Monday, March 25, 2013

St. Pete Wrap Up

Well, if I had written a preview or pre-game post Sunday morning, I can be pretty confident in that I would've gotten few -- if any -- of my predictions right.

Number one, Will Power would've been my pick to win, and he ended up 16th after a bizarre incident where he was run over by JR Hildebrand, who got caught texting while driving (or something) during a caution and took himself out of the race as well. When you look at everything JR was involved in yesterday, you have to wonder where the guy's head was at. Moments prior to copping a squat on Power's car, he had passed Simona de Silvestro under yellow. I get he was a lap down and maybe thought he'd get a wave around or whatever, but his day was chock full of stupidity.

Speaking of boneheaded moves, I never would've called Dario Franchitti's DFL finish as well. Four-time (or three-time if you are counting his Indy 500 wins) came out of the pits a bit too hot and plowed into the turn 3 wall just 19 laps into the race. You just don't expect a driver of his success and experience level to make a mistake like that.

Neither would I have pictured defending champ Ryan Hunter-Reay struggling, especially considering how well his Andretti Autosport teammates did. Along with race winner James Hinchcliffe and third-place Marco Andretti landing on the podium, EJ Viso drove well to a 7th-place finish.

But you know what? Predictable is boring, which is why I was highly entertained watching the race. Let's go through the top five and a few other notes.

Winner: Hinchcliffe. It was the consensus of everyone that Hinch would at some point pick up the first win of his career in 2013, and he got it out of the way in the first race of the year. Starting fourth and never really falling outside the top-5, Hinchcliffe passed Helio Castroneves with 25 laps to go and held on to give owner Michael Andretti his 44th win as an owner. Between owning and driving, Michael has been a part of 86 IndyCar wins. It was also the first win in the series by a Canadian since Paul Tracy won at Cleveland in Champ Car in 2007. I'm guessing this won't be Hinch's only win of the season, he's still a massive goofball (which is awesome), but he also looks really focused and is carrying himself a little differently.

Runner-up: Helio Castroneves. After taking the lead from Power on an early race restart, Helio dominated the midpoint of the race and looked like the car to beat until he locked his brakes and went a little wide in turn one, giving Hinch the opening to get by. Castroneves was looking to win the race for the second year in a row, and extend his record of wins at St. Pete to four, but given the carnage that befell some other championship contenders he probably feels fortunate to be heading out of town with his second place finish.

Third place: Marco Andretti. Much has been made about Marco's re-commitment to his craft over the winter, and for at least this week it looks like it paid dividends. Marco drove hard but was patient, as evidenced by his late-race battle with Simona de Silvestro. Old Marco might have pressed the issue and done something stupid, but he kept his head and waited for de Silvestro, who was on older tires, to make a mistake of her own. Good start.

Fourth place: Tony Kanaan. It's hard to think you can use the words "quiet" and "TK" in the same sentence, but that was TK's weekend. With everyone lauding attention on de Silvestro, his new teammate at KV Racing (and rightfully so), TK started 11th and worked a little under the radar. But as usual, he was in the mix at the end.

Fifth place: Scott Dixon. Dixon's car was dreadful in qualifying, evidenced by his 20th-place starting position. But like TK, he found a way to the front by the end of the day, edging past de Silvestro just before the finish line. He made the most of what could've been a lost weekend, and that is critical for anyone who wants to be in the championship hunt over the next seven months.

Sixth place: Simona de Silvestro. Going past the top 5 as Simona deserves a mention. She was outstanding from beginning to the end of the weekend, and lots of her fellow competitors noticed. That and most of them spent the race looking at the back of her car as she was quick in every sense of the word. With a podium just over two miles away, Simona's tires finally lost their grip as she went wide in Turn 13 and Andretti scooted past, then TK and Dixon later followed suit. Still, there are plenty of reasons to get excited about her effort.

A couple of other shout outs: Tristan Vautier was impressive all weekend, running in the top 5 for much of the day before retiring with a mechanical issue. One race is too small of a sample size, of course, but for his maiden effort in IndyCar, he did a good job...Oriol Servia took advantage of a different pit strategy to get in front of the field for 16 laps. He later dropped out with mechanical issues too...Dixon and Viso were the big movers on the day, with each climbing 15 places from their original starting spots.

Points: With IndyCar incrementally decreasing points from 19th place and further back this year, as opposed to in the past where everyone got the same points, a few drivers are looking way, way up after one race in the book. With Hinchcliffe picking up 51 points, RHR head to Barber 39 points back, and it gets worse for Simon Pagenaud and Franchitti, who only received six and five points, respectively. Granted they have 18 races to make a comeback, but I really believe the new assignment of points at the back of the field will make a big difference as the title hunt continues.

