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MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 2

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Earlier this year, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a two-part look at the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Part one focused on our respective bests/worsts, with the second each of our top five stories.

We’re continuing our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our respective bests and worsts of this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. As you’ll see below, Chris and I agreed on several items, but occasionally for different reasons…

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. A no-doubter. Four second-half wins including the incredible run of three in eight days at Pocono and Toronto, a revitalized charge at Houston after getting knocked down at Sonoma and Baltimore, and a controlled drive at Fontana all did the trick for Dixon’s third IndyCar title. Helio Castroneves collected points, but Dixon went out and took points away.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s place among IndyCar’s all-time best competitors has to be secure after he charged from seventh in the standings at mid-season to his third career IndyCar Series championship. His three-race win streak in July (Pocono, Toronto 1 and 2) put him back in the title picture, but he proved how strong his resolve is after suffering twin calamities at Sonoma and Baltimore, and capitalized on the misfortunes of title rival Helio Castroneves in the Houston doubleheader with a win and runner-up. From there, he did what he had to do at Fontana and now he’s back on top of the mountain – a well-deserved triumph for one of the sport’s most tenacious drivers.

MOST DISAPPOINTING DRIVER

TDZ: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sebastian Saavedra’s a close second for me, but the stats don’t lie: Rahal tied Saavedra with the worst starting average in the field (17.7), had only five top-10 finishes in 19 races, and finished 18th in the standings. Plus, James Jakes hassled him way more than I thought was possible. A midseason engineering change from Gerry Hughes to Neil Fife helped, but it wasn’t enough to make a sizeable difference. Perhaps the addition of Bill Pappas for 2014, announced Thursday, will. I certainly didn’t expect this, and I’m fairly certain these guys didn’t either.

CE: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Things just never really got on track for Rahal in his first full-time season with the family team. He and the No. 15 crew are capable of better as they showed in their flashes of promise this season, like their podium at Long Beach, drive to fifth in Iowa and jumping 17 positions in Houston Race 1 for a top-10 result. It’s moments like those that should make the RLL camp optimistic about what they can do when everything does come together. But 2013 was definitely not that time.

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER

TDZ: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Either “Newgy” or “Chuck strong,” Charlie Kimball, would be a worthy recipient here, and Chris hits Charlie’s case below. I’ll state Josef’s. The kid overachieved on a single-car team in his sophomore season and eliminated the mistakes that all-too-frequently occurred in his rookie year. He could have won at Brazil had it not been for ill-timed defending by Takuma Sato, and his run to second at Baltimore was one of the drives of the year. There, he started fifth, bounced from front to back to front again, and handled the track’s notorious chicane like a boss. His qualifying could be better but that’s my only demerit; 23rd to 14th is an excellent jump in the standings and in 2014 he should be contending for his first win, and a top-10 points finish, a la Kimball this year.

CE: Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. The IndyCar Series had four first-time winners in 2013, but it can be argued that Kimball’s breakthrough at Mid-Ohio in August was the most heart-warming of them all. It was the climax of a very competitive 2013 for the American driver, who logged two podiums (the other coming at Pocono), three top-5s, and 10 top-10s en route to a respectable ninth-place finish in the championship. Even better: With Kimball’s star rising on the track, he and sponsor Novo Nordisk’s noble work toward diabetes awareness is sure to resonate further off of it.

BEST RACE

TDZ: Brazil. Several second-half races challenged it from a drama standpoint – Sonoma, Baltimore, both Houston rounds and the Fontana season finale – but Brazil was the best blend of on-track drama and an incredible finish in my estimation.

CE: Brazil. Of course, this race is currently off the schedule for next season (*facepalm*). Time will tell if it comes back in 2015, but let’s hope so. This year’s running was everything a motor race should be – passes for position galore, daring maneuvers, and a battle that went all the way to the final corner. Even the most hardened oval-racing fans had to love what they saw in the streets of Sao Paulo.

WORST RACE

TDZ: Houston Race 2. The battle between Will Power and Dixon for the win was good, and there was decent passing throughout the field. So why does this qualify? The last-lap wreck that sent Franchitti airborne was the icing on the cake on what was IndyCar’s most trying weekend of the season. Franchitti and fans got injured, the national passerby media popped up again questioning IndyCar’s safety, and most folks left with a sour taste in their mouths.

CE: Houston Race 2. If you saw our coverage during the Grand Prix of Houston weekend, you’ll know that the on-track proceedings left much to be desired: Constant schedule changes, temporary chicanes, bipolar weather conditions, the botched setting of the Race 2 grid, and then, Franchitti getting sent into the catch fence on the final lap and scattering debris into the grandstands. Thankfully, Franchitti survived the incident and the injured fans weren’t severely dinged up. But altogether, it was certainly not IndyCar’s finest hour.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Going to take a step down to the Mazda Road to Indy ladder for this. The announcement that Dan Anderson and Andersen Promotions will take over Indy Lights, thus putting it under the same umbrella as Pro Mazda and USF2000, is huge. There is more cohesion, more announcements, and more possibilities for growth under one tent than separate.

