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Archive for Friday, February 27, 2004

Penske seeking first series championship

February 27, 2004

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— Roger Penske's elite open-wheel teams have won 11 national championships during the past three decades. The Captain, however, still isn't satisfied.

He has yet to win an IndyCar Series championship.

That's not the way it was supposed to be when Penske took his team out of the struggling CART series after Gil de Ferran gave him consecutive championships in 2000 and 2001.

"A lot of people thought Penske would arrive in the IRL and start winning everything," said Sam Hornish Jr., a two-time IRL champion who joined Team Penske last winter. "It's been kind of a surprise that he hasn't."

Probably for Penske, too.

He'll get another chance starting Sunday, the beginning of his third year as an Indy Racing League team owner, at the season-opening Toyota Indy 300 at Homestead Miami Speedway.

"I won't say I'm disappointed we haven't won an IRL championship because everybody has worked very hard, and we just haven't done it, yet," Penske said. "But I hope this will be the year."

The addition of Hornish, who won IRL titles in 2001 and 2002, should help. Not only is Hornish one of the preseason favorites to challenge for the title, he is expected to further motivate new teammate Helio Castroneves.

"From the time I was a kid, I admired Penske race car drivers," said Hornish, who replaced the retired de Ferran. "I never actually thought that I would be one of them, so it's kind of exciting to be able to do that."

Castroneves has become a perennial title contender, going into the season finale each of the last two years with a shot at the championship. But the Brazilian has wound up no better than third in the points.

"The competition is very strong, but we can win the championship this year," Castroneves said. "We just need to be a little more consistent and win some more races."

Team Penske certainly will not be the only solid contender in 2004. In fact, nobody would be surprised to see another championship that goes to the final race with five or six drivers in contention, as they were last fall.

Scott Dixon wound up on top last year, giving Chip Ganassi his first IRL title after four championships in CART in the late '90s.

Dixon is back with new teammate and IRL rookie Darren Manning, who raced in CART last season.

"I learned a lot last season, had some success, and we as a team are going to build on that," Dixon said. "We know we can win. We just want to take it a step further every race weekend."

Ganassi hired youngster Tony Renna to replace fast but inconsistent Tomas Scheckter in the second team seat at the end of last season. But Renna was killed in a devastating crash at Indianapolis during his first test session with the team.

That crash, along with another terrifying accident in which former series champion Kenny Brack was badly injured at Texas Motor Speedway, led the IRL to move to slow its cars in 2004 by at least 100 horsepower and 10 mph.

Toyota, Honda and Chevrolet, the engine suppliers for the series, will modify existing engines from 3.5 to 3.0 liters beginning in May with the Indianapolis 500.

In the meantime, last year's engines will be used. But a 3-inch by 12-inch slot cut into the airbox and engine cover behind the driver's head will decrease airflow to the engine. That is expected to cut horsepower and decrease speeds until the new engines are ready.

"With the changes to the rules to slow the cars, there is going to be an adjustment period for everyone that will add to the challenge," Dixon said.

The changes aren't expected to affect the often intense competition, though, in the all-oval track series.

"New engines, new drivers, it doesn't really matter," said team owner Michael Andretti.

Expected to battle Manning for rookie of the year honors will be Ed Carpenter, IRL founder Tony George's stepson who will team up with returning Alex Barron at Red Bull Cheever Racing, and Japan's Kosuke Matsuura, who will run for Fernandez Racing.

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