TV: NBCSN did a nice job again on Saturday. I quickly have become a fan of Leigh Diffey, as he really brought a lot of enthusiasm and knowledge to the broadcast. He sounded like he was having a great time. Plus, I don't know what it is, but there is something about someone with a cool accent calling races. I'm still not sure what Wally Dallenbach is doing in the booth (other than the fact he is under contract to NBC and they want to give him something to do when NASCAR isn't on the network), but I like the move of Townsend Bell to color analyst. From the play-by-play person to the pit reporters, this is a good group of announcers.

From what I have heard, initial ratings are up from last year, and while I won't spend much time focusing on that sort of thing, it is good news.

With one in the book, let's head to Barber in two weeks. Last year Barber was one of the pleasant surprises of the season, as the new DW12 put on a much better show than was expected after the previous races had been single-file snoozefests. The spring training test there two weeks ago was insanely competitive, which lines up for a great event.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Tony George is Back!?!?

OK, I'll admit, the headline is a bit misleading and was done for the express purpose of getting you here! Now that I have on.

Hot off the wire from AP writer Jenna Fryer is a blurb that Tony George has been reinstated to his position on the Hulman & Co. Board of Directors. My response to that?


I know, contrary to what you might think, right? Really, it's not a big deal (for now), and in a minute I will tell you why. But in the six months since I wrote "Tony George Needs To Go Away"  which, by the way, is the most-read post in my site's history, he did indeed go away. Which was more than necessary for IndyCar (and the other empires under the Hulman banner) to move forward. Which they did.

This time, I don't really care. He is now a member of the board again, something that he has been for probably most of his adult life, and is something that he shares with many of his family members. After all, rich families always make sure everyone has something to do, even if they are not qualified to do said thing.

The reason he stepped away last September was to attempt to purchase IndyCar, which, thankfully, was not for sale. Obviously, being added back to the board is a sign that he is no longer interested in doing that, for which we can all breathe a sigh of relief. And besides, he's a Hulman...he doesn't need any official position or any type of power to get something done, if what happened last fall is any indication, he has minions to do it for him. Maybe he didn't set the dominoes in motion himself last summer/fall, but he didn't stop it, either. No one did.

I'm looking at this with an open mind because I feel like IndyCar has moved past a lot of things the last few months. While the series is far from stable, it appears for now that Mark Miles is calling the shots, and the Hulman family is giving him the autonomy to do his job.

While some of what Miles has said and done has been met with some cynicism, especially when he has floated some less-than-popular ideas, the fact of the matter is that -- at least for now -- he has the respect of the family, and most importantly, the paddock. Plus, some of his ideas are also pretty decent, albeit with a bit of tweaking.

Personally, I'm going to give Miles some time to sort all of this stuff out because the man has a track record of getting the job done. Running professional tennis for 15 years and leading Indianapolis' Super Bowl effort last year takes someone who knows what they are doing.

Maybe he is an Indy insider, that much is true. But pro tennis is a global sport and so he knows what it is like to think beyond 16th and Georgetown. How that flies with the family remains to be seen, but if he takes the baton he was given after Randy Bernard's ouster and runs with it, he will be fine.

Besides, we'll know when Tony George is really "back", and that's when crap storms start flying around the paddock. Rumors circle around him like the dust cloud around Pigpen (the Peanuts character for my younger readers). For now, let's just look as this as a mere formality and get back to the business of getting the 2013 season rolling.

Before I go, there is one rant about this situation that I want to air...why now? Yes, they had a shareholder's meeting today, in St. Pete (who's decision was that, anyway?) and that is when everything went down, but couldn't someone have held onto this until Monday? Where do the Hulman's get their PR people?

When you are dealing with a skittish fanbase that has trust issues, why on God's green earth do you decide to make an announcement like this on the eve of the start of the season? It's this kind of random decision making that just makes everyone shake their heads.

So many good things came out of today, there is no explanation to this kind of announcement. None. Are they really so insulated that they think they could drop a bomb like this and no one would notice?

Let's just hope that the drivers and teams put on a great show this weekend, and this story dies in a hurry. Usually if we ignore something it goes away.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

2013 Predictions

So it has come down to this. Now that you have read up on the drivers, let's move to the fun part...throwing down a few predictions for 2013.

I won't go down the road of some of my other bloggers by calling them "fearless" predictions, because I'm pretty fearful that none of them will come true. I'm hoping to nail at least one of them, though, to further prove that while I may not be an IndyCar "expert", I'm a blind squirrel (literally, I have 20/80 vision) who finds the occasional nut.

So like the NCAA tournament (I'm picking Indiana to win, by the way), let's put the ball in the air and get off and running.

