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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Opinion: Andretti Going Out on a Limb for 2011 and Beyond

Ryan Hunter-Reay chose to break the news on Twitter.

"Thanks to all of you! Very happy to continue with a great team. Lots of work to do now, we're up for it," Hunter-Reay tweeted to his nearly 10,000 followers, after signing a two-year deal to remain in the IZOD IndyCar Series with Andretti Autosport, the team that picked him up at the beginning of this season.

Hunter-Reay will look to improve on a 2010 season that saw a victory in the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and a career-best seventh place points finish. To that end, he will spend time testing at Barber Motorsports Park for the next couple of days. "Testing in October is a first for me," he joked, referring to his longtime career path of signing one-year contracts just before the season's start.

But as Andretti retains one of its top two drivers from the previous season, the other one says farewell. After eight years spent driving the No. 11 7-Eleven Dallara-Honda, Tony Kanaan will say goodbye to the team. Kanaan leaves behind a record of 14 wins, over 100 top-10s, and the 2004 IndyCar championship.

Kanaan was, for the past few years, the undisputed leader of the four-car Andretti brigade, at least as far as seniority was concerned. His help with car setups proved immensely valuable to his teammates, and he is perhaps the best mid-pack starter in the sport, frequently passing half a dozen cars on the first lap after subpar qualifying runs.

This year, however, was an unpleasant one to say the least for the Andretti brigade. After a winless 2009 season, an offseason restructuring was designed to strengthen Andretti's racing operations. The team scored two wins, but as had happened for the past few years, driver infighting threatened to tear the team apart.

The Andretti dream team of 2005 they were not. Kanaan, Marco Andretti, and Danica Patrick once again proved that they were an unstable combination prone to feuding on the track and off. Kanaan's frustrations with Patrick - and vice versa - were well-documented all season. Only Hunter-Reay really managed to keep out of the mess and go about his business while maintaining solid relationships with all of his teammates.

That's why he's back for 2011 and beyond. Unfortunately for Kanaan, he became a victim of the money in racing. Despite being the bottom two performers on the Andretti team, Patrick and Andretti have two of the biggest sponsorship contracts in the sport tied to them.

Hunter-Reay, like Kanaan, went into the offseason with no sponsorship, with both of their 2010 primary backers shifting their marketing dollars to Patrick's car, allowing them greater exposure at a lower price. But at a similar level of performance and assumedly a much lower price, Hunter-Reay was easier to retain.

Therefore, it was easy to figure out whose $3 million contract was going to be terminated.

Now Kanaan becomes the most coveted open-wheel free agent in years. Just about every mid-level team in the sport is looking at him with designs on how he can take him to the next level. Kanaan is a warrior that knows how to set up a racecar, weave through traffic, and take a car to the end. Plenty of teams would love to have him to mentor their young drivers.

He'll be in IndyCar in 2011, undoubtedly. KV Racing Technology has two fully-sponsored seats open for next year, carrying the Lotus backing, and after this season's crashfest, owner Jimmy Vasser would certainly love to have a driver that doesn't tear up equipment in one of his cars. Brazilian countryman and Kanaan's former CART rival Gil de Ferran, who leads de Ferran Dragon Motorsports, would love to have Kanaan to mentor another young Brazilian, Raphael Matos, who could really use a teammate. The possibilities go on and on.

The real question is, what will Andretti do without a bona fide lead driver?

Let me rephrase. Performance-wise, Hunter-Reay is lead driver-caliber. He's a proven race winner and will be a championship contender for years to come. But he doesn't quite fit the leader role the way that Kanaan does, in that he's not at the stage of his career where other Andretti drivers are going to look up to him as their mentor. He's been at Andretti the shortest amount of time, for one, and he's also only been in IndyCar about as long as his teammates.

But Andretti doesn't look likely to find a replacement for Kanaan in the fourth car. There is no setup driver anymore. There's one championship-caliber race car driver and two decent drivers that have less than stellar reputations with the IndyCar faithful. Marco still gets criticized from time to time about his level of commitment to the sport. Danica gets it no matter where she turns, especially with her NASCAR experimentation.

Simply put, team owner Michael Andretti has a lot of guts going with the team he has right now for 2011 and beyond.

Perhaps it won't matter. Perhaps with less infighting, the entire team will take its performance up a notch. Kanaan was a different breed of driver than Patrick and Andretti. He was undoubtedly the best driver, statistically speaking, on the team. But he had different expectations and needs than everybody else. Not that those needs were any better or worse intrinsically than those of his teammates, they just didn't mesh.

And perhaps, as the undisputed leader on another team, Kanaan will take somebody else to the upper echelons of the sport, or at least a top-10 spot in the final standings. Maybe Raphael Matos, Mike Conway, or some other up-and-comer will benefit far more from Kanaan's advice and leadership. Maybe they'll be more patient and easier to work with than Patrick and Andretti were.

It's always sad when any sort of long-term relationship ends. But maybe, just this once, things will work out better for both sides. Maybe the current Andretti trio will mesh beautifully. Maybe Kanaan will be more appreciated elsewhere.

And maybe, we'll see one of the best rivalries that IndyCar has had in a long time next year.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Kanaan Officially Out at Andretti

Tony Kanaan and Andretti Autosport announced today that they have agreed to conclude an eight-year relationship in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

In 131 starts with the Andretti team, Kanaan scored 14 IndyCar victories, the most recent coming at Iowa this year. Over that eight year span, Kanaan and Andretti never finished worse than sixth in the season standings, owing to by 102 top 10 finishes and only 18 DNFs.

Their best year together came in 2004, as the pairing won the title. That year, Kanaan won three of the 16 races on the schedule, and scored top five finishes in all but one of the other events (the season opening Homestead race, where he finished eighth).

2007 was another high watermark year in Kanaan's tenure with Andretti, as the pairing scored five victories, more than any other team in the series. Kanaan finished third in the championship standings that year, behind teammate Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

Kanaan remained loyal to Andretti and sponsor 7-Eleven in late 2008, when he spurned Chip Ganassi Racing to remain the driver of the No. 11 for Michael Andretti. Instead, Franchitti, returning from a rough time in NASCAR, took over the second Ganassi car and has won the past two championships.

Meanwhile, things had been rocky at Andretti the past two years, especially for Kanaan. He has had difficulty working with teammates Danica Patrick and Marco Andretti, with issues dating back to 2008. Team owner Michael Andretti has often compared running his team to babysitting feuding children.

This year, Kanaan and Patrick did not get along so well, with the climax coming in a heated battle for second place in the closing laps of this year's finale at Homestead. Patrick won the battle, and then the war - 7-Eleven announced they would be scaling back their IndyCar commitment and moving to Patrick's car as a major associate sponsor, leaving Kanaan without a ride.

Fans have made motions to help, and Kanaan worked to promote for the Mars candy corporation as he drove a Pretzel M&M's-sponsored two-seater at Atlanta Motor Speedway earlier this month, but no sponsors stepped up.

Thus, the second longest-tenured driver and team combo in the sport, behind only Helio Castroneves and Team Penske, has decided to call it quits.

Kanaan's options are plentiful, however. Few drivers are able to win consistently in IndyCar, and Kanaan is one of them. He's one of the most coveted free agent drivers in years, so he's been rumored to join just about every team in the garage that could use a veteran driver to take them to the next level.

KV Racing Technology is looking for a driver that won't tear up equipment; de Ferran Dragon Racing, led by Kanaan's countryman Gil de Ferran, is looking for somebody to mentor Raphael Matos and take him to the next level; Dreyer & Reinbold Racing may be looking to replace Justin Wilson if he departs. All are strong possibilities for Kanaan in 2011 and beyond.

