Wow, is it really that time again? Is it really time to go racing?
It's hard to believe that we are finally ready to line it up at St. Pete this weekend. While the off-season went pretty quickly for me in a personal sense, in a racing sense it has seemed to last forever. In fact, my off-season lasted a couple of weeks longer than everyone else because I was on a flight to London (and eventually Milan) during the Fontana race and haven't had the chance to watch the whole thing since.
Speaking of, if you want to read about my trip to Monza, go here. That was a memorable day for me, and I'm happy that so many of you have chosen to read it. In fact, it's the third-most read post ever in this space, behind, oddly enough, my anti-Tony George post and a feature about Buddy Lazier. Really.
Anyway, I prognosticated in this space about this same time last year, and actually got a couple of things right, and came close on a few others. Read that one here. Happily, my prediction of Tony Kanaan winning the 500 came to fruition, as did my thought that James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud would each win their first races. In fact, Hinch even won three.
So what's going to happen in the IndyCar series this year? One thing's for sure, it should be exciting. So let's throw a few ideas out there.
Series champion(s): Ed Carpenter/Mike Conway. OK, part of this is tongue-in-cheek, but given the new points system that puts more emphasis on 500-milers, and given that each driver is an ace in his respective discipline (Ed on ovals and Mike on the twisties), it is wholly believable that these two guys could combine to post the most points in the 20 car this year.
But since the series wouldn't let them cut the Vanderbilt Cup in half and take it home with them, I'm going with Scott Dixon to win the title for the second straight year. Let's face it, the guy is in the absolute apex of his career, and the only reason he didn't win the title running away last year was because he had four finishes of P15 or worse. By contrast, Helio Castroneves and Pagenaud, the next two in the standings, had just two apiece.
Series runner up: Will Power. Notice these two guys are flipped from last year. Power's season was dreadful, and a lot of his bad luck wasn't his fault (well, except for Baltimore) and he rallied to win three races (Sonoma, Houston 2 and Fontana) to close out the season. His win at Fontana was the biggest of the three, I think, because his kryptonite has always been the ovals, but with the points now weighted more towards them, he has to perform to make this work.
While I'm at it, a quick note about the points. I was originally bat crap crazy against it, but acceptance is rolling in. Of course, much of that is thanks to the calming presence of Steve Wittich, one of the voices of reason in the IndyCar community, who pointed out that it only brings the total oval points in line with the twisties. I've actually wanted that to happen for a while, but I wish it were spread across ALL ovals, and not just the 500-milers.
The series has a definite gamut of ovals, measuring 7/8-mile (Iowa), 1 mile (Milwaukee), 1 1/2 miles (Texas), 2 miles (Fontana) and 2 1/2 miles (Indy and Pocono). Oval track driving is one big discipline but it takes a special kind of talent to perform on tracks that are five different lengths and have different bankings and nuances. So that's that.
Other title contenders: Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud. Every one of these guys were great at times last year, with Helio on track to win his first title until a bad weekend in Houston. The rest just needed to have some better luck and a little more consistency. Marco has to win a race this year, doesn't he? TK hasn't been a championship favorite the last couple of years, but looks to be revitalized in the 10 car for Ganassi.
First time winners club: Josef Newgarden. Josef took some huge strides forward last year, and I think he seals the deal in 2014.
Rookie of the Year: Carlos Munoz. Munoz impressed me with his front-row start and second place finish at Indy, but what really gave me pause that this guy could be a good one was his performance in Toronto when he jumped in Ryan Briscoe's Panther Racing car at the last minute and drove to a 17th-place finish, which was impressive given the circumstances. Now, that doesn't mean Munoz is going to win a race or even finish in the top-10 in points, because there are some absolute studs on the track with him, and while he should do fine he's going to be learning every weekend.
Comeback Driver of the Year: Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe hasn't caught much of a break the last couple of years, has he? Out of a job with Penske after 2012 despite winning the pole at Indy and the race at Sonoma, he drove sports cars most of last year with forays into IndyCar at Indy with Ganassi (where he finished 12th) and a few races with Panther, but scored just 100 points in eight races. Back full-time with Ganassi, he could have some outstanding results.
Comeback Driver of the Year 2: Juan Pablo Montoya. When it was first announced that JPM was leaving Cup (well, he got the boot at Ganassi but I digress) for a ride with Penske, I was a little skeptical. While I thought his presence in the series would be at worst entertaining as hell, and trust me, it will be, I wasn't sure of his passion for it. But given the way he has trimmed down (he looks like an IndyCar driver now!) and has been fast in preseason testing, he's here for the right reasons and wants to win.
Two other guys I want to mention: Justin Wilson and Sebastien Bourdais. I feel like a prediction column isn't complete without mentioning these two guys. Wilson gets a nod for the fact that he finished sixth in points for Dale Coyne Racing last year (an amazing feat in itself) and has a reputation that keeps growing as one of the most diverse drivers on the planet, and Bourdais because he moves from Dragon Racing (an organization that I thought never took things completely seriously) to KV Racing, and seems to have a little more spring in his step this year. Look for both to finish in the top-10 in the points this year.
Make or Break year: Graham Rahal. With National Guard on board and an engineer like Bill Pappas in his corner, Graham is out of excuses as to why he can't run up front and win. I hope it happens, he's become a very open, active voice on social media, and seems to have added an extra bit of maturity. It would be a great benefit to the series if Graham was running up front. Now if we could just get Marco Andretti to stop being so shy and follow his lead! I don't know if that will ever happen...Marco is Marco and he likes his privacy. Oh well.
Indy 500 winner: Kurt Busch. Oh my God, please know I'm kidding! Let me try this again...
Indy 500 winner: James Hinchcliffe. When I called Kanaan as the winner of the 500 last year, I wrote: "TK will go into this space until he gives me a reason not to put him here, either by winning the race or retiring." TK no longer goes in this space (although I'd love to see him win again), and Hinch takes his spot under the same criteria.
I dunno, but something tells me this could be a huge season for IndyCar. With the competition from front to back about as good as it can get, activation from an incredible sponsor in Verizon, a deeper commitment from ABC/ESPN, Paul Page on radio and Allen Bestwick and Leigh Diffey running the TV, guys interested in doing the Indy 500/Coke 600 double and the new points, we won't be short of storylines.
So as Dolvett Quince, my favorite trainer from the TV show Biggest Loser, says: "Let's go to work!"