Friday, July 23, 2010

Midseason motorsports update: IndyCar

By Rick Morris

The IndyCar series, in its second year of reunion under a common banner after almost a decade-and-a-half of ruinous internecine warfare, is regaining some of its momentum with a spirited points chase among many talented drivers. While the exodus to NASCAR has not been reversed to the necessary amount yet, the circuit is regaining its footing with an enthralling chase involving many top drivers.

^ Australian Will Power, whose previous best finishes had been sixth in 2006 and fourth in 2007 under the old Champ Car banner, has had his breakthrough year as a part of Team Penske and currently leads all drivers.

^ Dario Franchitti, who captured his second Indianapolis 500 crown this year, won his second consecutive IndyCar series title last year (with his disastrous and ill-advised ’08 stint in NASCAR in-between) and is hot on the heels of a third straight championship with his current second-place status.

^ Scott Dixon has finished the last four seasons in the top four in points – the last three first or second, highlighted by a 2008 championship – and is keeping his “dependable threat” streak alive into this year with a third-place standing at present.

^ In a comparable vein to Dixon, Ryan Briscoe finished fifth and third, respectively, in his past two seasons – the first two with Penske – and is in fourth at the moment.

^ One of the most accomplished, and quite possibly the most famous, driver on the circuit, Helio Castroneves, continues to run strong in pursuit of his elusive first series championship. Since 2002 with Penske, he has never placed lower than sixth (and has placed lower than fourth only twice), yet has not come any closer to the top than his 2002 and 2008 runner-up finishes. Presently, he is in sixth place. In some ways, with his three Indy 500 titles, his career has been the opposite of Mario Andretti, who managed a single Indy 500 win but was a four-time series champion.

^ Also conversely to Helio, Tony Kanaan is probably the best active racer never to win at Indy, but did capture the series title in 2004 and only spent a single season outside of the top four between 2003-2008 (and only a single season outside of the top three between 2004-2008). His sixth-place finish in 2009 and seventh-place standing at present raise questions about whether he can return to the top amidst the deeper field of today, though.

^ Dan Wheldon, who peaked (at least thus far) with a win at Indy and for the series title both in 2005, ended the run he began in 2004 with no series finishes outside the top four in 2008. Like Kanaan, he fell off in 2009, to tenth place and is in ninth at current.

^ The Marco Andretti treadmill continues on, with the streak he has been on since the start of his IndyCar career in 2006 of finishing between seventh and 11th currently intact with a tenth-place record.

^ Danica Patrick, splitting her time with the NASCAR Nationwide Series, hasn’t been a factor in eleventh place, but given that she’s only placed as high as fifth once (last year), the hype exceeding her production is nothing new.

The Penske and Ganassi teams continue to dominate, with occasional resistance from Andretti. The races have been exciting, but have suffered from the same “if a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?” sensation suffered by the NHL – which also has most of its national broadcasts on the sparsely-carried Versus network.

The series has healed some remaining wounds from the sport’s longtime civil war as longtime IRL honcho Tony George – probably more responsible for the state of affairs than any other individual – resigned from the board of directors in January. And the legacies of both the road-dominated Champ Car and the oval-dominated IRL are both being celebrated as IndyCar is awarding a trophy named for AJ Foyt to the racer who tallies the most points on ovals this year and the award named for Mario Andretti will go to the equivalent road-track racer.

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