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New feeling, bigger buzz at old Indy 500

By By MIKE HARRIS, AP Auto Racing Writer
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis 500 is new again.
Danica Patrick is a proven winner with a legitimate shot at taking the checkered flag, all the top teams and drivers are back for the 92nd running of the Indy 500 and optimism is high for what should, for the first time in 13 years, truly be ‘‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.’’
Much of the optimism comes from the long-awaited unification of the two American open-wheel series in February.
Pointing to the strong mix of experienced drivers and young talent at Indy, longtime team owner Roger Penske said he’s excited about the sport’s possibilities, now that everyone’s under the IRL IndyCar Series banner.
The drivers, too, are caught up in a rejuvenated Indy.
That includes a victory by Andretti Green Racing teammate Patrick, who last month became the first woman to win an IndyCar race.
A win on Indy’s 2 1/2-mile oval, where the 26-year-old has finishes of fourth, eighth and eighth in her previous appearances, would be a huge boost for her and the series.
As does Kanaan, who said he, like most everyone, expects the winner to come from the first three rows, inhabited by the top three teams in the 12-year-old IndyCar Series. Among them, they have won seven of the eight races in this decade.
Chip Ganassi Racing’s pole-winner Scott Dixon and 2005 race winner Dan Wheldon will start from the front row, along with Ryan Briscoe, driving for 14-time Indy winner Team Penske.
The second of the 11 rows includes Penske’s two-time winner Helio Castroneves, Andretti Green’s Patrick and Kanaan, followed in the third row by teammate Marco Andretti, Vitor Meira from Panther Racing and Hideki Mutoh, the fourth AGR driver and the fastest of 11 rookies in the field.
Scattered through the rest of the lineup are nine drivers representing teams making the transition from the defunct Champ Car World Series, which was mostly a road and street racing circuit in recent years.
One such driver is 19-year-old Graham Rahal, son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal and one of the fresh, young faces IRL is hoping will bring the sport back to America’s mainstream fans.
Rahal, who won his IndyCar debut last month on the street course in St. Petersburg, Fla., to become the youngest IRL winner ever, will start 13th in the third oval race of his career.
Will Power, a former Champ Car rookie of the year, acknowledges drivers’ lack of experience on ovals is just one disadvantage.
Still, he’s not ready to concede Sunday’s race, where once again weather will be a factor.
A year ago, Dario Franchitti won the race shortened to 166 laps by rain.
This month, rain has washed away nearly half of the scheduled practice time and one of the four days of time trials. When drivers did get on track, temperatures were mostly below normal, and the cars were often buffeted by gusty winds.
Even Friday’s one-hour ‘‘Carburetion Day’’ practice, the only time during race week the cars are on the track, was interrupted by rain.
But Sunday’s forecast called for calm air, zero chance of rain and highs near 80.