, there should be more cars contending for victories and podium finishes.

And things should only get better from here. Pacific Coast Motorsports and driver Mario Dominguez will bump the post-Indy fulltime field up to 27 cars, and there will be additional entries at selected other races. Thirty-two drivers have already been nominated for Indy, the largest pre-entry in five years. And as many as 40 competitors will be vying for the 33 starting spots, again the largest number in several years.

6. IndyCar drivers can be thankful for Firestone
Just ask Dario Franchitti, who suffered a broken foot last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway when his NASCAR Sprint Cup car spun after blowing a Goodyear tire and was T-boned by a competitor traveling more than 100 mph.

Even before the Indy Racing League asked Firestone to develop harder tires to help spread the field a bit, Firestone enjoyed a 99.99 percent reliability record in the Indycar Series. Firestone may not like it, but its tires are almost never a story in American open-wheel racing these days -- and that's a good thing.

Open-wheel crashes, especially on ovals, are much more dangerous than stock car crashes, and tire-related wrecks almost never occur in the IndyCar Series. That's a stark contrast to NASCAR, where there are numerous Goodyear tire failures almost every weekend and neither Goodyear nor NASCAR seems to be able to change things.

That could be dangerous in the long run. Just ask Franchitti.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.