Four first-year IndyCar Series drivers will attempt to take over Hideki Mutoh's crown as Bombardier Rookie of the Year.
Thanks to the unification of American open-wheel racing, last year's IndyCar ROY battle was a classic, pitting Mutoh against more established drivers from the Champ Car World Series who were classified rookies only because of their lack of oval-racing experience. The rising Japanese racer edged Justin Wilson and Will Power for the award, with the top three drivers separated by just 15 points.
For 2009, half as many drivers as last year will compete for rookie honors, and Indy Racing League officials should hope the battle can be half as close. The four first-year combatants arrive in IndyCars having taken radically different paths, and they could be in for wildly different fortunes. Here's a look at the contenders:
The oldest of this year's rookie crop at age 36 and the only American, Barrett is a second-generation racer who has competed part-time in NASCAR's Nationwide and Cup Series since 1992. Barrett is best known as a Hollywood stuntman whose film credits include "The Dukes of Hazzard" and all three "Spider-Man" releases.
Many observers believe Barrett is making a daredevil move into IndyCars, especially because he is doing so with a fundamentally new organization known as Team 3G. Longtime Indy 500 entrant Greg Beck is a team team principal and Owen Snyder, a veteran of Galles Racing in CART and Team Cheever in the IndyCar Series, is managing the effort.
"I always wanted to race Indy cars since I was a kid, even over stock cars," Barrett said. "But you couldn't sell it to anybody after they split. It was a hard sell and too risky, in my opinion, when I had a career and opportunities to drive for people in NASCAR.
"With the merger and the new markets that open up, I thought IndyCar was a great place for sponsors to get a lot of value and it's a great platform for entertainment. You know that the series is going to be around. It's a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor and grow with the IndyCar Series."
Over the years Barrett demonstrated a knack for finding funding to race, though ironically, his best opportunity in NASCAR (he claimed two poles with Roush Racing's Nationwide car in 2003) fell apart due to a lack of sponsorship.
"It's a big business and there is a lot to it beyond driving," Barrett said. "I've worked very hard in films and marketing and the business side of auto racing. I think that's one reason why I'm in a race car every year, and there are a lot of very qualified drivers who have a lot of success that aren't in race cars."
Barrett was slowest in the IndyCar open test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but not by the margin that drivers such as Milka Duno and Marty Roth have lagged in recent years. He is prepared to surprise some people.
"At this level, nothing is easy," he admitted. "Getting in the car and just feeling it out is a big endeavor and it's going to be a task, for sure. We've got to work hard at it, take our time and learn and don't get in over our heads. But everybody in my crew and myself have a lot of experience in auto racing. Hopefully, we can use that to get a good foundation and grow off of that and be successful."
After compiling a successful résumé in European formula racing including prestigious victories at Monaco, Macau and Pau, Mike Conway found all the doors to Formula One were shut. So his manager, former F1 and CART Champ Car driver Mark Blundell, suggested that the 25-year-old Englishman take a look at the American scene.
Conway tested an IndyCar for Panther Racing in August on the Infineon Raceway road course and was faster than the regulars on hand, including Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe. Panther ultimately signed former IndyCar Series champion Dan Wheldon, but Conway landed a ride at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
"It will be tough because there is some really good competition," Conway said. "I think Dreyer & Reinbold are working really hard on getting things right. They have been very gentle at easing me in on the whole oval experience, but I'm sure when we get to Barber Motorsport Park [for the IndyCar open test March 22-23] they will be pushing very hard."
Conway has no oval experience, but he was consistently the fastest rookie at the Homestead open test, ending in the top 10 in several sessions.
"We just want to obviously learn as much as we can, get experience, and finish as many races as we can on the oval to get points," Conway said. "On the road courses, we should be a lot stronger, initially anyway. We're aiming to finish at least top-5.
"Obviously, it will be more difficult with a one car team," he added. "In Europe you almost always have a teammate, but it's down to the driver and the engineer to get the best out of the car anyway. It would be good to have an experienced teammate, especially on the ovals, just to learn from him. But it's an experienced team with plenty of data and you should be able to learn from that."