Series champion: Will Power. Originally I was going to put Scott Dixon in this space, but I made a change because if any year sets up for his talents, this is the one. With extra races at Belle Isle and Toronto, not to mention two new street races in Houston, he has the opportunity to pile on the extra points that he will more than likely lose at the ovals. Rumour has it that the twinbills will be going away next season, so if those go away and ovals are added (a distinct possibility), Power comes back to the field. The 2013 season is sitting on a tee for him if he can even remotely turn left better than he has in the past.

Runner-up: Dixon. Dixon's name will always be in this discussion because he is by far the most consistent driver in the series across all of the various tracks on which IndyCar competes. In fact, he was one position away from having a podium finish on a road course, street course, big oval (I lump Indy, Texas and Fontana here) and short track (Iowa), which believe it or not he had done in four of the previous five seasons. It's that multi-faceted talent that last season made me call him the only guy in the paddock who is a legitimate threat to win every weekend (I now add Ryan Hunter-Reay to that list too). That consistency will be rewarded if Power falters at all.

Other contenders: Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Helio Castroneves. After getting punted by Alex Tagliani at Sonoma and theoretically seeing his championship hopes spin away, RHR's dig-deep-and-drive efforts to win Baltimore and do what he needed to do at Fontana shows he is in it for the long haul as a perennial title contender. Hinch proved last year he had what it took as he sat second in points at the midway point of the season, and Helio recaptured the consistency he needs to win. Throw in Simon Pagenaud and at the end of the season positions one through six in the classification could look about 20 different ways.

First-time winners club: Pagenaud and Hinchcliffe. The way both guys drove last year, this is a given.

Comeback of the year: Marco Andretti. It's gotta get better, right? It's almost to the point where it has to. Really, Marco's skid dates back to after he won Iowa in mid-2011. In the 23 races since, he has finished 24th or worst seven times. From 2006-11 he finished either P7 or P8 in points five times, which is probably about right for his talent level. He needs to get back to there soon.

Most improved: Josef Newgarden and Simona de Silvestro. I'm splitting this one because each should have a better showing in 2013, but for different reasons. Newgarden will get better just by turning laps and cutting down on his mistakes, while de Silvestro finally has the tools to compete.

Indy 500 winner: Tony Kanaan. TK will go into this space until he gives me a reason not to put him here, either by winning the race or retiring. Like I said last May, if the fanbase could will a driver to a win, TK would've gotten there already.

Last but not least, it's not a prediction, but a wish:

That the secret gets out. Last year AP writer Jenna Fryer called the IndyCar series, the 'best-kept secret it racing', and anyone who has knowledge of the sport completely agreed. While I wish the bad stuff that happens and the internal politics could stay under wraps, I enter every season hoping more and more people find out what is great about the sport and give it a chance. I don't need the series to grow to NASCAR-sized heights or approach the "wonder years" of the 90s, because I'm realistic enough to know that it probably won't. But what I do want to see is a solid, viable series that gets better every year. If that takes a decade, so be it, but in the meantime, I want to see more people in the seats and more people talking about IndyCar. The show the drivers put on each weekend is one of the best you will see, and here's hoping that more people figure that out in 2013.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

2013 Season Preview -- Part 2

My preseason look at the drivers of the IndyCar season continues.

Takuma Sato (No. 14): No doubt the pairing of Taku and AJ Foyt is one of the more intriguing story lines early in the season. In a way, Sato had a big breakthrough last year as he made his way to the front in several races, and was one steel kahunas move away from winning the Indy 500. But at the same time, he destroyed an awful lot of equipment, which he is wont to do. Bobby Rahal was able to reel Sato in last year, can AJ finish the job? This could be a solid pairing if that happens.

Graham Rahal (No. 15): This year will represent a season of change for Graham as he moves to his father's team at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing from Ganassi B, and swaps the No. 15 with his old 38. The two Rahals never formed a partnership previously, as Graham decided he wanted to establish his career on his own terms. He's done that, and is now comfortable with being a member of the family business. I never thought he (or Charlie Kimball for that matter) got a fair shake with Ganassi B and now that he is the lead driver on a team he is primed to have the breakout season most of us have been expecting from him. Hard to believe he is still just 24.

James Jakes (No. 16): Jakes takes his considerable family fortune to Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing this year in a move that surprised many, including me. He was second to last in points among drivers who competed in every race last year (ahead of Simona de Silvestro, but at least she had an excuse) and has finished P22 in points in both of his IndyCar seasons. Expect more of the same this year.

Mike Conway (No. 17): Depending on your perspective, Conway did the admirable thing or the cowardly thing when he walked away from his AJ Foyt ride just before Fontana last season, saying he just no longer wanted to compete on ovals. I like Mike, so I'm going with the former here, and back in September I predicted that he'd probably be able to find someone who could fit him into a twistie package because he is so good at them. RLL did just that, and Conway will be in the field at least at Long Beach, where he won driving for Andretti Autosport in 2011.

