Ganassi Flexes Muscle

After struggling in IRL IndyCar Series competition for two seasons, Target Chip Ganassi looks like it’s ready to once again challenge for the championship.

New Ganassi addition Dan Wheldon posted a lap of 215.561 mph to lead Friday’s practice for Sunday’s Toyota Indy 300 presented by XM Satellite Radio, followed by teammate Scott Dixon, 214.721 mph.

The duo led a field of 20 drivers practicing for the IRL season opener. Wheldon is the defending event winner, capturing his first of six 2005 victories here for Andretti Green Racing. Wheldon went on to capture the Indianapolis 500 and the IRL title.

Dixon also won at Miami in 2003 – the year he won the IRL title. It was Ganassi’s fifth open-wheel title, including four CART championships with Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya. However, since 2003, Ganassi’s lone IRL triumph was last September at Watkins Glen International, with Dixon at the wheel.

Sunday’s race breaks new ground for the Indy Racing League as it opens its 11th season. The event will be the first with a spec engine – Honda – and opens a truncated 14-race schedule.

“Honda is a very reputable company, and the good thing is I think they can produce engines en mass that are equal,” said Wheldon, who had Honda power a year ago. “Having one engine manufacturer in the series gives stability.”

In addition to Ganassi, Marlboro Team Penske is running its first race with Honda power, and posted strong results with drivers Sam Hornish (214.718) and Helio Castroneves (214.318) third and fifth in Friday’s combined sessions, sandwiching Andretti Green’s Tony Kanaan (214.418).

“I think, even after pre-season testing, you can see what teams are at the top, and they are the two teams that had to work the hardest, and that’s Ganassi and Penske,” Dixon said. “The Honda power feels pretty good – I can’t complain. The main difference is everybody’s equal, and the teams and drivers can sort out the rest. The racing is going to be huge on Sunday – very close.”

Sixth fastest was Andretti Green’s Bryan Herta, 213.871, followed by teammate Dario Franchitti, Rahal Letterman’s Buddy Rice, Vision’s Tomas Scheckter and Delphi Fernandez Scott Sharp.

Eddie Cheever, making his return to driving after a two-year absence, was 14th, followed by rookie Marco Andretti and 2005 rookie of the year Danica Patrick.

The lone incident involved Vitor Meira, who escaped injury after destroying his primary car in a turn four accident.

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