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IndyCar Season Preview: Scott Dixon

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#9 Target Dallara-Honda, Chip Ganassi RacingBorn: July 22, 1980

Home: Auckland, New Zealand

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: For the fifth consecutive year, Dixon finished in the top three in points, placing third with two road course victories from the pole at Mid-Ohio and Motegi. He also led 73 laps at Indianapolis on the way to a fifth place finish.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: A 16th place finish at St. Petersburg did not make for a good start to Dixon’s season, and he never really got back on track until Indy. He also didn’t win until the 12th round of the season, making it difficult for him to challenge for the championship.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Chip Ganassi Racing has been one of the top teams in IndyCar since first aligning itself with Honda, and that doesn’t seem likely to change in 2012. Not only is Ganassi the anchor team for the new HPD motors, key team personnel aren’t changing from last year, meaning that everything will remain relatively intact. In a transitional year for all teams because of the new car and engines, that should mean a lot for Dixon’s consistency.

Dixon will be one of the top threats, then, to end teammate Dario Franchitti’s reign atop the series. But with both drivers in the same equipment, and both instrumental of the development of the Dallara DW12, it will likely come down to which driver has better luck over the course of the season.

– Chris Leone

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IndyCar Season Preview: E.J. Viso

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#5 Citgo Dallara-Chevrolet, KV Racing Technology

Born: March 19, 1985

Home: Caracas, Venezuela

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: At Texas, Viso scored a pair of top 10 finishes – seventh in the first race and 10th in the second. He also added a pair of ninth place finishes at Toronto and Sonoma, and finished every race after the Iowa round.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Viso scored only 241 points, the fewest in his IndyCar career, as he matched the 18th place championship finishes of his first two seasons. He also had five DNFs, as many as he did in 2010, and could not match his career-best third place finish, scored at Iowa in 2010.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Viso enters his fifth IndyCar season in 2012, his third in a row with Jimmy Vasser’s KV Racing Technology team. But thanks to the departure of Takuma Sato, for the first time (arguably) with KV, he’ll be looked at as the team’s second driver, rather than the third, following the team’s plans to promote an Indy Lights or junior European formula driver to Sato’s former team. This means that Viso may be looked at to perform much more than he ever has in the series, and it’s not an opportunity that he should take lightly.

While Viso is far and away a better driver than Milka Duno, the other Venezuelan state oil-sponsored IndyCar driver from a few years ago, his rank in the standings (best finish: 17th in 2010) has always suggested “pay driver” in a less than subtle way. The good news is that Viso’s problem is not for lack of speed, but lack of control, as he has never had fewer than four DNFs in a season (in 2008, his rookie year). While you can’t teach speed, you can teach control, and perhaps with another year alongside teammate and legend Tony Kanaan, Viso can break out in the way that Sato did last year.

IndyCar Season Preview: Sebastien Bourdais

Photo credit: David Merrett (CC-BY)

#7 Lotus Cars Dallara-Lotus, Dragon Racing

Born: February 28, 1979

Home: Le Mans, France

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Bourdais returned to American open-wheel for the first time since winning the 2007 Champ Car title, signing with Dale Coyne Racing to run the road and street course rounds of the IndyCar championship. He scored a best finish of sixth place on four separate occasions (Toronto, Edmonton, Infineon, Motegi).

2011 LOWLIGHTS: After a practice accident, Bourdais was forced to sit out of the season-opening round at St. Petersburg. He was also unable to return to the Indianapolis 500 after a rumored deal with former CART owner Pat Patrick never came through.

SEASON OUTLOOK: First things first – give Jay Penske some serious credit for taking a team on the brink of dissolution and landing two of the best available free agents on the market, Bourdais and Katherine Legge. What’s especially impressive is that the other offers on the table came from Dale Coyne, which likely would have seen Bourdais and Justin Wilson partner up, and World Endurance Championship manufacturer Peugeot, which makes some of the best Le Mans prototypes in the world. In fact, it’s safe to say that Penske’s offer may have been the least compelling of the three Bourdais was weighing.

That being said, however, it was the most solid, as Coyne suffered offseason setbacks that put him a month behind the game, and Peugeot eventually dropped their sports car program entirely. Bourdais’ driving talent is unquestioned; he is tied with Paul Tracy at 31 wins for the title of winningest active American open-wheel driver, and he scored a series of strong finishes in Coyne’s mid-pack level cars. He’ll do plenty to legitimize Dragon Racing, though it may be too soon to expect a top 10 championship run (especially as he’ll skip the Milwaukee round to run the 24 Hours of Le Mans for a new team).

