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Ben Smith

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Parity is back in IndyCar as 500 looms

– So, this is not just about Chip and the Captain anymore, apparently.

This is about Super Tex waking up the echoes, too.

This is about A.J. Foyt Jr. coming again to his place of legend, a place with his name scrawled on it like mile-high graffiti. It’s about the man whose name is synonymous with Indianapolis coming back as a player in May for the first time since the century turned, and not just as an old man living off memories three decades in his mirrors now.

His race team arrived this weekend with the IndyCar points leader, Takuma Sato, who came within an eyelash last May of stealing the Indianapolis 500 and who’s already won once this season at Long Beach. It was Foyt’s first win since 2002, and this is the first time he’s had the points leader in his stable since 1998.

So, here’s to A.J., and to a legend refreshed. And here’s to a sport that’s had a sudden attack of democracy after years of iron-fisted Chip Ganassi/Roger Penske rule.

They come to Indy having won nine of the last 13 500s between them, and with two drivers (Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves) looking to join Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser Sr. as four-time winners.

And maybe that will happen. History, after all, still tilts their way. But not as steeply as they once did. Not in a way that makes you think we’re all just going through the motions until Franchitti or Castroneves or Scott Dixon or Will Power can take a long pull from that iconic Victory Lane milk bottle on Memorial Day weekend.

And that’s not just because of Sato and Foyt, although it’s a yummy storyline that no doubt will be beaten senseless before May is done. It’s because of what their re-emergence suggests: That IndyCar no longer belongs solely to two or even three teams.

True, a resurgent Andretti Autosport has won three of the four races so far this season, with Sato winning the other. But Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing has found his way to the podium, and so has Graham Rahal, who left Ganassi to run for his dad at Rahal Lanigan. Coming to Indy, there isn’t a Penske or Ganassi ride in the top four in the points.

“It just shows that teams can compete,” Wilson said after Long Beach. “This isn’t a closed shop. Anyone can go out there and compete.”

Precisely Rahal’s thinking.

“I left Ganassi Racing and I left there for a reason,” he says. “I felt like this team can be as good and competitive as any. I think you’re seeing that it’s so competitive right now that obviously those three teams (Penske, Ganassi, Andretti) made a little slip this weekend and we’re all here to jump in.”

As for Sato … he’s been the beneficiary of an A.J. Foyt Racing team that’s made a marked jump forward since Larry Foyt, A.J.’s son, took over as race director.

“It’s a super group of guys with a super sponsor, and it just all works,” Larry Foyt said after Long Beach. “It was really kind of immediate when Takuma came in. We knew he was fast. Until you really know somebody, you don’t know how you’re going to work together and how it’s going to be. But it was great.

“I really think between our chief engineer Don Halliday and Takuma, there was a lot of trust there, which you have to have. Our junior engineer kept telling us, ‘We don’t have to be the biggest team to win. There can be positives to being a smaller team and a tight-knit group.’ ”

Ain’t it grand.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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