by Frank Santoroski
Fall is not yet upon us, and the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series is in the history books. As much as I dislike the shortened schedule, it is a reality. And 2015 looks like we are going to wrap up on Labor Day again.
Reflecting back on another this fine season of Motor Racing from IndyCar, there are a number of interesting story-lines to address. I will cover many of those in the coming weeks, with a long off season, but tonight, lets look at driver performance at the top of the standings.
2014 ended up with the crowning of perennial bridesmaid, Will Power, as the Series Champion. In the process, Power brings the championship back to Team Penske for the first time since 2006, breaking the stranglehold of Target Chip Ganassi and Andretti Autosport.
I certainly feel that the Australian driver is a deserving champion, and perhaps the Astor Cup will silence some of his critics, and he has many. Indeed, the title ‘Indycar Series Champion’ sounds a bit more appealing then that nickname, ‘Willy Wanker.’
With a polarizing ‘love-him-or-hate-him’ persona, he was reminded again and again how his prior three championship runs ended up with him in a wall on an oval track. This past weekend, Will Power was not to be denied a fourth time.
I was asked recently to identify the turning point in the 2014 campaign. As I pondered an answer, the thought that came to mind is that the turning point actually occurred last season. Will Power took the win at Fontana in the 2013 season finale. While he wasn’t in contention for the title, that moment exorcised a lot of ghosts of the past. Power came into 2014 knowing for a fact that he could win on an oval. He knew for a fact that he could carry momentum right to season’s end. And, he knew for a fact that the final race of the season didn’t have to end with his car on the tow hook. All of the facts have been suspect in the past.
Power began 2014 with a bang, taking the win in the season-opener at St. Petersburg. From there he had a consistent early season that saw him finish inside the top ten in each of the first eight events. With the confidence of 2013 Fontana, Power looked like a different driver on the oval tracks. These tracks, that he once hated, were quickly becoming his new stomping ground. Were it not for self-induced penalties, Power would have realistically challenged for the win at Indianapolis, Texas, and Pocono. A penalty-free day at Milwaukee produced his most convincing oval track win to date.
The points race see-sawed throughout the season between Power, his Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves and Andretti Autosport driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay. Power never let it get too far away from him and he entered the finale with a 51-point lead over Castroneves. Despite a lackluster qualifying effort that saw him start near the back of the field, Power did exactly what he needed to do and finally sealed the deal.
Castroneves, for his part, still finds himself with the dubious distinction of being the IndyCar driver with the most amount of wins to have never won a Championship. Ive said it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t believe that Helio will ever win the Championship. With that being said, I hope he proves me wrong. I’d actually rather see Castroneves win the Indianapolis 500 again and join that elite four-timers club.
He came dangerously close to making that dream a reality in 2014 as he finished just inches behind a charging Ryan Hunter-Reay at the Brickyard. Hunter-Reay’s Indy 500 win proved to be tremendously popular as he became the first American to have his face put on the Borg-Warner Trophy since Sam Hornish in 2006.
Hunter-Reay’s 2014 season featured tremendous peaks and valleys. He took three wins over the course of the season, but rarely cracked the top five during the rest of the season. Indeed, the entire Andretti Autosport team has a forgettable season, save for RHR’s wins.
They have announced plans to expand to five cars for 2015 with Simon Pagenaud rumored as being the new recruit. Pagenaud, for his part, always has the Championship on his mind. He had a great run in 2014 and entered the season finale with a slim chance of actually swooping in and taking the title. His Fontana race was absolutely miserable, and by the end of the evening, he had dropped from third in the standings down to fifth.
Jumping up in the standings was 2013 champion, Scott Dixon. Growing pains with a switch to Chevy and a new teammate made progress slow in the first two-thirds of the season. By the closing stages, Dixon had the #9 Target Chip Ganassi entry where we are used to seeing it, in victory lane. Two wins and a podium in the final four events put Dixon to third with 2015 on his mind.
Two drivers that were perhaps under the most scrutiny were both able to deliver.
Juan Pablo Montoya, returning to IndyCars with Team Penske after 14 years in F-1 and NASCAR, found victory circle at Pocono and took fourth place in the standings. In the process, fans voted JPM as ‘Most Popular Driver.’ I find that fact absolutely amazing, and a testament to the loyal IndyCar fans who were rooting for him to succeed.
Tony Kanaan took over of of the most desirable seats in IndyCar replacing the retiring Dario Franchitti. The transition was not painless, and it wasn’t until late in the season that TK really started to contend. He had a few opportunities to win that didn’t pan out, but his hard work and patience was rewarded with a popular win at the finale in Fontana. Like his Ganassi teammate, Scott Dixon, Kanaan is looking forward to a fantastic 2015 season.
And, indeed, I am also looking forward to a fantastic 2015. The 2014 season is over, but I will still be here at DTC providing you with a few more 2014 wrap-up articles in the coming weeks, as well as some 2015 preview information. Stay with me through the winter as I will also return the article series, ‘Greatest Races Ever.”