MotorSportsTalk’s IndyCar 2013 midseason review, Part 2

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Yesterday my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a look back at some of the key players from this 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, in examining the goods and bads this year. Today, we pick our top five stories of the year to date, in no particular order:

Tony DiZinno’s Top Five:

Andretti’s assault on the season: There is no question who the best team has been thus far this year: Andretti Autosport is firing on all cylinders. Defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay has come out motivated and determined to silence the critics who said he “lucked” into last year’s championship and is driving like a man possessed – he has six podiums when no one else has more than four, a pair of dominant wins and his qualifying has improved.

Engineering changes in the offseason have actually played to their benefit; renewed with Craig Hampson after his rookie season in 2011, James Hinchcliffe has a series-high three wins and is poised for title contention, Marco Andretti’s offseason work has come to fruition with a solid start to the year, and E.J. Viso and Michael Cannon, together again, have produced some outstanding qualifying efforts that haven’t yet borne fruit in the race. Even rookie Carlos Munoz stunned at Indianapolis by qualifying and finishing second.

Parity early ceding to “big team” rise: Through the seventh race of the year at Detroit, 13 different drivers from eight different teams had scored podium finishes. In the last three races, those numbers have dropped to five and three, respectively. The manic stretch of six races in five weekends has been the ultimate strain on crews and the underdogs who starred early in the season are starting to slip back, if slightly. The authoritative nature of the Andretti Autosport and Team Penske squads, in particular, has started to emerge.

Ganassi more than Honda struggling: Honda hasn’t had the easiest first half but on the days that they have come good, it’s been other teams – Foyt, Coyne and Schmidt – delivering the goods rather than Target Chip Ganassi Racing. It’s not as though Scott Dixon or Dario Franchitti have forgotten how to drive, but adjusting to this year’s 2013 Firestone tire compounds has been a challenge, as has nailing the setup. A year with only one podium finish and no wins through 10 races is nothing short of a shock.

KV’s changing fortunes: KV always seems on the verge of entering IndyCar’s “top team tier,” but its form is so erratic that it can never truly be mentioned in the same breath as an Andretti, a Penske or a Ganassi. Tony Kanaan’s been revitalized with Simona de Silvestro there to push him, as ever, his oval form has been stellar – including a popular and overdue first Indianapolis 500 victory. But man, for de Silvestro, she needs the road and street courses to come back up. A relatively promising start to the year saw her score three top-10 finishes in the first four races, and feature more regularly at the sharp end of the leaderboard. But on the ovals, she’s been a disappointment, and I’m not sure how much of it is driver versus her car and engine. Regardless, her fast start has fizzled, and she needs to recapture it in the second half.

“Turbo” or bust?: There’s undoubtedly going to be more to come on this front when it premieres July 17, but much of the second half of the season will revolve around how well DreamWorks Animation’s “Turbo” will do at the box office, and the impact it has to a broader sphere of potential viewers. In the first half of the year, we’ve seen the Sunoco/ “Turbo” car on track on several occasions – Kanaan picked up the backing for a four-race deal and has two podiums in his first two races in these colors. Townsend Bell ran the livery for Panther Racing at Indianapolis. Helio Castroneves also had “Turbo” on at the start of the year in an associate sponsorship role. Stay tuned for more.

Chris Estrada’s Top Five:

Tony Kanaan finally wins the ‘500’: We had seen Tony Kanaan come so close to winning the biggest race in the world on numerous occasions. In 2004, he was running second to Buddy Rice when a severe thunderstorm ended the race with 20 laps left. In 2009, he was running third when he suffered a drive shaft failure and slammed into both the backstretch and Turn 3 walls. The next year, he charged from 33rd and last all the way to second before having to pit for fuel with four laps left. But in his 12th Brickyard start this past May, the fan favorite finally got to drink the milk after getting past Ryan Hunter-Reay on a Lap 198 restart. To say it was a well-deserved victory for Kanaan is a vast understatement.

Small teams have their days: With the level of talent as high as it has been in a long while, any victory in the IZOD IndyCar Series these days is a serious accomplishment. In the first half of the season, we saw several of the series’ smaller teams come up big – none as big as KV Racing Technology, who won the Indy 500 with Kanaan. But let’s not forget A.J. Foyt Racing’s first checkered flag in over a decade at Long Beach with Takuma Sato, Dale Coyne Racing’s triumph at Detroit (Race 1) with Mike Conway, and Sam Schmidt’s win in the second Detroit race with Simon Pagenaud. Sato and Pagenaud’s wins were their first in their IndyCar careers.

