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IRL already looking ahead
The champagne celebrating Dario Franchitti's third IndyCar Series title was still bubbling Saturday night when team haulers began chugging out of Miami Homestead Speedway and into the humid South Florida night.

Even as the 37-year-old Scotsman told reporters he wanted to enjoy the moment, it was already passing.

The sooner the series gets to the future, the better.

Franchitti's somewhat anticlimactic victory -- he overtook budding Team Penske star Will Power when the Australian limped to a 25th-place in the season finale while Franchitti settled for eighth to win the title by five points -- served as a perfect symbol for a series in transition.

Even as the cars whizzed by at 210 mph, it was hard not to think about what lays ahead.

There's a new boss in CEO Randy Bernard. A revamped schedule in 2011 that includes a road race in Baltimore and a likely season-ending visit to Las Vegas. And officials are hoping a redesigned car set to debut in less than 18 months will further stoke interest in a series still struggling to get out of NASCAR's considerable shadow.

And there's a name change. The IRL is so 2009. IndyCar is here to stay.

There's a lot to get excited about. There were 27 cars in the field Saturday, nine of them finished on the lead lap. Series title sponsor Izod has taken an aggressive tack in trying to engage younger fans while the series tries to lure back the estimated 15 million to 20 million fans that abandoned it during a painful split in the mid-90s.

'I think it's certainly on the upswing," said owner Chip Ganassi, whose team has won three straight championships. 'You look at the car count, it's on the upswing. It wasn't that long ago we had 17 or 18 cars, so that's certainly on the uptick. When you have the championship coming down to the last race for the fifth year in a row, it says a lot."

Even if it always seems to come down to the same two teams.

Ganassi tries not to roll his eyes when discussing the dominance of Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske. The teams won all but two of the 17 races on the schedule.

He believes the series is more competitive than it's been and he's not going to apologize for winning.

'This isn't the seventh-grade girls' tennis where everybody gets a trophy," Ganassi said. 'This is IndyCar racing, this is the top of the sport. Everybody doesn't get a trophy here. While everybody can have the same rule book, there's a difference here between the good drivers and bad drivers, good teams and bad teams."

Bernard hopes the gap between the good and bad teams will start to close when the new car is unveiled in two years. He's optimistic other manufacturers will join and give teams another chassis-option besides Honda.

The goal to bring other car companies into the fray is twofold: to push Honda for series supremacy while possibly driving down costs.

'Anytime you're trying to create competition, it just strengthens the credibility of your series," Bernard said.

The new car will come with new aerodynamic kits that could give each vehicle its own identity and allow teams to experiment.

While officials opted not to go with the envelope-pushing design of the Delta Wing -- whose Batmobile on steroids shape generated plenty of buzz -- the new car gives the series a fresh look and should significantly level the playing field.

The hope is a more economical car will lure new owners. The series estimates a complete car will cost less than $400,000. That sounds great on paper. Some owners, however, remain wary.

Though owner/driver Sarah Fisher is encouraged by the direction the series is going, she's not 100 percent sure what the future holds.

'There's a lot of questions to be answered still, and that's tough," Fisher said. 'It's hard to make your plans solid when you're still waiting to react. That being said, I think they have some really great ideas, it's just activating all of those."

It will take money, something that's still scarce. Ryan Hunter-Reay won in Long Beach this year but needed an assist from Izod to drive the entire season for Andretti Autosport.

Star Tony Kanaan is looking for a new primary sponsor after longtime backer 7-Eleven opted to take a more secondary role next year.

Rising American star Graham Rahal spent the season driving part time for four different teams. Frustrated, he opted to go in a different direction, landing a sponsorship deal with Service Central that will allow him to shop for a team.

While TV ratings continue to lag, Bernard pointed to a 26 percent jump in year-over-year numbers on Versus. And though he's concerned about the large swaths of empty seats, he's hoping new races in Baltimore and New Hampshire will energize the fan base.

Having American drivers to pull for would help. Yet getting American drivers to the series and keeping them there are two different things.

Hunter-Reay, despite finishing seventh in points, finds himself looking for a ride next year.

'That's the problem with IndyCar right now, it doesn't matter how well you do and how much you actually earn to drive, it doesn't mean you (have a ride)," Hunter-Reay said. 'I'm back in the same boat hoping something comes together in the offseason."

Getting 27 drivers into cars is easy. The key to IndyCar's growth is making sure the best IndyCar drivers are the ones getting behind the wheel.

The series will get there. To survive in 2011 and beyond, it doesn't have a choice. TheWorldLink.com

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