Monday, March 6, 2017

Fearless Predictions, 2017 Edition

Last week I spent over an hour recording a podcast, only to discover 1) I had editing problems and 2) I didn't really like it. While that goes completely against my "garage" sound philosophy, I thought I rambled a bit too much and went off on a few too many tangents.

I know...rambling and tangents. I never do that kind of stuff!

So here I am instead, blogging my 2017 predictions instead of talking about them. Trust me, this version will be just as good.

My first prediction…Simon Pagenaud is going to repeat as the series champion. Out of all of my predictions, I think this is the one that will more than likely happen. After all, ou are talking about a guy who right now is at the absolute apex of his driving abilities and is the perfect Penske driver in that he takes a very measured and methodical approach to his racing. I think he is a lot like Rick Mears in that sense – minus being absolutely omnipotent at Indy – in that he is patient and confident in his abilities and that of the car. Most importantly, the guy just doesn’t beat himself, and that’s what separates him from someone like, say, Will Power, who could probably have at least one more championship if he could keep his head into every race.

If Simon doesn’t win the championship then I could see 7-8 other drivers competing for the title, given how things might develop over the season. I think the big wild card will be how the Hondas perform, and I was reading today that they feel they have made up some ground. Then there the Ganassi factor. I don’t see Chip mailing in this season and hedging on things being better with the new cars next year. He doesn’t work that way. So there is something there that makes me feel like they will figure out a way to close up the gap. That will be something to watch early on this year.

I’m sticking with Penske for my second prediction that Josef Newgarden will win the Indy 500. Yes, I know that totally goes against my normal MO if sticking with one driver until he wins the race, and in this case I have hitched my wagon on the James Hinchcliffe train the last couple of years. But if you want to go on recent performance, it's hard to bet against Newgarden. He qualified second and finished third at IMS last year, and absolutely dominated the Iowa race (with mega props to Ed Carpenter Racing and JR Hildebrand for that). And, since Iowa in 2015 he has five top-4 finishes on ovals. As tough as he has been on ovals over the last couple of seasons, now he has the resources of Team Penske behind him. How can he not be the favorite?

If I had to pick a darkhorse in the title mix, I'm going with Carlos Munoz. AJ Foyt racing made the switch to Chevy this year, which is huge, and I thought Carlos did a nice job last year with Andretti, all things considered. I also think he's in the position to take the next step in his career. One metric I’ve always look at with a driver is where they stand after about 50 races. A lot of drivers, like Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe for example, or even Simon, have shown a real uptick in their careers once they hit that 50-race threshold.

Of course there are several reasons for that, including working their way up the ladder in terms of competitive teams, and learning what it takes to contend on a weekly basis in such a competitive series, but if you research it, there is just something with that number. Sunday will mark Munoz' 54th career start, so I’m guessing an uptick will be coming from him as well.

Not only that, when you look at Foyt, one of the things that sticks out to me the last couple of years is that they seem to be really getting it together on the business side of things thanks to Larry Foyt, but you really have to go back to almost 2011 and Vitor Meira to find a really good full-time driver in that stable. Not to bash on Takuma Sato, but if you are looking to contend for a championship, he’s not your guy, and let's not even get started on Jack Hawksworth. But now the team has two good drivers in Munoz and Conor Daly, so everything seems to be pointing up for that team.

It's hard to call it a comeback because he's been here for years, but I look for JR Hildebrand to completely resurrect his career this year.  I’ve written and talked a lot about JR in the past as I think he got dealt a bit of a bad hand a couple of years ago and I respect how hard he has worked to make his way back. 

I don’t really subscribe to the whole “we need Americans in IndyCar” sort of thing, but we need drivers like JR. He’s smart, he’s articulate, he’s good with the media, and he brings a cool storyline given his background in engineering and some of the other things he’s done outside of racing. I think it would behoove the series and their media partners to start pushing a few different people, and he is one of them. He’s fast on ovals, we all know that, and if he has improved his road course skills at all he has a shot to have a very solid, successful season.

Of course, if you are talking a comeback, you also have to make mention of Marco Andretti, who was just absolutely awful last year, finishing in the top 10 only twice and coming home 16th in the points.
The thing is, and this is where we reach the real talk segment of the program, I am starting to wonder if he can make a comeback. 

This is a guy who has five podiums over the last four years and hasn’t won a race since the middle of 2011. I don’t think this is a talent thing, or an engineering thing, or even a who calls his races thing. I think it’s totally in the six inches between his ears. Marco just constantly puts way too much pressure on himself, and I think his confidence has taken a hit the last couple of years. 

He drives well at Indy because he’s always driven well at Indy and fully believes he’s going to win there someday, which is highly likely to happen. But he’s a mess on so many of the other tracks, and instead of going out and just driving he puts more pressure on himself and makes it harder for him to do his job. 

Granted, when a driver the caliber of Ryan Hunter-Reay finishes 12th in points, you’ve pretty much had a breakdown in your organization. But at the same time, RHR mustered up three podiums and Munoz two, and of course Alexander Rossi won the 500 with Munoz finishing second. So it wasn’t all bad for the rest of the drivers, except for Marco. 

The brutal reality is that next week he will make his 170th IndyCar start, and in that span has finished in the Top 10 in only half of those races. Add to that he turns 30 this year and this is a make or break year for him. The only problem is that he knows that as well, and instead of using the pressure to motivate him and to drive with confidence, I think that he might shrink from it instead.

OK, don't laugh at this last one, but one driver I think who will be vastly improved this year is Alexander Rossi. Hear me out though. As far as a rookie goes, Rossi had a very good season, I mean, any season is great when you add an Indy 500 win to your resume. But outside of Indianapolis, he had a very ordinary rookie-like campaign, which was kind of expected. I think it says a lot about this series that when you take a guy with Rossi’s resume and look at a few of the tough weekends he had this season.

What's interesting is that Rossi had some difficulties on the road courses, and that was something he admitted kind of frustrated him. We know he is good on ovals – he ran well at Phoenix, was fast all month at Indy, finished sixth at Iowa and was running well at Pocono when he was involved in that bizarre incident in the pits, and he should be much improved on the road courses now that he has seen them. This year he knows the tracks, has developed a great relationship with his team, and has an influx of money and resources. With that in mind I think he’s poised to be somewhere in the Top 8 in points and on the podium several times this season. Best of all I think he is in IndyCar to stay, which is a 180 degree turnaround from this time last year.

Isn't it the craziest of turnarounds, though? It was 51 weeks ago that I wrote my I Hate Alexander Rossi column, and now the guy is an Indy 500 champion and is slowly becoming a more popular person in the series. He's talented, he's humble and he gets it now, See, everything has a way of working out, doesn't it?

So here we go with 2017. I'll be heading to Florida on Tuesday and staying with my mom for a couple of days before the USF2000 stuff starts on Thursday, then I'll have my Ray Rayner* hat on for the rest of the week. Can't wait!

Editor's note: Ray Rayner hosted a morning kids' TV show on WGN in Chicago in the 1960s-70s, which I would watch before school. He had a hat that was a Cubs had on one side and a White Sox hat on the other, and he would turn it to one or the other when he talked about the previous days' game. That's kind of me and the whole PR-15DIM thing.

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