Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Spring Breakout: What To Watch @ St. Pete

     It's springtime; love is in the air, I'm spending less time pinned inside at the movies, and that candy commercial with Marvin Gaye and the chocolate bunny is devouring TV air time again. Life feels as if it's begun anew, and so too in the air will be the sweet smell of burning ethanol. Yes, bust out the grillin' meats, crack open a can of premium, non-alcoholic light beer, and let's get the party started, because after one of the longest off seasons in American sports, the Verizon IndyCar Series is finally ready to roar back to life this weekend. It's truly the most magical time of the year.
With the anticipation of a large rookie class, new teams, and of course the new car, 2018 is shaping up to be a banger, and it all starts this weekend under the sun in lovely St. Petersburg, Florida.
Many things have changed over this offseason, and here are just a few that stand out.

1. SPM/"Team Canada"
It was a point of great interest last fall when Schmidt/Peterson Motorsports announced Robert Wickens as the replacement to Mikhail Aleshin in the then #7 Honda. His proven background and enthusiasm for the team have fans eager to cheer him on even before his first official lap has been turned behind the wheel of the #6. His national pride, alongside that of teammate James Hinchcliffe are also a hit with fans north of the border, with the duo now being dubbed "Team Canada."
But popularity is only half the reason to keep an eye on SPM this season. The addition of Leena Gade to the team as Hinchclffe's chief engineer is the other. Her pedigree as a winner as an engineer in the 24 Hours of LeMans and the FIA WEC "Man Of The Year" award make her one of the sharpest minds in the paddock. Many believe Gade has what it takes to bring the #5 team to the top of the list of Championship contenders.

2. New Teams
New Blood is Rising in IndyCar, and not just behind the wheel. New teams are debuting full time efforts, while teams are growing and expanding their efforts at a rate not seen in years. Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball left familiar rides at Ganassi to strap in with the budding Carlin IndyCar Series organization, Gabby Chavez and Harding have teamed back up for the team's first full time effort, and rookie Rene Binder will pilot the #32 for Juncos Racing this weekend in St. Pete. Look for these new teams to make a splash as the season progresses.

3. Ed Jones
 Perhaps the most captivating, under the radar story of last season was the performance of 2016 Indy Lights Champion Ed Jones, finishing on the podium at the Indy 500 and capturing the Series Rookie Of The Year honors. Did I mention this was all while his Dale Coyne Racing teammate Sebastien Bourdais was sidelined due to injury? Jones was tapped to replace Tony Kanaan at Ganassi for 2018, and one can only wonder what lies ahead for him as he climbs into the cockpit of one of the Series' highest quality rides.

4. Homegrown Stars
 In 2017, Josef Newgarden won 4 IndyCar Series races en route to his maiden Championship, and since then everyone wants a piece of the Team Penske racer. And why not? He's got the look, the attitude, and the skill it takes to be a sports megastar if everything continues to work out for him. But the Champ isn't the only American IndyCar driver with a shot to please the masses. How about 2012 Champ Ryan Hunter-Reay? What about Graham Rahal? And let's not forget what a hit Alex Rossi and Conor Daly were on The Amazing Race recently. (Although Conor, as of now, only has a ride for The 500.)
With the success of American stars being paramount to the regrowth of IndyCar racing, it won't be hard to notice heavy emphasis when one ends up in victory lane.

5. The New Car
 After 6 wonderful seasons, the DW12 body was retired from competition at the end of 2017. It's time now to see what the new car offers fans and drivers alike. With its sleek design almost serving as a call back to years past, many are wondering if it will do more than just look good. So far, testing has given great optimism and little skepticism to those uncertain of just what the racing will be like come Sunday in Florida. Thankfully we're not too far from finding out.

Now, let's get down to business and get the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season underway!

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