Ana Beatriz (No. 18): In what many would call a last-minute move -- but one that is actually ahead of schedule since Dale Coyne is involved -- Bia gets the opportunity to return to the IndyCar series after starting 22 races over the previous three seasons. There is talk that she will at some point or another share the ride with Stefan Wilson, who also tested the car at Barber last week, but for now it is her seat for St. Pete, Sao Paulo and the ovals, and she looks to improve on her 14th-place finish at St. Pete two years ago.

Justin Wilson (No. 19): Looking back at Justin's 2012, I have a hard time believing that he finished P15 in the standings. From the eye test, it just looked better than that, especially on ovals, where he took a big step forward, running up front at Indy before finishing P7, winning at Texas and qualifying second at Milwaukee. Still, his team chased a lot of mechanical issues all season long, and therein lies the problem. From 2009-11 he finished P11, P9 and P11 in the standings, which is more like it. Anything outside of the Top 10 in points should be a disappointment to this crew.

Ed Carpenter (No. 20): It's crazy to think for as good as Ed is on ovals (and he is very good), he's just as terrible on the twisties. I think if his Fuzzy's Vodka team put a little more effort into the road/street side of the program he would be much improved, but they are an oval team and don't make any apologies about that. Nor should they. If you want a solid lock for 2013, you can give a win to Ed in one of the Triple Crown races (Indy, Pocono or Fontana), because those three races will be very near and dear to his heart.

Oriol Servia (No. 22): I don't know what it is that makes me think this guy is so awesome (maybe it is the way he trills his "r's" or something) but I do. Servia is a lot of fun to watch because when he has a hooked up race car he makes it go. I'm sure it's a point of pride that at one point in the season the Spaniard had passed more cars than anyone in the series, but at the same time that was a necessity, the result of some really poor qualifying efforts. With the competition so tight from top to bottom, you really need a lot of luck if you are starting mid-pack, especially at a road or street course. They need to be better on Fridays and Saturdays this season.

Marco Andretti (No. 25): Have some off-season attitude adjustments (not to mention a car number change) going to cure what ills the third-generation driver? That remains to be seen, but last year was just putrid for Marco, and a huge step back in his career. Three Top 10s (and the pole at Fontana) and a great run at Indy until a late race crash was all he had to show for 2012, which doesn't get it done. Many are picking him as a favorite to win Indy, and if the numbers follow suit, it could happen. His previous two horrible finishes at Indy (P24 in 2007 and P30 in 2009) were followed by podiums the next season. He finished P24 last May, could another bounce back be coming?

James Hinchcliffe (No. 27): Through Milwaukee last year, Hinch was on fire, picking up a podium at Long Beach, a front row start at Indy and a podium at Milwaukee, to go along with seven finishes of P6 or better in eight races. But a crash at Iowa sent him into a tailspin from which he was unable to recover, finishing P12 or worse in six of the last seven events. If the Barber test is any indication, Hinch wasn't any worse for the wear as he battled for the top spot on the pylon in each session. Like JR Hildebrand, Hinch is relatively inexperienced with just 31 IndyCar starts, but given his talent and the resources at his disposal, he will rise pretty quickly. Don't be surprised to see him break into the win column this season, and a Top 5 in points isn't out of the question.

Tristan Vautier (No. 55): What's with this huge jump in car numbers? Oh well, the double nickel will be on the side of the 23-year-old Frenchman's ride this year, and look for him to easily roll to Rookie of the Year honors. OK, so he's the only driver in the running for the award, but given his pedigree it's a safe bet he would have been regardless of the size of the field. Back-to-back titles in Star Mazada (2011) and Indy Lights (2012) convinced Sam Schmidt to give him a shot at the big leagues this season. The key word for this young driver: patience. Not just from his perspective, but ours too. He will make his share of mistakes, but improvement should follow.

Josef Newgarden (No. 67): A year ago, much of what was written above could have been written about Newgarden. Young and with a ton of talent, Josef took his lumps last year as he figured out what racing at this level is all about. Year 2 should be much better, if he can begin finishing races and consistently running in the Top 10, you can call it a success. You can say the same for many of the young drivers in this series, but once it clicks, watch out. His Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team has really stepped up its game, and resources, the last couple of seasons, so everything is in place for young Newgarden to take a big jump up the pylon.

Simon Pagenaud (No. 77): Simon was a nice surprise in a lot of ways last year. Despite being disadvantaged as a single-car entry, Pagenaud rolled to a P5 finish in points, posting three podiums and showing he was a quick study on ovals, a discipline on which he had never raced prior to arriving at Indy last year. He is on EVERYONE'S list to win a race this year (including mine), and with a teammate in Vautier he has another resource to gather information, which should only add to his chances. He is by far the best driver who doesn't work for Ganassi, Andretti or Penske.

