The end of a VERY long winter is upon is as is the start of the IZOD IndyCar Season in St. Petersburg, Florida next weekend.  This off-season has been a literal festival of information. After many years of teeth gnashing about 18 car grids and who wasn’t going to be racing, we’ve gotten a lot more positive news this off-season than in years past.  Two new cars at Target Chip Ganassi Racing for Graham Rahal with Service Central and Charlie Kimball with Novo Nordisk. New sponsorship at Penske Racing with IZOD, Shell/Pennzoil, Guidepoint, AAA, and PPG. (Remember, other than Will Power last year with Verizon, Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves did not have a primary sponsor.) Sam Schmidt Racing acquiring FAZZT racing. The return of Mike Conway after a vicious accident at Indianapolis with Andretti Autosport. (!) J.R. Hildebrand at Panther Racing after an impressive test at Phoenix. A partial season for Wade Cunningham which is LONG overdue.  Testing for Sebastian Bourdais with Dale Coyne and the possibility of a road course only program. And Pippa Mann for Conquest looking at an oval only contract.

Of course, to keep the karma of racing on an even keel, there has been some bad news that have kept us on an emotional roller coaster. Huge fan favorite Tony Kanaan was out at Andretti Autosport, then in at DeFerran Dragon, then out again, with no ride in sight. However, recently there is news that he will have a full season at KV Racing this year. With that news, it probably means the end for Paul Tracy finding a full time ride. Paul is definitely a polarizing character in the Series and many feel he is needed just based on personality.  Unfortunately, personality does not bring in sponsorship checks. No one has worked harder than PT and Tony Kanaan for rides this year. It will be disappointing if Paul is not in a ride, but unfortunately, it may be time to move on. Also, Dan Wheldon is not in a full time ride either. Dan has been very quiet about his plans and that should be very scary for his fans.

One of the worst roller coaster rides we were taken on was the Firestone Racing tire situation. Firestone announced they were pulling out of the series as the sole tire supplier for the series after 2011. With a new car coming and the significant amount of testing that would be needed to assure a safe platform, this was the worst news that IndyCar could have received. Magically, or so it seemed, Firestone came back to the series through 2013 giving IndyCar the stability through the new chassis growing pains that will occur.  Reportedly, it was the IndyCar owners who brought Firestone back, with I’m sure a bit of the best incentive…Cash.

Then, there was the changes in rules for the 2011 Season that would implement double file restarts and perhaps the “Lucky Dog” concept. The outcry against the Lucky Dog was, to put it mildly, LOUD. In the end, Head Honcho Randy Bernard has stepped back a bit on the Lucky Dog, or the Pressdog™ Passaround as we called it on Twitter. The double file restarts will be a success in my opinion. CART used them in the 1990’s and they were great.

The concept of moving the lapped cars out of the normal queue when a yellow came out also raised the ire of the fans. I won’t say much on this other than I ABSOLUTELY HATE THE IDEA. So much for journalistic objectivity.

So in the end, a lot of things have happened this off season and some folks have taken sides. Bottom line, we’ve got a stronger IndyCar series and racing starts on Sunday. Time to stop the complaining and get to the watching of our favorite series.

Here’s what I see for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Season:

Season Champion – Helio Castroneves – Team Penske – This is the year that Penske gains back the Season Championship from Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But which driver will win the “trophy”. Will Power is an alien on the Road and Street Courses and is getting better on the ovals. However, I think that Helio Castroneves will FINALLY get his first championship. He just appears more focused this year. I attribute that to the pressure he gets from Will and Ryan Briscoe

Indianapolis 500 Winner – Team Penske – Helio Castroneves – Helio wanted his 4th last year and just didn’t get the breaks he needed. This year, it will be a Dario Franchitti like dominance of the race.

Mario Andretti Trophy (Road Racing) – Team Penske – Will Power

A.J. Foyt Trophy (Ovals) – Team Penske – Helio Castroneves

Rookie of The Year – J.R. Hildebrand – Panther Racing

Now, some of you may be saying, “What, no Target Chip Ganassi Racing in any of these?” The Chipster had an AMAZING year in 2010 in IndyCar, GrandAm, and NASCAR. There is NO way that luck continues, right?  If it does, then his team passes, and I mean completely passes Penske, or even Hendrick Racing in NASCAR, as the BEST racing organization in North America. Though Chip says his 2 new cars will not affect the operation of the #9 and #10 cars, I just can’t see how it won’t.

This is going to be a great season as we say good bye to the Dallara chassis that has been around for 8 years now. Say what you will about the way it looks, or how it performs, it has kept our heroes and heroines safe. Also, say a big thanks to Honda and Firestone for sticking with the series as it appears we are headed into a period of growth.

Here’s hoping you have a great season. See you at the track.