Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Cream of the Crop, 2014 (And A Fontana Wrap)

So here we are, at the end of another IndyCar season. I have to say, I expect to wake up tomorrow and see some frost on the ground, since it's getting to that time of year.

Wait? You mean to tell me the season ended on August 30? It's only September? And the next race is seven months away? Darn it! Well, at least that means you get to see me pontificate about a bunch of stuff between now and then.

But seriously. While I'm disappointed to see the season end now and dread the long off-season ahead, it is what it least this year. Look, like or not, IndyCar falls off of most people's radars by now. Football is king, even more so than a generation ago when the series stretched into November. Obviously, going against football (and the chase) isn't seen as a profitable venture to the powers-that-be. Now, some might say "well, NASCAR does it!"

Well of course they do, because they are a multi-billion dollar entity that is just below football in terms of popularity. And while I think they are mostly just a huge paper tiger (maybe I'll delve into that someday), they have money, resources and influence to call the shots the way they want to. IndyCar does not. So while I know that the Boston Consulting Group is the butt of a lot of jokes (and deservedly so), I think they got this one right. Until the series consistently draws over a million viewers a race, getting stomped on football weekends isn't smart.

My hope -- HOPE -- is that over the course of the next several years the series can find good business partners who will be willing to put together an 8-9 month schedule that features 20-plus races on a national TV network. Then maybe we can think about taking on some of the big boys.

As a Cubs fan, I live by the mantra "It's going to happen!" (and it is, the tsunami is coming), and I believe that in IndyCar as well.

So anyway, what a night we had on Saturday! We crowned a new champion, saw a popular winner and gave the series the kind of sendoff for the year it deserves. So while I wrapped up the bottom half of the standings already, I'll cover the top half here, as well as sprinkle in some good cheer about Fontana.

Champion: Will Power (671 points). Talk about it's going to happen! After watching WP cough up a championship over each of the last couple of years, he finally closed the deal, finishing the season with three wins and four poles. Go back a couple of months when he was doing something boneheaded every weekend, and I didn't think it was going to happen this year, either. But he kept his head over the last few events -- despite things not always going his way -- and with a new found confidence on ovals, looks like he's set up to maybe go on a run over the next several seasons. Some pro athletes are just born winners, and some have to figure it out as they go along...but once they do, they become scary good. Power fits into that latter category, and at age 33 he's poised to take his career to a higher place.

Runner-up: Helio Castroneves (609 points). Talk about a little deja vu. Once again, Helio gets on the precipice of winning his first title and he gets turned away. I've always considered Helio one of the best closers in the business, but this is one that he can't seem to seal the deal. But then again, you don't deserve it when you finish the season P12, P19, P11, P18 and P14 -- which includes a penalty for a pit road violation. Like last year Castroneves seems as motivated as ever to get it done, but you wonder what it's going to take to finally get him that title that has eluded him his entire career. Then again, which carries more weight, an IndyCar title or four Indy 500 wins? I think he will get number four, which I believe he could live with. I know I could!

3rd: Scott Dixon (604 points). With a runner-up finish at Fontana and an amazing run to close out the season, Dixon (and Target Chip Ganassi Racing) showed that they have fixed whatever was wrong through the first half of the season. From Pocono on, he threw up two wins, three total podiums and seven Top 5 finishes in the final eight races. With that he locked in a Top 3 finish in the points for the eighth straight season.

People, the man is now certified as a legend in the making. His win at Sonoma was the 34th of his career, tying him with Bobby Unser for fifth all-time. The only people that sit in front of him are AJ Foyt (67), Mario Andretti (52), Michael Andretti (42) and Al Unser (39). That's it. I think it took a lot of people a long time to appreciate his talents (yes, I'm very much in that group), but 20 years from now those of us who got to see him race will be happy to have had the opportunity.

4th: Juan Pablo Montoya (586 points). I'm going to say it again...I dig this guy (and given he won Most Popular Driver, others do too). Never thought I would, but I do. His fourth-place finish Saturday night gave him Top 5 finishes in all of the oval races except for Iowa, and was his seventh Top 5 of the year. If JPM could've done better than a P21 at Long Beach and P18 and P19 on the Toronto weekend, he's in the championship equation. JPM is one of those guys that when he is on the track you can't help but watch him a lot. He's just crazy, crazy good, and proved that he wasn't just back in IndyCar for giggles. Even at 38, the dude still has a lot left in the tank.

