So, now it begins. The third season. The battle for the championship.
Gripes about how IndyCar should add a green-white-checkered rule aside, the Indianapolis 500 was everything we could have hoped for and more: The fastest '500' ever, the most lead changes ever, and one of its most popular champions ever in Tony Kanaan, who finally broke through at the Brickyard in his 12th attempt. In short, a classic in every sense of the word.
That's why I couldn't help but feel a bit of frustration when the TV ratings came out: A 3.8 final rating that helped this year's "500" only barely dodge the distinction of having the worst ratings ever since live flag-to-flag coverage of the race started in 1986. Another reminder of how far this sport has to go in reclaiming its former glory…Great racing won't be enough.
But nevertheless, fans of IndyCar should feel good about where the sport is heading. They just have to get more of their friends to watch. And a good start would be having them check out this weekend's doubleheader from Detroit's Belle Isle Park, which has been newly revitalized and reconfigured for, hopefully, a better product than what we've seen the island course put out in the past.
What a physically and mentally challenging start to the championship fight this will be. Two 70-lap races on one of the tougher street courses in America is going to be brutal for everyone involved, especially if their first race somehow ends with a broken car on the hook. Whoever comes out on top in Detroit will have been the one driver/team that manages all of this stress properly.
I'm looking forward to seeing how Marco Andretti does now that he's the new IZOD IndyCar Series points leader. Andretti came up short at the '500' but still was able to leapfrog Takuma Sato for the top spot in the championship, and he has been doing very well on road/street circuits this season. It's been almost a complete 180 from his work last year in that discipline, and he'll be looking to keep it going at Belle Isle.
Also keen on doing well is Team Penske, who was shut out of the podium last year in the race that their boss, Roger Penske, brought back to life. After an impressive rookie '500,' A.J. Allmendinger is back this weekend to join Helio Castroneves and Will Power, and that could prove to be a formidable roster for Detroit.
Then there's Target Chip Ganassi Racing, which had a sub-par showing at Indianapolis. Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti finished 1-2 last season at Detroit, leading a podium sweep for Honda in Chevrolet's backyard (Simon Pagenaud was third). After a dismal race last weekend at IMS, they need to come out and perform well here.
We've already had one change on the driver grid for this weekend, with Mike Conway replacing Ana Beatriz in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda for Belle Isle. While Beatriz may come back later in the season, nabbing Conway (a very good road/street racer) for now would appear to be a good decision for DCR. Meanwhile, there's been rumblings about JR Hildebrand possibly being replaced at Panther Racing after crashing out on Lap 4 of the '500.'
It hasn't been a good year so far for Hildebrand, and I keep seeing Oriol Servia (now a free agent after Panther DRR's exit from this year's championship) and Ryan Briscoe's names popping up as potential mid-season replacements. Nothing's confirmed yet, so we'll have to wait and see on that one…