HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) _ The first thing most people will notice about the IRL IndyCar Series opener Saturday night will be the number of cars on the track.
Thanks to the recent unification of America's two open-wheel series, there will be a 26-car grid for the Gainsco Auto Insurance Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The addition of nine former Champ Car World Series entries has made for the biggest field for an IndyCar race in eight years.
"I think it will be very competitive but, realistically, we won't find out till Homestead, and not only in Homestead, because a lot of people will still be adjusting," IndyCar veteran Vitor Meira said. "I can only predict it will be very good and very hard for our teams, but fans will get the best of it.
"If I was a fan, I'd definitely be watching the first race."
Despite the newcomers, it's likely that the season-long championship tussle will come down to the same teams that have dominated IndyCar in recent years — Andretti Green Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing.
Dario Franchitti, last year's Indianapolis 500 winner and series champion, has left AGR for NASCAR, but the team remains a powerhouse with returning drivers Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick, along with promising rookie Hideki Mutoh.
AGR has been the team to beat since 2003, with 32 wins — nine of them last year — and three championships.
With Franchitti gone, the burden of leadership falls on Kanaan, the 2004 series champ.
"They say that, but then I get my butt kicked by Danica and Marco and Mutoh and then I won't be the guy anymore," Kanaan said. "I have a bigger responsibility, but nothing has changed for me inside the team. I've always had that team leader role. If you think about it, every year for the last three years I've had a new teammate. It won't be any different than when Marco got in and when Danica got in, and now when Hideki comes in.
"There's only one goal in racing — it's win. We're here to win the championship, we're here to win Indianapolis, we're here to win as many races as we can."
Patrick, who turned 26 on Tuesday, will start her fourth full IndyCar season still looking for her first win.
"This is the most excited I've been going into a season, most comfortable I've felt," said Patrick, who badly wants to get off to a fast start.
"I really feel like I'm becoming some sort of an old person in racing. This is my fourth year, so I'm going into this one instead of some of the others saying, 'Look, if I want a shot at winning championships, everything, you've got to get out of the box fast.' You have to go hard early and get some good results in. You have to finish because those DNFs (did not finish) at the beginning of the season will come back to haunt you later."
The 21-year-old Andretti, who slumped badly in his sophomore season after racing to 2006 rookie honors, is expecting to bounce back.
"The first approach is you forget about last year," said Andretti, son of team co-owner and former driving star Michael Andretti. "Everything that happened, a lot of it was out of my hands — some of it being my mistake, but (a lot of) it was bad luck."
"I have very high expectations for this year," he added. "I'm ready to go. I've been ready to go since (the season-finale at) Chicago last year, to try and redeem myself and prove some things to some people."
The Andretti Green teammates will likely have plenty of competition.
Ganassi's Scott Dixon, another former champion, lost the 2007 title to Franchitti on the final lap of the final race and returns as one of the favorites, along with teammate Dan Wheldon, who had a disappointing 2007 while finishing fourth.
"I think we definitely feel that, as a team coming runner-up the last two years, we've definitely got some unfinished business," Dixon said. "Even with Dario gone, it's not going to be any easier.
"With unification, there's going to be a lot more drivers out there. You've still got a lot of great competitors who maybe didn't have the best of runs last year. We've got to try to keep it together, but there's going to be so many people trying to beat us."
Penske's IndyCar team saw three-time series champion and former Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. switch to NASCAR, leaving two-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves as the team leader. He will be joined by Ryan Briscoe.
Castroneves, who has yet to win a championship, said his goals in 2008 are pretty straightforward — "I want to win the championship and Indy a third time.
"I think it's being in the right place at the right time," added Castroneves, who got more attention last year for winning "Dancing with the Stars" than for his driving. "Last year, unfortunately we were in the wrong place a lot. You can't predict that. We've got to continue working hard. One thing I know, you have to be there. Because one day the door will open and, hopefully, it will open this year."
Meira, a potential star who has yet to win an IRL race in 76 starts, will drive for Panther Racing. Other returning IndyCar drivers expected to make an impact include Rahal Letterman Racing's Ryan Hunter-Reay, Vision Racing's Ed Carpenter and former Indy winner and series champion Buddy Rice with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Then there are the former Champ Car teams, led by eight-time series champion Newman/Haas/Lanigan and its tandem of drivers, two-time series runner-up Justin Wilson and 19-year-old Graham Rahal. The son of longtime racing star Bobby Rahal is considered a potential star.
Wilson noted that the late start in switching to the new league is going to make it very difficult to be competitive for a while.
"I don't want to overestimate and I don't want to underestimate," the Englishman said. "We've got to judge the competition when we get there and be realistic and not get carried away.
"These first few races will be very difficult. The short time we've had to get the cars prepared and the lack of information we have as far as setup-wise, we don't have years of experience setting these cars up. So that takes time, but I'm pretty confident that I'm in the right place, being with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, that we can work it out."
The returning IndyCar drivers will have some new things to get used to as well.
The series is switching from the traditional gearshift levers to paddle shifters on the steering wheel, and the IRL has added heavier and, hopefully, safer crushable sidepods to the cars.
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.