Five drivers worth watching for a breakthrough

The IndyCar Series springs back into action for 2007 with the XM Satellite Radio 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Saturday (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).

With the top five drivers in the series already tabbed (Dan Wheldon, Sam Hornish Jr., Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti) here are five more drivers worth keeping an eye on:

1. Danica Patrick
She is not yet perceived as a championship threat in the IRL IndyCar Series. But she's likely to lead the series in television time and column inches for the third consecutive year, making her one of several key drivers to watch throughout 2007.

Patrick has never finished better than fourth in an IndyCar event, yet ever since she drove into American pop culture by coming close to winning the 2005 Indianapolis 500, Patrick has in many ways become the face of American open-wheel racing. She's hoping that a big-money move to juggernaut Andretti Green Racing delivers her first victory of any kind since she won the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race at the 2002 Long Beach Grand Prix.

Patrick's four-year relationship with Rahal Letterman Racing began to unravel in 2006 as the team's cars gradually lost competitiveness. She shopped her services around the IndyCar paddock and had a brief flirtation with NASCAR (in the media, at least) before electing to sign with two-time IndyCar champions AGR, hoping to raise her public profile -- if that's possible -- and learn from veteran teammates Kanaan and Dario Franchitti.

Patrick is all too aware that she needs to win soon, or at least place on the podium, to avoid becoming a trivial sports siren like Anna Kournikova. Last year, Rahal Letterman's PR director pointed out that it takes the average IndyCar Series driver 33 races to find Victory Lane. The 2007 season opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway will be Patrick's 31st IndyCar race.

"Obviously I want to win, and I want to win soon so I don't have to answer any more questions and that burden doesn't have to be sitting on my shoulders," remarked the 24-year-old. "I can't imagine I feel any different than anyone who hasn't won their first race.

"I need to do my best, but I don't necessarily know what that's going to give me," Patrick added. "I have to give it my all, and if I fall short, then that's my fault."

Patrick's ability to win is incumbent more than anything on AGR's ability to bounce back from a subpar 2006. After dominating the IndyCar Series in 2004 and '05, resulting in championships for Kanaan and Wheldon, AGR claimed only two race wins last year and was never remotely competitive on the 1.5-mile speedways that are the bread and butter of the IndyCar schedule.

For her part, Patrick needs to again find the kind of qualifying performances that netted her three pole positions in her rookie IndyCar season. Then she needs to work on maintaining her position in early laps of races, and her road-racing form needs serious improvement.

Patrick will be counting on getting faster cars than she did during her final year with RLR, and she hopes that superior race strategy from Andretti Green will put her in position to score that elusive first win. Otherwise, she might find herself battling midpack with Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno, just trying to take "top female" honors.

2. Scott Dixon

The 2003 IndyCar Series champion suffered through desolate years in 2004 and '05, but the addition of teammate Wheldon and the proven Dallara/Honda package rejuvenated Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in '06. Dixon and Wheldon each took a pair of wins, and Dixon is the most successful road racer in the IndyCar series since the Indy Racing League started scheduling street- and road-course races two years ago.

Even though he won at Watkins Glen and Nashville (his first oval win since his 2003 championship season), Dixon was generally a tick slower than his teammate in most races, leading 215 laps compared to Wheldon's series-leading 761. If the reliable and consistent New Zealander can maintain his road-racing form while regaining a bit of his '03 magic on ovals, Dixon could emerge with a second title.

"I think this year we've redefined the car a lot more, we've done a lot of development," he said. "We're hopefully looking for a solid fight at the championship. Last year we had many opportunities that sort of we let it slip away in many ways. This year, I think we need to knuckle down and try to recapture another victory for Team Target."

3. Vitor Meira

If you think Danica Patrick is itching to win an IndyCar Series race, imagine how Vitor Meira feels. The popular Brazilian will make his 60th attempt to take victory at Homestead.

Figure on Meira accomplishing the feat first. He's been a regular front-runner throughout his five years in the IndyCar Series, and he's come close to winning on numerous occasions, including three second-place finishes for underfunded Panther Racing in 2006.

This year, Meira hopes the continuity of being with the same team two years in a row and the acquisition of primary sponsor Delphi Electronics will be enough to find the few hundredths of a second that have denied him victory so far. Engineering has been beefed up and a wind tunnel program has also been ramped up.

"When I get in the shop, there's no echo anymore," joked the 29-year-old from the city of Brasilia. "That emphasizes everything that's going on here. We're doing all the research and all the things that we couldn't do because of funding last year.

"It's not going to change overnight," he said. "If we start the season strong the way we finished last year, the rest of the season is going to take car of itself."

4. Buddy Rice
Not a whole lot has gone right for Rice since that frightening incident at Chicagoland Speedway in September 2004 when his Rahal Letterman Racing Panoz/Honda touched wheels with another car and was launched into a crazy flight that fortunately did not result in serious injury to its driver.

Maybe the 31-year-old Phoenix native used up two years worth of good luck in escaping from that crash. After finishing third at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan in April 2005, Rice crashed and broke his back a month later while practicing for the Indianapolis 500. He missed only one race -- his title defense at Indy -- but never finished better than 10th the rest of the year, except for a fine second-place run on the Infineon Raceway road course.

The 2006 season wasn't any better, with a fourth at Watkins Glen and a fifth at Motegi the only worthwhile results. Rice and RLR parted ways, but the outspoken American quickly landed a drive at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. He'd like to spend 2007 ahead of his former employer -- not to mention several other IndyCar Series teams.

"I'm working with some good engineers in John Dick and Chris Finch and there's no reason we shouldn't be running in the top five and be competitive," Rice stated. "I think it shows Dreyer & Reinbold's commitment to what they want to do with their team. They have put all their effort into the program to make sure that they can run up front and it's definitely a step in the right direction."

5. Darren Manning

This 32-year-old Englishman's choices in footwear are only slightly less flamboyant than his countryman Wheldon's and he's found some unusual ways to present what's left of his hair. Manning is hardly a guy you think would fit in at A.J. Foyt Racing -- until you see him in action on the track.

Some of Manning's best performances in the CART series came in Champ Car's increasingly rare oval races in 2002-03, which caught the attention of Chip Ganassi. But saddled with the uncompetitive Panoz/Toyota package, Manning never got to show his worth and he was released midway through 2005, missing out on the team's return to form last year.

Now Manning will get a second chance to restore his good name -- not to mention the reputation of Foyt's back-of-the-grid operation.

"A.J.'s in there every day," Manning confirmed, even though Larry Foyt has taken over day-to-day management of his father's team. "He's got stories galore and he's got a memory like an elephant. You know, he knows everything -- I was quite impressed. I've raced with the big teams, the massive organizations, and I knew they were doing everything right.

"I have heard a couple of horror stories about him, but it's all going pretty well at the moment," Manning added with a chuckle. "He knows how to put a race car under a driver and we're going to be going for some race wins out there this year, that's for sure."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.