Focus back on racing as IndyCar opens season

Will Power and Dario Franchitti flirted back and forth Friday afternoon for top billing on the speed chart on the first day of the new IndyCar season.

Some things haven't changed very much during the offseason.

The two drivers battled back-and-forth the last two seasons for the Izod IndyCar championship, with Franchitti taking the title both years. Although the competition is expected to be wide open this season, the two resumed their usual positions up front in the second of Friday's two practice sessions.

Power ended up on top with a lap around the street course at St. Petersburg in 1:02.007, and his Penske Racing teammate Ryan Briscoe leap-frogged Franchitti with a lap in 1:02.0931 right before the close of the session. Franchitti was third with a lap at 1:02.2232 for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

"It's an interesting match-up with the Ganassis. They've led all of their test sessions, and we've led all of ours," Briscoe said. "I'm sure we'll have a good fight again this year."

For the first time in five months, the focus is back on racing.

IndyCar had a long and difficult offseason — series CEO Randy Bernard called it "terrible, quite frankly," — following the death of Dan Wheldon in the Oct. 16 season-ending race at Las Vegas. With no racing scheduled, the series had been unable to return to any form of normalcy, and many drivers yearned to get back on track to help the healing process.

They get their chance this weekend with the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a Sunday race through the streets of Wheldon's adopted hometown. The two-time Indianapolis 500 winner made his home in this picturesque city and won the inaugural race here in 2005.

Earlier this month, Turn 10, where he passed Briscoe for the victory, was renamed Dan Wheldon Way.

"We're all going to be driving with heavy hearts," Marco Andretti said Friday. "Dan was a competitor. And we'll show up, and we'll compete just like he would want us to. That's what we are going to do, carry on with our job, and think about how competitive Dan was and know he'd just be laughing at us if we were sobbing."

With the return to racing comes the excitement for a season filled with unknowns.

"There's definitely more interest going into this season then there has been in 15 years," said racing great Mario Andretti. "I think everybody wants to see how things are going to stack up. It's a level playing field, so there will there be some surprises. There's a lot of depth in the field. If you look at potential winners, it's as good as any series out there in terms of how many guys can win right now. No question about it."

IndyCar this weekend is debuting the first new car for the series since 2003, and Dallara named it the DW12 in honor of Wheldon, who spent most of the year helping with its development. The series also has multiple engine suppliers for the first time since 2005.

The addition of Chevrolet and Lotus to compete with Honda, which had been the sole series supplier, is expected to tighten the competition. But Lotus has lagged behind the entire offseason, and this week was a watch-and-wait to see if Dragon Racing secured an engine for Sebastien Bourdais in time for the weekend.

Lotus got the team an engine on Thursday evening, and Bourdais was able to get on track Friday. It was just his second time on track this offseason.

"I was getting my head around the fact we were not going to run, and now I've got to switch mode overnight and go racing," Bourdais said. "I've never started a season with these circumstances. It's definitely been the toughest challenge so far."

And what does Bourdais expect for his first race of the season?

"This is not a race weekend for us. This is discovery," he said. "We'll treat this as a live test. We can't have any expectations; it would be completely unfair."

This weekend also marks the debut of Rubens Barrichello, who moved last month to IndyCar after 19 seasons in Formula One. He had a long first day of practice. A mechanical problem limited him to eight laps in the morning session, and he was 23rd on the speed chart in the afternoon session.

"With the problem we had this morning, it was pretty much a setback," he said. "I spent the afternoon session learning the track, while everyone else was now improving their cars. I was playing catch up, big time, that's for sure."

It's also the debut for new race director Beaux Barfield, who conducted his first driver meeting Friday morning and had his first opportunity to show the drivers how he plans to run things.

"Wow. He did a fantastic job," Helio Castroneves said. "He kept his cool, and he got bombarded with some questions from some big teams. I thought he was very good. I asked some other drivers, and it looks like everybody thinks it was very positive. That's the way to gain respect, he got mine."

Barfield didn't make it through his first day without issues — most notably driver concerns about some of the curbs on the course. Drivers were able to drive over them last year, but new asphalt has made some of them larger this season. Barfield said the Turn 12 curb likely will be "slightly re-profiled" before Sunday, but he didn't see a problem with any others.

"We have to drive around them since they are so aggressive," Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "Our concern is that it is going to lower our cornering speeds a little bit, and we need these things to look as fast as possible on TV. Now, we may have to tiptoe around them. We'll see."