Andretti, meanwhile, will likely let the No. 11 fade away unless a talented pay driver shows up with major sponsorship money. Graham Rahal, one of the few drivers that fits that bill right now, looks poised to join Ganassi in a third car, and few other options have been suggested. It's more likely that Andretti will shrink to a three-car stable, with Patrick, Marco Andretti, and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Interview: Sebastian Saavedra - IndyCar's Next Big Thing

For the past two years, Sebastian Saavedra has been establishing himself as one of the brightest young talents heading up the Road to Indy ladder.

Since coming stateside in 2009, joining the illustrious AFS Racing program in the Firestone Indy Lights Series, Saavedra has posted two wins and two top-10 finishes in the championship, coming third in 2009 and eighth this year. This year's finish was even more remarkable considering the fact that he missed the final two races of the season after leaving Bryan Herta Autosport.

Saavedra made his IndyCar debut in the 2010 Indianapolis 500 for Herta's team, and returned to the series at the end of the year with Conquest Racing. After a strong American debut in 2009, Saavedra spent much of 2010 assembling a strong team of advisors; his new manager in America is longtime IndyCar mechanic and team owner Derrick Walker, while two-time Indianapolis 500 runner-up and Colombian countryman Roberto Guerrero serves as a driver coach.

Saavedra is currently home in Colombia relaxing after a hard-fought 2010 campaign, while also attempting to put together a program that will see him compete for IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year honors in 2011. In between travel obligations, Saavedra agreed to an interview with us, and we're happy to provide the transcript below.


First things first: how and when did you get your start in auto racing?

SS: I started when I was 8 with an uncle who bought me a go-kart. My dad wasn't very into the idea of racing so I needed to wait couple of years before he got the bug. I did the racing school and surprised many heads around so my career started right away here in bogota, colombia.

You’ve taken wins in Formula BMW, Formula 3, and Firestone Indy Lights cars. How do these very different cars compare to one another? Was one type of car easier to drive than the others? Faster?

SS: I would say there's no easy car to drive. They all have their secrets and their way to be driven. Of course the speed changed with each class cause of the HP but they all had their charm. I really enjoyed the F3 as it was the nicest, lightest and with more Down-force.

You drove for Andretti Autosport in 2009 before moving to BHA this year. How were the two teams different from one another? Did you have to work with one team differently than with the other?

SS: They were both very professional teams with a particular goal in hand. Win. As a driver you need to change with the situation and scenery. Andretti was a very interesting experience in every way.

By now everybody knows that your season with Bryan Herta Autosport in Indy Lights did not end as well as either side would have hoped. Can you explain why things went downhill, and how your relationship with the team ended?

SS: The relationship never ended, things happened and were unfortunate. We were more focused on the IndyCar program than Indy Lights and sometimes it hurt but I enjoyed driving for a great driver I followed when i was younger and he gave me the opportunity to do the Indy 500 which I will never forget.

Do you have any regrets about the way that things ended with BHA?

SS: Not at all. This is a very professional bussiness and we both understand the paths we need to take to keep our success. Bryan is an amazing guy with lots of future, maybe not with me.

After that, you worked with Conquest Racing and Derrick Walker for this year’s season finale at Homestead. Were you pleased with the way things went at Homestead? What was it like working with a new team for only one race weekend?

SS: Was by far the nicest experience I've had in a long time. Was very risky as we left it all in the table but thank god all went our way. Conquest Racing gave me the right material and engineering to show all my potential which I'm very thankful. Derrick Walker managing me from now on is a big honor aswell as I admire his working scenario and ethics.

Do some of the things you learned driving in Indy Lights translate to the bigger IndyCars, or are they completely different?

SS: I got to say that the Firestone Indy Lights was the best school possible to move up into the IndyCar. It's very close on the way of driving the cars and gives you a very good idea on how its going to be when you get to the big cars. So yes it does translate many things.

Looking forward to next season, you have said that you will be racing full-time in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Do you have sponsorship lined up already? Can you give us any insight on which team you might be driving for? Are Conquest and Walker options for next year?

SS: Mr. Derrick Walker is not part of Conquest Racing, he is my manager. We are still working very hard on getting the right sponsorship and we have good team options that we are already finishing with but thats as much as I can give you right now ;)

Growing up in Colombia, I’m sure you had some different racing idols growing up than some American drivers did. Who are some of the drivers that have influenced you?

SS: For sure Montoya was one of the big drivers I followed since I started as he put the sport on the map here in Colombia. I've always been a big fan of TK and as I lived in Brasil for cuople of years he became very big for me.

Obviously IndyCar is mostly an American series, so you spend a lot of time in the States during the racing season. How often do you travel home to Colombia during the racing season?

SS: I'm living in Indianapolis the complete season. I like this as I can keep very focused on my gym and engineering. I usually go to Colombia when theres a sponsor event or any important deal going on, so usually I hope to go down a lot. HA

Your management group includes Derrick Walker, and earlier this year you had former Colombian IndyCar driver Roberto Guerrero as a driving coach. How much does it help to have two people with that much experience in IndyCar helping your career along?

SS: It's great to have such an interesting group of people behind me as they give me great confidence with the amount of experience they have to give. Im very pleased on their work and want to continue close together for a long time.

Anything you’d like to tell your fans?

SS: There's something very important I've been giving my fans and its the pleasure of dreaming! When you dream very hard and wish something, with lots of work everything is possible.

Finally, what are your goals for the future? You’ve said that an Indy 500 win is one of your goals, but beyond that, are you looking to go to Formula One someday? Any other championships or races you’d like to win?

SS: F1 for sure is my big goal. Something I've often heard its just too hard to get but my dad has always said.." if it was easy anyone could do it' I go by that principle and work on it. I want to win more than one IndyCar championship and be a positive Colombian figure to follow.


Thanks once again to Seb for agreeing to do the interview, and we at OWA wish him the best of luck in 2011 and beyond. Check out his personal website at http://www.ssaavedra.com, and be sure to follow his Twitter account at @sebsaavedra.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Raphael Matos

Raphael Matos could have used some better luck in 2010.

The 2009 IZOD IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year headed into 2010 looking to continue a three-year streak of winning awards in every series in which he competed. He had won the 2007 Champ Car Atlantic title, and followed that up with the Firestone Indy Lights crown in 2008 before scoring his IndyCar rookie award last year.

One of the hottest young drivers in the sport had a new advisor, as former Indianapolis 500 champion and countryman Gil de Ferran bought into the Luczo Dragon Racing team, renaming it de Ferran Dragon Motorsports in the process. The team also added a limited program for Davey Hamilton, who brought Hewlett-Packard funding to the team full-time. Both driver and team set goals for a top-10 points finish this year after running 13th last year.

Matos opened the season in his native country of Brazil, where he took a career-best fourth place finish, second-best among Brazilian drivers in the event. He followed that up with three laps led and an eighth place run at St. Petersburg, where he had crashed out in 2009. Through the first quarter of the season, Matos maintained ninth place in points, easily within the team's goal for the year.

But next on the schedule were Kansas and Indianapolis, two tracks at which the team had failed to finish in 2009. Matos survived Kansas in 16th place, but for the second year in a row failed to complete the sport's biggest race. Not long after losing a wheel in the pits, Matos slammed the outside wall on lap 73, and his day was done. His crash, combined with Hamilton's first-lap incident, meant the team would scramble to prepare a single car for the next two oval events.

