Final Destination

The Indy Racing League opens its eleventh season Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Lets hope it's the last.

Open wheel racing received another nugget of positive news this week when reports of more talks about reunification between the IRL and Champ Car surfaced. IRL honcho Tony George and Champ Car head Kevin Kalkhoven continue to explore ways to bring both sides under one umbrella and create a much-needed single series.

Until then, we'll have to focus on another season of diluted racing on both fronts, starting with the IRL's opener on Sunday in Homestead.

A better-than-expected field of 19 cars will be on hand at Homestead, with a few last minute deals expanding the field.

While Indy 500 winner and 2005 series champion Dan Wheldon defected for Chip Ganassi Racing, the Andretti-Green Racing team again will be the dominant power in the IRL this season. Holdovers Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta will be joined by young Marco Andretti, who has surprised some in his early test outings. The 18-year-old won three Infiniti Pro Series races last year and could be one of the season's major surprises.

AGR has won 19 of 33 races over the last two seasons and back-to-back championships. Much of that success was credited to its Honda powerhouse engine package, an advantage the team won't have this season.

Toyota and GM bailed from the series, leaving Honda with the massive task of supplying engines to the entire field. That responsibility will effectively end the manufacturer's close relationship with AGR, which should bring a bit more parity to the circuit.

That's good news for Ganassi and Marlboro Team Penske, both of which tried in vein to catch the AGR juggernaut the last two seasons.

With Wheldon jumping from AGR to join former champ Scott Dixon, Ganassi should be able to find victory lane a couple of times this season and challenge for the title.

Penske's duo of Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish, Jr. are back in 2006, both hungry to return to their former winning ways. Hornish was a two-time champion before joining Penske in 2004 and Castroneves won a pair of Indianapolis 500s. But neither has lived up to expectations since the super team was created three years ago.

Rahal-Letterman will field a three-car effort in 2006, led by series savior Danica Patrick, 2004 Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice and rookie Paul Dana.

All eyes will again be on Patrick, who with a year under her belt should be better prepared this season. The center of attention and media darling has made it clear that she is tired of being a "dog and pony show" and is determined to make it into victory lane this year. The hunch here is she does it.

"When I look back on last season, it is hard not to get excited for this year," said Patrick. "We had a great season, winning poles and leading several races. I asked myself what is the next step and, logically, I know it is winning races.

"That said, Homestead will only be my 18th IndyCar Series start. The stat came out last season that it took on the average 33 starts for a driver to win their first IndyCar race. I won't make my 33rd start until next season. All I can say is that nobody wants me to win more than I do."

So on the surface, 2006 looks to be at least a competitive year for the IRL series. Serious questions about the Indy 500 continue to persist, with the prospect of a short field looking more and more likely.

Despite rolling out a golden oldies revival with the likes of Al Unser, Jr., Michael Andretti and Eddie Cheever all coming out of retirement (maybe the command this year should be "Gentlemen, start your AARP card!"), this year's 500 is in danger of starting less than the traditional 33 cars.

Maybe that isn't such a bad thing, however, and will be the final wake-up call to bring open wheel racing back into sanity. And what a pleasure it would be a year from now to be writing the 2007 season preview of the Championship IndyCar Series, a 22 race schedule featuring the top teams and drivers in open wheel racing with the Indy 500 its crown jewel once again.

Keep talking Mr. George and Mr. Kalkhoven, please keep talking.

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IZOD Indy Car Series, 2006

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