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IndyCar 2011 season preview

Rookies to watch

SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA, CONQUEST RACING: The rookie, the youngest driver in this weekend's field at age 20, Saavedra last year became the first driver born in the 1990s to compete in the Indianapolis 500. He also won in Indy Lights at Iowa Speedway, driving for Bryan Herta's team. In his rookie year in Indy Lights, 2009, the Colombian won twice driving for Michael Andretti's team. He has been fast in qualifying, making the top four on the grid seven times in 11 Indy Lights starts last year.

JR Hildebrand, Panther Racing: The 2009 Indy Lights champion has some big shoes to fill at Panther, the team that once employed Sam Hornish and Dan Wheldon. Of Hildebrand's five Indy Lights victories, four came on road courses, but if Panther's history is anything to go by, the 23-year-old Californian might be a force on ovals. Wheldon was the Indianapolis 500 runnerup the past two years running for the team.

Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing: The 26-year-old Californian landed a top ride after accumulating 10 top-10 finishes in two seasons in Indy Lights. He also landed sponsorship from Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company which, among other things, makes products to aid diabetics. Kimball was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes in 2007 and briefly halted his racing program, but got back behind the wheel in 2008.

Network news

Versus, the TV network that airs 12 of IndyCar's 17 races, is expanding its coverage this season.

The cable network said Monday that it will extend the live television window from three to five hours. Versus will also present a weekly one-hour studio show starting May 3.

Wally Dallenbach Jr., formerly a NASCAR analyst when NBC carried Sprint Cup, will join the Versus broadcast team. He'll be in the booth with Jon Beekhuis and play-by-play veteran Bob Jenkins. Longtime open-wheel reporter and Speed Channel regular Robin Miller also will join Versus' coverage for some races.

The other five races are on ABC including St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis 500.

Change is coming

Honda, the sole engine supplier to the IndyCar series since 2006, will enjoy one more year of solitude.

In 2012, the manufacturer will have company.

Chevrolet and Lotus have announced plans to join Honda in building engines for the series next year. The engines can be turbocharged, which also will be a switch from this year's formula.

Chevrolet last raced in the series in 2005 and won that year at Texas with Tomas Scheckter behind the wheel.

Dallara will remain the chassis manufacturer but is building a new model. Firestone, which initially announced that it would pull out of the series next season, will stick around for 2012 as well.

Two-wide life

IndyCar will have side-by-side restarts at all venues, the series announced this month.

Cars will restart side-by-side on street and road circuits for the first time, beginning Sunday in St. Petersburg.

The series made the rule change after consulting with drivers and teams, said series president of competition Brian Barnhart.

"Most of the ovals we run two- and three-wide anyway so what's the difference?" driver Graham Rahal told IndyCar.com. "It will make it more exciting for the fans, there will be more passes and there will be more crashes. It's a fact for those team owners."

By the numbers

2

Consecutive championships for Dario Franchitti, matching Sam Hornish as the only drivers with back-to-back titles.

3

Total titles for Franchitti, also tying Hornish for the series record.

10

Seasons with at least one IndyCar victory for Helio Castroneves; last year he broke a tie with Scott Sharp to set the record.

20

Years old, age of Sebastian Saavedra, the youngest driver in the series.

38

Years old, age of Alex Tagliani, the oldest driver in the series.

147

Series starts for Castroneves, again tying Sharp; the Brazilian will break the mark Sunday.

IndyCar 2011 season preview 03/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 24, 2011 9:30pm]

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