It took a return to the road courses for a reversal in Matos' fortunes, as another fourth-place finish came at Watkins Glen. But Toronto saw an accident with E.J. Viso kill any momentum the team may have had.

Mid-Ohio saw Matos' fourth and final top-10 of the season, as he came home seventh, but the rest of the year wasn't much to write home about. Back-to-back DNFs at Sonoma and Chicago were less than conducive to maintaining his position in points, as he dropped all the way down to 15th in the order. In each of the final three races, the team finished outside the top 15 as well.

When all was said and done, Matos finished 14th in points, despite qualifying no better than 10th all season and producing half the amount of top-10s he had in 2009.

Indeed, declining qualifying performance was a decisive factor in Matos' 22-point decrease from his rookie season. 2009 saw Matos start no worse than 18th, as he qualified in the top 10 seven times for an average of 11.8. This year, Matos started 20th or worse five times, never making it to the Firestone Fast Six as he had in 2009, resulting in a 16.5 average start. His average finish also dropped to 15.7 from 12.8 in 2009.

With the hopeful addition of a full-time teammate and mentor for 2011, Matos' prospects may improve markedly, but only if the team is able to expand and thus retains him. With Tony Kanaan on the market, there have been rumors that Matos may be replaced, as nobody knows the status of Matos' multi-year contract with the team. But the addition of the fellow Brazilian and former IndyCar champion to the team, if in a second car, should help Matos improve as a driver dramatically next season and beyond.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Alex Tagliani

Alex Tagliani spent more of this season racing up front than anybody could have expected.

The Canadian spent the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season with the newly established FAZZT Race Team outfit. While much of the personnel, including former Walker Racing team manager Rob Edwards, had been taken from established teams, their cars had been purchased from Roth Racing, a former series backmarker. Expectations were, therefore, not overly ambitious for the new team.

So it was a surprise, to say the least, when Tagliani opened the season from the outside pole at Sao Paulo.

Unfortunately, through 28 laps of that race, Dan Wheldon got into the back of Tagliani and sent him spinning into the wall. The damage was severe enough to knock Tagliani out of the race, setting an unfortunate trend for the rest of the season: strong, quick runs in qualifying sessions, only to be marred by relatively disappointing finishes.

St. Petersburg and Birmingham gave the team its first top-10 finishes of its short existence, but Tagliani suffered a wrist injury during the Long Beach weekend, crashing out of that race as well. The team would thus head into the first oval segment of the season mired in 14th in points. Expectations were once again low, as the former Champ Car driver had only three oval starts in IndyCar.

But Tagliani and FAZZT shocked and surprised in the next three events. Kansas and Indianapolis alike yielded fifth place qualifying runs, and two more top 10 finishes. At Texas, Tagliani managed to lead 33 laps, although he only came out of the weekend with an 18th place run, finishing three laps down.

From there, unfortunately, the finishes were not particularly strong.

A series of low finishes from Iowa to Toronto was punctuated by a crash coming off a restart at Edmonton, where the Canadian was tagged by Mario Romancini in his final start of the season. The high point of this period was the stylish Hot Wheels livery that Tagliani carried in the two races in his home country; unfortunately, he could not bring home a solid finish in either event after nearly taking the Toronto victory in 2009.

Mid-Ohio broke the streak of subpar finishes. The team's best race of the season saw Tagliani, who had seen bad luck take him out of races all season, finally stick around for the finish. He led a race-high 30 of 85 laps to finish fourth. It would prove to be his only top five finish and final top-10 of the season. Even still, it affirmed the paddock opinion that Tagliani and FAZZT were no pushover, if only their luck could improve a little bit.

From there, the rest of the season was nothing to write home about. Tagliani, who had qualified eighth or better in five of the first six races of the season, only had three top-10 starts from Texas to the end of the season. Four of the final five events yielded finishes between 13th and 15th, with the lone exception a crash out at Chicago. He ended the season 13th in the overall standings, scoring 302 points with five top-10s and four DNFs. He also placed 13th in both the oval and the road course sub-championships.

As far as new teams went in 2010, Tagliani and FAZZT were far and away the best. With sponsorship somewhat stabilized, the team establishing a solid rapport through the growing pains, the potential of a teammate, and Tagliani entering the second of a four-year contract, 2011 should be an even better year for the small all-Canadian outfit. In fact, Tagliani may be primed for his best season since his seventh place run in the 2004 Champ Car World Series.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Vitor Meira

Vitor Meira showed a lot of heart by returning to the IZOD IndyCar Series in 2010.

In 2009, his season was ended prematurely after a major wreck in the Indianapolis 500 broke two vertebrae in his lower back. The Brazilian, who had made 97 career IndyCar starts without a win, was not a lock to return to A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

But the immortal A.J. Foyt, after going through a revolving door of replacements the rest of that season, retained his driver for 2010, hoping once again to put together the team's best season in recent memory. Immediately Meira paid back his owner's loyalty.

Meira scored a third-place finish at Sao Paulo, making him the highest finishing Brazilian driver in his home country. An emotional Meira wore a Brazilian flag on the podium to celebrate. He then led 12 laps in the next event at St. Petersburg, a race he may have won on an alternate pit strategy had it been about ten laps longer.

The rest of the season would not be as quite as strong. Meira fell out of the top 10 in points by Long Beach, but through the first five races of the season managed four top-15 finishes. Indianapolis, once again, proved a struggle, but for different reasons; he qualified a poor 30th and crashed out on the backstretch after 105 laps. Regardless, simply surviving the 500 was a small victory.

The first four ovals marked Meira's strongest period of the season, even with the Indianapolis disappointment; all three other tracks, Kansas, Texas, and Iowa, yielded top-10 runs. Meira was now ranked 12th in points, a position he would generally hold to the end of the season.

Meira spent the next five races, all road course events, in the middle of the pack. A negative sign was that Meira never qualified better than 17th in any of those races; however, in four of those five events, Meira made up at least six spots by the end of the race, and never finished outside of the top 20. His Toronto drive was most impressive; from the last starting spot, he posted his best finish of the third quarter of the season, a respectable 11th.

Next up, Meira led his final six laps of the season at Chicago on his way to a ninth place finish, but an errant move in the next race at Kentucky into a passing Simona de Silvestro ended both of their days and killed his momentum. Meira ended his season with a 17th-place run at Motegi and his sixth top-10 of the year at Homestead, a sixth place effort.

Meira's return to IndyCar yielded a 12th place finish in points, his best result since 2007. He also ranked 12th in the oval championship, to go with a respectable 14th in the road course standings. It wasn't one of his best years in the sport as a driver, nor one of Foyt's best as an owner, but the results give both hope for another, even stronger go-round in 2011.

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.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Danica Patrick

2010 will go down as a year that Danica Patrick would like to forget.

The media darling of the IZOD IndyCar Series emulated a career path chosen by Tony Stewart in 1998, fitting in a handful of stock car races around and in between her primary IndyCar commitments, and both sets of results suffered in 2010. Patrick barely slid into 10th place in points after the season finale at Homestead, marking the first time in her IndyCar career that she failed to improve on the previous season's results.

In 2009, Patrick finished an impressive fifth in the championship, tops among the non-Penske and Ganassi drivers. But the addition of a third Penske car had a lot of pundits confident on who would take the top five spots. Meanwhile, some miserable stock car spots and a restructuring of the new Andretti Autosport team had others wondering if Patrick could keep up her streak of improvements.

It was not to be the case.

