Strange as it may seem, when the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers take the checkered flag at the conclusion of Race One of the Houston double-header, we will be half-way through the compressed schedule.
While I’m not a fan of the shortened schedule, I take some solace in the fact that Derrick Walker has been eying a schedule of 20 or more race for 2015. On the table is a return to Brazil, and there are currently negotiations in play for the return of Michigan and Phoenix to the schedule. The Nashville Super Speedway, another fine racing facility, has also been mentioned. But, that’s all for next year.
Since the 2014 season is nearly halfway in the can, it seems like a good time to issue report cards.
Undoubtedly, the leader of the class is Team Penske. With Will Power and Helio Castroneves occupying the top two spots in the point standings, it looks likely that Roger Penske may finally add another season title to the team’s history.
Will Power came out of the box strong carrying the momentum of winning the 2013 season finale. Since then, he has been impressive at all the tracks and has yet to finish outside of the top ten. He has two wins and three seconds in the eight races contested thus far. He might have won at Indianapolis and Texas as well, had it not been for pit lane speed violations.
In years’ past, Power’s issue was his poor performance on ovals. He has put that ghost to rest and has been blindingly quick at the oval races. Also, Power’s previous attempted championship runs were marked with a strong start and a weak late season. The compressed schedule might be exactly what Power needs to put that ghost to rest as well. Will Power has earned an A+.
His Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, started his season with a podium at St. Pete followed by disappointing finishes at Alabama and Long Beach. He bounced back at Indianapolis taking a podium on the road course and losing the 500 by mere inches to Ryan Hunter-Reay. He was strong at Detroit and took a popular victory in race two of the double-header.
Castroneves is driving more aggressively in 2014 following a 2013 season that saw him lose the Championship to Scott Dixon. If he can gain a bit more consistency in his finishes, he may pose a serious threat to Will Power. Helio Castroneves has earned an A-.
The third member of the Penske organization is Juan Pablo Montoya, returning to IndyCar after a 14 year absence. As he faces the learning curve, he has done so with a great attitude. He has improved every week. He took top five finishes at Long Beach and Indianapolis and took a podium finish at Texas, and currently sits seventh in points. JPM has earned a B, but he gets an A for effort.
Behind the Penske team is the four car juggernaut of Andretti Autosport. Ryan Hunter-Reay currently occupies the third spot in the standings fueled largely by two wins, including the Indianapolis 500, which paid double points. While he has two second places along with the two wins, all of his other results are 16th place or worse. This lack of consistency cannot win a championship. However, his favorible spot in the standing can make him a serious contender if the second half of the season goes well. Hunter-Reay has earned a B-, but he will be scored with an A for winning the Indy 500 and etching his name into the record books.
Andretti Autosport teammates, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz are 5th and 6th in points and neither has found victory lane. Andretti was strong at Indianapolis and ended up third, after which he proceeded to act like a spoiled kid who didn’t get his way.
I was a bit shocked by this as you would expect a nine-year veteran of the series to behave with a bit more maturity. At Texas, Marco was strong out of the box, but a rare engine failure by his Honda ended his day in the early going.
Marco Andretti has earned a B-, but he gets a D for attitude. Rookie Carlos Munoz has earned a B-, but gets an A for effort.
The other Andretti driver, James Hinchcliffe, was an early season favorite for the championship. His 2014 season has been absolutely miserable, and he made headlines with a stupid mistake at Indianapolis that took out the pole-sitter. Hinch gets a C-, but on the bright side, he has a lot of room to improve.
Because he is splitting the driving duties of the Fuzzy’s Vodka car, he will not contend for the Championship. In his oval-only schedule, Carpenter took the pole at Indy, ran strong all day, and may have contended for the win if not for the contact with Hinchcliffe.
At the Texas Motor Speedway, Carpenter held off a charging Will Power and took the win. Carpenter’s road-race driver, Mike Conway, took the win at Long Beach, but has failed to finish in the top ten in any of his other starts. Conway gets a C, but that gets bumped up to a B- for taking a win.
Schmidt-Peterson driver, Simon Pagenaud, took at win at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and has had five other finishes inside the top six. He sits fourth in points and poses the most significant challenge to the Penske Team. Pagenaud gets an A-.
Lost in the shuffle here is the Ganassi Team. Dixon and Kanaan are 9th and 10th in the standings, while Briscoe and Kimball are 13th and 14th. This C- work is not what we expect out of these A+ students. However, rewind one year ago, and recall that the team got off to a sub-standard start last season. A strong run through the summer months catapulted Dixon to the championship, and he can never be counted out this early. While the entire Ganassi team gets a C-, I’m keeping my eye on them. With double points available at Pocono and Fontana, nobody is out of the running yet.
As far as the rest of the field is concerned, I had high hopes for Sebastien Bourdais, but he has disappointed thus far. C+ for Sea-Bass.
I had low expectations for Mikhail Aleshin, but he has actually shown some sparks of brilliance and led some laps. B+ for the first Russian driver in the series.
I had high hopes for Graham Rahal and his Dad’s team with the larger budget from The National Guard. Midway through the season, he’s mired in the 19th spot in points. Sorry, Graham, you had all of the tools available, and haven’t lived up to the hype. Graham Rahal gets a D. He hit the podium at Detroit, but the rest of his season has been unimpressive.
One year ago, I thought that the combination of Takuma Sato and A.J. Foyt Racing were ready to accept the David vs. Goliath challenge and I touted then highly. Since then, Takuma has been impressive in qualifying, with two 2014 poles. On race day, they have failed to produce. C- for Sato.
Josef Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartmann Racing have been equally disappointing: another C- going out here.
Bryan Herta Racing’s Jack Hawksworth and Dale Coyne Racing’s Carlos Huertas racing have both had flashes of brilliance. Given their rookie status, both these guys get a C+, and an A for effort. Huertas’ Dale Coyne teammate, Justin Wilson, has been a bit quiet this year, but is tenth in points. B- for Justin.
It’s far from over, and the summer stretch is the time for someone to come up and pose a challenge to Will Power.
Things can change quickly as The Verizon IndyCar Series will race six times in the next four weeks, with double points available at Pocono.
Tune in and watch…