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Fighting For The Title

It’s going to be tough to beat last year’s dramatic showdown for the IndyCar series title, since four drivers went into the final race with a chance to be champion.

But what might be even tougher is finding a way to beat Team Penske and Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in 2007.

Sam Hornish Jr. and teammate Helio Castroneves each won four races for Team Penske in ’06, while Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon earned two victories apiece for Target/Ganassi. That quartet also captured 12 of 14 pole positions, led 2,081 laps out of 2,510 and ranked first through fourth in the final point standings.

“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think we could beat those guys but, obviously, it’s tough and you have to do everything right,” said Vitor Meira, who finished fifth in ’06 and returns with Panther Racing.

“You can’t leave anything on the table because those guys seldom do.”

Coming off his third IndyCar championship and initial win at Indianapolis, Hornish had a dream season for Roger Penske and doesn’t see a lot changing in ’07.

“From Day One, when everybody found out we would all be running Honda engines, everybody predicted it [the championship] would come down to us and Ganassi and that’s exactly what happened,” said the 27-year-old, who grew up idolizing Rick Mears.

“I definitely think it could be the same battle as last year and I feel like there’s a good opportunity for us to come back and repeat. Although, to be honest, I hope it’s a runaway by the Number 6 car [Hornish pilots car Number 6 in IndyCar competition].”

Wheldon, who led a season-high 761 laps in his first stint with Target/Ganassi, echoed Hornish’s thoughts.

“I think some of the teams will have caught up a little and I don’t know that we’ll be so dominant, but I definitely think our two teams will always be at the forefront of the racing,” said the 2005 IRL champion.

“The drivers are going to have to take it to a new level, and I’m ready to prove a point.”

Castroneves, a two-time Indy 500 winner, has done about everything except take the IRL crown and that’s his immediate and ultimate goal.

“It came down to the last race between four drivers last year and, in my case, it just wasn’t meant to be, because we had a couple of DNFs [‘Did Not Finish’ results] that were out of my hands,” said the amiable veteran from Brazil. “It didn’t happen because it wasn’t my time.

“There’s a saying that if you try too hard, you’re probably not going to get whatever it is you’re after, so I’ll just focus on winning races and keep knocking on the door. It’s got to open sometime.”

Dixon can look at a bad final pit stop in Sonoma (when he clearly had the dominant car) as the culprit that prevented him from taking his second championship, but he was happy to be back at the front.

“I think Dan and I had a ton of missed opportunities last year and we could have easily won eight races between us,” said the 2003 IRL king, who only had one win in 2004 and 2005 combined. “But it was redeeming to come back with a fair package and be back at the front all year.

“I knew the first time I pulled out of the pits in testing that things were going to be different with the Honda engine.”

While Penske and Ganassi held the upper hand in ’06, Andretti Green Racing managed two wins, but failed to show the form that made the team dominant in 2004 and 2005.

Tony Kanaan triumphed at Milwaukee and Marco Andretti scored his initial IndyCar win at Sonoma but, overall, it was pretty frustrating for the team that reigned supreme in 2004 and 2005.

“We were definitely caught napping,” said Dario Franchitti, who went winless in 2006. “We didn’t keep up with development and we paid the price.

“But now the team owners have answered the call and given us the green light for development, and hopefully, given us the tools to come back strong this season.”

Added Kanaan: “It’s not like the team fell apart and we had to fire everybody. We all knew that Penske and Ganassi would be stronger with the Honda and, with their history, it was basically just back to normal.”

The third generation of the driving Andrettis wasted little time in showing his prowess – coming within a few feet of winning his first Indianapolis 500 before becoming the IRL’s youngest-ever winner at 19.

“Being on this team really speeded up my learning curve, and I think if it would have been a two-car team instead of four, it would have been a different story and much tougher,” said Michael’s son.

“And having a month in the car at Indy was also a huge plus because that really helped my confidence. I said at the beginning of the year I thought we could be in Victory Lane and I hope to be there more frequently this season.”

The biggest off-season story in the Indy Racing League concerned Andretti Green Racing, as Danica Patrick replaced Bryan Herta in the lineup.

“It’s a great opportunity and I can’t wait for the season to start,” said the first female to ever lead the Indianapolis 500 (in 2005). “Having Tony, Dario and Marco to learn from is going to be so good. I just want to be a sponge.

“I drove better and was more intuitive with my car last year, but we just didn’t have the right package. Now, I’ve got the best of everything.”

Meira returns to Panther Racing and will be joined by Kosuke Matsuura.

Scott Sharp moved over to Rahal/Letterman Racing as teammate to Jeff Simmons.

Buddy Rice took a job with Dreyer & Reinbold and the 2004 Indy 500 winner will be paired with Sarah Fisher, making her return to fulltime IRL competition after three years away.

Anthony Foyt IV joins Ed Carpenter and Tomas Scheckter at Vision Racing, while Darren Manning takes over the seat on A.J. Foyt’s squad.

Owner/driver Marty Roth also plans to run a partial schedule in 2007.

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