Never a shining star on the road courses, Patrick's finishes to begin the season this year were nothing short of abysmal. Twice, in the new events in Sao Paulo and Alabama, she failed to finish on the lead lap. While teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay took victory at Long Beach, she finished a subpar 16th, fighting rookie Simona de Silvestro, who was equipped with a far older and slower car, for the position. Patrick ended the early road course segment of the season 16th in points, her title hopes for the year already all but gone. An 11th place run at Kansas, two laps down, put her more than 100 back of leader Will Power, and that was that.

Greater troubles came in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Patrick had never failed to start worse than 10th in the race until this year, when she could only muster a 23rd place run. On television interviews, Patrick threw her Andretti Autosport crew under the bus, blaming them for an unstable and slow car, to a chorus of boos from the speedway faithful. After apologizing to her crew, who received nothing but praise in most subsequent races, she managed to finish sixth in the event.

The next race at Texas proved to be Patrick's strongest run of the year. She managed to lead a lap, her only lap led all season, but in the end fell just over a second short of rival Ryan Briscoe's pace. The run had some suggesting that Patrick's season, while not championship-worthy, could at least elevate her past 11th place in points.

But Patrick didn't visit the top five again for the next eight races, with a sixth at Toronto the lone highlight. In that span, Patrick placed 15th or worse four times, continuing her run of road course futility. In fact, in that championship subcategory, she finished a disappointing 15th, as road course champion Power scored nearly three times as many points on road courses as she did.

Returning to Motegi, the site of her lone career IndyCar win in 2008, Patrick had nothing for a dominant Helio Castroneves, but still mustered a fifth place finish. At Homestead, she traded chop blocks with teammate Tony Kanaan to score another second place finish, before learning that Kanaan's sponsor, 7-Eleven, would shift its marketing dollars to her next season. These two runs allowed her to slip by Justin Wilson for the final spot in the top 10 of the championship standings.

To say Patrick's 2010 was difficult would be to understate. Hard luck results and a slip in the standings weren't the only issues. Infighting at Andretti, particularly with Kanaan, dogged her for much of the season, and the celebrity that once came with being IndyCar's first female winner died out as she began to shift attention to stock cars. When ESPN referred to her as "NASCAR's Danica Patrick" at the ESPYs, all ties to her former stardom may have been lost.

Patrick is safe at Andretti for next season, guaranteed a ride by a large GoDaddy contract. She may stand to benefit from potential contraction; if the team cannot find sponsorship to keep Kanaan and Hunter-Reay aboard, she will likely stand to inherit some of their teams' top crew members. But driving in two distinctly different disciplines is a difficult task for anyone to imagine, and if Patrick struggles in stock cars next year as she did this year, it may once again affect her IndyCar performance.

IndyCar Season Review: Dan Wheldon

Dan Wheldon's 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season may have been his most up-and-down campaign to date.

Wheldon's road course results lagged in comparison to his championship competitors, and a lawsuit against his employer, Panther Racing owner John Barnes, to collect back taxes made life difficult for the Englishman. But some world-class oval performances, the suit's resolution, and the chance that he may return to the team next season helped level the good and the bad for the former series champion.

When all was said and done, Wheldon finished ninth in points, one spot better than he had in his first full season with Panther last year.

Wheldon, like a handful of other drivers ahead of him, surprised in the season-opening Sao Paulo Indy 300 with a fifth place finish, but a spectacular wreck at St. Petersburg sucked the momentum out of the team for a time. Wheldon ran mid-pack for the next few races as the old-school IRL driver, with only one career road course win to his name, bided his time in wait for the ovals.

Kansas only yielded a 15th-place finish, two laps down, after a disappointing 25th-place qualifying run. But at Indianapolis, Wheldon and Panther worked their way up from the 18th starting spot to claim second place in the race's closing laps. Wheldon, like leader Dario Franchitti, was on a fuel-saving strategy, and perhaps could have caught him for the win, as the car still had fuel in the tank post-race. Regardless, the second place finish in the sport's biggest race was Wheldon's second in a row, Panther's third in a row, and yielded over $1 million to both.

The team, however, could not quite sustain the momentum for the next few events. Wheldon led a single lap at Texas on the way to a ninth place finish, but could not do much at Iowa (the site of his last victory, in 2008). He was spun at Watkins Glen by Alex Lloyd, but managed to work his way back through the pack for a respectable sixth place finish. Toronto yielded a 10th place run, four spots better than the previous year's finish.

But then came the struggles - a 20th place result at Edmonton, a so-so 14th place at Mid-Ohio, and the icing on the cake, an aborted Sonoma start that saw Wheldon's car upside down before even taking the green flag. Wheldon had been 146 points out of the lead after Toronto, but by the end of the Sonoma race he had lost another 99 points.

At this point, Wheldon and Panther began to turn on the heat. Perhaps it was the addition of Ed Carpenter in a second team car that got Panther rolling. Perhaps it was the knowledge that Wheldon's contract was up after this year and unlikely to be renewed that got him back in the zone. Perhaps it was a mutual dissatisfaction between the two parties over the past two seasons, culminating in a $2.5 million lawsuit for back wages by the driver's management, that had them both motivated to show off for potential new partners. Whatever it was, it worked.

Wheldon, who had won the Chicago race in 2005 and 2006, kicked it into high gear at that event, challenging Franchitti for victory once again and losing the fight by .042 seconds at the line. At Kentucky, Wheldon led 93 laps, most of all drivers, and almost nobody was more deserving of the win; however, Helio Castroneves' unorthodox fuel-saving strategy allowed him to take the victory, with Carpenter second and Wheldon third. By this point it was common knowledge that Wheldon was on the way out at Panther, but any team looking for oval prowess certainly had him in their eyes as a candidate for employment.

Motegi and Homestead also yielded top-10 finishes, but the big news before the season's final race was the settlement of Wheldon's suit against Panther and discussion of Wheldon's potential return for 2011. Whel all was said and done, Wheldon offset a disappointing 12th in the road course standings with a solid sixth in the oval championship, and scored the best points finish of any driver not employed by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, or Michael Andretti.

Wheldon's 2010 finishes, relative to 2009's results on the same tracks, were actually worse in most early-season instances. But solid finishes in new events, combined with vast improvements toward the end of the season, helped make Wheldon and Panther a potent late-season combination that actually scored 36 more points this year.

Though few may view the Englishman as a title contender these days, Wheldon's prospects for 2011 may be stronger than they were when he left Ganassi at the end of 2008. If he stays with Panther, the team clearly has their oval program worked out, and the potential addition of a second car will only strengthen the team's results - considering that Wheldon's best three finishes came when Panther was also campaigning a car for Carpenter. A third season with the team may finally see both vault back up the standings into once-familiar territory.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Marco Andretti

Marco Andretti has the best point-scoring season of his IZOD IndyCar Series career in 2010.

Standing on the bottom step of the podium three times this season, for his first podium finishes since the summer of 2008, Andretti matched his 2009 rank with an eighth place finish in the season standings. His 392 points were the most he'd scored in a season to date.

The third-generation driver entered the season with elevated expectations and a new long-term deal to drive for Andretti Autosport in his back pocket. 2009 had been a rough year for the team; none of the four Andretti cars took any victories, and Marco fared no better than fourth at Texas. However, sponsor Venom Energy Drink signed a long-term deal with the team, looking for heightened results this year.

Sao Paulo, given those expectations, was a nightmare. Andretti had a history with Mario Moraes, whose poor judgment on the first lap of the 2009 Indianapolis 500 knocked both drivers out of contention. This year, during the first lap carnage in that city's inaugural race, an out-of-practice Moraes, who hadn't signed a deal until after preseason testing, went into the first corner too hot and landed on top of an innocent Andretti's car.

