Wading through changes to make winning St. Pete picks

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INDYCAR. Fantasy. They go together better than you think.

Watching the open-wheel cars and some of the best drivers in the world put on great and competitive races takes on even more significance and excitement when your INDYCAR Fantasy Challenge driven by Firestone lineup is in the thick of the hunt.

The Verizon IndyCar Series season opens this weekend with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. You can become a virtual team owner by selecting your four-driver lineup for Sunday’s race and the 16 races that follow this season.

Winning in the INDYCAR Fantasy Challenge, however, means knowing the drivers, the cars, the teams, the tracks and the context. I’ll be here all season long to help you figure out which is which and to beat your friends for bragging rights.

But first you need to register for the league if you haven’t already by clicking here. Then you can take on all comers or even start your own league and invite family, friends, co-workers to join. Prizes are awarded after each race, along with the grand prize of a 2018 VIP race experience.

With a new season, we have new context. It’s the same car, with the Dallara IR-12 chassis and Chevy and Honda aero kits/engines for one more season. What’s different is who’s in what seat. That could change the game altogether.

The big two are, of course, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Andretti Autosport is coming on and, while the big dogs have advantages, it’s clear that anyone can win at any race – if things break just right.

Penske added Josef Newgarden, meaning one of the best drivers in the series is going to have some of the best equipment. He’ll immediately challenge last year’s champion, Simon Pagenaud, for team honors, but Helio Castroneves and Will Power aren’t going to go quietly. All four can win at any time.

Ganassi has switched to Honda this year and preseason testing for drivers Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball has gone well.

At Andretti, the new face is Takuma Sato. He has been fast – even winning at Long Beach for AJ Foyt Racing in 2013. Andretti also has Honda power, which tested well at Sebring last week.

Those Sebring tests are the best indication of what we might see at St. Petersburg. The tight corners make for tough racing. If the drivers can make it past the seemingly inevitable first lap dust-up, there’s always competitive racing.

Look for the Hondas to show a lot of early speed, which means Dixon, but also Graham Rahal, who always seems to run well at St. Pete. Alexander Rossi, back with Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, ran a very conservative race as a rookie in ’16, when he was getting his feet wet. Don’t expect that this year.

The call? Dixon and Ganassi make a big run from the front and are the big-name pick, with Rahal just behind. A sleeper would be Sebastien Bourdais in the Dale Coyne Racing Honda, with the Penskes stuck mid-pack.

Playing in the INDYCAR Fantasy Challenge? My picks, staying under the $100 cap, are Dixon ($30), Newgarden ($25), Rossi ($21) and Bourdais ($22). You could also play Pagenaud instead of Dixon and sub in Marco Andretti for Bourdais.

I’ll be back before the next race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, to offer my picks and report how I fared against the rest of you in the fantasy challenge. Good luck and let the season begin.

From the fans