(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 3-31-09)
In one form or another over the past couple of months, ESPN.com has featured most of the drivers scheduled to compete in the 2009 IndyCar Series. Here are the ones who fell through the cracks:
Danica Patrick might be the IndyCar Series' poster girl, and Scott Dixon is the defending champion. But on a worldwide basis, Franchitti is Indy racing's biggest star.
Franchitti receives his share of notoriety in America because he is married to actress Ashley Judd. He also is known as the winner of the 2007 Indianapolis 500. But for the most part, he prefers to stay out of the spotlight and focus on the job at hand -- winning races and championships.
The question now is whether those tasks will be easier or more difficult in his return to open-wheel competition after a half-year sojourn in the world of NASCAR. On the one hand, Franchitti now is driving for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which seems to have emerged as the IndyCar Series' top team over the past three years. However, he'll have to beat his new teammate, two-time series champion (and defending Indy 500 winner) Dixon, who is indisputably the hottest driver in Indy racing since mid-2007.
After one exhibition race and two open tests, it appears Franchitti is picking up right where he left off with Indy cars at the end of 2007: as the series champion. He has been right on pace on the Surfers Paradise street course, the Homestead-Miami Speedway oval and the Barber Motorsports Park road course. We're about to see whether his racecraft matches his pace over one lap.
"I think the good thing for me is that the Target cars are really quick, and that helps me," Franchitti said. "I know we don't have to work on the car so much for speed. I've just got to get myself back up to the level that I need to be at.
"They're really tightening up the testing rules, and there's not really any private testing, which makes things more difficult. The first 20 laps at Homestead, for example, things were really coming at me fast. But we had a good test at Barber, where we were able to try some extreme setups, and I'm happy with the way things are going. It's a strong team, and we should be in a good position to be very competitive. I'm excited about the chance to get in the Target car and run in the unified series, and I'm looking forward to getting started with the season."
Franchitti's opportunity to run for Target Chip Ganassi Racing opened up when Wheldon was unable to agree to terms for a return to the team for which he drove from 2006 to 2008, winning six races. Within days of the announcement that he wouldn't be back with Ganassi, Wheldon revealed he had secured a multiyear deal to drive for Panther Racing, the team with which the Englishman started his IndyCar Series career back in 2002.
The most successful phase of Wheldon's American career came when he drove for Andretti Green Racing, culminating in his winning the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Series championship. He's optimistic he can regain that form in Panther's one-car operation, which last tasted victory with Tomas Scheckter in 2005.
"Rejoining Panther is something I'm very excited about," Wheldon said. "The team seems to have a good energy right now and seems to be heading in a very positive direction. They've come off a couple of lean years, but I think everything is there, with some additions that have been made over the winter period, to be hopefully what I would consider a very competitive year."
Wheldon is acknowledged as perhaps IndyCar Series' bravest and most skillful driver on 1.5-mile superspeedways. But he often has struggled over the past four years on road and street courses, somewhat surprising given his road-racing background.
"I think we're going to get better as the season progresses," he said. "Our program really ramped up at Homestead, and we've done some testing at Sebring, so I think you're going to see us get better and better. The team has shown that they can win championships before, and so have I, and I think with the combination of hard work and determination, we can definitely do it. I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could do it."
This 26-year-old from Tokyo is considered the best prospect yet from Japan to compete in American racing. Mutoh won the IndyCar Series rookie of the year award in 2008, highlighted by a second-place finish at Iowa Speedway. He's the latest "junior partner" in Andretti Green Racing's traditional four-driver lineup, and he'll be looking to avoid the sophomore slump most IndyCar ROYs have endured. The most successful follow-up in that regard belongs to Wheldon, who finished second in the IndyCar championship in 2004 for AGR during his second full season in the series.
Mutoh managed to avoid getting caught up in the backbiting among AGR's three other drivers (Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Patrick) in 2008, and team boss Michael Andretti believes that continuity in the driver lineup could be the key for his organization to regain the form that won three IndyCar championships between 2004 and 2007.
"We have a lot of incentives for all four guys to be running up front, and we're going to do everything we can as a team to make it happen," Andretti said. "We want to give Hideki his first win; we feel it would be really huge for our team if we were able to achieve that, be able to get the first Japanese driver to win a major open-wheel race."
Mutoh came away pleased with his preseason test program and believes he has a chance to give his more experienced teammates a run for their money in 2009.
"The Formula Dream team has worked really hard during the offseason, and I feel good about going into the first race of the year," he said. "I think we had an overall good test at Barber, and we will be able to use all the information that we got throughout the season."
To say Viso was a polarizing force in his rookie IndyCar season would be an understatement. He thrilled fans with his daring on-track exploits (although he certainly did not often endear himself to his fellow drivers), and he entertained the media with his colorful quotes. One thing is certain: With a year of oval experience under his belt, the 24-year-old Venezuelan ended the season a more polished and less erratic driver. But no less confident or outspoken …
"That's the way I've raced all my life," Viso said. "Racing is a risky sport. I didn't mean to piss anybody off, but I feel I don't need to give up anything to anybody here. You need to get that respect. Yes, in some cases, on the ovals, I was still learning and they made some comments. But, for sure, I was not trying to make anybody angry, and I think sometimes the drivers here complain too much."
Viso finished 18th in the IndyCar standings in 2008, earning top-6 finishes at St. Petersburg and Infinieon Raceway. He is certain his results will be better in 2009, especially if HVM Racing is able to field a second car for an experienced driver like Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"I'm starting this year in a much better position," Viso said. "Finishing in the top eight of the championship is realistic and would be a good achievement for us. Obviously some podiums are possible. A teammate would be beneficial for everyone; last year, I had nobody to compare data with, and it was hard to progress."
Few drivers have endured more difficult times than Wilson. With the help of a group of investors, he clawed his way into Formula One, only to see his Jaguar team fold. He switched to the Champ Car World Series and developed into a race winner, only to see RuSport Racing cease operation.
Wilson finally got what seemed to be his big break by signing with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, and he entered 2008 as the firm favorite to win the Champ Car World Series title. Then the series shut down, and Wilson and NHLR pretty much started from scratch in the IndyCar Series. By the end of the year, though, he was a winner again, after an outstanding drive to victory in the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix. His reward was a pink slip, as Newman/Haas/Lanigan was forced to look to drivers who brought sponsorship.
Now Wilson is pretty much starting over again. He's set to race for Dale Coyne Racing this season. That might seem like a big step back, but if anyone is capable of delivering Coyne his long-sought first win, it's the lanky, soft-spoken Englishman.
"I thought we made progress last year," Wilson said. "We got a win at Detroit and we were getting stronger at all of the other tracks. It was such a learning year, and I thought with the stuff we would be doing in the offseason, we should be right at the front and challenging for wins every weekend come this season. Obviously, we don't have that opportunity now.
"If you look back on it, you think we've been hard done to, but it's just how it is. If you live in the past, you won't go forward. So, we've got to start with a fresh sheet of paper. We're starting completely fresh and just working it out for ourselves and moving forward."
Wilson's chances of achieving a victory for Coyne were enhanced when the team signed experienced race engineer Bill Pappas. If he does manage to win for DCR, the result will be popular vindication for one of American open-wheel racing's classic underdogs.
"It's going to be a tough year, but hopefully we can get stronger and be competitive on the road circuits," Wilson said. "On the ovals, it will be just like last year, where we slowly got better and better. I'd like to get a couple more top-5 finishes. You just never know. If we can take another victory, that would be a fantastic result for us. Right now, it's just keep our heads down, keep progressing, and if we do that, we'll be happy."