Andretti led a lap at St. Petersburg, the site of his first career Indy Lights win in 2005, but only mustered a 12th-place finish. In the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, Andretti led 58 of 90 laps and looked poised for his first victory since Sonoma in 2006, but pit stop mismanagement meant he had to come in for an extra stop, and he placed fifth. Neither Long Beach nor Kansas were as strong, and Andretti headed to Indianapolis 13th in the standings, with half as many points as leader Will Power.

Qualifying wasn't too kind to the third-generation Andretti, as 16th marked his worst career Indy starting spot. But unlike father Michael and grandfather Mario, frequent victims of the "Andretti Curse" at Indianapolis, Marco managed to keep up a pattern of alternating DNFs with podium finishes. The youngest Andretti led a lap and finished third in the race, propelling him up three spots in the points.

Andretti followed that up with another third place at Texas, behind Ryan Briscoe and teammate Danica Patrick. He qualified third and led laps early in the subsequent Iowa race, and 2010 began to look as if it would be the young Andretti's best season yet.

But a 15th place finish in that event seemed to kill, for a long time, any momentum that the No. 26 team had. The next five races were mid-pack road course runs, with no truly horrible finishes but no runs better than an eighth in Toronto. Regardless, Andretti's less-than-fantastic road course finishes only ranked him 10th in the sub-championship named after his grandfather, with less than half the points total of eventual road course champion Power.

Back on the ovals to finish the season, Andretti regained his earlier mojo at Chicagoland. Poking his nose into the lead multiple times early in the race, he stuck around until the end and scored his third and final podium of the year. Kentucky and Motegi were both so-so runs, with the team finishing sixth and 11th respectively. When all was said and done, Andretti finished seventh in the oval sub-championship.

Unfortunately for Andretti the driver and Andretti the team, the season finale at Homestead wasn't included in those standings. He qualified a subpar 16th, but patiently worked his way through the pack, leading 10 laps in the final quarter of the race and finishing seventh.

It was a strong day all around for Andretti Autosport, as three of their drivers finished in the top seven in the race and took the first three spots in the championship not occupied by the dominant drivers of Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing. For Marco, it was his second consecutive eighth place finish in the series' final standings, and his fourth top-10 in points since entering the championship in 2006.

With the team scoring two wins in 2010, breaking a winless drought that had extended through 2009, the expectations for next year are that all of the Andretti cars will find the winner's circle. Andretti may benefit from the possibility of the team downsizing, as teammates Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay currently do not have the sponsorship to run next year. A smaller, easier-to-manage team for owner Michael Andretti, and better personnel on the team's remaining cars, would likely improve Andretti's chances of scoring solid finishes and race victories in 2011.

Friday, October 8, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Once again, despite uncertain circumstances, Ryan Hunter-Reay managed to put together a solid performance in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

Last season, he put together some surprising finishes for Vision Racing before finding a ride at A.J. Foyt Enterprises as an injury replacement for Vitor Meira. This year, carrying the banner for series title sponsor IZOD at Andretti Autosport, he took the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and finished a career-best seventh in points.

Originally, Hunter-Reay landed a limited deal with the reorganized Andretti team on the strength of his personal services contract with IZOD. Much like his 2009 season started, he would have enough money to run through the Indianapolis 500, but anything beyond that would require additional funding. Some strong finishes would be required to keep Hunter-Reay in the car for the full slate.

Immediately Hunter-Reay established himself as a force to be reckoned with, leading 20 laps of the inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300 before Will Power eventually made the winning pass. Hunter-Reay settled for second place, but fans and competitors alike began to expect more out of the Andretti stable, which had failed to win a race for the first time in 2009.

Finishes at St. Petersburg and Alabama were not quite as strong, but Long Beach proved a beacon of hope for the No. 37 team in their sponsorship hunt. Hunter-Reay managed to beat Power at his own game, if only for a day, leading 64 of 85 laps to take a decisive victory. Hunter-Reay went into the first oval segment of the year third in points, only one back of second-place Helio Castroneves.

Unfortunately, the sponsorship well actually began to dry up after the Long Beach race, as a couple of potential deals fell through. A fifth place run at Kansas, combined with the improved fortunes of the entire Andretti team, helped matters a little; Sprint's two prepaid mobile brands, Boost and Virgin, joined the team once again, and Virgin adorned the engine cover of Hunter-Reay's Indianapolis 500 car.

Indianapolis ended in spectacular disappointment, however, when Hunter-Reay's vehicle suddenly slowed on the track and Mike Conway's car torpedoed over it at full speed. The resulting crash made highlight reels across the nation, ending Conway's season; after the race, Hunter-Reay apologized for not stopping for fuel and causing the accident.

Hunter-Reay's season could have ended right there, but the team sent him to Texas, where he came home a solid seventh after setting the race's fastest lap. For Iowa, Hunter-Reay's former sponsor, the American Coalition for Ethanol, stepped up to back him in one of the nation's largest corn-growing markets.

The team put the icing on the sponsorship cake at Watkins Glen, when it was announced that a team of Hunter-Reay and Andretti sponsors would be teaming up to back the team for the rest of the season. These same groups also established Racing for Cancer, a charity initiative to benefit the Michael Fux foundation. The cause was personal for Hunter-Reay, as he had lost his mother to cancer in 2009.

His season secured, Hunter-Reay became a consistent top-10 finisher week in and week out. His third and final podium of the season came at Toronto, followed by a top-five run at Edmonton and two more decent runs at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. For his efforts, Hunter-Reay placed fourth in the series' road course championship.

Hunter-Reay's final top five finish of the season came at Chicago, where he led two laps and finished fourth. The final three races were a bit of a struggle; mechanical failure at Kentucky relegated him to 21st, Motegi yielded only a ninth place finish, and he could only muster 11th place with a subpar car at Homestead.

Combined with teammate (and closest points competitor) Tony Kanaan's third-place run, this bumped Hunter-Reay down to seventh in the series' final standings. But the team scored a greater victory that weekend, as Hunter-Reay and Racing for Cancer scored a $10,000 donation from founding partner Inland Industrial Services by building Hunter-Reay's Twitter base up to 10,000 followers.

Regardless of a late dropoff, Hunter-Reay and the team have established a solid base with which to work in 2011, provided the team can find sponsorship to keep him in the car. Andretti officials have suggested that at least one company within their sponsorship family has submitted a sponsorship proposal for next year, giving the team hope for the future.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Tony Kanaan

Somehow, despite all of the difficult moments of his 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, Tony Kanaan still managed to be "best of the rest."

Even an abysmal 13.2 average start, infighting with teammate Danica Patrick, and nearly missing the Indianapolis 500 couldn't hold Kanaan back, as the driver took one win and seven top five finishes on the way to a sixth place finish in points in his eighth season driving for Andretti Autosport.

The season began steadily, with 10th place finishes in Sao Paulo and St. Petersburg, an eighth at Barber, and a fifth at Long Beach, positioning him comfortably in the top 10 in points. At Kansas, Kanaan managed to pass 12 cars to finish third, giving the team some momentum heading into Indianapolis.

Kanaan, like his team owner Michael Andretti, has a history of bad luck in the Indianapolis 500, and this year was no different. But instead of the usual in-race failure - he had crashed in the previous two runnings of the event - his biggest issues came before the race even started.

Crashes on both days of qualifying meant the team barely had enough time to prepare a car to make a run. Eventually, Kanaan put a car on the last row of the grid, starting last after the team went to a different chassis for the race. Despite the team's moribund outlook for the race, Kanaan managed to salvage an 11th-place finish.