Simona de Silvestro (No. 78): Time to bring back the Simona! moniker when talking about de Silvestro, who has been a complete professional in dealing with the heaps of crap that have been thrown her way the last couple of years. Now with a teammate in Tony Kanaan for the first time and a Chevy engine compliments of her new team in KV Racing, it's Simona's opportunity to show she is capable of doing what we think she can. But on the flip side, now it's time for her to show what she can do...and the pressure that comes with that. Two years ago she started 2011 with a P4 at St. Pete and a P9 at Barber, then saw her career stall after a couple of accidents later that year and then the (s)Lotus engine that made last year pretty much a waste. Can she get back to what we saw at the start of 2011? She has what she needs at her disposal now.

Charlie Kimball (No. 83): Kimball was another driver that had a roller coaster year in 2012. Through Belle Isle, Kimball had ridden to four finishes of P8 or better, then drove the wheels off of the car to pick up his first career podium in the form of a P2 at Toronto. In between were seven finishes of 18th or worse. Kimball is very fortunate to have a supportive sponsor in Novo Nordisk, but as I mentioned about Graham Rahal, doesn't seem to get as much help with Ganassi B as he should. I don't think Kimball is ever going to be a superstar by any means, but he has the stuff to be a solid driver in the right situation. Even where he is now, he should finish better than his P19 finish in the standings from a year ago.

Alex Tagliani (No. 98): One of the other benefits of writing this in car number order is that I get to end with Tags, who is probably just a step or two below Tony Kanaan in pure on (and off) track entertainment, and drives from one of the teams that best engages social media in the series. So if from all of that you feel like you are friends with Alex despite never meeting him, don't fret...I do too. Anyway, like all teams saddled with the Lotus last year, he got off to a dreadful start that was so bad that his Bryan Herta Autosport team didn't even make the trip to Brazil for the Sao Paulo race. But once with the Chevy, their season took off and he became a Top 10 machine, posting eight of them through the final 10 races. He is one of those streaky drivers that can put together a couple of poles and be a threat to win a race at any time. And believe it or not, this weekend will represent the start of his 14th year in American open wheel racing.

OK, so my summary of the drivers is in the book. What's next? Predictions of course! Check back here soon for my thoughts as to how the season is going to go down.

Monday, March 18, 2013

2013 Season Preview Part 1

Well, fellow IndyCar fans, the season is finally here. It's race week! Time to turn the page and start focusing on what is to come. It should be a good one, but we should expect that because over the last couple of years the competition level has begun ramping itself up, and with more knowledge and experience with the DW12 in their back pockets, the teams and drivers should put on some good shows this year.

This 2013 edition of the IndyCar schedule features 19 races on 16 race weekends -- with doubleheaders going down at Belle Isle, Toronto and Houston -- in three countries and two continents. The drivers will run 10 races on street circuits, six on ovals and three on natural road courses.

Along with the doubleheaders, new to the series will be standing starts for one race on each twinbill location, the reincarnation of the Triple Crown, which gives $1 million to the driver that wins Indy, Pocono and Fontana ($250K to win two of the three) and a new scoring system that graduates the points down from 18th-place on back instead of awarding those drivers the same points, which I think could make a difference come October.

So what is in store? It's always anyone's guess as the title chase has come down to the final race over each of the last several seasons. I mean, a year ago, did anyone think Ryan Hunter-Reay had a shot at the title? Me either, but guess who is carrying the No. 1 on his car?

I'm going to go through the entire roster of drivers (and if I miss one help me out) over the next few days, and throw out a few bits about all of them. In the sense of fairness, I will run through the field by order of car number.

Ryan Hunter-Reay (Car No. 1): OK, there is no sense of fairness. I'm going by car number order so I can start with RHR, our defending champion, and also because he did the way cool, old school thing of putting numero uno on his car this season. I think big things have always been predicted of RHR, but he struggled for so long with funding and other issues and never got a chance to show what he could really do. Did the four wins and a title get your attention? Actually, it goes even further back than that as he's been one of the best in the series since the middle of the 2011 season. Now comes the hard part: backing it up. Still, he's with an elite team with a fellow title contender in James Hinchcliffe as a teammate to push him. This just might be the start.

AJ Allmendinger (No. 2): So far, Allmendinger will only be in a Penske machine for two races: Barber and Indy, but it sounds like they are trying to get him more. He didn't blow anyone away during the Barber test, finishing in the middle of the pack, so if he can get more races under his belt we could get a better idea of whether or not his return to open wheels will be a successful one.

