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Preview: Firestone Indy Lights Series

Mar 21, 2013, 12:00 PM EST

Lights AP

The Firestone Indy Lights Series, the final step on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, is already at a crossroads in terms of public opinion and reaction before it’s even raced its first event of 2013.

A scant nine cars, tied for the fewest in the series’ history since its new incarnation as the Infiniti Pro Series in 2002 (Milwaukee, 2004) are entered for the opening round of the 2013 season. The biggest issue the series dealt with in the offseason was the announced delay of its new car, projected to debut in 2014, that would replace the current Dallara chassis used since this series started in 2002.

No doubt the future of the series will be discussed as the year goes on, and what can be done to improve its feasibility (costs and car, mainly). Still, to the series’ credit, at least half if not two-thirds of the drivers entered have a legitimate chance at winning a race this year.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – long the standard-bearer in Indy Lights having won the last three titles and a total of six – enter with three rookies in their cars. None are slouches as they are the top three finishers from the 2012 Star Mazda Series, champion Jack Hawksworth, runner-up Gabby Chaves and American Sage Karam.

And the other stat SPM has going for them is that each of their champions the last three years – JK Vernay, Josef Newgarden and Tristan Vautier – has won on debut in St. Petersburg to kick off their championship charge. The challenge for any of SPM’s three this year is to keep the streak alive.

Andretti Autosport boasts the only driver with a prior Indy Lights win in the field – Colombian Carlos Munoz in his second season. Munoz won twice a year ago and represents Andretti’s best chance of wresting the title back from Schmidt’s squad. Rookie Zach Veach steps up from Star Mazda and could score a win if the cards fall right, but will probably need until the second half of the season to truly establish himself.

Belardi Auto Racing and Team Moore field two cars apiece, but of that quartet only Peter Dempsey (Belardi) seems a likely winner. One of the series’ fastest and most aggressive drivers, the Irishman finally has a proper full-season effort after two stop-start seasons. The other trio (Jorge Goncalvez, Belardi and Moore’s Juan Pablo Garcia and Ethan Ringel) are unlikely to challenge the top runners.

The first round of the Firestone Indy Lights Series season airs Sunday at 11:00 a.m. EST on the NBC Sports Network.

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