The season is over, now let's start rehashing!
While it's quite the bummer that the 2012 IndyCar season has ended, the good part is that the series gave us enough to talk about for quite some time. In what will probably become a massive number of posts looking back at the year that was -- and maybe one of the best years ever -- I'm going to go through the field of full-time drivers and throw out my thoughts of their season and even their prospects for 2013.
Today I will go through the first half of the championship standings, with the bottom half coming at a later date.
Champion: Ryan Hunter-Reay (468 points). What a dream season for a guy who came into the year with three wins and had never finished better than seventh in the points. Once he got his first win of the year at Milwaukee, he found a mid-summer stride, also winning at Iowa and Toronto. Though he had two brutal finishes at Mid-Ohio (24th) and Sonoma (18th -- though not his fault) to fall behind Will Power in the standings, he rebounded with two of the best drives of his career, winning at Baltimore and taking a balky car at Fontana and grinding his way through 500 miles to a fourth-place finish. He has a title, he has confidence and he has some serious job security for really the first time in his career. Is this the start of something big?
2nd: Will Power (465). As usual, Will did work on the twisties, winning three consecutive races (Barber, Long Beach, Sao Paulo) and piling up six podiums and 379 points (RHR was second with 300). But once again, the ovals bit him big time, as he crashed out of three of the five races, including the game-changer at Fontana. Power himself admits that he needs to figure out what to do on ovals, I say he gets a really expensive setup and drive laps on iRacing all winter. He will keep falling painfully short of a title until he can at least get decent finishes on ovals, especially if as expected more ovals will be added to the series.
3rd: Scott Dixon (435). Back around mid-June I called Dixon the best overall driver in the series, and the one guy (although we can add RHR to the list) who I think is a threat to win every race weekend. Try this stat on for size: in the last six years he has finished second, first, second, third, third and third in the point standings. Just amazing. He also won twice (Belle Isle and Mid-Ohio) while garnering four seconds and a total of seven podiums. But when he was bad, he was way bad, finishing 17th or worse four times, and had some bad luck with the bogus penalty in Milwaukee. Still, he is one Indy 500 win or one more title away from jumping into the discussion of the best drivers of his generation. He is, but one of the above just would add to his credibility.
4th: Helio Castroneves (431). Helio was silly consistent all year, posting two wins (St. Pete and Edmonton) while notching ten finishes of sixth or better and having the best average finish (7.2) of anyone in the series. Like Tony Kanaan at Indy, you wonder if Helio is going to put it together and win a championship. This year marks the eighth time since coming to IndyCar full-time in 2002 that he finished in the top-4 in the standings. While he is moving up the list of oldest drivers in the series at 37, he can take solace in the fact that Dario Franchitti has eight wins and two titles since he turned 37. What comes first, a fourth win at Indy or a title? If he had to choose one it would for sure be Indy -- that's legacy stuff and he knows it -- but like Dixon an IndyCar title bolds up that resume a bit.
5th: Simon Pagenaud (387). Speaking of resumes, when you look at the credentials Pagenaud brought to IndyCar this season, you had the idea this guy was going to go fast in a hurry. Four podiums and the Sunoco Rookie of the Year nod later, we have confirmation that he is going to be a factor for a long time. Even more impressive is the fact that Pagenaud is the only driver from a one-car team in the Top 10 in points. Sam Schmidt Motorsports seemed to get better and better each week, and if they add a second car to their operation, they could go to the next level in 2013.
6th: Ryan Briscoe (370). More than likely a pole at Indy, a win at Sonoma and five top-5 finishes will earn Briscoe a nice contract next year, but it probably won't be with Team Penske. Maybe that is a good thing as he has been overshadowed by teammates Power and Castroneves, because 2012 marked the fifth straight year he finished sixth or better in the championship standings. But with Team Penske, that isn't always good enough, and for a guy who has been around for as long as he has he tears up way too much equipment. He can't continue to bring cars back on a flatbed if he wants to contend for a title. The talent is there, it just needs to be there on a more week-to-week basis.
7th: Dario Franchitti (363). It goes to show the bar that Franchitti has set when most people think his season was completely in the tank. But when you win the Indy 500 three times and the championship four times since 2007, you are judged by pretty high standards. Surprisingly enough, Dario had the best average starting position (5.8) in the field this season, but had some dreadful finishes, placing 17th or worse four times, including a DFL at Iowa where his motor blew up before the field even took the green flag. Still, winning Indy for sure salvaged his season, as he put together the most impressive drive of his three wins in battling back from 29th place early in the race. Back in 2009 when Castroneves won his third 500, did we ever think that a couple of years later Dario might be the odds-on favorite to win his fourth before Helio would?
