Saturday May 28th, 2016 7:58AM

Dixon opens IndyCar title defense without Franchitti

By Jenna Fryer, AP Auto Racing Writer
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ST. PETERSBURG, FL - So much has changed for Scott Dixon since he wrapped up his third IndyCar championship five months ago in California.

Target Chip Ganassi Racing's off season move to Chevrolet has given Dixon a new engine for the year, and when he heads into Sunday's season-opener through the streets of St. Petersburg, he won't have longtime teammate Dario Franchitti alongside him for the first time in six years.

Franchitti was forced to retire because of injuries suffered in an October crash in Houston, and he's been replaced in the Target lineup by Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan.

Dixon and Franchitti were a fearsome duo for five seasons. With an open dialogue, teamwork and a tight friendship, the two combined for four championships, 29 victories and two Indianapolis 500 wins for Franchitti.

Now half of that pair is on the sidelines - Franchitti has taken a role as a driver coach with the Ganassi organization - and Dixon is adjusting to life without his close mate in the car.

"It is a big loss, not just for myself, but I think for the team and also for the series," Dixon said. "The positive side is that he's still going to be involved with the team. He's obviously very talented. He's won a lot of races, achieved many things. But when it comes down to the engineering side of it, his approach to a race weekend, I think it is something that will be missed a little bit. Hopefully with his involvement we can keep that going.

"As a friend, it is going to be great to have him around. We'll have to see how big that change is as we get through the year with different drivers and different combinations."

Dixon has had two chances to work with new teammate Kanaan on race weekends, both in the Tudor United Sports Car Series. They've also tested their Indy cars together, and Dixon doesn't seem concerned that his red No. 9 Target team will be any less formidable without Franchitti in the red No. 10.

"There's many different ways to look at it - I think TK is a great driver, he's won a championship, he's won many races," Dixon said. "He may be stronger in other areas and maybe a little weaker in others. I think with the team combination, drivers and engineering, we can try to bring that back together and make it a strong 1-2 punch."

The landscape of the series will be a bit different now that Juan Pablo Montoya has returned to open wheel after seven years in NASCAR. Once a teammate of Dixon's in the Ganassi organization, Montoya is now with rival Team Penske and determined to win races again.

He was part of the 2013 winning Ganassi car at the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, but that was Montoya's only victory since 2010.

Montoya admittedly struggled in early test sessions with his new Penske team, but Dixon believes the Colombian will be up to speed and challenging for wins in no time.

"Juan, I think we all know, is a huge talent, and he's won in everything he's raced in, many different formulas," Dixon said. "I think with the team and drivers he's with, it will come along quickly. It's just when it's going to happen, whether it's right out of the box or a few races."

The Penske team is strong with Montoya joining the lineup of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves and annual championship contender Will Power.

Castroneves and Dixon went down to the season finale last season in the championship race, and Castroneves came up empty yet again in his bid for his first series title.

"Yesterday's news," the Brazilian said, while admitting he needs a bit of luck on his side to grab that elusive championship.

"I have to line right with God, to be honest, and with the Pope, too. I've just got to push it. I've just got to keep pushing. You can't wait for something to happen. You have to continue giving yourself an opportunity. Well, it may be this year."

Power, runner-up for the series title in three consecutive years, was shut out of the championship race last season. He closed the season with consecutive victories to grab some of the momentum he seemed to be missing all year.

But Power won't throw away 2013. The Australian looks at last season as a period of personal growth.

"I have to say I was a lot more relaxed in racing situations," Power said. "I had spent three years being very conservative, feeling the points. Actually it taught me you just need to race hard no matter what. At the end of the year, it was fun. You can just race hard, it does not matter. In fact, the results came a lot better when I did that."

They all expect to be challenged by Sebastien Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car champion who did not have equipment capable of matching his talent level in the last two seasons with Dragon Racing. Now with KVSH Racing as Kanaan's replacement, the Frenchman is eager to show he hasn't lost his speed.

"I do feel like there is a lot of potential, unexplored potential at KV," Bourdais said. "They know what they're shooting for and why they work so hard. It's great. I haven't felt that way in a long time. I feel like there's something pretty awesome to do and am really pumped about it."

Fellow countryman Simon Pagenaud is also seeking his first championship - a goal he had last year, when he scored two breakthrough victories but finished third in the championship standings. Now teamed at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with newcomer Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, Pagenaud is hoping to take another step up in the series.

And nobody knows what to expect out of the Andretti Autosport group, which took a step back the second-half of last season after a strong opening as the organization went into 2013 trying to defend Ryan Hunter-Reay's championship.

Andretti opened the season with three wins in the first four races - two by James Hinchcliffe and one for Hunter-Reay, and a huge on-track improvement from Marco Andretti. Although the organization finished second and third in the Indy 500 and Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay added another win each, the team fell off the pace midsummer.

Now they've returned to Honda after two seasons with Chevrolet, and Hunter-Reay is hoping for improvement.

"The good thing is we know what we had. We do have a benchmark. We know probably where Chevy is making progress in the offseason," he said. "We have an idea of where we need to be. I'm optimistic. You don't know where you stand until first practice at St. Pete."
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