With no place to go, Indy pro contenders stay in series

With the announcement that 2006 Indy Pro Series championship runner-up Jonathan Klein would drive the No. 2 Team Moore Racing car in both races on the streets of St. Petersburg (Fla.), the talent of the series grew deeper.

Seven of the top eight finishers in last year's standings will be at St. Pete for races March 31 and April 1. Where are you Nick Bussell? In the opener March 24 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the series will celebrate a first with the past two season title holders returning. Jay Howard will compete for first-year team SpeedWorks, while '05 champion Wade Cunningham will drive an AFS Racing entry.

In all, a record 26 cars are entered for the race on the 1.5-mile oval that kicks off 16 events (nine road/street courses). Additional cars are possible for the St. Pete doubleheader weekend. Seven new teams have joined the series – so far.

"The series has grown this year, both in participants and in events, and I think this will be the strongest year in the history of the series," said Howard, who outdistanced Klein by four points last season and is locked in with the No. 44 car through the first three races.

Cunningham, who missed repeating as champion by 11 points after missing two races because of appendicitis, said he'll be pushing hard from the start. Cunningham recorded three victories and finished outside the top 10 only once last year.

"We proved last year that you can fight to lead a lot of laps, win races and challenge for the championship without taking risks," he said. "That is our goal for the year."

There is no shortage of challengers, and with the diversity of the schedule title contenders will be thoroughly tested.

"Really, it's looking like it's going to be a very strong year for the series," said Alex Lloyd, who won two races last year and will drive the No. 7 Lucas Oil/Isilon Systems car for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. "I felt that the series was very strong last year, but all the elements are in place to make it an even stronger series. Certainly, in my opinion, the strongest feeder series in the United States right now in open-wheel racing."

Lloyd, who finished seventh in the title hunt last year, will compete with the team that has won two driver championships and 13 races.

"We probably have two expectations," Lloyd said. "First, and probably the most important, is to go out there and win the championship. For myself, I have won races in the Indy Pro Series now and know that that's not sort of a boundary for me to cross. I know that I can do that.

"What I want to do is to now put a championship year together. I mean, the team have obviously done that before. They've got the experience. That's what we all want to do — we want to come away with a championship. On a second note, one of our expectations is not just to win the championship in a close-fought battle. It can be a close-fought battle, but we want to win it by winning a lot of races, trying to do it in a dominant fashion. Our real aim is to try and win five, six, seven, eight races of the year.

"Of course, if there's another guy that's able to do the same thing, it's a close race, that's fine. But we really just want to win as many races as we possibly can."

Bobby Wilson could be one of those "guys." Wilson, who finished fourth in the '06 standings, will drive the No. 1 Brian Stewart Racing car.

"(Stewart) made it pretty clear when I was signing on, he's adamant about keeping that No. 1, so I know there are some high expectations out there, and I have no problems with that, because I have them as well," Wilson said. "So I'm just going to do my best, trying to win every practice, get pole every race and win every race, so that's how I have to look at the season."

It all starts with the opener.

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