After a winter of talking, US open-wheel racing is finally poised for action as the newly unified IndyCar Series takes to the track at Homestead-Miami Speedway, under lights, on Saturday night.

The race, while always a part of the 2008 IndyCar schedule, took on greater significance when Kevin Kalkhoven and Tony George sat down in the same circuit's press office on 27 February to announce - or rather confirm - that the IRL would absorb twelve-year rival Champ Car. With just one major open-wheel series, featuring the best teams and drivers from both sides, the category can now take the first steps on a long hard road to matching NASCAR's popularity, instead of taking lumps out of each other in a mutually-destructive war.

Before race fans get too excited, however, Homestead - and much the season - is expected to be a case of 'them and us' as the teams with several years' IndyCar experience should have the upper hand over those that have had to cram their pre-season preparation into three-and-a-bit weeks and two two-day test sessions laid on especially for the CCWS converts.

The season kicks off without the reigning champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, following Dario Franchitti's defection to NASCAR, and has also lost two-time champion Sam Hornish Jr the same way, but IndyCar retains a blend of veterans, young talent and, following the merger, unknowns as it embarks on a 20-race tour.

Even without Franchitti, however, Andretti Green Racing remains a formidable force, the series most successful team continuing with a four-car effort involving 2004 champion Tony Kanaan, media darling Danica Patrick, son-of-the-boss Marco Andretti and Indy Pro Series graduate Hideki Mutoh.

"There's only one goal in racing - it's to win," Kanaan comments, "We go through the pre-season and we're always asked the same questions, and we always give the same answers because we're here to win. We're here to win the championship, we're here to win Indianapolis, we're here to win as many races as we can...."

Patrick finished a career-best seventh overall last year and recorded a career-best race finish of second at Belle Isle, but the pressure remains to prove that she is as much race winner as pin-up - a task that may have been made tougher with the addition of the Champ Car refugees.

"This is the most excited I've been going into a season, and the most comfortable I've felt," she insists, "This year, I feel like excitement is sort of maybe number one to nervousness - where normally, every other year, I was more nervous than anything. I really feel like I'm becoming some sort of an old person in racing. This is my fourth year, so I'm going into this one instead of some of the others saying 'look, if I want a shot at winning championships, you've got to get out of the box fast'."

Andretti claims to be on a title mission this season, his third, while Mutoh has shown promise in testing but remains unproven at this level.

"This is a championship-winning team, and the #27 is the champion number - that means a lot to me, and for the Japanese and for Honda," the newcomer says, "These are very good team-mates to have, I can learn a lot from them and have no pressure at all."

Kanaan is aware, however, that AGR is never really at home in the opener.

"For some reason, we've never been able to get the car quite right at Homestead," he admits, "We were quick last year and I think we made some progress, so we have something to build on. I think it was a great idea to change the race to a night race - and it certainly makes the car set-up even more important."

The role of pre-race favourite - and main rival to AGR over the course of the year - will go to Target Chip Ganassi Racing, for whom Dan Wheldon has won the last three Homestead races and Scott Dixon came closest to denying Franchitti the 2007 title.

"I think, with how it ended up last year, it does make you extremely aggressive for the season just because we came up so short," says Dixon, "It went right to the wire, and it hurt even more so that it came down to a fuel race. I think we feel that, as a team coming runner-up the last two years, we've definitely got some unfinished business. Even with Dario gone, it's not going to be any easier. With unification, there's going to be a lot more drivers out there, and you've still got a lot of great competitors who maybe didn't have the best of runs last year. We've got to try to keep it together, but there's going to be so many people trying to beat us."

If the Ganassi team - which should also field IPS champion Alex Lloyd in selected events - heads to Florida in good heart, however, AGR won't be the only IRL powerhouse hoping to break Wheldon's hold on the event.

There wasn't a lot of quiet at Team Penske's shop this off-season, as the squad attempted to find the final building blocks in its attempt to return to the top of the pile. While veteran - and double Indianapolis 500 winner - Helio Castroneves was helping to put the series on the map via the US version of Dancing with the Stars, the team was welcoming Ryan Briscoe to its set-up in place of Hornish, hoping that pairing the energetic and outgoing Brazilian with the affable Australian will bring a second IndyCar title in 2008.

"The 2008 IndyCar Series season is starting with considerable momentum provided by the unification of the two open-wheel series," says team owner Roger Penske, "but we're confident that we are poised for success this year."