– Chris Leone

Prop Bets: Daytona 500

The fun thing about the Daytona 500 is that nobody ever has any idea what’s going to happen. Who honestly predicted Trevor Bayne to win last year’s race? Part of the fun of Daytona is heading into the race with little to rely on in the way of making accurate predictions. It’s a guessing game, really – and so is this.

For entertainment purposes only (but you knew that, right?), here are our 10 challenge questions for the 2012 Daytona 500. Chances are, nobody’s going to get more than half of these right – remember, Daytona is a big guessing game – but it’s fun to throw darts at the board and see how things shake out. Feel free to comment with your selections at the bottom of the page, and any person to properly predict all 10 might receive a shout-out.

Have fun, and enjoy today’s race.

Who will post the better finish in these pairings?

1. 2011 championship rivals – Tony Stewart or Carl Edwards

2. Most popular drivers – Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Danica Patrick

3. Current vs. former Penske Racing drivers – Kurt Busch or A.J. Allmendinger

4. Roush Fenway Racing’s Nationwide Series drivers – Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Trevor Bayne

5. New Michael Waltrip Racing drivers – Mark Martin or Clint Bowyer

6. Traditional start-and-parkers – Phil Parsons Racing (Michael McDowell) or NEMCO Motorsports (Joe Nemechek)

7. Teams backed by fast food franchisees – Front Row Motorsports (Taco Bell/Long John Silver’s franchisees, Tony Raines, David Ragan, or David Gilliland) or BK Racing (Burger King franchisees, Landon Cassill or David Reutimann)

Over/under predictions:

8. Cautions: Over or under 10.5

9. Lap leaders: Over or under 26.5

10. Lead changes: Over or under 76.5

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Katherine Legge

Photo credit: Paz Chouhan (CC-BY-NC-ND)

#6 TrueCar Dallara-Lotus, Dragon Racing

Born: July 12, 1980

Hometown: Guildford, Surrey, England

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After three fruitless seasons in the German DTM championship racing older model Audis, Legge returned to Indianapolis in 2011 with the goal of resuming her open-wheel career, taking a physical for IndyCar officials in January.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Despite a boon of female drivers in the series, including four in the Indianapolis 500, Legge was unable to secure sponsorship or a ride to compete in the 2011 season.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Legge hasn’t run full time in North American open-wheel racing since 2007, when she finished 15th in points driving for Dale Coyne Racing in Champ Car. But thanks to a mid-January deal with Dragon Racing, she’ll be running Lotuses alongside one of Champ Car’s all-time best drivers, Sebastien Bourdais. There’s no doubt that Legge can learn a lot from the Frenchman, part of the reason why owner Jay Penske was so keen on pairing the two drivers.

Legge may not have the equipment to run as well as Danica Patrick, whose career will inevitably be the measuring stick against which she is judged, but don’t underestimate Legge’s talent – after all, Legge took wins in Toyota Atlantic in 2005, years before Patrick’s first IndyCar triumph. She’ll also have contract stability, with two years on her deal and an option for a third, allowing her to be patient if 2012 is a trying year and retool for 2013. She won’t outrun her teammate, but she won’t be a laughingstock, either.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: J.R. Hildebrand

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#4 National Guard Dallara-Chevrolet, Panther Racing

Born: January 3, 1988

Home: Sausalito, California

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Hildebrand finally secured a full-time IndyCar ride after winning the 2009 Indy Lights title and making limited appearances for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2010. As per a recent Panther Racing tradition, he finished second at Indianapolis.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: That second-place at Indy came after leading much of the last lap of the race and crashing after badly misjudging the final corner. The late Dan Wheldon, from whom Hildebrand inherited his ride, took the victory. Hildebrand also dropped off in points at the end of the season, falling to 14th and losing Rookie of the Year honors to James Hinchcliffe.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Another year of maturity should help Hildebrand become one of the top 10 drivers in IndyCar in 2012. Many of Panther Racing’s glory years came with Chevrolet power, meaning that the nostalgic reunification of the team and engine manufacturer could lead to some good mojo. Most of the team will also remain intact.