After a sixth place run at Texas, the series headed to Iowa Speedway. For the fourth race in a row, Kanaan qualified outside of the top 10, starting the event in 15th. But a strong car allowed him to pass other cars easily, and Kanaan led his first 62 laps of the season on the way to his first victory since Richmond in 2008.

The road courses were less successful for Kanaan than the ovals, and mid-pack finishes at Edmonton and Mid-Ohio (again, attributed to poor qualifying runs) contributed to his falling back in the standings. Kanaan finished a lap off the pace at Edmonton, the only lap he failed to complete all season.

The ovals, once again, were strong for Kanaan, as he took three top five finishes in the final four events of the season, with no runs worse than a seventh at Motegi. These runs allowed him to pass teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay for sixth in points, where he eventually ended the season. His best finish during the stretch came at Homestead, where he lost a heated battle with Patrick for second place.

Kanaan's oval runs were good for fourth in the series' oval championship. He only came six points short of Scott Dixon for third in that competition. But his so-so road course results put him a distant eighth in that subcategory, almost 30 points behind seventh place.

The clear weakness of Kanaan's team during 2010 was qualifying. His only front-row start of the year came at St. Petersburg; in the 11-race stretch from Kansas to Kentucky, Kanaan qualified no better than eighth and was 20th or worse four times. His intra-squad squabbles with Patrick also didn't help his case; the two traded chop blocks on many of the series' ovals, much to the frustration of team management.

To add insult to injury, days after the season finale at Homestead, longtime sponsor 7-Eleven announced that they would be abandoning an eight-year relationship with Kanaan to support Patrick in a reduced role, leaving his plans for the 2011 season uncertain at this point. While both driver and team appear to be interested in maintaining their relationship, the best IndyCar driver not to wear a Penske or Ganassi firesuit in 2010 may have a lot of suitors for next season.

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.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Helio Castroneves

Point for point, 2010 was one of Helio Castroneves' best IZOD IndyCar Series seasons of all time.

Scoring 531 points in the series' 17 races, Castroneves took three victories to finish fourth in the series championship. It was the fourth top five in the standings that Castroneves has taken in the past five years, and it came without missing the season opener as he did last year. He also reduced his DNF count from four in 2009 to two this season, while matching his two poles from last season as well.

The season started off strong for Castroneves, as he took top-10 finishes in all four road and street course races to open the season. After teammate Will Power won in Sao Paulo and St. Petersburg, Castroneves kept up Team Penske's momentum when he scored the victory in the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Though he was 42 points out of the lead heading into the first oval stretch, Castroneves maintained second in points at that time.

From there, things got a little less consistent. Castroneves' highlights of the second quarter of the season were his fourth career Indianapolis 500 pole and a runner-up finish at Iowa, but a DNF at Texas in a wreck with Mario Moraes didn't help his cause.

A finish on the edge of the top 10 in Watkins Glen and an accident with Vitor Meira in Toronto dropped him all the way to sixth in points heading into Edmonton, a race in which he had finished second the previous two years. Castroneves was poised to improve on that personal best until a blocking penalty dropped him to tenth in the order. A heated Castroneves lost his cool, grabbing IndyCar officials post-race in his frustration.

From there, Castroneves began to regain his stride, though it was too little too late.

115 points out of the lead with six races to go, he would have needed to finish in the top four in each of the final six races while all of his rivals struggled tremendously. A refocused Castroneves did his part, finishing no worse than sixth in the final six races, but it would not even be close to enough.

The highlights of Castroneves' late season run included consecutive wins at Kentucky and Motegi. The Kentucky win came to the surprise of most, as Ed Carpenter had been dominating the race; Castroneves used an alternate fuel strategy and low throttle levels in the race's closing laps to coast to the win as everybody else pitted. In Japan, he led 153 of the race's 200 laps, including a stretch from lap 118 to the finish.

Coming into Homestead, Castroneves had a shot at securing third place in the standings, but a fifth place finish was not enough to maintain the spot, as Scott Dixon passed him for the spot with his victory.

2010 wasn't Castroneves' finest season of all time, especially compared to his DNF-free tear in 2008, but worked out to be one of his most consistent seasons since road courses were added to the series. Though only the second-best Penske driver this year, Castroneves proved that he remains one of the series' top drivers, even after over a decade in the sport.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

IndyCar Season Review: Scott Dixon

For the second year in a row, Scott Dixon watched his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate hoist the IZOD IndyCar Series championship trophy.

Once again playing second fiddle to Dario Franchitti, Dixon nevertheless assembled a solid season, taking three victories on his way to a third place finish in the points. It was his fifth consecutive top five finish in the standings, after a fourth place in 2006, runner-up runs in 2007 and 2009, and the 2008 championship.

It was by no means as strong as his runs in the past three seasons, and this time around Dixon wasn't directly involved in the title fight at Homestead. There weren't quite as many top five finishes, even if there were still plenty of top tens. And while Franchitti solidly ate away at Will Power's points lead over the final few races of the season, Dixon didn't do much to close the gap.

But yet again, the consistent New Zealander strung together enough decent finishes to stay ahead of most of the field and accept an award at the season-ending banquet.

Dixon's season started off with an okay road course stretch, highlighted by a second place finish in the inaugural Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but marred by a DNF at St. Petersburg. He entered the first stretch of oval races tied for fifth in points with Franchitti, 60 back of a dominant Power.

From there, he immediately asserted his usual championship force, taking his second consecutive win at Kansas, scoring top five finishes at Indianapolis and Texas, and entered the second stretch of road course races second in points, only 11 markers back of the lead. Things were looking good for Dixon, as he had finished fourth or better in 2009 at four of the next five tracks on the schedule.

But a low top-10 at Watkins Glen and a DNF at Toronto dropped him to third place and 78 points out of the lead, and even a win at Edmonton didn't help him make up too much ground. When the series said goodbye to road and street courses for the year at Sonoma, Dixon found himself 95 points out of the lead, still in third.

Dixon had some major opportunities to make up ground on points leader Power during the final four oval races of the season. In fact, Dixon had been the best oval driver of the past two IndyCar seasons, scoring 482 points on ovals in 2008 and 406 in 2009. Such luck was not on his side in 2010.

Finishes of eighth, seventh, and sixth at Chicagoland, Kentucky, and Motegi, respectively, left him 90 points out of the lead going into Homestead. To make matters worse, he had been passed for third in the standings by Helio Castroneves, whose wins at Kentucky and Motegi propelled him up two spots in the standings from where he had been after Chicago.

Dixon's job at Homestead was simple: ensure that Franchitti would win the championship over Power, while also trying to get by Castroneves for third in points. Dixon qualified directly behind his teammate and helped keep some of the other competitors at bay while Franchitti led the most laps of the race.

When Franchitti dropped back in the field in the race's late stages, Dixon assumed the point and led 32 of the race's final 33 laps to take his third and final victory of the year.

IndyCar Season Review: Will Power

Will Power nearly had it in the bag.

Clearly the class of the field for Team Penske in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, Power saw a 59 point lead with four races to go - and thus the series championship - slip through his hands, as oval struggles prevented Power from taking his first IndyCar title.

The fact that Power was even competing at all in 2010 was a bit of a miracle. The winner of the final Champ Car race, held at Long Beach in 2008, Power was signed by Penske in 2009 as a replacement for Helio Castroneves during his tax evasion trial. But Castroneves only missed a single race, and Power was thus shifted to a limited schedule in a third car. He won at Edmonton, but suffered two fractured vertebrae and a concussion in a Sonoma practice accident, injuries that caused him to contemplate retirement.