Castroneves will be looking to add a maiden championship to his two Indy 500 crowns - hoping to be 'in the right place at the right time' - while Briscoe returns to full-time IndyCar competition for the first time since 2005, having last year turned in fifth place at Indy with Pesnke-affiliated Luczo Dragon Racing while racing for 'The Captain's' American Le Mans Series team. Briscoe carries momentum into the season-opener, having topped the two days of testing at Sebring, but may be at his best on the road and street courses, while Castroneves shines on the ovals.

Behind the sport's 'big three', Rahal Letterman Racing, Vision Racing and Panther Racing look set to head the midfield, with AJ Foyt Enterprises and Dreyer & Reinbold on the fringes. Roth Racing makes the step up to a full-time, two-car, operation in 2008, but will probably find itself mixing it with the Champ Car converts.

RLR becomes a one-car team this year, running just the Ethanol entry for Ryan Hunter-Reay, who could prove to be something of a dark horse after putting in some promising performances in his part-season in 2007.

"This is a very special season-opener for me," R-HR insists, "Homestead is my home track, but I have never raced on the oval. Racing in front of the hometown fans, under the lights, in the Ethanol IndyCar will be surreal to say the least. "I am ready to get this 2008 race season underway - it's time to go racing, and we're all ready to get to work."

Vision Racing remains under the control of IRL CEO George, but also shrinks by one entry, with Ed Carpenter and AJ Foyt IV leading the attack

"We think our drivers are seasoned enough now to understand how it all works," team manager Larry Curry says, "We think that we've done our homework over the winter and, certainly on road courses, we feel like we're going to be much more respectable - to the point where we can go out and compete for some top ten finishes. On the ovals, the expectations are to win a race."

Despite Hornish's back-to-back titles in Pennzoil colours in 2001-02, Panther Racing was one of the major casualties as AGR, Ganassi and Penske rose to power in the IRL, and had actually closed its doors two years ago, but still took to the track after signing Vitor meira, the man seemingly most likely to take a podium without winning, having come off worst in several of the championship's closest finishes. Although its flirted with Kosuke Matsuura alongside Meira in 2007, only the Brazilian remains on board this season, but the team has attracted the backing of Delphi and National Guard for its latest assault.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, meanwhile, will continue to run two cars, although the second will be split between the under-rated - and under-used - Townsend Bell and Venezuelan model-cum-ace student Milka Duno. Buddy Rice will return to pilot the lead machine, the former Indy 500 winner hoping to recapture former glories while hauling D&R towards the front of the field.

"I definitely think we can improve on where we were at last year," Rice said, "Obviously, we started off a bit rocky but, as things were progressing, you could see that we were making headway. I think we stand to be in a lot better situation this year."

Briton Darren Manning provides continuity for Foyt, having been hired to fill the seat in the 'family' team vacated by AJ Foyt IV. Like Hunter-Reay, the likeable Yorkshireman could be a dark horse if he and the team can build on their 2007 introduction.

"Last year, we came away from most weekends wishing we could start the weekend over because we had learned so much about the car, and what I want in a car," Manning said, "With the compressed schedule, we were doing most of our development work on race weekends. We now have a baseline to work from for all of the tracks, which will help tremendously,"

Roth's expansion comes as the result of the same offer that tempted the various Champ Car teams to make the switch after their own series folded underneath them. Canadian owner-driver Marty Roth will now complete a full season, and has signed 2006 IPS champion Jay Howard to take the journey with him.

"It's a huge step up from where we started from," Roth admits, "This is what you need to do to build a product that would attract sponsors, so that's what we have done. We hope to have a very competitive team out there. We're going out there to be a strong, competitive team and win some races."

In all likelihood, however, the Roth duo will find themselves battling with the Champ Car outfits they joined at the Homestead test and, while Howard could cause an upset or two with his hard racing and combatative outlook, will do well to break into the top ten.

Similar sentiments are being expressed about the five teams to have taken the plunge and bridged the gap from Champ Car, although the introduction of road and street courses to the IRL over the past few years does provide a chance of success.

If any of the CCWS converts are to upset the applecart this season, most favour Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing. Three-time champion Sebstien Bourdais may have left for Formula One, but the team eventually snapped up Justin Wilson, the man to have pushed hardest for P1 over the past couple of years. While the lanky Briton would have expected to be a frontrunner had Champ Car continued to exist, however, he now faces a tough task to bring NHLR into line with the other big names of US open-wheel motorsport.

"I could not hope to be with a better team, especially while the teams are making this transition, but we are going to be racing against some of the top teams in the business and we are not kidding ourselves about how steep a learning curve we are facing," Wilson said, "I believe Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing has what it takes to win, but it's going to be very tough for us to contend with the Penskes, Ganassis and AGRs of this world."