Helio Castroneves (No. 3): A year ago at this time, I had pretty much written off Helio after he often looked lost while spending the first third of the 2011 season hitting everything in sight before ultimately finishing 11th in the standings. He quickly proved me (and many others) wrong by winning the opener at St. Pete and finishing third at Barber on his way to a fourth-place showing in points. I'll never make that mistake again! He was scary consistent last year, with nine finishes of sixth or better, including three podiums. Lesson learned...write Helio off at your own peril!

JR Hildebrand (No. 4): Hildebrand had one of those up and down years that eventually led to finishing 11th in points in 2012. Still, it was three spots better than 2011 and he set a career-best for Top 10 finishes with six. It looked like he was going to finish last year on a high note as he led 52 laps and dominated the first quarter of the race at Fontana, then brushed the wall and finished two laps down. He is slowly improving and just needs more time. Hildebrand has run just 34 IndyCar races, which in the current series puts him at a huge experience disadvantage compared to many in the field. He's only 25 and appears to have a solid commitment to his future from Panther Racing. Time is on his side.

EJ Viso (No. 5): I wish Viso had the same level of talent as my favorite racer to carry that number (Speed Racer of course, don't laugh, it was a big part of my childhood for a while) but I guess we shall see how he fares racing for Andretti Autosport in 2013. That all depends on whether you view EJ Viso as someone who is ready to break out or a guy whose career (and ride) are propped up by the Venezuelan government. I'm somewhere in between...given the right situation Viso could improve, we'll just see if this is the right situation.

Sebastian Saavedra (No. 6): After struggling at the IndyCar level in 2011, Saavedra dropped back down to Indy Lights last year and captured four podiums -- including a win at Barber -- on his way to finishing fourth in the points. The good news is that earned him a promotion to Dragon Racing and a ride this year. The bad news is that a big cloud hangs over that team now given the way things were handled for the previous driver of the No. 6, Katherine Legge. It's not Saavedra's fault, he is just the driver, and if he can carry the mojo up from his run in Lights last year he might have a decent season.

Sebastien Bourdais (No. 7): After being an absolute badass in Champ Car, winning 31 races and four consecutive titles, Bourdais has become sort of an enigma in IndyCar, as many people are waiting for him to return to that form again. He's shown flashes of doing exactly that, but just hasn't had many opportunities as he has only run 21 IndyCar races in the last four years, and the first four of 2012 were with the Lotus engine. Still, a couple of his drives with the Lotus -- especially his ninth-place finish at Barber last year -- are the stuff of legend and showed that he still has plenty in the tank. He just needs more chances, which he will get this year, and a little bit of luck, which was pretty non-existent in 2012.

Rubens Barrichello (No. 8): OK, I know Rubens will not be back this season after choosing to run stock cars in his native Brazil. However, I am putting him in this space just for the express purpose of saying that his not running IndyCar this year is an absolute travesty, and should've been fixed long ago. Get him in a car for Indy...please!

Scott Dixon (No. 9): What can you say about this guy. He's an absolute machine. Let's just make it easy and pencil him in for a couple of wins and at worst a Top 3 finish in the points standings. It's what this guy does. What does that mean? Bad things for the rest of IndyCar.2013 marks his 11th year in the series, and in seven of the previous 10 he has finished the season in the top three. I don't see that changing anytime soon. One of the most underrated drivers in history, it won't be until about 10 years after he retires will most people figure out how good he was.

Dario Franchitti (No. 10): When I look at Dario's potential for 2013, I see a bit of a mixed bag. Last year he won Indy then came back with poles at Milwaukee and Iowa before finishing strong with a second at Fontana. In between was a lot of muddling and a tough go at adapting to the DW12. How high is the bar for this guy? A 7th-place finish in points makes people wonder if we are seeing the beginning of the end of his career. Knowing what we now know about his personal life, you have to wonder if that had something to do with his off year. Having been through it myself, I'd have to say yes, because stuff like that doesn't unravel overnight. The guy is 16 months removed from his last championship, there is no way anyone loses it that quickly. Like Helio in 2012, I see a big bounce back for Dario this year.

Tony Kanaan (No. 11): Like TK usually does, he was all over the map last year, posting three podiums (including a third at Indy where he made the restart of the Millennium) and five finishes of 18th or worse. His biggest problem last year was in qualifying, as he had some dreadful starting positions in which he was unable to recover. Now running with a teammate in Simona de Silvestro, the hope here is that two people sharing info will help both of them start closer to the front, because once he got there, as always he ran well. Sunday's race will be the 197th consecutive open wheel start of TK's career, a pretty massive accomplishment.

