Five things to watch for this IndyCar season

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With a new IndyCar season, there is always great anticipation.

More than ever, this season showcases a lot of change. IndyCar has a new entitlement sponsor with NTT, a new network in NBC, fresh faces and two new racetracks to challenge the drivers.

Here are five things to watch as the season begins:

    1. Fernando Alonso returns to IndyCar to compete in his second Indy 500. His first attempt in 2017 was met with great enthusiasm, but that was not his primary focus that season because he was running full time in Formula 1. He made a huge impression on the field by starting fifth and leading 27 laps before suffering an engine failure on Lap 179. In 2019, he could challenge again for the win after taking the checkers in this year’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in his second start there.
    2. A crowded Rookie of the Year battle.  As much as 25 percent of the field could be made up of rookies on a given week. This talented crop of young guns brings a diverse background to the sport, from second-generation Colton Herta’s experience in Indy Lights, to Marcus Ericsson’s five-year career in Formula 1 to Felix Rosenqvist’s time in Formula E, the rookies will launch off the grid fast.
    3. The addition of some famous road courses. Laguna Seca and the Circuit of the Americas replace Sonoma Raceway in 2019. Both courses will be challenging and add cachet to the series. Laguna Seca is heavily imprinted on road racers’ hearts while COTA is the only purpose-built Formula 1 track in the country. And with an uncertain future for F1 on that track, IndyCar rapidly could become the cornerstone.
    4. Scott Dixon is chasing history. Seven is a magic number, but first Dixon has to get to six. He is chasing A.J. Foyt’s record of seven Champ Car championships, and Dixon is in sight of a record that seems to be unassailable. If he can win this season, he’ll be one away from Foyt and his seven, as well as matching a milestone also achieved by Formula 1’s Michael Schumacher, and NASCAR’s Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Jimmie Johnson.
    5. IndyCar has a full-time home with NBC. After several years of splitting  time between multiple networks, the series has a partner that is fully invested in growing the sport. The greatest impact could be felt in the Indianapolis 500, which will air May 26 at 11 a.m. ET on NBC — the Greatest Spectacle in Racing’s new home for the first time in more than 50 years.

NBC Sports’ coverage of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series begins on March 10 with the Streets of St. Petersburg at 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, and the NBC Sports app. Watch the entire 2019 IndyCar season on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Gold

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter

Indy Lights: Kyle Kirkwood joins Andretti Autosport

Road to Indy
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One of the Road to Indy’s most talented young drivers will climb another step up the development system ladder this season.

Kyle Kirkwood, the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion, has signed a contract to race for Andretti Autosport in the 2020 Indy Lights season. Kirkwood will drive the No. 28 car for the reigning championship team.

A native of Jupiter, Florida, 21-year-old Kirkwood has been incredibly successful in junior formulas over the last few years. He won the F4 US Championship 2017 and won both the F3 Americas and USF2000 titles in 2018.

Driving for RP Motorsport Racing, Kirkwood won 9 of 16 races in his maiden Indy Pro 2000 season last year, allowing him to win his fourth championship in three years and earn the Road to Indy scholarship.

“We are very excited about the addition of Kyle to our Indy Lights program,” Andretti Autosport CEO and Chairman Michael Andretti said. “We’ve followed Kyle’s career from when he started in 2018 with the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship and have been impressed with his success in every race that led to his Indy Pro 2000 Championship last year. As a championship-caliber team, Kyle displays the desire and talent that we look for in our drivers and are excited to see him hit the track for the 2020 Indy Lights season.”

Kirkwood previously drove for Andretti in a two-day test session at Sebring International Raceway in December. He will make his official debut for the team in the season-opening doubleheader at St. Petersburg on March 14-15.

“I am ecstatic that I can now say I am competing in Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport this season,” Kirkwood said. “They have established a winning program in Indy Lights and we plan on carrying that reputation throughout 2020.

“We are a fantastic match for each other and our Sebring test in December proved that.”

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter