ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — IndyCar heads into the season with a new American champion, a new car and the same hopes for a momentum-building year.
Josef Newgarden arrives for the season-opening race this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg as the reigning champion. He won the title in his first season with Team Penske, a breakout year in which the 27-year-old won a career-best four races.
Penske drivers won 10 of 17 races last year and all four of its drivers finished in the top five of the final standings.
"Any driver that gets an opportunity like the one I got with Team Penske will tell you they expect to win right away," Newgarden said. "I certainly did as well, but I think we were all surprised at how quickly we gelled together and made it happen. But that is last year. The drive for the 2018 championship starts at St. Pete, and it's a track where I've never won before. That is our only thought this weekend — going to victory lane."
Newgarden and the entire field will be in a redesigned and universal Dallara chassis.
The 2018 car was overhauled and completed with input from drivers and teams, who objected to the many pieces on the previous aerokits that created debris fields during crashes. Drivers wanted reduced downforce and got their wish. They also wanted faster tire degradation and what ultimately was developed could force drivers to change their racing style.
The car has a sleek and clean look, and IndyCar is hopeful tweaks have made it safer for drivers and cheaper for teams to field.
It also could help the small teams close the gap on Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, winner of three of the last four Indianapolis 500s.
"I do think it will equalize things," said Graham Rahal, who this year at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is joined by 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato.
"If you do your job and you nail the setup, you will be right there contending for wins," he said. "Before, there were certainly cases and tracks where that wasn't the way it was for us, and it is nice now to feel like we can be rewarded for lots of hard work."
IndyCar has been chipping away for years at rebuilding its fan base and stabilizing the series, and leadership feels good headed into the opener. The car count of 24 entries at St. Petersburg is the highest since 2015 and includes three new teams. Gabby Chaves will race for Harding Racing, Juncos Racing has a split lineup and Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball left Ganassi at the end of last season to form Carlin.
IndyCar's television audience has continued to slowly grow, the series is returning to Portland International Raceway this year for the first time in more than a decade, and Danica Patrick is coming back for one last hurrah in the Indianapolis 500. She will retire after the May race, her first in an Indy car since 2011.
The series still has obstacles. American driver Conor Daly, a fan favourite who just completed a popular stint on the reality show "The Amazing Race," can't find sponsorship for anything more than an Indianapolis 500 ride right now. Daly was a full-time driver the last two years.
The field has seven rookies this season, four of whom — Rene Binder, Jordan King, Matt Leist and Robert Wickens — will be making their series debut at St. Pete. The leading candidate for top rookie right now might be Zach Veach, a six-time Indy Lights winner racing for Andretti. His teammates will be Indy 500 winners Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, as well as veteran Marco Andretti.
Ganassi has scaled back to two teams this year and Ed Jones will join Scott Dixon in the lineup this year. Dixon needs just one more victory to reach 42, which would tie him with Michael Andretti for third on the all-time win list. Dixon is coming off a disappointing season in which he won just one IndyCar race and couldn't catch Newgarden in the season finale to win the championship.
Roger Penske has also cut his team by one car, which meant three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves has left the series for sports cars. Castroneves will return for the Indy 500 and is the grand marshal Sunday in St. Pete, but he's a popular driver the series will have to replace.
Even without Castroneves, IndyCar goes into the year with seven former champions and 13 former race winners — enough to put on a good show all year.
"We are all refreshed. We are all anxious and excited for what's to come," Rahal said.
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