Unification may bring glitter back to Indy 500

From the Associated Press

This may be the year that the Indianapolis 500 regains its glitter.

Since the Indy Racing League began competing in 1996, igniting a bitter 12-year rivalry with the now-defunct CART/Champ Car World Series, its showcase event has lost prestige, about half of its once-impressive annual TV audience and most of its big-name drivers.

But things are looking up for the IRL's IndyCar Series as it heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 92nd edition of the big race.

With the recent unification of the two American open-wheel series promising the most competition in years, and historic victories by Danica Patrick and Graham Rahal adding to the anticipation, the May 25 race could be the most watched -- and most exciting -- Indy 500 in years.

"Indy's an open road, so I think everybody's going to have a chance to do really well there," former IRL champion Tony Kanaan said.

One thing is certain this year: There is no question about having enough entries to fill the 33-car starting lineup.

That's a change from recent years, when it was a struggle for IRL and speedway boss Tony George to make sure his crown jewel didn't face the embarrassment of coming up short of the traditional 11 rows of three cars.

And bumping -- the time during the four days of qualifications when faster cars can knock out the slowest cars already in the field -- fell flat, with few candidates and little of the expected drama.

"This year, you're going to see bumping, maybe every day [of qualifying]," said two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves. "The competition is really tough. You can't afford to make mistakes because there are so many guys to take advantage of it now."

Well, not just guys.

Like last year, Patrick is joined at the speedway by two other women, Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno.

But Patrick will get most of the attention after finishing first in Japan last month to become the first woman to win an IndyCar race.

The glamorous Sports Illustrated swimsuit model was already a household name before her first win in 50 IndyCar starts. Now, she has reignited the "DanicaMania" that exploded in 2005 when she qualified fourth, led 19 laps and finished fourth in the 500 as a rookie.

Critics said she'd never win, and certainly not the biggest race in the sport. Now that she has found Victory Circle, there is little doubt she will be among the favorites this month.

"Sure, I can win at Indy," said Patrick, who has finished eighth there each of the past two years. "I believe I can win at any racetrack. And I've always liked Indy and done pretty well there."

To do it, she'll likely have to beat Andretti Green Racing teammate Kanaan, Penske Racing's Castroneves, and Target Chip Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon, who will likely be the biggest favorites.

Dixon, a former series champion, won the 2008 series opener at Homestead, Fla., while Wheldon, the 2005 Indy winner, is coming off a victory at Kansas last Sunday. Both are within nine points of series leader Castroneves -- who has four consecutive top-four finishes this season.

"Well, it's my opinion, but there's no doubt the Indianapolis 500 is the biggest race in the world," said Wheldon, an Englishman who grew up dreaming of winning Indy. "I think in particular this year.

"We're hearing the first week there's going to be about 30 cars," he added. "We're talking a good 30 cars that are going to have time to develop their car and have it working well by the time the race comes around."

The biggest question heading into rookie orientation today and Monday and the opening of practice for everyone on Tuesday is how the newcomers will perform, particularly the teams and drivers transitioning from Champ Car.

Justin Wilson has raced in Formula One and drives for former Champ Car powerhouse Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, an eight-time series champion. But he and the other transitional drivers are at a big disadvantage because they lack oval experience and have had little time to work with their new Dallara-Honda cars.

"I'm going to go into it with no expectations and work it out myself, find my feet and hopefully things will be good," Wilson said. "If you have too many expectations it can cloud your vision, so I will take it as it comes."

Rahal, his 19-year-old teammate, has even less experience. He won last month at St. Petersburg, Fla., to become the youngest winner ever in major open-wheel racing, but made only the second oval start of his career at Kansas.

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