After a lengthy six-month break, the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season gets underway this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla.
This year's IndyCar schedule includes 19 races in 16-event weekends. The season will feature three weekend doubleheaders, two new racetracks and a "Triple Crown" bonus program.
Much has happened in the sport since its 2012 season-finale in Fontana, Calif. As Ryan Hunter-Reay spent time celebrating his first championship, IndyCar had a major shakeup during the offseason. Randy Bernard stepped down as CEO, while Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and CEO Jeff Belskus took over Bernard's role in the interim. IndyCar hired Boston Consulting Group, a widely recognized management consulting firm, to help in its strategic planning process, with hopes of restoring stability in the sport.
Politics aside, IndyCar officials are eager for the season to start. Teams have recently tested at Sebring International Raceway in Florida and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama. So now it's time for the series to get back on track.
HUNTER-REAY SEEKS ANOTHER TITLE
Hunter-Reay became the first American driver to win the IndyCar championship in six years after beating Australian Will Power by just three points. Hunter- Reay had a remarkable season last year, scoring a series-high four wins, including three in a row. The Andretti Autosport driver won on the ovals at Milwaukee and Iowa as well as the street circuits in Toronto and Baltimore.
Identifying him as the reigning IndyCar champion, Hunter-Reay will drive the No. 1 car this year. That number is reserved for the defending entrant (owner) champion in the series. Team owner Michael Andretti was the last to use the No. 1, doing so for 2005 titleholder Dan Wheldon in the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
Following his preseason tests, Hunter-Reay has high hopes of winning another IndyCar championship.
"We're definitely optimistic," he said. "I'm encouraged how well our test went at Barber. That's a track that we have regularly struggled at. Will (Power) obviously led testing there, and we have to close the gap a bit. But I'm very encouraged how everything has been going as a team, and we have a good direction heading into St. Pete."
Team Penske drivers Helio Castroneves and Power as well as the Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon will once again be Hunter- Reay's toughest opponents. His Andretti teammate, James Hinchcliffe, might also be in the title mix this year.
"I learned a lot about dealing with the pressure of championship fights and kind of channeling that into positive energy to make it really benefit you when you need it," Hunter-Reay said. "It's something that I'll use in the future for sure going forward.
"I had a lot of fun in the fight with Will and Scott (Dixon), and it was something I hope we can do many times again, because that's what auto racing is all about, and that's why we are here doing it."
FOURTH TIME A CHARM FOR POWER?
After finishing second in the point standings the past three years, Power is tired of being the bridesmaid.
Power held the points lead heading into each season-ending race from 2010-12 but lost the championship two times to Franchitti and then last year to Hunter-Reay.
What does Power plan to do differently this year?
"My approach to the season is really no different than it's been the last three years," he said. "Just going to keep chipping away, and hopefully at some point, we can get the thing done."