IRL may have its champ already

Published April 4, 2006

ST. PETERSBURG - If recent Indy Racing League history holds, Helio Castroneves could be beaming that "what-me-worry?" smile for the next few months. One force has emerged the last two seasons - Tony Kanaan in 2004 and Dan Wheldon in 2005 - and built enough early momentum to win a points title relatively unchallenged.

With a win Sunday in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Castroneves has a first and a second in the first two races with 12 remaining and a 23-point lead on Scott Dixon .

"This is a good momentum," Castroneves said, "but I'm not thinking about a championship, I'm thinking about every race. So far it's been working so well. I don't think I'm going to change that strategy."

Wheldon started last season with four wins in the first five races and secured the title by 80 points. In 2004, Kanaan had two wins and two runnerup finishes in the same span and won the title by 85.

Perhaps it's Castroneves' turn for a near-perfect year and a first IRL title. With the entire league using Honda engines and Team Penske therefore not struggling with Toyota, he started the season on equal footing with the last two champions.

Kanaan had three wins and 15 top-5s in 16 races and completed every lap of the 2004 season to win his first championship. Last year he had two wins and 12 top-5s in 17 races - a strong defense - but lost the championship to Wheldon, who set a record with six wins, including the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Indianapolis 500, for his first crown.

"Every year is a different year," Kanaan said. "But I knew once I had accomplished that in 2004, it was going to be very difficult to match exactly the same, so it was hard to make expectations with such a competitive series."

CLEARER VISIONS: Until Tomas Scheckter crashed with Buddy Rice in the final laps of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it appeared Vision Racing was on its way to its best finish in just more than a season in existence. Still, Scheckter's resulting 12th-place finish - after running fourth at the time of the accident - might have illustrated that the league is gaining parity. Six teams were represented in the top seven finishing spots Sunday.

That's good news for Tony George in two ways: The league's CEO wants even competition, and he owns Vision.

"That shows the competitiveness of this series," third-place finisher Kanaan of Andretti Green Racing said of Scheckter's run. "Obviously, you're going to see people that still have more development and better engineers, but here's a very good race car driver that was in fourth place with a team that probably doesn't have half of the budget that we have, although Tony can come up with some money. I think he's doing a lot already."

SPARK PLUGS: Zephyrhills native and NASCAR truck series driver David Reutimann will compete in the 30th Toyota Pro/Celebrity race April 8 in conjunction with the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Competitors include professional skateboarder Bucky Lasek , tennis player Martina Navratilova and actor William Shatner . ... Southern Living magazine selected seeing a race at Talladega as one of the "40 Best Southern Experiences" in a story entitled "40 Things Every Southerner Ought To Do" in its April issue. Included in the list was touring the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Ala., and visiting Graceland in Memphis, Tenn.