HOMESTEAD, Fla. Tony Kanaan immediately noticed the difference in the IRL IndyCar Series when he drove onto pit road at Homestead-Miami Speedway after Friday's opening practice.
"The huge impression was when I came into the pits and I saw that the pit lane was full from the first box coming in to the last box coming out," the former series champion said. "I'm the third pit out, so I had to drive through all the teams and I was just smiling big-time inside my helmet."
Kanaan also saw another difference on the track, where he and the other IndyCar veterans had to be extra careful when driving near the newcomers on the 1.5-mile oval.
It was just part of the new reality in the wake of the recently announced unification of America's two open-wheel series as practice began for tonight's season-opening Gainsco Indy 300.
With nine cars entered by teams from the now-defunct Champ Car World Series, there were 25 cars on the track, the most at an IndyCar event other than the Indianapolis 500 since 2003.
However, the spate of Dallara Hondas on track also brought with it some trepidation, particularly about the newcomers with little or no oval racing experience.
"They don't have enough experience on the ovals. ... and, if the car isn't good on the ovals, it can be dangerous just because of the cars, not because of you," Kanaan said. Running together with them, their cars are not very well set up yet," said Kanaan, a Brazilian driver.
"Running in traffic with three cars in front and two cars in back, they don't know what to expect when you get behind somebody. They're washing out and you're right beside them, but they never experienced that. So they can't anticipate something that they haven't gone through."
Kanaan said everyone newcomers and IRL veterans alike was being extra careful.
"We were giving each other a lot of room, which is not going to happen in the race," he noted.
Through the first two practice sessions of the season a total of about 2 1/2 hours there were no crashes. In fact, the only wreck since the former Champ Car teams began testing their new cars came here last Tuesday when 19-year-old Graham Rahal tore up his Dallara.
With spare parts hard to come by and little time for repairs, the Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing team was forced to withdraw Rahal's entry for the weekend, instead concentrating on getting the car ready for next weeks road race at St. Petersburg.
For Brian Barnhart, vice president of competition for the IRL, it's so far, so good.
"I think it's a daunting task for them," Barnhart said between practice sessions.
"It is a challenge in a lot of ways out there, and especially with 25 or 26 cars. It's going to be a new experience in learning the tendencies of other drivers. The people that have historically been in the IndyCar Series had a comfort level knowing what the driver next to them is going to do. ... Now a third of our field is completely new at this, so the regulars are going to be learning a lot about what they're doing."
Barnhart said he harped on the inexperience level and preached patience during his meeting with the drivers before the opening practice."I think it will come," he noted. "They're very good teams, they're very well engineered, they're good drivers. To see the increase in improvement from Monday evening (when the Homestead test began) to this afternoon shows that they're going to adapt to it very well."
DIXON WINS POLE FOR OPENER: Scott Dixon took the pole position for the first race of the new, unified era of American open-wheel racing.Dixon, who lost last year's IRL IndyCar Series championship to Dario Franchitti when he ran out of fuel on the last turn of the last lap of the season, got off to a good start Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, winning the first Indy-style qualifying outside of the Indianapolis 500.
GORDON WINS POLE AT MARTINSVILLE: At Martinsville, Va., Jeff Gordon laughs at the notion that sitting 14th in the point standings after five races means he's off to a slow start, and he showed that he's doing just fine on Friday by winning the pole at Martinsville Speedway.
"Yes, turn things around. It has been a terrible year," Gordon said in jest Friday after turning a lap at 96.288 mph. "I don't mind people saying, 'Hey, you are 14th in points. You aren't having the type of year you had last year."'
Gordon's lap on the 0.526-mile oval, the oldest, shortest and trickiest in NASCAR's Spring Cup Series, easily beat Denny Hamlin (95.757) for his seventh career Martinsville pole and the 65th of his career, the fourth-best total in NASCAR history.
Only Richard Petty (126), David Pearson (112) and Cale Yarborough (70) won more.