<
>

Looking ahead to 2009 and what the IndyCar Series has in store? Never dull

The wind chill in central Indiana is 20 degrees below zero, and we're barely halfway into a seven-month offseason. So don't go running to your bookie with these fearless early predictions for the 2009 IndyCar Series.

In fact, with track testing almost completely eliminated and ever-tighter restrictions on team development of the Dallara-Honda-Firestone spec car package, it's harder than ever to guess what might happen six months from now.

But we're going to try anyway.

The good news is that the so-called merger or unification of open-wheel racing in 2008 under the IndyCar Series banner created some momentum for the sport that should see it less affected by the slumping U.S. economy than, say, NASCAR.

The current market downfall will undoubtedly slow the progress that IndyCar management and fans were hoping for, but at least it is not accelerating a decline in popularity -- a problem faced by … well, NASCAR.

Here are some other random predictions for the 2009 IndyCar season, which starts on April 5:

  • Scott Dixon will win his third IndyCar Series championship and still go unrecognized on the streets of New York and Los Angeles. And Indianapolis, for that matter.

  • Helio Castroneves will miss part of the season because of his legal woes before returning at the Indianapolis 500 -- with Vision Racing.

  • Justin Wilson, Helio's Team Penske replacement, will win several races, contend for the championship and receive an invitation to participate in Fox's "Skating With Celebrities."

  • Penske's Ryan Briscoe will also be a championship contender.

  • Word will get out that Turn 3 is the new Snake Pit and the Indianapolis 500 will attract its largest attendance since before the split.

  • Dario Franchitti will win the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg while his wife, Ashley Judd (on sabbatical from University of Kentucky basketball and her acting career), provides commentary from the broadcast booth in her first race as expert technical analyst for the Versus network.

  • 2009 will be Danica Patrick's last full season in Indy cars. Tired of running eighth and making $5 million a year in open-wheelers, she quintuples her income (and her misery) to run 28th as Hyundai's lead driver in the 2010 NASCAR T-Mobile Cup.

  • Bruno Junqueira and A.J. Foyt IV will improve their English using the Rosetta Stone system.

  • Marco Andretti will have a breakout season. He'll win the A1GP race in Mexico City and use it as a springboard to contend for the IndyCar Series championship -- not to mention a more lucrative contract for 2010.

  • Guns N' Roses will arrive on stage late enough for the annual Carb Day concert to delay the following day's 500 Festival Parade by several hours.

  • Stanton Barrett will crash at every track (a man's gotta test the limit) and quietly head back to Hollywood (via Charlotte) after the Indy 500.

  • Dan Wheldon will sport a crew cut to honor his association with the U.S. Army National Guard. He'll also land personal sponsorships from Close-Up toothpaste and Bruno Magli shoes.

  • E.J. Viso will tick somebody off. If HVM Racing signs Robert Doornbos, he probably will, too.

  • Rafael Matos and Luczo Dragon Racing will be surprisingly competitive.

  • The introduction of a mechanical silencer system (as opposed to a muffler) that quiets the cars by up to nine decibels will make attending an IndyCar Series race a much more pleasant experience.

    That's one prediction guaranteed to come true.

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