It's easy to think of the IndyCar Series championship as being divided into three parts: The races in the buildup to the Indianapolis 500; the Indy 500 itself; and The Rest of The Season.
This year's championship battle is unusually close, with six drivers within 16 points of series leader Dario Franchitti as The Rest of The Season kicks off this weekend with the ABC Supply Co./A.J. Foyt 225 at the Milwaukee Mile (Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Of course, Helio Castroneves swept every possible honor in the Indy portion of the season and won that championship-within-a-championship hands down. Franchitti might be the outright points leader, but Castroneves was actually the big winner in the entire first quarter of the 16-round championship because he's second in the standings, just five points behind Franchitti, despite having missed the opening race at St. Petersburg because of his tax evasion trial.
Castroneves has a lot of emotion and momentum on his side right now with his acquittal in the trial and his Indy 500 win, but he has never won at the Milwaukee Mile. And statistically speaking, he probably won't this weekend despite his current roll. The Indy winner has doubled up at Milwaukee only twice in the past 21 years. In fact, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 has finished second at Milwaukee four of the past five years.
Franchitti is unlikely to take any comfort from the fact that the championship leader after the Indy 500 has gone on to claim the IndyCar Series crown for the past four years. Each of the four main championship contenders -- Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe at Team Penske and Franchitti and Scott Dixon at Target Chip Ganassi Racing -- has won once this year, and it will be interesting to see whether any of them is capable of putting together a multiwin streak and establishing a cushion in the points. They are separated by just 11 points.
AP Photo/Tom StrattmanScott Dixon, front, Graham Rahal, middle, and Tony Kanaan, back, are all threats the rest of the season.
The other fascinating thing to watch for is whether any of the "best of the rest" is capable of staying with the big four over the balance of the season. Right now, Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick and Dan Wheldon are still within striking distance, although Kanaan could be handicapped by the painful bruising he suffered in his Indianapolis crash. Meanwhile, his Andretti Green Racing teammate Patrick has put together a solid start to her year, notching three consecutive top-5 finishes capped by third place at Indianapolis. And Wheldon is highly motivated to prove he can lead Panther Racing back to the title-winning glory days it enjoyed before the dominant Penske and Ganassi teams invaded the IndyCar Series.
It's too early in the season to count out the next generation of American stars, although Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal rank 10th and 11th in the standings. Both are still within 40 points of the championship lead, and a win coupled with DNFs for the front-runners could quickly put either of them back in the hunt. Andretti and Rahal swept the front row at Milwaukee last year, and Rahal in particular seems ready to develop into a regular front-runner among the Penske and Ganassi drivers.
The drivers all enjoy Milwaukee, citing it as a real driver's track among the ovals the IndyCar Series competes at. The historic old venue at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds is also a fine venue for spectators in the grandstand and in the infield.
All in all, the Milwaukee Mile is a great destination in terms of putting the Indianapolis 500 in the rearview mirror and getting on with The Rest of The Season.