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Thursday, October 7, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Ryan Briscoe

The championship-run hangover hit Ryan Briscoe hard.

Of the five IZOD IndyCar Series cars campaigned by iconic owners Chip Ganassi and Roger Penske, Briscoe brought up the rear of the field for the second time in three years. It was a far cry from 2009, when Briscoe scored over 600 points and had a solid spectacular lead with as few as two races to go.

In 2010, Briscoe scored over 100 fewer points to finish a distant fifth in the standings, 120 back of eventual champion Dario Franchitti.

This season started off with a Briscoe brain fade, much like the Motegi pit error in 2009 that eventually cost him the championship. In Sao Paulo, Briscoe held the lead before failing to negotiate a corner and stuffing the car into a barrier. From there, he began to recover in the standings, inching up to seventh in points before the Indianapolis 500.

There, Briscoe had a great chance to win his first Indianapolis 500 and redeem himself from two years of poor finishes with Team Penske. An alternate pit strategy put him in position to steal the win from Franchitti. Another brain fade - pushing the car too hard on cold tires - saw him in the wall with his second DNF in three years.

From the season's biggest lowlight came its greatest highlight - a victory at Texas over de facto rival Danica Patrick. It led to a run of five races with finishes of fourth or better, and saw him climb to as high as fourth in the season point standings after the Sonoma race. Granted, it wasn't 2009, when Briscoe finished second or better 10 times in the final 13 races, and the rumors that Briscoe would lose his job at Penske after the season began to fly.

Despite leading the most laps at Chicago, luck was not on Briscoe's side, as he could only muster an 11th place finish. A DNF at Kentucky allowed teammate Helio Castroneves to pass him for fourth in points and let Ryan Hunter-Reay close the gap on fifth place to 14 points with two races left in the season.

Not wanting to be the only Penske driver to fall outside of the top five, Briscoe stepped up his game in the final two races, becoming one of only two drivers other than Castroneves to lead any of the Motegi race and making things as difficult for Franchitti as possible at Homestead, in hopes that teammate Will Power could come away with the title. In both of those races, he placed fourth, cementing a his top five position in the standings.

2010 wasn't as difficult as Briscoe's debut season at Penske; he only had two DNFs, fewer than most drivers in the series and as many as Scott Dixon and Castroneves, the two men directly ahead of him in the standings. But brain fades on track and Twitter wars off it generated the perception that Briscoe was in danger of losing his ride. The team says he is safe for 2011, but with an employer as used to winning as Roger Penske, strong results next season will be crucial for the Aussie.

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