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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Justin Wilson

2010 was a year of ups and downs for Justin Wilson.

Driving for his third IZOD IndyCar Series team in three years, the British driver looked to improve on his ninth place run in 2009 with Dale Coyne Racing. For 2010, he went to series mainstay Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, forming an all-British pairing with Mike Conway and bringing the Z-Line Designs sponsorship with him. The goal was to make DRR as viable a threat to win on the road courses as they had always been on the ovals.

Wilson had time to gain a rapport with his team early on, as the first four races were road and street events that played to his strengths as a driver. Wilson followed up a third-place qualifying run at Brazil with runner-up finishes at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, placing him fourth in points through four races and establishing him as a dark horse title contender.

Those were the ups. Unfortunately, there was nowhere else to go but down.

Wilson's only respectable oval finish in the second quarter of the season came at the most important event, Indianapolis, where he placed a respectable seventh, leading his first 11 laps of the season. A better summation of his oval fortunes came at Iowa, however, where a first-lap accident with Mario Moraes in turn four ended his day. Wilson had free-fallen to eighth in points, but the twisties were coming up on the schedule again, offering him an important opportunity to ascend the championship table once again.

Consider it a missed opportunity. Wilson could not defend his 2009 victory at Watkins Glen, placing 10th, and struggled at Edmonton to come home 21st. Mid-Ohio was marred by two incidents, one in qualifying with Ryan Briscoe, and another 22 laps into the event with E.J. Viso. His best finish of the second half of the season came at Sonoma, where he ran sixth.

Wilson's fortunes at Toronto probably summed up his year the best. The 2005 winner of the event in Champ Car, Wilson had the field covered in qualifying, taking the pole by nearly two tenths of a second over Will Power. Wilson led much of the race, only surrendering the lead due to alternative pit strategies taken by Paul Tracy, Dario Franchitti, and Tony Kanaan.

A late race caution for Raphael Matos' crash with Viso bunched the field, and Wilson had nothing for a surging Power on the restart. Soon after, a self-induced spin took Wilson out of contention for the win completely. He battled back to finish seventh, but such was his luck for the majority of the season.

Once again, Wilson was a mid-pack driver on the series' ovals, with a seventh at Chicago his final top 10 run of the season. By the time the series made it to the season finale at Homestead, Wilson was down to 10th in points, holding a 22-marker advantage over Danica Patrick. But she finished second in that race as he ran 21st, bumping him down to 11th in points.

Despite falling two spots in the standings from 2009, Wilson scored seven more points than he had last year. The 2010 season wasn't by any means a bad one, but both driver and team expected improvement in the ranks, not stagnation. As such, rumors suggest that Wilson may bolt to another team for 2011, perhaps Panther Racing as it looks to expand. Panther, judging by its late season oval runs, would offer the Brit an even stronger opportunity to place up front on both kinds of tracks.

Regardless, Wilson and whatever team he may drive for in 2011 will once again expect greater results. Wherever he goes, he will run up front and contend for wins on the road and street courses, but unless he can improve on a career-best oval finish of seventh, he may end up in the same position next year.

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