Indianapolis is no problem for this team, and thus won’t be for Hildebrand. The biggest question is whether or not Hildebrand can post more consistently solid finishes. He only crashed out of three events, but five of his last six races saw finishes of 19th or worse. He did, however, show some potential on road courses, which have never been a strength of Panther’s.

IndyCar Season Preview: Helio Castroneves

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#3 Shell V-Power Dallara-Chevrolet, Team Penske

Born: May 10, 1975

Home: Sao Paulo, Brazil

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Castroneves made his 200th career open-wheel start for Team Penske at Loudon, and after running a team-sponsored car for much of 2010, picked up new sponsorships from Shell and AAA, among other brands. Castroneves finished second at both Edmonton and Sonoma.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: 2011 was Castroneves’ worst season since he drove for the underfunded Hogan Racing on the 1999 CART schedule. For the first time as a Penske driver, he didn’t win a race all season, and dropped to 11th in points after underperforming at many tracks. The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner even finished a miserable 17th in that race, a lap down.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Castroneves, for the first time, enters the season as Penske’s clear-cut number three driver. Even though Will Power was the only Penske driver to win last season, Ryan Briscoe’s finishes were much more consistent. If Castroneves is still higher on the food chain, it’s only because of the star power that comes with three Indy wins, a book deal, and a Dancing with the Stars title.

That being said, even if he’s on the downside of his career, it’s not likely that Roger Penske will let Castroneves slip much more than that. In fact, a trying 2011 season may have been just what “Spiderman” needed to revitalize his career, much as a winless 2006 allowed Dario Franchitti to come back strong in 2007 and win his first career title, more than a decade into his career. If the Ilmor-built Chevrolet engines outperform the Honda and Lotus offerings, Castroneves will be a serious championship contender.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Ryan Briscoe

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#2 Izod Dallara-Chevrolet, Team Penske

Born: September 24, 1981

Home: Sydney, Australia

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After spending much of 2010 unsponsored and worrying in the offseason about his job security, Briscoe became the new face of the Izod brand in IndyCar. He led 35 of 85 laps at Long Beach to finish second and scored four podium finishes. He finished a respectable sixth in points.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: For the first time in four years as a Penske driver, Briscoe failed to win a race, and that sixth place points finish was actually his worst with the team. His month of May was also disastrous, as he only qualified 26th at Indianapolis and crashed out to finish 27th.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Once again, Briscoe went into the offseason unsure of his return to Penske (especially since he spent seven races with Penske Trucking backing his car), but his contract was eventually picked up for a fifth season. He will, however, be working with a new engineer, the only one of three Penske drivers who will be at that disadvantage to start the season. The good news is that aforementioned engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, has been with Penske since 2005 and worked on Briscoe’s team last year.

Briscoe still has plenty of potential, though, and anybody who drives for Roger Penske will always have a shot at a title. While testing the Dallara DW12 at Fontana in late November, Briscoe was decidedly more optimistic about the new car than Honda counterpart Scott Dixon. If that becomes a setup advantage that foreshadows the 2012 season, Briscoe could make up for his end of season choke in 2009.

NASCAR Season Preview: Smaller Teams and Part-Timers

Photo credit: Ned Leone

Not every Sprint Cup team came together in time this offseason to warrant a full preview leading up to the Daytona 500. In fact, a lot of the series’ smaller teams have just finished putting the pieces together in their bids to seize a lower top 35 spot in owners’ points. Many of these teams have been start-and-park outfits in the past, but the majority are attempting to run the full schedule this year.

The newest addition to this list is BK Racing, made up of a group of former TRG Motorsports investors and Burger King franchisees, which has purchased Team Red Bull assets in order to field cars for Landon Cassill and Travis Kvapil (and David Reutimann in the Daytona 500 in Kvapil’s place). They’re guaranteed to make the first five races of the season, after which they hope to remain in the top 35 for the balance of the season.

Other full-time teams include David Stremme and Inception Motorsports, who move up to full-time status (save the road courses) after a half-season run last year; J.J. Yeley and Robinson-Blakeney Racing, moving up from the Nationwide Series with America-Israel Racing sponsorship; Timmy Hill and Rick Ware Racing, who will run for Rookie of the Year after Daytona (where Mike Wallace will fill in, as Hill isn’t approved to run superspeedways yet); Joe Nemechek and NEMCO Motorsports; and Michael McDowell and Phil Parsons Racing, which will partner with Dusty Whitney and Mike Curb in an effort to run full races in Fords this year after years of starting and parking.

