The Izod IndyCar Series restarts its engines this weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla., with a street race featuring the two drivers who battled to the wire for last year's championship.
After three straight runner-up finishes, Will Power wants to take the final step up IndyCar's ladder. He lost last year's title to Ryan Hunter-Reay, the series' first U.S.-born champion since 2006, and the previous two to Dario Franchitti.
"It's funny, I think you learn to finish second," said Power, who has been the sport's dominant driver since 2010 despite not winning a season championship. "A week after the (final) race we were back in the shop talking about next year already."
Hunter-Reay, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., scored his first championship by three points when he finished fourth at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., after Australia's Power crashed in front of him.
NASCAR's Sam Hornish Jr. was IndyCar's last American champion, in 2006.
This season begins with an eye toward the Indianapolis 500 in May as Franchitti, of Scotland, and Helio Castroneves, of Brazil, each aiming for a record-tying fourth victory at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears are the drivers with as many 500 wins.
IndyCar had eight race winners last year, including Indianapolis' Ed Carpenter, who won the season-ending race for his small team for the second straight year.
Much of the offseason was dominated by talk of IndyCar's management change. Randy Bernard resigned as CEO under pressure in October. He was replaced by one-time ATP Tour CEO Mark Miles, who headed Indianapolis' Super Bowl XLVI committee in 2012.
Before this season's champion is crowned Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway, the drivers and their teams will have competed on seven street circuits, three road courses and six permanent ovals. Included in those totals are doubleheader events in the streets of Detroit, Toronto and Houston.
The event on Detroit's Belle Isle circuit will be the first of the doubleheaders, and it will be part of the most grueling stretch in IndyCar history. After two weeks at Indianapolis, IndyCar will race twice in the Motor City before tackling the high-banked Texas Motor Speedway, the flat track of the Milwaukee Mile and the bullring that is Iowa Speedway in successive weeks.
After a week off, the series heads to Pocono Raceway for the first IndyCar race since 1989 and then journeys to Toronto for a doubleheader. That's nine points-paying races (47.3 percent of the season) and an Indianapolis trophy on the line in a stretch of 50 days.
"That's a big chunk of the season right there," Franchitti said.
IndyCar changes are found in all corners, from drivers to teams to races to procedures.
In addition to the doubleheaders, the new races will be at Pocono, a tri-oval built for IndyCar in 1971, and Houston, which hosted Champ Car races six times from 1998 to 2007.
The Saturday races in Toronto and Houston will have standing starts, a first for IndyCar. There will be traditional rolling starts on Sundays.
Races in St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Milwaukee and at Mid-Ohio have had their distances altered to reduce the possibility of them being dictated by fuel strategy. But competitors can, for the first time in this era of IndyCar, decide how much fuel to have on board at the start of the race, which should lead to gambles by different parts of the field.
On the engine side, Lotus is completely out of the series, leaving Chevrolet and Honda to battle each other. All powerplants must last 2,000 miles before being changed; changes before the minimum mileage count will again result in a 10-position penalty on the grid.
The June 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway will not only be one of two night races - the season-ender at Auto Club will be the other - but it will be on ABC in prime time, a huge get for the series.
Hunter-Reay, Power, Franchitti and Scott Dixon of New Zealand still figure to be the primary championship contenders, but there will be several new interesting combinations to watch.
Team Penske has added AJ Allmendinger, whom NASCAR suspended last year for a failed drug test, for two races, including the Indianapolis 500. The Los Gatos, Calif., native will have the seat that in recent years has been occupied by Australia's Ryan Briscoe, who does not have a job in the series.
Japan's Takuma Sato has moved to A.J. Foyt Racing's No. 14 car. Sato nearly won the 500 last year only to have his car slide into the wall as Franchitti scooted away for his third victory at the track.
Graham Rahal of Columbus, Ohio, has moved from Ganassi Racing's four-car stable to his father's team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, a team that has frequently shown the ability to compete with the larger teams.
Dragon Racing has parted ways with England's Katherine Legge in favor of pairing Colombian Sebastian Saavedra with France's Sebastien Bourdais. Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports has added rookie Tristan Vautier, last year's Firestone Indy Lights champion, as a teammate to Pagenaud. Both are French.
Swiss driver Simona De Silvestro has left HVM Racing and taken her sponsor (Nuclear Clean Air Energy) to a revamped KV Racing Technology, which won't have Rubens Barrichello (back in Brazil racing stock cars) or EJ Viso, a Venezulean. De Silvestro joins Tony Kanaan of Brazil at KV.
Viso took the new fourth seat at Andretti Autosport, which has Marco Andretti of Nazareth, Pa., and James Hinchcliffe of Toronto in addition to Hunter-Reay.