- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Newman/Haas Racing's withdrawal from the Izod IndyCar Series has released a pair of high-quality drivers into the market at a critical time in the building process for the 2012 season.
With teams scheduled to receive their first Dallara DW12 spec chassis next week, driver lineups need to be finalized soon -- especially in light of the many problems encountered in initial testing of the new chassis.
INDYCAR issued testing rules this week that will provide teams additional preseason track time in comparison to recent years so they can get a handle on the DW12, which has not performed to expectations in development testing on oval tracks. All testing to date has been conducted by INDYCAR or manufacturer test teams assembled by Honda and Chevrolet. The Lotus engine has not run in a car yet.
Aside from putting drivers Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe out of work, the demise of Newman/Haas' Indy car team also affected the engine market. NHR had not signed an engine supply contract but was believed to be aligning itself with Honda. If so, that would open up two coveted Honda engines to teams that have not yet committed to an engine supplier.
While the top teams like Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing have long had their driver lineups set, there's an ongoing scramble for the remaining open spots on the grid. Depending on a number of factors, there could be as many as 15 seats up for grabs. Sixteen drivers are already confirmed, so that's probably an unrealistic number. But INDYCAR shouldn't have any trouble putting together a 24- to 26-car field for the March 25 season opener at St. Petersburg, Fla.
Here's a look at how the 2012 IndyCar Series field is shaping up (in order of fully confirmed teams to least confirmed):
• Chip Ganassi Racing -- The winner of four consecutive series championships is bringing back the same lineup of four drivers. The headline Target team of Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon is the strongest pairing in the business, while "G2" -- the Ganassi satellite entry -- is an excellent development platform for team members and drivers Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball. Honda's lead team.
• Panther Racing -- Entering year two of a multiyear contract with rising American star JR Hildebrand. Also powered by Chevrolet.
• Sam Schmidt Racing -- Used the backdrop of the International Motorsport Industry Show in Indianapolis to announce former Formula Atlantic and sports car champion Simon Pagenaud as driver of its Honda-powered entry.
• Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing -- Signed Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden to drive; has yet to announce engine program.
• HVM Racing -- Keith Wiggins' team has been tabbed to lead the Lotus attack with returning driver Simona De Silvestro.
• Bryan Herta Autosport -- Lotus power for driver Alex Tagliani.
• Ed Carpenter Racing -- Indy car's latest owner/driver will get management help from stepfather Tony George and has subcontracted operations to Derrick Walker.
• Andretti Autosport -- Michael Andretti wants to run four Chevrolet-powered cars but may be limited to three. Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay return; either of them, or perhaps Newman/Haas refugee James Hinchcliffe, would be perfect candidates for AA's GoDaddy-sponsored car that was supposed to be driven by the late Dan Wheldon.
Mike Conway, who won at Long Beach for AA in 2011, remains in contention for a seat.
• A.J. Foyt Racing -- Larry Foyt made a shrewd move by being one of the first teams to commit to Honda, and he's been talking to Oriol Servia (fourth in the IndyCar Series championship for Newman/Haas in 2011) about taking over the famous No. 14 car.
• KV Racing Technology -- Rebuilding and rebranding for the team owned by Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser. Lotus sponsorship has been ditched in favor of Chevrolet engines, a move that also ensured the departure of Honda favorite Takuma Sato. Tony Kanaan returns for his second season with KV. EJ Viso is one of several drivers in contention for the second KV seat, and there remains a remote chance the team will run three cars.
• Dreyer & Reinbold Racing -- Management changes may persuade Justin Wilson to stay for a third season with Dennis Reinbold's and Robbie Buhl's team. D&R and Lotus would benefit greatly from his car development skills. Ana Beatriz also may return, and Tomas Scheckter wants to get back into Indy cars full time.
• Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing -- Bobby Rahal is serious about getting back into Indy car racing on a full-time basis. He's used his longtime connections to secure Honda engines and hired Tom Anderson to run the program, moving operations to Indianapolis. Sato is considered a lock for one car while Servia, Vitor Meira, Jay Howard and Pippa Mann have been linked to a second RLL car.
• Dale Coyne Racing -- Indy car racing's third-most veteran team (behind Foyt and Penske) hopes to return with two cars in 2012. James Jakes may have funding for another season with the team and Coyne hopes to lure Sebastien Bourdais away from sports car racing for a full IndyCar Series campaign. Engine choice undecided.
• Michael Shank Racing -- The first team owner to commit to the Lotus Indy car program, Shank is a respected competitor in the Rolex Grand-Am Series.
Justin Wilson has driven sports cars for Shank and his presence would be a big boost for the start-up program. Paul Tracy is another experienced veteran looking for work.
• Conquest Racing -- Plans unknown, likely to be powered by Lotus.
• Dragon Racing -- Plans unknown, likely to be powered by Chevrolet.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.