Will Power (No. 12): We will close Part 1 with Willy P, who has all of the sudden become the best driver in the world to not have a championship. Seriously! In 2012, Power went into the final race of the year in the title hunt (Playoffs!?! We don't need no stinking playoffs!!!) for the third straight season. And for the third straight season, he fell short after hitting the turn 2 wall at Fontana right in front of fellow contender Hunter-Reay. What is it going to take for WP to capture the championship in 2013? It's pretty simple: a better performance on ovals. Power scored 379 points on twisties, which was 79 more than RHR, but then posted just 86 on the ovals, a smelly19th-best in the series. As a comparison, James Jakes scored as many points on ovals than Power did last year. Some people never adapt to ovals (I'm not sure if Bourdais will, either) and Power might be one of them. But until he can at least figure out how to keep his car in one piece and just roll to consistent Top 10 finishes, he may not ever win a title. Or maybe that is the equalizer to the rest of the field, because as good as he is on twisties, if he ever even remotely figures out ovals, he runs away with it.

Look for Part 2 later this week. We're getting closer...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Spring Training Report

Can it really be that we are just a little over a week away from the IndyCar opener at St. Pete? There were times over the winter that I thought that day would NEVER arrive. Please, IndyCar, fix this. Please.

Anyway, we got a little bit of a taste of what's to come this season over the course of the last two days as everyone participated in the Spring Training test at Barber Motorsports Complex in Alabama. And if the total of 2,833 laps the drivers put in over that span says anything, it's that we might be in for a heck of a season.

Of course, Will Power showed again that he is the Twistie King, dropping a best lap of 1:07.1329, just about a quarter-second faster than James Hinchcliffe. The other notable thing about that time is it is 2.3 seconds faster than Power's two-year-old track record.

Eventually, 25 of the 27 drivers who tested this week went under Power's mark of 1:09.4557. Wow. It looks like the engineers took full advantage of the off-season, and there was a new tire compound in play as well.

So Hinchcliffe was second overall, Justin Wilson third, Tony Kanaan was fourth and defending champ Ryan Hunter-Reay was fifth. Scott Dixon, Takuma Sato, Charlie Kimball, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud completed the top 10. Overall the top 10 drivers (representing seven different teams) were separated by just under .7 seconds and the engine battle was split evenly, with five Chevys and five Hondas in the mix.

It's obvious that parity rules, and that is a good thing. Sure, it's probable that Penske, Andretti Autosport and Ganassi will win the majority of the races -- and the championship -- as the talent (and resources) rises to the top, but at the same time it won't be a gimme by any means, neither will it be a surprise when one of the other teams rides a hot weekend to a win.

Need more proof? How about this: the top 16 cars were separated by just about one second, and there were several drivers, most notably Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais, who for one reason or another struggled over the two days but will be ready when it gets real in St. Pete next week.

Simona de Silvestro showed she could be a factor now that she has a car with power, and while I won't predict a win for her this year -- although look for Tony Kanaan to visit victory lane at least once this year -- a couple of podiums is a very distinct possibility. Rookie Tristan Vautier held his own in the middle of the pack, but the big surprise was Dario Franchitti, who could manage just the 15th-best combined time over the two days. His 2012 season got off to an awful start and he needs to avoid that from happening again.

I will be working on a driver-by-driver season preview, so look for more info from the test and my crystal ball predictions for 2013 in the coming days.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

On Dinger, Hornish and Hamlin

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway held a presser Friday, which was attended by Penske's Tim Cindric, Izod head guy Mike Kelly and driver AJ Allmendinger. The trio announced that Allmendinger will drive for Penske Racing and carry Izod colors (and the No. 2 by the way) at the Indianapolis 500 and next month's race at Barber Motorsports Park.

As I mentioned a while back, I'm pretty positive about this news, for nothing else than it adds another quality driver to the IndyCar fold. No doubt Allmendinger can wheel a single-seater very, very well, and his lap times in his test at Sebring last month weren't far behind teammates Helio Castroneves and Will Power.

His talent, coupled with the resources at his disposal, make him a guy to watch this season. One thing I doubt is that in the end this will be just a two-race deal, or will be just for 2013. It sounds to me like the race at Barber (and Long Beach has been mentioned as well) is a tryout for other events, and if he does well at Indy, adding ovals like Texas, Pocono and Fontana won't be a big deal given he has raced at those tracks in Cup.

I listened to the presser online and was impressed with much of what was said, and I especially appreciated Dinger's candor when responding to questions about his failed drug test last year. He screwed up, and he knows it -- the best thing to do is move forward and try to keep focused on the future, which is all we can control.

I don't know the length of Dinger's drug use -- for all we know it may have been the one-time thing he describes. But as the son of someone who had his battles with alcohol (but was sober the last 28 years of his life), I try to give peeps the benefit of the doubt if they man up and accept responsibility for their actions. It's actually something I will forever respect my dad for doing. Once he got hold of his problems and refocused his life he became a really amazing man.

