Hinchcliffe’s return among 2016 IndyCar things to watch

James Hinchcliffe is really excited to get back on the IndyCar track, but especially for Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he can face his demons and find some closure.

With the long off-season over, IndyCar teams are now completing final preparations for 2016 competition. There is always excitement heading into a new season and once again there are compelling stories for race enthusiasts to watch for this year.

For Canadian fans there will be the joy of seeing James Hinchcliffe make his return to competition after a 10-month absence due to injuries he suffered in a horrific crash last May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Incredibly, Hinchcliffe was back in a racecar at full speed by late September. The Oakville, Ont., native has completed several test sessions but takes the final step in his return when competition opens in St. Petersburg, Fla., next week. Look out for my lengthy conversation with the “Mayor of Hinchtown” as part of the Sportsnet pre-race show.

After pulling out a thrilling race win to secure his fourth championship at Sonoma last season, Scott Dixon is back to defend his title and continue his assault on the record book. Dixon’s 38th career win made him the active leader and his next victory will tie him with Al Unser for fourth on the all-time list. Should he also claim his fifth series championship, that will push him past Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti into second all time, trailing only AJ Foyt, who has seven titles. He is truly one of the best ever.

Three talented rookie drivers will look to make their mark in the series as well. American Conor Daly competed in five races last season and is back for a full season with Dale Coyne Racing. Another American, Alexander Rossi, who last season competed in Formula One, will join Daly. Max Chilton, who also has F1 experience, will race for Chip Ganassi.

The manufacturers’ battle between Chevrolet and Honda will again be one to watch. Honda was allowed special consideration to make even greater changes to the aerodynamics of their cars to allow for a closer competitive battle. Chevrolet was significantly ahead at the beginning of last year and Honda struggled to catch up.

Chevrolet engine performance also appears to be a little ahead of Honda with upgrades introduced this year. Honda is also expected to step up its engine performance during the season.

There will again be focus on the big teams versus the smaller outfits. The four-car Penske juggernaut appeared poised to dominate at the start of last year. Juan Pablo Montoya led the championship from the opening race in St. Pete, scored his second Indy 500 win, but lost out on the title in the final race. Penske and the Ganassi four-car squad will both be tough again this year, however Graham Rahal showed that a single car team can be competitive with the larger teams.

This year will also see the 100th running of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” the Indianapolis 500. Every IndyCar driver wants to win the biggest race on the schedule, a race that changes your life forever. To win the centennial edition of this event that attracts 300,000 people into the speedway while millions more watch on television would make you as famous as the first-ever winner, Ray Harroun.

Drivers and fans are both thrilled to see IndyCar return to heritage tracks Phoenix International Raceway and Road America this year. Both were fixtures on the schedule for many years and are expected to draw big crowds as the series returns.

Over the next six months these and other stories will play out and we can count on another great season of dramatic and highly competitive racing each weekend. And you’ll see each event live on Sportsnet 360 this season.