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Franchitti begins campaign for record fourth IndyCar title

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line St. Petersburg, FL (Sports Network) - After a five-and-a-half-month break, the IZOD IndyCar Series begins its new season on Sunday in St. Petersburg.

Dario Franchitti will start his bid for a record fourth championship in the series, but his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Scott Dixon, as well as Team Penske drivers Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe will once again be Franchitti's toughest competition.

There will be plenty of changes this season, including a new rules package. The schedule will feature a new venue and the return of several tracks.

The battle for the championship has come down to the last lap in the season- finale the past five years, so don't be surprised if that's the case again on October 16 when the series runs in Las Vegas.

FOURTH-COMING CHAMPIONSHIP?

With three IndyCar titles so far to his credit, Franchitti has placed himself among the all-time greats in American open-wheel racing.

Last year Dario Franchitti became the first driver to win back-to-back championships since Sam Hornish Jr. did it in 2001 and '02.
Franchitti's record-tying championship in the series last year did not come easy, as he trailed Power by 59 points late in the season. Franchitti bounced back in the final four oval races of the season to steal the title from Power by just five points.

The 37-year-old Scotsman became the first driver to win back-to-back championships since Sam Hornish Jr. did it in 2001 and '02. Hornish won his record-setting third in 2006.

After all the celebrations during the off-season, Franchitti and his CGR team are now ready to get the next IndyCar campaign underway.

"We're all very much focused on 2011," Franchitti said. "It's time to get down to business again."

One of the highlights in IndyCar this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500, which is scheduled for May 29. Franchitti is the defending race champion.

"Winning any Indianapolis 500 is special," he said. "To win it this year would be special, because I would become a three-time winner. The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest race in the world, but the centennial one is a much bigger deal. I would love to do it."

ADDITION TO GANASSI'S INDYCAR STABLE

After a banner year in motorsports in 2010, team owner Chip Ganassi has expanded his IndyCar organization this season. The driver lineup at IndyCar's "super team" has increased two-fold, with Graham Rahal and series newcomer Charlie Kimball teaming up with Franchitti and Dixon.

Rahal, who is the son of open-wheel racing legend Bobby Rahal, became the youngest driver to win an IndyCar race when he made his series debut in 2008 at St. Petersburg. He will drive Ganassi's No.38 entry. Kimball, the fourth- place finisher in last year's Indy Lights Series, will occupy the seat in the No.83 car.

Ganassi has structured his IndyCar teams much like Hendrick Motorsports has done in NASCAR.

"We've approached this as if it were two two-car teams," Ganassi said. "They have separate buildings and separate management. About the only thing that crosses over is some engineering that works back and forth. I've said it's like the Hendrick model in NASCAR. For us, I don't see how four cars under one roof would work."

Last year, Ganassi's race teams claimed victories in the Daytona 500 (Jamie McMurray), the Indy 500 (Franchitti), the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis (McMurray), as well as championships in IndyCar (Franchitti) and the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series Daytona Prototype (Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas).

The only thing missing from Ganassi's resume last year was a win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He made up for that in January when his Grand-Am teams finished 1-2 in the 24-hour endurance race at Daytona.

"2010 was a great year, and that's just another record for somebody to go after and break," he said. "I'm sure somebody will do it some day. I just hope not too soon."

Franchitti and Dixon have given Ganassi an IndyCar championship in each of the last three years. Dixon won the title in 2008.

WHO HAS THE 'POWER' TO STOP FRANCHITTI?

If anyone can end Franchitti's dynasty, Power, Dixon, Castroneves and Briscoe are the most likely ones to do it.

Power dominated on the road/street circuits, but the ovals were his Achilles' heel last year. All five of Power's wins came on the courses, which earned him the series' inaugural road/street championship.

Last week, Power and teammate Castroneves turned in the quickest times during pre-season testing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, AL. The series runs there on April 10.

"It was great to get back in the car at Barber, and I thought we had a good test," Power said. "We need to work hard to make sure we're ready for the start of the season in St. Pete, and I can't wait to get the season underway. It's going to be a fun year."

Look for Power to improve on the ovals this year.

Despite three wins, Dixon had his share of mishaps last season. He ended the year 55 points behind Franchitti in third place. But Dixon's season did end on a high note with a victory in the season-finale at Homestead, FL, a track that is no longer on the schedule.

"It was definitely some growing pains in 2010," Dixon said. "We finished on the right note with winning the last race of the year, and hopefully we can continue with better momentum into the first few races."

Dixon holds the series record for most career wins with 24.

Castroneves and Briscoe finished fourth and fifth in points, respectively, last year. Both Penske drivers figure to be in the title hunt again.

NEW SEASON FOR DANCIA

Danica Patrick's second-year stint in NASCAR has been a success so far, but Patrick is now focusing her main efforts on IndyCar. She finished a career- best fourth in the March 5 Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas, which set a record for the highest finishing female in a NASCAR national touring series event.

Patrick is hoping to rebound after a somewhat disappointing IndyCar season in 2010. Despite second-place finishes at Texas and Homestead, she ended the year 10th in points.

Her goal this year is simply winning in both racing circuits.

"I enjoy wherever I'm at the time," Patrick said. "When I'm racing a stock car, that's what I feel like doing, and then when I'm racing in IndyCar, I'm thinking that I like this too," Patrick said. "I'm flipping a switch over and over again, and there are certain things that I like about each of them."

Patrick is expected to make her 100th IndyCar start next month in Birmingham. She also turns 29 years old this Friday.

LOTS OF CHANGES DURING THE OFF-SEASON

The series unveiled a host of changes during the off-season, including a sanction body name change from the Indy Racing League to INDYCAR.

Double-file restarts will be used for all races this year. Series officials announced the new restart format for ovals only in January, but after receiving input from drivers, teams and fans, officials incorporated road/street courses to the format earlier this month.

Side-by-side restarts in IndyCar will be similar to NASCAR's restart procedure, which was adopted during the 2009 season.

Officials continue to contemplate the "free pass" or "lucky dog" rule that is used in NASCAR. The rule allows the first driver on the non-lead lap to advance his or her position to the tail end of the lead lap for a restart.

Other changes include: pit selection based on the qualifying performance from the previous race at the same type of track (oval or street/road course), a new location for the pit commit line at each track and increased time for the first practice of a race.

Sunoco becomes the fuel supplier for the series this year. Firestone continues to be the sole tire distributor. But Firestone will exit the sport at the conclusion of this season.

Recently, the series announced a maximum of 26 cars will make up the starting field for all races, excluding the Indianapolis 500 and the Las Vegas finale. The Indy 500 will maintain its traditional 33-car field, while Las Vegas will include a field of 30 to accommodate additional entries (non-IndyCar competitors) participating in the $5 million challenge.

NEW SITES ON THE SCHEDULE

IndyCar will run on the streets of downtown Baltimore for the first time this year. The September 4 Baltimore Grand Prix will be the final road/street course on the schedule.

Las Vegas and New Hampshire return to the series after each track was absent from the schedule for more than a decade. The series did not run at Milwaukee last year, but the flat one-mile track was added for this season.

Texas is a "double-header." The June 11 Firestone Twin 275s will pay half the points and half the bonus prizes for each event. A blind draw will determine the starting field for the second race. Traditional oval qualifying will set the grid for the first one.

The last IndyCar double-header occurred under CART sanction in 1981 at Atlanta, with Rick Mears winning both of those races.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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