As a wrapup to the the season, I'm posting my thoughts on the seasons of the drivers who finished the season in points positions eleven through twenty-one. I'm sure your first thought is...wait, didn't a total of 23 drivers compete on a (mostly full-time basis this year? Yes, they did, but I did some moving around, and when positions one through ten are posted later this week you will get the gist.
11th: Ryan Briscoe (461 points). After spending 2013 as a racing nomad, Briscoe went back to his IndyCar roots when he signed with Target Chip Ganassi Racing as one of the Ganassi B cars. Like the other drivers on his team, Briscoe's results were mixed this year, but like the rest of his team he got better as the year went on. The guy is a Top 10 machine and will win a pole and/or a race when everything goes right. I expect him to be higher up this list next year.
12th: James Hinchcliffe (465 points). Let's call a spade a spade (and this hurts given he's my favorite driver), but Hinch's season was an unmitigated disaster from beginning to end. Between crashes, mechanical issues and other circumstances beyond his control, Hinch had one podium and six finishes P18 or worse. A P5 at Fontana probably gave him something positive to take into the off-season, but I'm guessing he is glad to have 2014 in his rear-view.
13th: Josef Newgarden (406 points). From Pocono on, I thought Josef's season (and career) took a huge upturn. I'm not sure what clicked that caused such a drastic change, but he qualified better and he definitely raced better. How much better? He had five Top 10 finishes in his last eight races compared to nine Top 10 finishes in his previous 2 1/2 seasons. With Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing combining forces with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2015, he may be on the verge of some next-level stuff.
14th: Charlie Kimball (402 points). After four years I'm still not able to make up my mind about Charlie. Is he a front-runner (nine Top 10 finishes and advanced more positions on race day than any other driver this season) or a mid-packer (six finishes of P17 or worse)? He has a great ride, great equipment and full funding with a top-tier team but has never finished better than ninth in the standings. But that is probably more an indication of the competition level in the series as opposed to an indictment on his abilities as a driver.
15th: Justin Wilson (395 points). Man, oh man, do I wish this guy would someday get a chance with Penske, Ganassi or Andretti, because when you can drag Dale Coyne Racing equipment to the kinds of finishes he has over the years, you are one hell of a driver. (Editor's note: Not a slam on DCR at all, but they have to work really, really hard to get anywhere.) Lots of things went right for Justin when he finished P6 in the standings last year, but that good fortune didn't follow him into 2014.
16th: Mikhail Aleshin (372 points). First of all, best wishes to Mikhail after his crash at Fontana on Friday night. That was pure nasty, and I'm glad his injuries are the kind that get better and that he will be back on the grid next season. Overall, for a guy who had to clear as many hurdles as he did this season: first time in America, learning tracks, racing on ovals for the first time -- I thought he handled himself very well. He's a tad bit on the aggressive side, but I think that's what makes him endearing to many. We'll see what Year 2 has in store for the first Russian to ever race in IndyCar.
And while I'm on that tip...hats off again to everyone who designed, tested (RIP Dan Wheldon) and continue to improve the safety of the DW12. For all the crap that people give that car, it provides the best racing on the planet and drivers know that they are as safe as possible when they strap into one.
Look, racing is still a dangerous game, and American open wheel racing is at the top of that list in terms of danger. The best thing a series and the engineers can do is be proactive in upgrading and improving the safety of the cars, and I think Dallara does that very well.
And while I'm at it, hats off to the Holmatro Safety crew. They are the best in the business, hands down. I'm sure when a driver is involved in an incident it's a comforting thing to see these guys leaning down into the cockpit to help.
17th: Jack Hawksworth (366 points). The young man from England certainly had his ups and downs (crashing at Indy and then crashing and missing the Pocono racing being the low points) but overall it was a promising season for someone driving for probably the most underfunded team. Lots was made -- plenty of it negative -- when Bryan Herta picked Hawksworth for the seat over the winter, but I feel like in the end he proved he deserved it. And given what we now know the lengths he and his family have gone and sacrificed to get him into that seat, my respect level for the Hawk is pretty high.
18th: Takuma Sato (350 points). We all know Taku is fast (he had two more poles this season) but he also tears up a LOT of equipment. He's also finished P15 or worse in 20 of his last 28 races. Great guy, love his passion and I love his driving when he has it going, but in the end, Larry Foyt has to decide whether the highs are worth all of the lows. My guess here is sooner or later he decides it isn't.
19th: Graham Rahal (345 points). When we heard two years ago that Graham was moving to his dad's team, and then last year was getting the National Guard sponsorship, the consensus was that he was out of excuses. The question becomes, what do we say now? P18 and P19 in the standings, with the money and engineering resources at his disposal, doesn't cut it. And with the Guard pulling out of racing altogether, I just don't know what to say. I think for a lot of reasons everyone wants to see Graham succeed, but I don't think it's going to happen. Sure he's fast at times and does run well, but so does everyone else in the series. It's a result-oriented business, and this is the second straight year he has regressed.
20th: Carlos Huertas (314 points). Well, Carlos will always have Houston 1 I guess. Other than that, what else do you say? An eighth at Detroit 1 and an 10th at Long Beach were the other high-water marks for Carlos and it's obvious after Fontana that he officially doesn't like ovals, so I'm wondering if we will see him back next year.
21st: Sebastian Saavedra (291 points). I like Saavedra, I really do. He's what a racer driver should be, he's good looking, has incredible hair and is outgoing and fun to be around. I think despite the fact he gets in their way a lot on the track, the other drivers in the paddock like him a lot. He has brief flashes of great things, but unfortunately he doesn't seem to handle prosperity well because every time it looks like he's catching a break, something goes horribly wrong. He did win the pole at the GP of Indy, and led laps at Long Beach and Bama for the first time in his career, but other than that he drove around in circles and got paid to do it.
That does it for this group. Missing a couple of guys, you say? It will make more sense later when I present the top half of the field. I'll also tie it in with a Fontana wrap-up, so keep an eye out for that one!