It was thus a bit of a shock when Roger Penske announced that he would shut down his sports car team, giving him three IndyCars for the first time since 1994, and shift the Verizon Wireless sponsorship to a driver coming off of a career threatening injury.

But Power came through immediately, winning the inaugural Sao Paulo Indy 300 with a daring pass of Ryan Hunter-Reay, and following up with another victory at St. Petersburg. With a worst finish of fourth and a whopping 42 point lead after the first four races of the season, the title looked like Power's to lose.

Unfortunately, ovals proved to be Power's Achilles' heel just as much as they had in previous seasons. Power had only two top five finishes on ovals prior to the 2010 season, and had never stood on the podium at the end of an oval race. Even with Penske equipment under him, Power was going to need to work hard on his oval program.

The results were so-so. With only two top-10s in the first four oval races, with a best finish of fifth at Iowa, Power was incredibly lucky to enter the next road course segment of the season with the points lead. Even then, he needed some help - Dario Franchitti had assumed the lead at Texas, but issues at Iowa gave the lead back to the Aussie.

From there, Power simply did what he did best - win on road and street courses. In the final five twisty races, he took three wins and two second place finishes, locking up the Mario Andretti Road Course Trophy before the final road race of the year at Sonoma. Fittingly, he won that race in dominant fashion, leading 73 of a possible 75 laps. The other wins came at Watkins Glen and on the streets of Toronto.

Suddenly, the wheels began to fall off.

At Chicago, Power started third and led 17 laps, marking the 13th time in the past 14 races that he had spent time up front. But he ran out of fuel in the race's closing laps, losing a lap and finishing 16th. Kentucky produced a so-so eighth place run and marked the last time that Power would lead in 2010. While teammate Castroneves dominated Motegi, Power scored a third place finish, his first podium run on an oval.

But the bad news was that Franchitti had outplaced him in each of those three races. His win at Chicago was a huge factor in the championship - it allowed him to cut Power's points lead from 59 to 23. The lead sat at only 12 heading into the season finale at Homestead, meaning Power could only guarantee the title by winning the race. If Franchitti won from pole and led the most laps, even a second place finish would take the title from Power by a single point.

Power qualified a respectable third, but Franchitti set a blistering pole speed to cut the points lead to 11. By lap 124 of the 200 lap event, he had already secured two more bonus points by leading the most laps in the race. It was clear that Power was going to have to win the race to win the title.

Then, all hope was lost - while trying to negotiate past Hunter-Reay in a turn, Power brushed the outside wall. He brought the car back to the pits, where it was discovered that the damage to his right rear suspension was terminal. Power finished 25th and lost the championship by five points, the closest margin since 2006's tie by Sam Hornish Jr. and Dan Wheldon.

Regardless of the bad luck to finish the season, Power set some performance standards that even Franchitti would be hard-pressed to top. Only once did Power fail to qualify in the top five all season; he started seventh at Kansas. His eight poles are a new IndyCar record for most in a season. And his 412 of a possible 477 points on road courses are a marker which may never again be approached - unless Power is even better in 2011.

IndyCar Season Review: Dario Franchitti

With the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights Series seasons having drawn to a close, we begin the season review process for all notable drivers and teams in both. First up is IZOD IndyCar Series champion, Dario Franchitti.

Dario Franchitti has begun to establish himself as one of the best open-wheel racers of all time.

Barring a brief and unsuccessful foray into NASCAR in 2008, Franchitti is now three for three in his past three attempts to win the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. He took the first title in 2007 with Andretti Green Racing before jumping to stock cars with Chip Ganassi in 2008, then joined Ganassi's IndyCar team the next season to win the next two.

Since joining Ganassi, he has taken eight of his 26 career wins, and now is the first IndyCar champion of the Randy Bernard/IZOD era.

The picture didn't always look so bright for Franchitti this season, however. One of the top drivers in the CART era, which primarily focused on road and street course prowess, he finished no higher than third in any of the first four races of the season, leaving him sixth in the standings and 60 points back of leader Will Power going into the first oval segment of the season.

It was then that Franchitti began to find his stride. He followed up a runner-up finish at Kansas with his second career Indianapolis 500 victory. He took the win in dominant fashion, leading a remarkable 155 laps from the third starting spot. He briefly assumed the points lead at Texas, but issues with the car at Iowa handed the lead back to Power as the series began another road course jaunt.

Franchitti finished no worse than the bottom step of the podium in the next five road course races, taking the win at Mid-Ohio, but still lost another 45 points on the dominant Power over that span. But heading into the final segment of the year, a stretch of four ovals, Franchitti and his Chip Ganassi Racing team were confident that they could make up the 59 point deficit.

Most of the ground was made up in the series' final race at Chicagoland Speedway. Franchitti took the victory while Power finished a lap down in 16th, having run out of fuel achingly close to the finish. Of the 64 points that the Scot eventually gained on Power, Chicago accounted for 36 of them.

Solid runs at Kentucky and Motegi secured the A.J. Foyt Oval Championship for Franchitti, and put him in a position to challenge for the overall title in the season finale at Homestead. By now, he was only 12 points back of Power, meaning a win from pole while leading the most laps would guarantee him the championship regardless of Power's finish.

From there, Franchitti did exactly what he needed to do. He qualified on the pole, led 128 of the race's 200 laps, and didn't push the car too hard to the finish when Power made a mistake and brushed the wall with under 70 laps to go. His eventual eighth place finish gave him the series title by a mere five points, the closest margin by which he has ever taken the title. (He won by 13 points in 2007 and by nine last year.)

At the season-ending awards banquet, Franchitti hauled in over $1.1 million worth of bonuses for his third consecutive championship, buoyed mostly by the $1 million check for winning the series championship. There, he announced that he was only a signature away from returning to Ganassi to attempt three in a row in 2011.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Opinion: Is There Shame in Being a "Ride Buyer"?

This past weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Graham Rahal made the announcement that we had all been waiting for - that he has secured the funding to compete in the next two IZOD IndyCar Series seasons. Service Central, which hooked up with Rahal for races with Sarah Fisher Racing and Newman/Haas Racing this year, will write the checks for Rahal.

The problem is, Rahal and Service Central haven't signed with a team yet.

Add Rahal to the category of "ride buyers" - professional racecar drivers who bring their own sponsorship dollars to race teams in a poor economy, and are thus installed in the otherwise blank racecars. It's a problem that has plagued much of racing over the past few years; from NASCAR, where Kevin Conway's Extenze sponsorship has landed him multiple rides, to Formula One, where many of the smaller teams take on drivers with personal services contracts.

Worst in the major forms of motorsport is IndyCar, which has seen fewer and fewer fully funded rides over the past few years.

Ride buying is certainly a way of life in racing, and always has been. Any driver with a little bit of talent and a stable paycheck behind him will land himself in a vehicle before the end of the season, if only for one race. The act of buying a ride itself isn't the problem.

The problem in IndyCar is that more and more of the ride buyers are unproven foreign drivers that the fans can't identify (nevermind identify with), and they tear up equipment that is unfamiliar to them. Meanwhile, American drivers that have earned the right to compete in their home country's biggest event, the Indianapolis 500, are stuck on the sidelines because American-based sponsors are wary of committing to them or the race teams.

That isn't to say that some of these ride buyers are undeserving. In fact, a lot of the drivers who have paid their own way into the series have had some solid performances. It's tough for them to take victories with the little teams that usually hire them, but they find ways to assert that they are deserving pilots.