5th: Simon Pagenaud (565 points). Simon came into Fontana hoping that if things went well he could steal the title, but instead he crashed in testing and finished 20th in the race with an ill-handling car. I feel like Simon is where Power was a couple of years ago -- an absolute threat to win on any twisty on the planet, but just not as skilled on ovals as he needs to be, especially now that double points are at stake. He's good on ovals, but not great, and it's getting to that next level that will give him a shot at the Astor Cup. Still, he's done a fantastic job with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports the last two years, and if he moves to Andretti Autosport as expected in 2015, that next level might be waiting.

6th: Ryan Hunter-Reay (563 points). For the second straight year, RHR proved how absolutely much things need to go your way to win a championship. A win at Indy made his career, of course, and he also finished first at Barber and Iowa -- the latter one of the best moments of  2014 -- but he also had a dreadful weekend in Detroit (where he crashed twice) and at Milwaukee a suspension problem when he was moving up through the field all but wrecked his championship hopes, just as some bad luck hit him in 2013. He will win another title someday, so long as his luck turns for the better!

7th: Tony Kanaan (544 points). In my Milwaukee wrap-up I made mention of how cool it would be if TK could wrap up the season with a win at Fontana, and he did just that. And yes, it was cool. We just saw it coming, didn't we? Pocono looked to be a lock until he had to pit for fuel, he dominated at Iowa until RHR passed him at the end, posted two podiums at Toronto and finished third at Milwaukee. What's so incredible to believe is that outside of his win at Indy in 2013, you have to go back to Iowa in 2010 to his last victory. This one was a while in coming. Since 2009, TK has only finished in the top 5 in points once, does he have one more run in him in 2015?

8th: Ed Carpenter/Mike Conway (514 points). I know what you are saying..."wait a minute, wasn't Carlos Munoz eighth in points?" Yes he was, but I thought it wouldn't give these two guys the justice they deserved if I had put them 22nd and 23rd in points, which was where they respectively finished. Splitting the duties between the ovals (Ed) and the twisties (Mike), the duo posted three wins -- Texas for Carpenter, Long Beach and Toronto 2 for Conway -- and Carpenter also capture the pole at Indy for the second straight year. In my season preview I facetiously picked these two to combine for the title, but in the end they did a heckuva job. I hope Conway comes back to the combined ECR/SFHR team, because with those two and Josef Newgarden joining in on the action, they might be really, really good.

8th: Carlos Munoz (483 points). OK, here's where I give props to the true 8th-place finisher, and our series Rookie of the Year. Munoz posted three podiums and once again was impressive at Indy, where he finished fourth. I love watching the guy drive at Indy, he has a style all his own that will probably cash in for him someday. Like most young drivers, he had his ups and downs during the season, and consistency (he also had four finishes of P22 or worse) was not his friend. Still, he's only 22 and in the new era of IndyCar this kind of stuff takes time. Still, 22 races into his career and I'm sure Michael Andretti is very, very happy with what he has in this guy.

9th: Marco Andretti (463 points). In the same vein as what I posted yesterday about Graham Rahal, you just wonder when (or if) Marco is ever going to have the breakout season everyone hopes he might. But after nine years and close to 150 races, I think this is who he is. And that's not a bad thing because being one of the 8-10 best drivers in the IndyCar series is nothing to look down at. Still, we expect more. I actually thought Marco raced well at times this year, but he had some awful results in qualifying and had to dig himself out of some holes that were at times probably a bit too deep. I do think he's going to win Indy someday -- he gets closer every year -- and is still only 27 years old, and maybe growing and maturing some more might help. In the end, I think Marco is his own worst enemy, he is too hard on himself at times and more than anything I think that is what gets in his way a lot.

10th: Sebastien Bourdais (461 points). It was good to finally see Seabass get his first win (at Toronto 1) and capture two poles. Having not been a Champ Car fan (I know, the horror!) I have a harder time putting Seb's career into perspective, but it seems like he gets more and more comfortable in IndyCar with each passing race, and I don't think we have seen his best just because he's mostly run on single-car teams. Yeah, I know he has had Sebastian Saavedra the last two years, but is he really a teammate or just a guy who happens to be on your team? (Yes those are two different things) Still, he surprised the heck out of me with his seventh-place finish at Indy -- I wondered if he would ever finish in the Top 10 -- and found a little more footing on the road/street courses as the season went on. I don't know if he will ever get good enough on ovals to move up the classification, but he's an asset to the series.

So there you have it! If you go back to my predictions post from earlier in the year, I wasn't as good with my prognostications as I had been in the past. Still, I think I got one thing right on this prediction, and I quote:

"I dunno, but something tells me this could be a huge season for IndyCar."

I nailed it! It was a great season, and I think 2015 will be even better.

Final Standings: 11-21

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!