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Paulk: IndyCar attempts to catch up with NASCAR

| Sunday, March 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

For the past decade, the IZOD IndyCar Series has been playing catch-up.

Now, the open-wheel circuit is taking a creative approach to reeling in NASCAR, which has enjoyed a significant marketing advantage that continues to attract corporate sponsors even amid a still-recovering economy.

The IndyCar Series is not without star quality: three-time points champion Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and Scott Dixon. It's buoyed by one of the biggest sporting events in the country, the Indianapolis 500.

Yet its recipe for success had been missing a few necessary ingredients the past decade. It seems as if IndyCar finally has discovered a remedy to narrow the popularity gap between it and NASCAR.

The series has piqued my interest with the scheduled staging of three weekend doubleheaders on the circuit's best venues: Detroit, Houston and Toronto. It has implemented the standing start, a feature used effectively by Formula One.

Also, IndyCar has made a concerted effort to keep women actively engaged in the sport by embracing Simona de Silvestro and Ana Beatriz. They were among five women to qualify for the 33-car field at the Brickyard three years ago.

More impressively, the series has a television package that gives it far more exposure this year. And many of the teams have added sponsors. That includes Pittsburgh-based Chip Ganassi Racing, which added PNC Bank last week.

As the series prepares for Sunday's season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., it appears to have recaptured at least a semblance of the excitement that existed before open-wheel racing morphed into competing circuits following a damaged breakup that splintered its fan base.

However, series officials made one glaring mistake: They scheduled the opener on the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, which will significantly impact the race's television ratings.

Still, there's a lot to look forward to this weekend. I'll be particularly interested in watching defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and three-time series runner-up Power, who will begin the season atop my power rankings.

Of course, the first four races of the season, while important toward the driver's title, are critical in preparing for the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend. There might not be a lot to learn on the street courses, but victories are confidence builders.

The most important dates on the 19-race schedule might be the doubleheader weekends. It'll be a challenging experience for drivers, crew chiefs and pit crew members to formulate a strategy to be competitive on both Saturday and Sunday.

“It makes the weekend very different,” said Dixon, who pilots a Honda-powered car for CGR. “I love the fact that we're racing more, but the thing I'm unsure about is taking away from the major event on Sunday. It's like back in the day at Wimbledon seeing Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras on Saturday evening at Wimbledon then having it take something away from the main event on Sunday.”

Dixon said the doubleheaders will have a major impact on the points standing. The crews will have to focus on every detail — including fuel and tire strategy.

“Trying to manage that is quite different than the past,” Dixon said. “It adds a lot of dynamics we don't understand yet. It's going to make those races extremely tough. It's going to be a steep learning curve, but it's the same for everybody.”

Ganassi, PNC form partnership

Chip Ganassi Racing Teams and PNC Financial Services Group, Inc., have formed a strategic sponsorship for the 2013 race season. The relationship, which includes assets across the CGRT's IndyCar, NASCAR and Grand-AM programs, will be focused on key motorsports events for each series in the Indianapolis market.

“It is always great when a highly respected company like PNC values the reach of motorsports and makes it part of their marketing mix,” Ganassi said. “Personally, I've been a PNC customer for many years and know first-hand what a great bank and a great team they have. We could not have asked for a better alignment with our race teams.”

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