8th: James Hinchcliffe (358). Through the season's first eight races, Hinch looked to be a title contender, notching two podiums (Long Beach and Milwaukee) and a front-row start at Indy as part of seven top-six finishes. A crash at Iowa, though, seemed to derail his season as he only finished higher than 12th once (a fifth at Mid-Ohio) the rest of the way. While teammate Hunter-Reay gained momentum as the year went on, Hinch went the other direction. Compared to many of the drivers on this list, Hinch is still relatively inexperienced, and no doubt learned a lot over the course of the season.
9th: Tony Kanaan (351). After finishing sixth or better in points for nine straight years, TK ran into adversity at almost every turn in 2012 as he and his KV Racing team inexplicably struggled through the season. He did have five finishes of fourth or better, including a second to RHR at Milwaukee and a third at Indy, but finished 20th or worse five times as well. Even more frustrating is that his winless streak has stretched to two-plus years and 41 races. Still, he upheld his reputation as one of the most exciting and entertaining drivers in the series, including his sixth-to-first restart in the closing laps at Indy which qualifies as the most epic restart of the millenium, as well as his stellar effort at Fontana, where he led 47 laps before crashing with 10 laps to go. Qualifying better in 2013 must be a point of emphasis for TK and KV, as even he couldn't recover from some awful efforts. His hard-luck efforts at the Speedway have been the mark of his career, but can he finally take it home next year? If he can it may be one of the most popular wins in series history. Want proof?
10th: Graham Rahal (333). Given his talent and his ride with Ganassi racing, lots more was expected from "Son of 'Stache" (paying homage to the old My Name is IRL blog) than what he produced. In two years with the farm club, Rahal has just four podiums in two seasons, and the one he had this year at Texas was bittersweet, a runner-up finish to Justin Wilson where he was leading the race with two laps to go and made contact with the wall and allowing Wilson to steal the win. Though it hasn't been confirmed yet, it appears he is joining dad Bobby at Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing, and that might provide the environment and partnership where he could thrive.
11th: JR Hildebrand (294). One thing we don't always recognize about the IndyCar series is the amount of experience many of the drivers bring each race weekend. Guys like Dixon, Castroneves and Kanaan have close to 200 open wheel starts between CART, Champ Car and IndyCar, while Rubens Barrichello made more than 300 starts in F1, and Takuma Sato has more than 150 between F1 and IndyCar as well. That leaves young guys like Hinch and Hildebrand in a spot where there is little or no room for error, and it just takes time and laps for them to get better. JR spent most of 2012 driving around in the midfield, with fifth-place finishes at Long Beach and Texas his highlights. He also showed a flash of brilliance at Fontana, where he led 56 laps early on before brushing the wall and coming home 11th.
12th: Rubens Barrichello (289). I think a lot of us expected more from Rubens this year, until you saw him drive a few races and realized that driving in the IndyCar series is tough, even for someone who has seen it all behind the wheel of a car. Barrichello was solid all year and seemed to get better every weekend. He was very impressive at Indy, finishing 11th and winning Rookie of the Year honors in his first oval race. He also held his own at Iowa by finishing 7th and closed the season with a fourth at Sonoma and fifth at Baltimore, then was in the mix among the leaders at Fontana before losing an engine and placing 22nd. I think Rubens seriously enjoyed his season despite its challenges and is planning to come back next year on a team as yet to be determined. He's good for the series in a lot of ways, and the paddock can always use nice guys like Rubens.
13th: Oriol Servia (287). Like Alex Tagliani, who I will profile in the next post, Servia's season was a tale of two motors. Starting out the season with the Lotus, he drove hard but through four races the Voice of God was only able to manage an 11th-place finish in Brazil. Moving to the Chevy power at Indy, he dashed from 27th starting position to finish fourth, then was fifth at Belle Isle, fourth at Milwaukee and fifth at Toronto. That was the high point of the season, though, as various misfortunes left a seventh at Baltimore his best finish the rest of the year. For the first time in a while, Servia is in a stable ride and the second year with Panther/DRR should be better than the first.
That's it for Part 1, and look for Part 2 in the coming days.