Allmendinger sounds excited to tackle IMS in an IndyCar, and could do well. I know the money in NASCAR is hard to turn down (I saw one report where while driving for Red Bull he was making at least $3 million a year), but open wheel might be where it's at for him. He can make a legacy in open wheel racing, and in Cup, not so much. Hopefully this signals a shift in his career back to IndyCar and not just a stopgap measure to repair his image so he can return to Cup down the road.

Of course, the 800-pound gorilla in the room was that if Dinger got a ride with Penske, using Izod sponsorship, why not Ryan Briscoe? Trust me, I wondered the same thing, especially when Cindric said that Roger Penske's loyalty means that "once you are in the family, you are in the family".

Curt Cavin clarified that in his Indy Start piece, and it's what I suspected. This was in principle the deal offered Briscoe and he and his agent felt they had better opportunities out there. It's clear that leaving was Briscoe's decision, he wasn't pushed out the door. While I feel bad that his chances for a ride have dried up, it was a calculated risk on his part, and it didn't work out. He will get a one-off for the 500 for sure, so we will see him in a car this year.

For Briscoe, it should be a teaching point. Agents...hire an accountant to manage your money and a lawyer to look over your contracts, and make decisions yourself.

(Sidebar: I went to a reception at a high-end car dealership the other night, and got into a conversation with a sales guy. He said they sell cars to pro athletes, but only if they are dealing with the athlete and not their agent. Hmmm...)

*Speaking of loyalty and hanging in with someone. It's pretty amazing in the competitive world of NASCAR that Penske has been as loyal to Sam Hornish as he has been. After winning the Indy 500 and the last of his three IndyCar championships in 2006, Hornish jumped straight to Cup after the 2007 season, and in three full seasons he could only muster two top-5 finishes and had a best finish of 28th in points.

For many people, that isn't the recipe to keeping your job, but Penske has hung in there as they moved back to the Nationwide Series to try and regroup and build up his confidence. He picked up his first win at Phoenix at the end of the 2011 season, and after finishing fourth in points last year is at the top of the classification three races into 2013 after a dominant win at today's Sam's Town 300 race at Las Vegas.

Sam led 114 laps and easily pulled away from Kyle Busch during the last restart with less than 10 laps to go and now leads Justin Allgaier, Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott by 19 points in the standings. It's a long season, but he has run well on three completely different tracks (Daytona, Phoenix, Vegas) so he just might be in for the long haul.

While I wish he would have stayed in IndyCar, I continue to root for him because he is one of the sports good guys. His attitude and talent are a couple of reasons why Penske has hung with him for so long, and believe it or not, he doesn't turn 34 until later this year, so he still has the chance to make a Cup career out of it.

For some guys it just takes a while. Dale Jarrett, a big favorite of mine, didn't win his first Cup race until he was 34 years old and was 36 when he finished in the top 10 in points for the first time. The next 10 years of his career then became Hall of Fame-caliber. So with a guy of Hornish's talent, you never know if he can somehow pull it all together.

*Denny Hamlin and his $25K fine. Hamlin had the audacity to speak negatively about the Gen-6 car at Phoenix last weekend, and is a little lighter in the seat to show for it. Actually, I found his comments pretty benign, but NASCAR didn't, hence the tax deduction he will get this year.

All Hamlin said was that the car wasn't as good as the Gen-5 car (or Car of Tomorrow, or Flying Brick, or whatever you want to call it) but taken in context he said that everyone understood that it's going to take some time.

Which it will. The Gen-6 is still in its testing phase, and it may be a while before it gets as racy as the fanbase wants it to. But it will. I remember just over a year ago people were gnashing their teeth over the development of the DW-12. How'd that work out for us?

Anyway, I don't agree with the fine. Like many have said before me, if NASCAR (or any other organization) wants to have their athletes show a little color or personality, you give them some leeway to do that. Of any sports organization in the world, NASCAR is the one who tries to control the message as much as possible. Last year I heard a couple of very eye-opening things that NASCAR mandates of many of its media members, and what I heard (I'm not going to violate the trust of the person who told me such things) didn't surprise me.

NASCAR is like the NFL...they are big enough to bite back, and no one wants to get bitten. That would be a poor career choice.

Props to Denny who went around all of the usual PR rabble and posted his own statement on Twitter that basically said, "the fine sucks, I don't know why it happened and I'm not going to pay it". While his fighting spirit is admirable and has won him a lot of new fans, ultimately he will cough up the money.

He isn't going to win this battle, but he did succeed in kicking NASCAR in the shins a little bit, which is kind of fun to watch too.