Rookies to watch
Calling Rubens Barrichello a rookie seems crazy — he has been an international star for two decades and holds the Formula One record for starts with 322. The Brazilian owns 11 F1 victories, is fifth all-time with 68 podium (top three) finishes, and was runnerup in the championship twice, in 2002 and '04. He was a teammate to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari in those years, and had a resurgence in 2009 with Ross Brawn's team, winning twice.
She's a newcomer to IndyCar but not to open-wheel fans. The England native made a splash in the Atlantic series, at that time the top feeder series to Champ Car, with three victories in 2005, becoming the first woman to win a major open-wheel race in a North American series. She went on to race in Champ Car in 2006-07 with a best finish of sixth, then spent the following three years racing touring cars in Germany.
Last year at this time the Nashville native was preparing for his first season in Indy Lights. By the time his spectacular campaign was over, he was the champion in IndyCar's top feeder series at age 20. He earned five victories last year for Sam Schmidt including St. Petersburg and Indianapolis, was on the podium in 10 of 14 races and led a season-high 395 laps. All of that earned him a ride in IndyCar with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Another driver who spent time in Champ Car, the Frenchman had a solid season with Team Australia in 2007, finishing in the top five six times in 14 races and winding up eighth in points. Last season he was eighth at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama as an injury replacement for Ana Beatriz, helping to open the door for two more races. In the interim he drove sportscars, winning the American Le Mans Series title in 2010 alongside David Brabham.
By the numbers
3 Consecutive championships for Dario Franchitti, a series record
4 Drivers entered at St. Petersburg who are in the top 15 on the all-time major North American open-wheel wins list (Sebastien Bourdais, Dario Franchitti, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves)
7 Americans running full-time in the series, up one from last year
8 Runnings of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg including Sunday; of the tracks on this season's schedule, only two (Indianapolis, Texas) have held more races under IndyCar sanction
16 Races on the season schedule, down two from last year
36 Career pole positions for Castroneves, the active leader
884 Laps led in 2011 by Dario Franchitti, eighth-most in one season dating to 1946
Hello, old friends
The series returns this season to two tracks with a strong history of open-wheel racing.
Belle Isle Park in Detroit hosted CART events from 1989-2001, then IndyCar ran two races there, but none since 2008. The return to the home of America's auto industry coincides with the return of American engine manufacturer Chevrolet to the series.
Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., hosted CART races in 1997-2002 and IRL (now IndyCar) events in 2002-05 — yes, the 2-mile oval hosted both series in 2002. This is the fourth different oval to host the series finale in the past five years. The track was the site of the series finale in 2005.
Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Rev your engines — all three of them
After being the lone engine supplier in the series for the past six seasons, Honda has company this year.
Chevrolet returns to the series, and Lotus joins in as well. There are 11 full-time drivers using Chevy, 10 running for Honda and five for Lotus.
"I think the engine manufacturer might be a little bit of the difference," Penske Racing's Helio Castroneves said. "Always, the big teams seem to have the resources (to run well) but I wouldn't point to one or two teams."