A handful of other teams will run the full season while campaigning multiple drivers. Frank Stoddard’s FAS Lane Racing will field Terry Labonte in the Daytona 500, Ken Schrader in nine races with Federated Auto Parts sponsorship, and other drivers on a race-by-race basis. R3 Motorsports will move up from the Nationwide Series and split its ride between Robert Richardson III and Scott Riggs. Michael Waltrip will run superspeedway races and the Kentucky event for his own team, driving the #55 when Mark Martin is off, and six races remain unfilled for that team. Front Row Motorsports returns with a third car this season, rechristened the #26; Tony Raines has locked it into the Daytona 500 field, but who will drive the car beyond Daytona is undetermined.

Plenty of other drivers will attempt part-time schedules. Scott Speed has moved to Leavine Family Racing, where he will attempt 16 races in their #95 Ford. Tim Andrews, son of longtime Sprint Cup crew chief Paul, will attempt 10-12 events in a #19 Ford for Go Green Racing, one of many Nationwide Series teams moving up. Brendan Gaughan will drive the #33 for Richard Childress Racing in four of the first five races of the season, as Childress attempts to keep the former full-time team in the top 35 and sell off the owners’ points; Austin Dillon will also drive one race later in the year with American Ethanol sponsorship. Turner Motorsports moves up to the Sprint Cup level at Daytona in July, as Wal-Mart fields a car celebrating their 50th anniversary with Bill Elliott behind the wheel.

And of course, plenty of drivers have landed one-off rides for the Daytona 500. Waltrip will attempt the race for Hillman Racing, formed by ex-Germain Racing manager Mike Hillman, in its #40 Toyota. Kenny Wallace and Nationwide Series team RAB Racing will attempt the race with American Ethanol sponsorship. Childress will field Elliott Sadler, fresh off a runner-up performance in the Nationwide Series, in a Kroger-sponsored #33 Chevrolet. Elliott will drive a second car for NEMCO Motorsports, hoping to either race his way in or use a past champion’s provisional.

– Chris Leone

NASCAR Season Preview: Carl Edwards

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#99 Fastenal/Aflac/Subway/Best Buy/Kellogg’s/Cheez-It/UPS Ford, Roush Fenway Racing

Born: August 15, 1979

Home: Columbia, Missouri

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Making the Chase was no problem for Edwards, who spent a total of four races ranked below third in points and was never out of Chase contention in points, even in the early stages of the season where points are shuffled around. Then, when he got there, he had the best Chase average in history, an eye-popping 4.9, partially buoyed by three consecutive second place finishes to finish the year. When all was said and done, he was tied for the points lead with Tony Stewart, the only time that has ever happened in Sprint Cup history.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: And yet it wasn’t enough. Because Stewart won five races in the Chase and Edwards only won one all season, he took the tiebreaker. Edwards won the pole and led the most laps in the season finale at Homestead, but if Stewart won the race, it wouldn’t matter. That’s exactly what happened. “That’s all I had,” Edwards lamented after the race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Anybody who hates the trend of former full-time sponsors combining to back one team and subsequent related collapse of the racing die-cast market should probably view this team as Public Enemy Number One. After Roush Fenway Racing signed Aflac to a $26 million (annually!) contract to sponsor Edwards, the company had to auction off plenty of races to other companies. That wasn’t a difficult sell, as Edwards is a top-flight driver with a generally well-received personality, but many of those who are now footing the bill used to pour much more money into the sport. This year, the team will add UPS (which shifts its money from Edwards’ former teammate David Ragan) and Best Buy (which backed A.J. Allmendinger full-time at Richard Petty Motorsports last year).

But all the money in the world may not be enough to buck the Edwards trend of following up a good season with a relative stinker. After Edwards won nine races and scored 27 top 10s in 2008 and still lost the championship, he followed it up with a winless 2009 and 11th place points finish. Edwards took a page out of teammate Matt Kenseth’s book last season by winning only one race but posting an average finish that was actually better than in 2008; he still lost the title to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker. He’s still never missed the Chase as a a full-time driver, and don’t expect that to start now, but as Denny Hamlin showed last year (and Edwards showed in 2009), it’s hard to keep performing at a high level after losing the Chase in such a heartbreaking fashion. Winning the pole for the Daytona 500 will help, but can he stay on top all season?

– Chris Leone