Ganassi off-Target: After a mixed 2012 season for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, I think we all figured a year’s worth of experience on the Dallara DW12 would enable them to find the “sweet spot” and get their drivers, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon, back to their normal, dominant selves. But the turnaround hasn’t come in the first half of 2013. Granted, Honda could be doing better but it’s been really surprising at times to see how far off the pace Franchitti and Dixon have looked. Still, no one is going to count this first-class team completely out, not with their resources or pair of “all-world” drivers.

Let’s race two: When former INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard (now with ‘rural lifestyle’ TV network RFD-TV) unveiled the doubleheader format last year for Detroit, Toronto and Houston, the usual “gimmick” charges got thrown around a bit. And there were concerns about how the teams would grind through two full races in one weekend. But the first of those doubleheaders on Detroit’s Belle Isle Park went off smoothly, even if some of the on-track proceedings were cringe-worthy (see my Worst First-Half Race Award). The event also pulled in a hefty three-day weekend crowd as well. Perhaps Bernard was on to something with these doubleheaders.

An emotional issue: INDYCAR took some heat following the Detroit doubleheader for fining Sebastian Saavedra $30,000 after he flipped off Marco Andretti, and putting Will Power and Sebastien Bourdais on probation – Power for throwing his gloves at Bourdais following an accident and Bourdais for comments toward officials on pit road. It all led to questions about INDYCAR muzzling their drivers’ personalities, and with the series fighting for any public attention it can get outside of the Month of May, those questions may be valid. “If a guy gets upset and throws a glove or something like that – it’s a glove, it’s not going to hurt anybody,” Helio Castroneves told the Associated Press at Texas on the subject. “…You can’t just start throwing fines just because the guy had a bad day.”

Saavedra returns to SPM, again, for upcoming races

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Following the mutual parting of ways between Mikhail Aleshin and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the rest of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Sebastian Saavedra will once again be back in the team’s No. 7 Honda for the next two oval races at Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park.

The Colombian impressed in a surprise one-off appearance in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda at Toronto, as Aleshin was sat down for one race. Saavedra ran as high as seventh and finished 11th after improving from 20th on the grid.

“I am very excited to be back with the SPM organization,” Saavedra said in a release. “It’s another late call to jump in, but I take it with pride after a promising start of our relationship in Toronto. Looking forward to a challenging event as the Tricky Triangle can be, and support (James) Hinchcliffe in his pursuit of championship points. I’m thankful to my sponsors and my continued relationship with AFS Inc.”

“Delighted to have Sebastian back with the SPM team following what was a very encouraging performance at the Toronto event,” added Piers Phillips, General Manager of SPM. “He is experienced and competent, and I have no doubt he will contribute to the overall performance of the team. We’re heading to Pocono full of confidence as a team and we’re looking forward to hopefully seeing Sebastian and James at the front of the pack.”

The likable 27-year-old driver has enjoyed longtime support from Gary Peterson of AFS Racing throughout a stop-start IndyCar career since 2010, with more than 60 career starts and just a handful of top-10 finishes.

It remains to be seen what Saavedra and Peterson put together for 2018; at Mid-Ohio, Peterson indicated he was working towards an IMSA Prototype program next year.

As for the final two road course races this year at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, SPM has not yet announced that plan.

Robert Wickens, who filled in for Aleshin temporarily on the Friday of Road America weekend, made his case on Tuesday to “stir the pot” a bit in a social media post.

The Canadian doesn’t have any DTM conflicts either weekend and would be a popular selection if he does get the call.

Two upcoming oval races provide great win chances for ECR

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Ed Carpenter Racing, surprisingly, has only four races left to extend its run of winning at least one race in a Verizon IndyCar Series season to four straight years.

Mike Conway brought Carpenter two wins on the streets of Long Beach and Toronto in 2014, while Carpenter won his most recent race at Texas. Then with Josef Newgarden winning twice at Barber and Toronto in 2015, under the CFH Racing banner, before the team reverted back to ECR last year, Newgarden won again in Iowa last year in dominant, beat-down fashion.

As a team that’s been a consistent thorn in the side of the more established “big three” teams, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti, Carpenter’s team has been close on a couple occasions to continuing its winning pedigree this year but come up short. Short oval races that got away from JR Hildebrand at Iowa and both Hildebrand and Carpenter at Phoenix loom large.

Still, Hildebrand is keen to note how he and new engineer Justin Taylor have meshed this year – and how this two-week break in the schedule has allowed for a full reset.

“The only thing (that’s bad) with the schedule for the series is that it’s pretty rapid fire,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports. “So sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’ve fully analyzed everything you do on a weekend, before shifting gears to the next thing. You have to look at making ‘base hits’ through the season. You don’t have time to make really dramatic changes without the time between races.

“It’s definitely been fast paced just across the board. You’re going from a couple races and testing to being back in the saddle, full blast is an adjustment. Overall it’s a really good group of guys we have. It’s been fun working with Justin. He’s done a good job, and that makes all the little differences.”