He's been able to glean a bit of advice from Blundell, who won the inaugural open-wheel race at California Speedway in 1997.
"Going left, and left and left is the biggest challenge," Blundell joked. "It's just a different discipline. When you turn up as a new driver, there's always a lot of people around with a lot of advice.
"He's a smart guy, he's absorbing information all the time to move forward. If there is something I can do to help him, other than managing his career, I'll do that. But things have moved on. I was last here eight years ago and these cars are different to what I was driving on an oval."
If Conway took the current European ladder to get where he's at, Robert Doornbos took the previous version, racing in Formula 3 and F3000 before becoming a Formula One test driver. That role eventually led to 11 Grand Prix starts for the Minardi and Red Bull teams, but when no race seats were available at the start of 2007, Doornbos moved to America and became an immediate front-runner in the Champ Car World Series.
Driving for HVM Racing, Doornbos won a pair of races on the way to third place in the championship, and he occasionally rattled four-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais in the process. So it's ironic that Doornbos is essentially taking over Bourdais' old ride at Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, the Dutchman's purported sponsorship budget trumping Justin Wilson's experience with the team in 2008 during its first year in the IndyCar Series.
Doornbos was a quick study in Champ Car, finishing on the podium in his first five starts. He should be right on the pace on IndyCar road courses, but he is starting from scratch on ovals.
"I've been speaking to the master himself, Arie Luyendyk, who gave me some tips before getting into the car," Doornbos said. "It makes sense to get some advice from these guys. It makes no sense if they tell me what to do on a road course or a street course, but on an oval, there are some tricks to learn. If I can learn them quicker, then fine -- perfect. But it's nothing like when you drive it yourself.
"It took me five or six laps to go flat-out and that was a whole different thing," he added. "After the first outing I came in and said, 'I'm not sure if I like this. What did I sign up for?' They said, 'No, no, once you get the speed up, once you go faster, the car sticks better.' Still, you drive flat-out toward a concrete wall, so it's a bit different to what you do in Europe."
In Champ Car, Doornbos brought an engaging personality and was a tenacious competitor on the track. He's certainly not lacking in confidence.
"The team contacted me because they know what I can do," he said. "I'm here to do the best job I can. Of course I really have respect for the ovals. That's still a steep learning curve, but nothing to be worried about and I'll just go for it. I have my eyes wide open and it's like being in school."
Raphael Matos has been a winner at every level. And not just races -- since 2003, the 27-year old Brazilian has won championships in Skip Barber Formula Dodge, Star Mazda, Champ Car Atlantic and Indy Lights.
Matos is also notable for making one of the most audacious off-track moves in recent memory. He turned down the $2 million Champ Car sponsorship that came as a prize for winning the Atlantic Championship and instead made a lateral move to drive for Andretti Green Racing in Indy Lights in 2008. That didn't result in an IndyCar ride for 2009 a AGR, but Matos was signed to drive for Luczo Dragon Racing, the team co-owned by Roger Penske's son, Jay.
Matos is confident he can attain the same level of success in IndyCars that he has achieved throughout his career to date.
"I am confident," he said. "I feel comfortable and I have been successful at pretty much every road course we will be racing at. It's just a matter of having all the pieces together. The car performed well at the test we did at Sebring. The performance is there. We just have to put everything together and try to have a little bit of luck.
"Our expectation is to win two races at least this season," he added. "We will be fighting for the championship but we have a lot to learn. We have a solid base though being a one-car team makes things a little bit more difficult. Sometimes it will play to our advantage. We are doing all the right things to try to find performance in the car and I think we will be fine."
Luczo Dragon has an experienced staff, many of them ex-Team Penske, and strong engineering led by Rahal Letterman Racing veteran Ray Leto.
"The engineering side has been doing a lot of work and I think we are ready for the challenge," Matos said. "We're expecting many great results. It's a young team, but great people, and everyone is very motivated. To win races, we have to maintain concentration and go step by step. You can't be rushing things, especially with a young team and a rookie driver."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.