NHLR has already suffered a couple of setbacks in its quest to take on the big guns as it followed missing Sebring transition test by losing Wilson's team-mate, Graham Rahal to crash damage after the Homestead outing this week. With insufficient time or parts to repair the #06 car, the American will sit out the opening round, when all Champ Car teams will no doubt be wary of a repeat with St Petersburg just a week later.

"I feel bad about it, and it will be tough not to be out there, but we need to take it slowly and not rush putting the car back together," the 19-year old reflected, "Even if we had everything available, there aren't enough hours before the first practice on Friday to get the car put back together so, at this point, we are going to focus on the St Pete race."

If anyone is going to match NHLR at the start of the season, it is likely to be the renamed KV Racing Technology team presented by former CCWS owner Kalkhoven. Retaining Oriol Servia gives the outfit a driver with considerable oval experience, while adding Will Power has the knock-on effect of bringing Team Australia backing for a second car. Both drivers have shown well in pre-season testing, despite the rush to prepare their cars, with Power a potential dark horse once he gets experience under his belt.

"I'm really looking forward to getting racing underway this weekend," the Aussie admits, "We have had to put in so much work in such a short space of time so everyone cannot wait to get down to the real thing, which is racing. The oval races in the early part of the season will be quite tough, but the plan is to keep our heads and see where we run. We have a street course one week later, and I think we will have more of a chance at that race."

Conquest Racing - like Panther a candidate for the race team graveyard in recent seasons - will also take Australian backing to Homestead, following a late 2007 deal with financial group Opes Prime. The backing has allowed Eric Bacherlart's team to double in size, but Franck Perera and Enrique Bernoldi do not bring great levels of experience to the line-up. Like the absent Walker Racing, Conquest has prior IRL pedigree, but that will count for little this season.

"Enrique and Franck progressed well over both days [at Homestead] and did a very good job for never having driven on an oval," Bachelart comments, "But these last two days were only the beginning of what will be a year of learning ovals - the best experience they will get will be in a race situation, starting this weekend. Our goal is to do the best we can and learn as much as possible and to keep improving over the season."

Again, like the IRL regulars, the Champ Car teams have their own pecking order, and 'the rest' will be hard pressed to make an impact this season. Dale Coyne Racing may have been around for a while, but has not been a facotr in the CCWS - Bruno Junqueira's tactical podium hat-trick last season aside - for some time. The Brazilian remains on board for 2008, and brings IndyCar experience to the team, but may have to overcome the mental scars of a back-breaking shunt last time out in the IRL at the 2005 Indy 500. Junqueira is paired with countryman Mario Moraes, but little is expected of the F3 graduate this season.

With Walker absent chasing funds, Gerry Forsythe having pulled the plug on his team and Paul Stoddart deciding not to pursue the Minardi Team USA programme, the final full-season entry comes from the Australian's former partner, Keith Wiggins, who had resurrected the HVM name to run rookie Ernesto Viso. Like NHLR, the team missed the Sebring test while it finished prepping its car, but Viso got valuable oval experience at Homestead earlier in the week.

"It was something completely different to what I have been used to in my career so far - I almost had to begin again from zero," the GP2 graduate comments, "But we continued to adjust the car and improved with every lap."

While insiders have admitted that the road and street courses may provide the newcomers with their best chance of success, there are three events in which they may have a better chance to shine, with Long Beach almost certain to provide a victory. That anomaly, however, will come against a regular CCWS field as the Californian city plays host to the final Champ Car event ever after attempts to solve a date clash with Motegi resulted in both events being left to run as planned - with full IRL points on hand in each.

Edmonton and Surfers Paradise are the other two events to have survived the calendar cut and, while the Australian event could be either a non-points exhibition or early start to the 2009 campaign, both provide the Champ Car teams with the advantage of prior track knowledge.

The IRL regulars will start with the unfamiliar addition of a paddle-shift gearchange on the Dallaras - something that the Champ Car teams had on the Panoz DP01 last season - while the League has implemented a new weight policy for 2008, which includes car and driver in an effort to equalise the field and prevent lighter drivers - such as Danica patrick - gaining an advantage.

Qualifying is also tweaked, with all oval rounds getting a four-lap format, while street and road courses retain the familiar group session followed by 'Super Six' shoot-out for the fastest runners.

Contrary to expectation, there has been great support for unification from within the IndyCar Series, with each operation willing to help former Champ Car operations to make the transitio in time for the new season.

When the flag drops on Saturday, however, those friendships will end. It's time for the talking to stop.....