Two US open-wheel veterans managed to secure late deals to join the field at this weekend's IndyCar Series season-opener on the streets of St Petersburg, with Darren Manning and Alex Tagliani lining up with Dreyer & Reinbold and Conquest Racing respectively.

While Tagliani ended 2008 with Conquest, and was tipped to return to Eric Bachelart's team should backing being found for the coming season, the second D&R seat was only brought into focus when a press call was announced involving key players from the team.

Initially, the rumour mill linked Tomas Scheckter with the seat alongside British rookie Mike Conway, with former team drivers Buddy Rice and Milka Duno being talked about in connection with alternative rides for 2009, so Manning's deal came somewhat out of left field.

"We are excited to be able to put a deal together, even though it is last minute, to run Darren Manning at St Petersburg," team co-owner Dennis Reinbold commented, "He's a really talented driver who will be a great team-mate for Mike and can round out our two-car effort as we continue to build for the 2009 season."

While Reinbold's comments suggest that Manning's tenure of the seat may be being reviewed on a race-by-race basis, the former AJ Foyt driver will provide valuable experience to aid Conway's path along the learning curve in the #24 Dad's Root Beer machine.

"I'm super excited," Manning, who was previously being linked to a possible road course role with Sarah Fisher's eponymous team for 2009, "It was the Monday before the first race in St Petersburg and I wasn't going - I was organising my plans for the weekend and set my mind that I wasn't going to be driving in the 2009 IndyCar Series. Then, come Tuesday afternoon, I get the call from Dennis to get me in the car, and it has all changed.

"It was a hectic afternoon, but I have been talking to these guys for a long time and saw what they did last year. And, with what they did over the winter, I could see them doing really well.

"With Mike, he's a good guy and I know his background in Europe and he's a fellow Brit, so he will be nice to work with. He's a really quick driver and I think we will work well together. Hopefully, with my experience and speed at St Petersburg, it will help the team take those steps forward."

Tagliani, meanwhile, was confirmed by Conquest after the team managed to land a partnership agreement with Northlands that will see the Edmonton-based organization and one of its signature events, the Rexall Edmonton Indy, become the primary sponsor of the #34 car at this weekend's Honda Grand Prix.

"We're extremely pleased with the partnership that we have formed with Northlands and the Rexall Edmonton Indy," Conquest owner Bachelart admitted, "Northlands has done an amazing job with all their events in Edmonton, and we're proud to be able to help them promote their race and to have them on board as we start the season.

"We're also very excited to have Alex back in the car this weekend. He helped us demonstrate our potential at the end of last season, and we look to build on that this week. He's a pleasure to work with and everyone on the team is happy to have him back. Alex is not only good with the racing side of the business, but he is also a great ambassador for any sponsor, and being the only Canadian in the series, he is a perfect fit for an organisation such as Northlands."

Despite not having any testing miles during the off-season, Tagliani couldn't be happier to find himself behind the wheel of the Conquest car again,and hopes to reprise the similar 2008 effort that produced fourth place at the non-points race at Surfers Paradise.

"It's great to be going to the first race of the season," he confessed, "I'd like to thank Eric for giving me the opportunity to come back with the team, and Ian McGillivray at Oomph! Events, who has been helping the team and me with our sponsorship hunt.

"Of course, a big thank you goes out to Northlands for believing in and supporting our programme which, once finalised with other players, will reinforce Edmonton's ties with racing. It's been a pretty crazy winter and I'm happy to be getting back behind the wheel of a race car this weekend."

Dario Franchitti, meanwhile, will run his #10 Chip Ganassi Racing entry with Air Wick sponsorship in St Petersburg.

"Driving the Air Wick car to start the IndyCar Series season couldn't be more fitting for me," the Scot pointed out, "Their tagline 'It's good to be home' pretty much sums up my thoughts on this race starting the year after racing in NASCAR in 2008."

Manning and Tagliani raise the confirmed entry closer to the 26 cars achieved in 2008, with 22 cars now expected to appear in St Pete. However, Scheckter's planned appearance in a second Team 3G entry has had to be delayed and, according to the Indianapolis Star newspaper, will not happen before Long Beach in the middle of this month.