Oval product must be better in 2010

This weekend’s Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 at Kansas Speedway is critical in several ways.

For starters, it’s going to show which teams can truly contend for wins anywhere on the schedule. After four road and street races to start the season, we have a few drivers outside the Team Penske and Target Chip Ganassi Racing camps that are making noise in the championship early on. But while more teams have been competitive in the road races, the ovals have been dominated by the “Big Two” in recent times.

So as the IZOD IndyCar Series heads for the Heartland, it’s critical for teams like Andretti Autosport and Dreyer and Reinbold Racing to show that their oval program can at least hassle the Penske/Ganassi bloc. Two of Andretti’s pilots, Ryan Hunter-Reay (third) and Tony Kanaan (eighth), are in the top ten in the championship, while DRR’s Justin Wilson is sitting fourth in points going to Kansas. Raphael Matos (ninth) at Luczo Dragon/De Ferran and Dan Wheldon (tenth) over at Panther should feel like they have something to prove, too.

Can any of these drivers and teams — or anybody else in the paddock — rise up to challenge the status quo? That’s what they hope, but it may be just a hope. The last time the series visited an oval was the season finale at Homestead last fall, and the Big Two absolutely destroyed the competition to make sure nobody would interfere in their final battle for the IZOD IndyCar Series title. This came not too long after Ed Carpenter and Vision Racing nearly toppled Ryan Briscoe and Team Penske in a scintillating duel at Kentucky Speedway last August — the first race for the league’s new speedway aerodynamic package that emerged following a horrible string of oval events earlier in 2009.

There should still be a foul taste in everybody’s mouth from that dreadful streak of one year ago. From Kansas down to Richmond, the exciting wheel-to-wheel action of seasons past often degenerated into parades normally seen in tight road courses or temporary street circuits. Sure, Helio Castroneves provided a heartwarming story with his third Indianapolis 500 victory, but the race itself was far from a classic “500.” Milwaukee and Iowa’s short oval action provided relatively better racing, but the snoozers dominated the first half of ’09, culminating with spectacular bombs at Texas Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway. The latter track is now off the schedule.

There was a surreal feeling seeing those two events in particular. What were once prime showcases for IndyCar’s brand of heart-pounding excitement became stages for some very boring racing. At both Texas and Richmond, at least one driver apologized on record to the fans for the lack of action (see Ed Carpenter at TMS and Dario Franchitti at RIR). Suffice to say, that cannot happen again.

The “new” package will continue to be intact, however. Perhaps that will liven things up at Kansas, which saw a yawner in 2009 that was won by Scott Dixon. Wilson is hopeful about that possibility.

“You never can tell,” said Wilson this week in a league media teleconference. “The slightest little changes on the ovals sometimes make the biggest differences. It’s not like the cars are changed that much to reduce the racing. After a few races last year, the [series] made some changes and you saw the differences at Kentucky and Chicagoland, where we going wheel-to-wheel again.

“I hope we are going to be able to race [like that] at Kansas, but it seems to me that the wind has a bigger effect than anything. It blows the cars around and makes it a bit of a handful. I’m looking forward to getting out there and giving it a try.”

But like the possibility of other squads beating the Penske and Ganassi teams on the ovals, a truly more competitive product on all of the speedways may be just a hope as well.

We’ll see if hope becomes reality this Saturday.