The tragedy in Las Vegas no doubt finished the season on a down note (and rightfully so). With a little time and healing it's been good to step back and reflect on the 2011 season. All-in-all, it wasn't too bad for what many considered a "throwaway" year due to the final season of using the current equipment. There was some outstanding racing at many of the stops and while the season points pretty much played out the way we all thought, there was a nice mix of winners amongst drivers and teams.
So here are a few highlights:
Driver of the Year -- Dario Franchitti. I don't necessarily think that this award should always go to the series champion, and in this instance it was really a tossup between Dario and Will Power based on Power's unbelievable dominance on road and street courses. Still, Franchitti is just more consistent, outside of fuel issues and Indy and his crash at Loudon, he never finished lower than eighth. Yes he got a couple of favorable calls and yes he has the backing of the most powerful team in the series, but at the same time you still have to go out and drive and get the job done, which he did. No I don't like his whining, which thankfully seemed to lessen as the season went on, but right here, right now if you look at his ability to drive ovals, road and street courses well, he could be considered one of the Top 10 drivers in the world.
Drive of the Year -- Dan Wheldon, Indy. From my view in the stands it was about as perfect of a race as you could ever drive. In my mind, the only time you have to be leading the race is when you cross the finish line, so the 900 feet he was in front was more than enough. Fittingly, Dan broke a 99-year-old record for fewest laps led by a winner, and made it his own because it can be equaled but never broken.
Race of the Year -- Indy/Iowa/Kentucky. Yes, a three-way tie. Really, how do you decide? Indy had Wheldon's unlikely win, Iowa had an awesome 25-lap battle between Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan and Kentucky featured a similar fight between Franchitti and Ed Carpenter that gave both Carpenter and Sarah Fisher Racing their first-ever wins. Hopefully the first of a few for both!
Rookie of the Year -- James Hinchcliffe. Yeah, this one was obvious. J.R. Hildebrand had a couple of great finishes but Hinch was consistent and along with teammate Oriol Servia (more on him in a minute) brought Newman-Haas back from nowhere. Major props for that.
Most Underrated Driver -- Oriol Servia. I mentioned in a post back in the spring that when you look at the guy's record in CART/IndyCar I couldn't figure out why he didn't have a ride. He got one this year and roped in a solid sponsor in Telemundo and made the most of it, finishing fourth in the season standings, leading a lot of laps at Indy and posting three podiums and six top-5 finishes. I hope it works out that he sticks around the series for a while, he is a consistently good driver who is also intelligent and likeable, and represents the sport very well.
Most Overrated Driver -- Helio Castroneves. This absolutely pains me to say this, because I have been a fan of Helio's for a long, long time. But the fact of the matter is, when you drive for Team Penske you should not finish 17th or worse nine times during the season. He spent the first quarter of the season crashing into everyone and everything, and was a total non-factor at Indy, which was a surprise to everyone.
I probably could add a few more to this list, but my trophy budget only goes so far. I think 2012 promises to be a great season, and it can't get here soon enough!