Hildebrand lamented the late-race loss at Iowa; he got balked a bit in traffic but was still happy to finish second, particularly after an accident in practice that forced the ECR team to need to make repairs to his primary No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

“It was obviously frustrating to have a situation like that. The race was so much different from that perspective. That more than anything I what’s irritating. Something like that wouldn’t have happened a year ago with the tire being a little different, track temps being under control,” Hildebrand explained about the changes in temperatures and Firestone’s year-on-year tire difference.

“At the end of the day – particularly given the season we’ve had with the ups and downs – so for me I can kind of look at that and feel some relief we executed at a high level all weekend,” he said. “The Iowa weekend was not super easy with the change in tire; we knew from the test day that the car was different, so we working so hard to find the bit of magic from the previous year. The way it all worked out, I felt like that we got as much out of it as we could.

“We could have won that race. But we came back from an accident in practice to get to the outside front row. I’ll end up looking back at that and felt, ‘Well that could have been my first IndyCar win,’ but over the course of the midst of the season, I felt good about bringing it home on podium. We know that we’ve had cars that are good circumstances play out over time.”

While Pocono could play to ECR’s benefit – Carpenter qualified second and Hildebrand sixth at the Indianapolis 500 before falling back to unrepresentative finishes – it’s Gateway where the team also looks to break through considering its short oval prowess this season.

Said Hildebrand, “St. Louis should be good; we’ve been at our best from a competitiveness standpoint at short ovals. Again it’s a bit of an unknown, in terms of what to expect from the new surface. But with the track grip coming up and us as good as we were at Phoenix, that should bode well.”

Carpenter, who’s finished 12th or better in each of his four starts this season, now has his first and only chance to race consecutive events all season.

“I have always really enjoyed racing an Indy car at Pocono,” Carpenter said heading into the weekend. “It’s such a challenging track that requires a lot of work to get the right setup on the car. While we’ve had good cars there in the past, good results have eluded us. It’s my second-to-last race of the year, so I’m hopeful we can get the finish we have been working towards!”

Newgarden was fourth at Pocono last year; Carpenter’s best finish at Pocono is ninth in 2013 while Hildebrand makes his first Pocono start this weekend.

Dane Cameron’s ‘Penske perfect’ arrival comes at just right time

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A friendly exchange with Dane Cameron yesterday in the immediate aftermath of his confirmation for the Team Penske and Acura Motorsports sports car program centered on the fact that somehow, he’s still only 28 years old.

This seems hard to believe considering all that Cameron has accomplished in the North American sports car landscape, but yet still hasn’t quite received the major notoriety within the national racing consciousness beyond the hardcore followers of the sport.

Cameron could well have been an open-wheel star but like many others in the mid-to-late 2000s, was a victim of terrible timing. After cleaning up in the 2007 Star Mazda championship (now Pro Mazda) with JDC Motorsports, Cameron’s reward was graduating into Formula Atlantic in 2008… the same year Champ Car folded and its assets were absorbed by INDYCAR.

Nonetheless Cameron, the son of longtime winning racing engineer Rick Cameron, was always high on speed and potential and showed it in a variety of sports car outings over the years to come.

He raced primarily the screaming, rotary-powered Mazda RX-8s in GRAND-AM, then raced a variety of prototypes in the following years before landing his first major drive within the merged sports car championship, at Turner Motorsport in 2014 with a BMW Z4 GT3 – and promptly won the GT Daytona class title.

A move to Action Express Racing was the next step in his career growth, joining the established Daytona Prototype championship-winning outfit with Eric Curran and Whelen Engineering in the team’s second car. That team took time to grow but still won quickly and contended for the title in its first year, prior to breaking through and winning last year’s title.

Cameron’s 2017 season has been an exercise in frustration as the landscape of the merged IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship has changed. Expected to defend the title, Cameron and Curran have instead struggled for the same level of metronomic consistency of the last two years and Cameron, who’s still blindingly quick, has often been playing catchup in the more aero dependent Cadillac as the Action Express team has worked to understand the baseline Dallara chassis that lies underneath the Cadillac DPi bodywork. Coming from a period of success with Coyote, that chassis change for the team shouldn’t be overlooked.

Arguably the flashpoint of Cameron’s 2017 campaign came early on at Long Beach, with a rare unforced error trying to close the gap after going in too deep into the tight, tricky 90-degree right-hander. It wrote off a car and forced the team into a scramble drill prior to the next round at Circuit of The Americas.

Just three races into the season, it also left Cameron and Curran 26 points back of the Taylor brothers – a near insurmountable gap to overcome over seven races given IMSA’s points system makes it difficult to gain more than a handful of points per race. As it sits now, they’re 31 points back, five races later and with only two more to go.

