There's a lot of 'NEXT' coming in INDYCAR in 2017

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INDYCAR begins 2017 with the latest installment of the “Heart of Racing” promotional campaign, known as “NEXT.”

So, what’s really next for U.S. open-wheel racing?

For starters, a busy month of January. From news items expected to be announced at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit to heavy driver participation in the Race Of Champions (Jan. 21-22 in Miami) and the Rolex 24 (Jan. 28-29 in Daytona Beach), the action heats up fast and furious.

Following an assortment of team and manufacturer tests, Verizon IndyCar Series competitors will be on track Feb. 10-11 at Phoenix International Raceway for the year’s first official test. A month later is the season-opening race, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

NEXT means a lot of things:

It’s the Next Season: Seventeen races, with 21 car-and-driver combinations currently confirmed. Simon Pagenaud will try to become the series’ first repeat champion since Dario Franchitti in 2011, and Alexander Rossi will seek to become the Indianapolis 500’s first back-to-back champion since Helio Castroneves in 2002.

It’s the Next Legend: Scott Dixon needs just two race wins to tie Michael Andretti for third place on the sport’s all-time list. Dixon has 40 with an average of 3.0 wins per season over the past 12 years. Picking a place where he notches that 43rd win is difficult since his past seven wins have come at seven different tracks, but Mid-Ohio on July 30 seems like a good spot; he has won there five times.

It’s the Next Generation: Ed Jones is currently the only rookie in the 2017 class, but there are plenty of “next” situations to watch. Like Josef Newgarden in his first season at Team Penske; A.J. Foyt tabbing Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly for a new-look combination; Sebastien Bourdais returning to Dale Coyne’s team with a strong engineering effort; JR Hildebrand back in the series as a full-timer (with Ed Carpenter Racing); Takuma Sato bringing his raw speed to Andretti Autosport; and Honda’s strengthened lineup with the signing of Chip Ganassi Racing.

It’s the Next Century: After 100 races, the Indianapolis 500 begins another chapter and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be thrilling. Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles has spoken of exceptionally high ticket renewal rates, which means another complete sellout is possible. The 500 was a hot ticket in 2016 and it looks to be again.

It’s the Next New Event: Gateway Motorsports Park isn’t exactly new to the Verizon IndyCar Series – the most recent of six Indy car races there was held in 2003 – but it’s unfamiliar to many race fans. It’s an oval sitting convenient to most Midwestern race fans (not much more than three hours west of Indianapolis). The night race is Aug. 26.

It’s the Next Technology: The Verizon IndyCar Series will use similar equipment in 2017, but the march is on to introduce a new aero kit look for 2018 this spring. The first step in the reveal process is this month and the goal is to have a car testing the new bodywork in June.

Curt Cavin recently became INDYCAR’s vice president of communications after 30 years covering Indy car racing for The Indianapolis Star.

In case you missed the New Year's Day release of INDYCAR NEXT, watch it here:

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