Some of the drivers who have bought rides in one way or another this year include Ryan Hunter-Reay (7th in points and a win at Long Beach for Izod), Danica Patrick (10th and two runner-up finishes for GoDaddy), Justin Wilson (11th, a pole, and two second place runs for Z-Line Designs), Simona de Silvestro (19th in points with some strong road course runs despite the oldest tub in the series for Stargate Worlds), and Bertrand Baguette (22nd despite missing two races, and showing consistent improvement for a slew of Belgian companies). It's hard to make the argument in any of these cases that the drivers didn't deserve to be there, even if only two of those listed above are Americans.

As for other deserving "ride buyers," consider Paul Tracy, the 2003 Champ Car champion and one of the best open-wheel drivers in recent history; Ana Beatriz, a talented Firestone Indy Lights graduate with two wins in that series; Sebastian Saavedra, another Lights grad who has won in every series in which he's ever competed; and now Rahal, who won in his IndyCar debut in 2008 and finished seventh in points in 2009.

No, the problem is not being a ride buyer in this economy. There is no shame in attracting sponsorship to yourself by turning yourself into a solid pitchman, especially when it keeps the talent listed above on the race track. Truth is, once things turn back up and more sponsors come to IndyCar (when/if that happens), these drivers won't need to be hunting for their own money, because they'll all be hired.

The problem is that some of the other ride buyers haven't done much to deserve the seats they hold.

So much has been written about Milka Duno already that it's not worth wasting more space on her, especially when the consensus is that her license will not be renewed for 2011. But consider the incredibly slow mid-season runs of Francesco Dracone with Conquest Racing. Look at the way that all three KV Racing Technology drivers tore up equipment this season. One could even attempt to make a case for Tomas Scheckter based on a handful of mediocre finishes this year.

Meanwhile, North American talents like J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Jonathan Summerton, Rahal, and Tracy, as well as former Champ Car stalwarts like Bruno Junqueira and Oriol Servia, sat on the sidelines for much (if not all) of the season.

It's when these drivers get bumped out of rides that the problems begin to fester. IndyCar is a predominantly American series. Its fans would much rather see hometown heroes like those above race to win than unproven foreign ride buyers tear up equipment. And while everybody understands this, nobody is able to make a case to the sponsors to make this change, because the sponsors are often based elsewhere in the world and have their own markets to look out for.

The term for the concept is tribalism - each side would much prefer to watch the drivers that it identifies with. But as many fans of the sport may exist, there are no fan-sponsored race teams that have a proven track record or consistent money flow. The sponsors win.

IndyCar is in a position of weakness at this point, because limiting these foreign ride buyers to, say, only the ones with race victories in major foreign open-wheel series would be A) discriminatory, and B) severely limiting money flow into the series. Right now, money is as valuable as it's ever been to the sport.

Until the American economy strengthens more and a greater base of American companies view IndyCar as a marketing tool, the problem is going to continue. In the meantime, we're just going to have to put up with ride buyers, worthy or not, because until the series can keep afloat on its own with fully-sponsored cars the way that NASCAR can, we really need the money.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

IndyCar Race Review: Cafes do Brazil Indy 300

The final race of this year's IZOD IndyCar Series season ended in triumph for Chip Ganassi and heartbreak for Roger Penske.

Ganassi driver Scott Dixon took the checkers in the Cafes do Brazil Indy 300, the final IndyCar race to be held at Homestead-Miami Speedway, while an eighth-place finish was more than enough for teammate Dario Franchitti to clinch his third championship in four years.

Meanwhile, championship leader Will Power, Team Penske's best driver this year, felt the agony of defeat after brushing the wall with only 65 laps to go. Trying to get by lapped traffic, he brushed the outside wall and damaged his right rear suspension. Power finished a disappointing 25th, completing a 17-point swing in favor of Franchitti this weekend that gave the Scot this year's championship by five points.

Franchitti, however, did not escape drama himself; after falling in the field toward the end of the race, Milka Duno wrecked in front of him very late in the race, which would have caused him to finish either 23rd or 24th and lose the title by under 10 points.

Franchitti, Penske driver Ryan Briscoe, and Andretti Autosport Tony Kanaan dominated the early part of the race, but Dixon, who started second, began to lead laps as the race wore on. While Franchitti led a majority of laps, with 128 out of the 200 spent pacing the field, Dixon took the lead for good with 27 to go and extended a nearly three second lead over second place.

That second step on the podium was occupied by none other than Danica Patrick, who is more than happy to finish a tough 2010 season. Patrick's strong run, combined with a 21st-place finish by Justin Wilson, allowed her to barely sneak into 10th place in points despite a slew of problems and poor finishes this season.

Kanaan managed to take third, with Briscoe fourth and Helio Castroneves fifth.

The top ten in the final championship standings were Franchitti, Power, Dixon, Castroneves, Briscoe, Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Dan Wheldon, and Patrick.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

IndyCar Race Preview: Cafes do Brazil Indy 300

The IZOD IndyCar Series will take the green flag one last time at the Homestead-Miami Speedway tonight for the Cafes do Brazil Indy 300. Besides being the final race of the IndyCar season, it will be the final race of the near future at Homestead, after the longtime open-wheel hosts and the sanctioning body could not come to an agreement for a 2011 event.

As such, expect tonight to be a show of great magnitude, with both sides looking to go out with a bang.

The biggest storyline remains the championship battle between leader Will Power and second place Dario Franchitti, the defending series champ. Franchitti will start on pole alongside his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Scott Dixon. Meanwhile, Power's Team Penske machine will roll off the grid third.

The pole comes with a bonus point, one of three available per weekend. Franchitti came into the race weekend 12 points behind Power, meaning a win after leading the most laps in the race would seal the championship for him no matter what Power does; since first place pays 10 more points than second, even a 1-2 between the two contenders would mean Power would lose the title by a single point.

But neither Power nor his Team Penske teammates are willing to concede the first IndyCar title for owner Roger Penske since 2006 so easily. Teammate Ryan Briscoe paced final practice after qualifying fourth, while Helio Castroneves will attempt to back up wins in the series' past two races with a march to the front from 10th on the grid. Castroneves and Andretti Autosport's Tony Kanaan will actually serve as co-grand marshals of the event, giving the command to start engines from the cockpits of their cars.

Homestead marks the final opportunity of the year for a handful of winless drivers to grab one checkered flag before the season ends. The top seven in points have all won a race, but eighth place Dan Wheldon, ninth place Marco Andretti, 10th place Justin Wilson, and 11th place Danica Patrick are just some of the big names that have not seen victory lane this year. Of them, Wheldon stands the best shot; the three-time Homestead winner (2005-07) and Panther Racing have been achingly close to victory in the past few domestic oval races.

The race will also inevitably mark the final event for a handful of driver-team combinations, as plenty of teams will be looking to move up in the ranks for 2011. The question right now is who will stay and who will go. As recently as last week, Panther and Wheldon were considered the most likely to separate, after two years of mutual frustration and a lawsuit filed for $2.5 million in back wages by Wheldon's management. Now that the suit has been settled, however, Panther owner John Barnes is discussing bringing Wheldon back.

Justin Wilson and his Z-Line Designs sponsorship are a hot commodity, as are the talents of Simona de Silvestro and Graham Rahal. Meanwhile, a handful of Firestone Indy Lights graduates appear ready for the big time in 2011, with Ana Beatriz, James Hinchcliffe, and Sebastian Saavedra likely to attract at least some interest from team owners.

Meanwhile, in the Lights race, Pippa Mann will roll off the grid first. Charlie Kimball will join her on the front row, while series champion Jean-Karl Vernay will start 12th and clinch this year's championship upon taking the green flag.