Was a change of scenery inevitable for Cameron? Given the timing and opportunity available here, Cameron was always a natural fit. Although the Cameron/Curran pairing won last year’s title, few seasoned paddock observers will have rated it as the top one on the grid.

Much like Josef Newgarden in IndyCar or Ryan Blaney in NASCAR, Cameron is that 2017 type of “Penske perfect” type of driver – still under 30, with a lot of his future ahead of him, but enough experience built up to add his name to the Penske file now.

He’s business-first, with the clean-cut look, who is all business on the track but does have a sneaky sense of humor beneath the surface. Cameron, who’s married to wife Sarah and has two kids, chooses his words carefully; brevity is one of his skill sets, as he’s always careful of what he says and how he says it. He already lives in North Carolina, so that means he’s already close to the shop.

One of the cool things Penske can provide is a cross-promotional platform between its other series. And sure, you don’t expect to see Cameron racing in NASCAR, IndyCar or V8 Supercars anytime soon – though he’d probably excel in any opportunity if given the chance with the variety of cars he’s already raced – but the brand exposure for him can get built up here in the years to come, especially as he’s paired with a known name in teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who was winning titles in the 1990s when Cameron had only just reached double digits in age. Add him to the “Penske Games” social media video series next year, and it’ll be interesting to see what side of his personality emerges.

For Cameron, while this deal appears to have come together quickly even though as rumors of his name being with Penske have percolated for months, the timing still seems just right.

“It’s all really come together pretty quickly in the last couple days really, to be honest, to get it done,” he said. “That being said, I really only signed the contract last night (Monday). It’s kind of escalated pretty quickly.

“I’m really excited about a tremendous opportunity to represent Acura and to work with everyone here at Team Penske. I haven’t seen much yet so far, but been getting around, shaking a couple hands, been really impressed so far.  Quite excited with what lies ahead.”

Cameron’s experience with Action Express these last three years will be key for Penske, Acura and Montoya to draw upon for 2018. For Cameron, having the stability of a long-term home there was key after the aforementioned five years between 2009 and 2013 when he raced a number of different series and cars but rarely stayed with the same team and/or in the same car for more than two consecutive years.

“It’s been a terrifically successful three‑year stretch, to win a bunch of races, to win a title. I really enjoyed myself there, and I really want to thank everyone at Actions Express and Whelen Engineering for not only the opportunity to go there in the first place, but then for great cars and teams and great results,” he said.

“It wasn’t an easy decision at all to come to this point. It’s been a good home for me there. Yeah, it was not easy, but an opportunity to work closely with Acura and to join Team Penske was a little too good for me to pass up.

“I’m looking forward to the future, but also remaining focused and committed to having a strong couple races here to close out the current IMSA season.”

The testing for Cameron will begin shortly after Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7, when he enters officially into the Acura ARX-05 – which by that point, Montoya will have put through its paces. It will be a busy build-up period over the winter before the Rolex 24 at Daytona, but Cameron will be key to getting the car to the starting line, then excelling once 2018 hits.

“It will be fun to be a part of the early stages of the program and try to contribute as best I can,” he said

“Obviously, Team Penske is what it is because of the people that are in place, as well as Acura and the engine that’s going to be part of the program. I think it’s pretty well‑sorted.

“I don’t think anyone who is involved with this program is doing it for any other reason except to win races and championships and pole positions.  I think as a driver you always have that expectation for yourself.

“I don’t think anyone expects more out of ourselves than Juan and I will. I don’t see any reason why we can’t come out of the gate strong at Daytona.”

Bourdais cleared to drive; return date still TBA

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Sebastien Bourdais was in Indianapolis on Tuesday and for good reason – not even three months after his devastating accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500, he received medical clearance that he is cleared to return to racing action.

Bourdais posted late Tuesday night he’d had his final appointment with his doctor and has been cleared to return to action. He’d targeted mid-August as the date to get this clearance, and this lives up to that target. He sustained pelvic and hip fractures in the accident in qualifying.

The Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT team welcomed Bourdais back to the Indianapolis shop on Woodland Drive on Tuesday, in anticipation for what would be Bourdais’ return to sports car competition at the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale, Motul Petit Le Mans, Oct. 5-7.

As for his day job, back in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, the team is yet to reveal when Bourdais will be back racing. Bourdais has set Watkins Glen as a target on Labor Day weekend, following the next two races on ovals at Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and Gateway Motorsports Park.

Provided the Coyne team can get through these two oval races cleanly with the rookie pair of Esteban Gutierrez and Ed Jones, that would increase the likelihood of a Bourdais return at Watkins Glen.

Bourdais tested at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course the Monday after that race, which was a huge step towards his formal comeback. He spoke to NBCSN contributor Robin Miller during the Honda Indy 200 race telecast.