Lewis on IndyCar: Top storylines to watch

Will Power gets ready for an IndyCar testing session. (AP/Joe Songe)

After one of the most competitive and exciting seasons that featured a new chassis along with engine competition from multiple manufacturers, the 2013 Izod IndyCar series should prove to be just as stimulating for fans and competitors. Speaking with the drivers attending the pre-season testing session at Barber Motorsports Park last week, each one expressed how they couldn’t wait to be back in the car and for competition to begin.

With a year of development and a book of notes, teams will be looking for a fast start to the new year at St. Petersburg and here are some of the storylines to watch as the 19-race season plays out.

Will Will win?

Will Power has been close for the last couple of seasons, even heading into the final race of the year as the championship points leader; the title was his to lose. And he’s done just that. If you race for Roger Penske there is pressure to perform and produce results. It’s an organization that demands excellence. Power has done that winning many races and competing for the title. This year, it’s time to bring home the big trophy.

He can come across as aloof in conversation, but I actually believe Power is quiet and only interested in competition and tolerates all the other obligations. Get him talking about racing or a personal interest (he’s teaching himself to play drums) and his tone changes and he’ll speak passionately about his opinions. Oval tracks will be the key. Last season, Power finished 28th at Indy, 23rd at Iowa and 24th at Fontana. If he can fix that and maintain his high standards on the road and street circuits, the title can be his.

Tune into the opening race of the 2013 IndyCar season, live from St. Petersburg on Sunday, March 24. Coverage begins on Sportsnet at 11:30 a.m. ET / 8:30 a.m. PT. | Full 2013 IndyCar schedule

Defending the title

Heading into the bumpy street circuit at Baltimore last year, Ryan Hunter-Reay knew that if he didn’t win the race he was all but eliminated from championship contention. Hunter-Reay had climbed back into the title chase at mid-season with three consecutive victories at Milwaukee, Iowa and then Toronto. Disappointing finishes at Mid-Ohio and Infineon had forced the Andretti Autosport driver to be super aggressive at Baltimore. That assertiveness and a little good fortune were rewarded with a win and eventually the series title.

This year, he won’t be able to count on daring moves like those at Baltimore working or Will Power crashing in the series finale. The crash by Power by no means handed the title to Hunter-Reay; he had to race hard to gain enough positions and points to claim the title. Sometimes the pressure is greater to repeat than to win in the first place. Hunter-Reay really had nothing to lose by going for it in those final events and the reward was significant. Let’s see how he handles the pressure of being introduced at every event as defending champion.

Crazy Canucks

I really like both James Hinchcliffe and Alex Tagliani. They are fun to be around and joke with and both are very serious about performing at the highest level for their respective teams this season. Both feel pressures to perform for a couple of reasons. Both sense an obligation to represent their country. Hinch has the series champion as a teammate and he knows that talent and personality have helped him rise to this elite level of racing, but results are necessary for him to stay here and wins are expected. Tagliani knows that more of his IndyCar driving career is behind him rather than ahead. Time to pad the stats is ticking away and he desperately wants to give his car owner Bryan Herta a race win.

Both are capable of winning this season. The resources and information available at the large operation that is Andretti Autosport give Hinchcliffe all the tools he needs to work with. And the breakthrough should come this year. Winning the first one is the toughest; once the door is open, it is possible more could come quickly.

What Tag doesn’t have at the small team Bryan Herta Autosport, he helps make up for in veteran experience and racing knowledge. He’s a survivor and has been doing this for a long time. He has a knack for putting himself in a good position when he has a strong car under him. Yes, victory is possible.

Is AJ Okay?

Less than a year ago, AJ Allmendinger had his racing career put in serious jeopardy. He failed a NASCAR random drug test. A banned substance was found in his system. He was suspended immediately and subsequently dismissed by Penske Racing. That would have been the end of the story for many but not Anthony James.

He completed the Road To Recovery program and was reinstated by NASCAR. He picked up a few rides near the end of the season with another team, partly due to the recommendation of his former boss Roger Penske. And then Roger called and asked Allmendinger to test with his IndyCar team with the thought of running the Indianapolis 500.

Allmendinger will race at two events for sure this season, more if sponsorship can come together. But speaking with him now he is a humble, grateful and determined driver and wants more than anything to show his boss and race fans that he can still drive, and win. Being away from open wheel cars for six years and only running a few tests and a couple of races makes that a huge task. A win seems unlikely, but don’t be surprised to see him do well.

Bits & bites

Dario Franchitti wants and is more than capable of winning another Indy 500. Helio Castroneves also wants another 500 win and also a series championship. Both drivers get a look in their eye when you mention Indianapolis. They’ve both experienced victory in three previous races. Franchitti is the defending champion. Castroneves last drank the milk in 2009. If either is fortunate enough to be first across the finish line again this year they will equal the mark of only three other drivers — AJ Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears — as four-time Indianapolis 500 champions.

A new wrinkle to the IndyCar season this year is double-header weekends at Detroit, Toronto and Houston. One of those races will feature the traditional rolling start while the other will begin with a standing start. The first of these weekends isn’t for a couple of months but everyone is already thinking about them. Some of the concerns are wear & tear on equipment and the driver and for those that haven’t done them, standing starts. I think it will be very exciting to watch how those weekends play out.

Two other drivers I’m keeping an eye on are Graham Rahal and Marco Andretti. Both have famous fathers and now both will drive for their dad’s teams. Graham joined Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan racing last fall and likes how things are going. I asked about what will happen when the inevitable first disagreement takes place, but he assured me they’re good and keeping race issues at the track.

For Marco Andretti he has had great equipment with very poor results the last couple of seasons. When we spoke he put the blame for that on himself. He spent part of the off-season getting tips from an instructor he was sworn to secrecy about but told me he’d learned a lot and is looking forward to showing that on the track this year.

Hopefully you’re as excited about the new Izod IndyCar season as I am. It’s going to be a great pleasure to be up close starting this weekend at St. Petersburg seeing and covering all the storylines play out this year.

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