CE: I don’t really see this so much as a “story,” but more so as “the right thing to do.” Shortly after the events of Houston, IndyCar drivers such as Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon went to a local hospital to visit some of the fans that were hit with the debris from the aforementioned crash. It was a poignant reminder of just how many good people there are within the series.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Take your pick of the 2014 schedule and the doubts that raises among some IndyCar fans, the IMS road course race, the lack of a commercial division head or the rash of sponsors that are on the way out at the end of this year. To me, IZOD’s departure is the biggest – and worst – off-track story this year. It was not unexpected as signs of its leaving have been forecast for almost two years. At the moment though, there is little to no buzz about a potential replacement. I had mooted a couple suggestions a month or so ago but neither appears serious as time has passed. IndyCar has a good product, but will remain invisible on a national scale so long as it does not have a key title sponsor to activate and promote the series. This remains Mark Miles and Hulman & Co.’s biggest challenge, and as Miles performs company reorganization this winter, they seek the big fish that can help get this product to the people.

CE: I have to go with the condensed schedule rolled out for 2014. While keeping tabs on the season-finale at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month, I had the rather cringe-worthy realization that IndyCar would be almost two months into its off-season by this time next fall. Nobody wants to deal with the NFL, but the proposed international winter series for 2015 better come off or the series will sink further into irrelevance thanks to its extended hiatus.

McFADIN: Return of ‘old-school Texas’ worth the wait

FORT WORTH, TX - AUGUST 27: James Hinchcliffe driver of the #5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda leads Tony Kanaan driver of the #10 NTT Data Chevrolet and Graham Rahal driver of the #15 Mi-Jack/RLL Honda going into the final lap during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on August 27, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Mike Stone/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – If you squinted hard enough, it was 2002 all over again.

“It took some old-school Texas right there,” said Tony Kanaan, who was actually there. “I had to dig into my hard drive and remember how to do pack racing again, and it worked out pretty well.”

For a few hours Saturday night, it was as if 14 years hadn’t passed since Texas Motor Speedway’s peak era of “pack racing.”

James Hinchcliffe wishes that were the case. If it were, he might have won the 2016 Firestone 600.

“My night was great until about eight minutes to go,” Hinchcliffe joked in the TMS media center after finishing second to Graham Rahal in a race that began 77 days earlier on June 12.

Hinchcliffe led 188 laps between June 12 and Aug. 27, but Rahal led only one – the big one – by a track record .008 seconds.

“I’ve seen so many races won here on the high line, coming to the line because you just have that momentum off of (Turn) 4,” Hinchcliffe said. “I was going — thinking back to my IRL Classic days and Sam Hornish Jr.’s tricks and all the rest of it, but man, Graham just pulled through (Turns) 3 and 4 like no one had all night.”

Hinchcliffe, who lapped the field up to fifth place, said his No. 5 Honda was an “absolute rocketship.”

But after a late afternoon practice session, Rahal told his team over the radio that his No. 15 Honda was “a f—ing rocketship.”

Rahal initiated The Dive as he, Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan approached Turn 3 for the last time.

Other drivers, including Kanaan, had made similar desperate maneuvers in the seven laps since the last restart.

Rahal, who had restarted the race in 12th and at one point in the night survived a four-wide pass, was the only one who made it work.

“Once I could get there, I could drive through them,” said Rahal, who had to juggle battling Kanaan for second while also trying to overtake Hinchcliffe. “It was just a matter of trying to pick your spot, and very fortunately at the end, I knew I was going to have to try to take Hinch to the top side because there was only one way actually to clear him, which was to the bottom, and I was just very lucky it worked.”

After constantly fending off Kanaan, Hinchcliffe had expected to contend with him coming to the checkers. To Hinchcliffe’s surprise, it was the No. 15 that finally bested him as Kanaan settle into third.

“I hadn’t been next to a car all night that cleared me that quickly,” Hinchcliffe said, his right hand on his face in disbelief. “You know, he had the pace when he needed to. That was the time to make that move, and like I said, credit to him.”

Rahal, who won three times in the last two seasons, was gracious to Hinchcliffe as he wore the cowboy hat that winners at TMS are bestowed. The hat he lost to Justin Wilson in 2012.

“I have to thank Hinch a lot because, first of all, we’re flying home together tonight, so at least it’s not going to be awkward,” Rahal joked. “Second of all, he gave me some good room at the bottom and didn’t end up in tears. Have to thank him for good, clean driving.”

As Rahal and his car were pushed toward a waiting victory lane, his teammates would not stop yelling.

Amid the hollers, one gray-clad team member declared simply – “That’s racing!”

Even though he led 188 laps and finished second, Hinchcliffe agrees with those who snatched away his shot to wear a 10-gallon hat and fire off six-shooters.

“I had a blast. That’s the problem. I had an absolute blast. Had I not led every lap of the race, I would be much happier than I am,” Hinchcliffe said. “Certainly at the end we put on a hell of a show for the fans, and that’s what we’re here for … It would have been a lot more boring if some car just won by half a straightaway.”

That’s coming from the driver who until a series of late cautions, likely would have done that exact thing.

“It’s also a lot different than what it used to be,” Rahal said. “It is not just flat-out easy pack racing anymore. I mean, you were lifting a heck of a lot in traffic, but the way these cars suck up nowadays, the draft is huge so it just makes the racing awesome.”

It may have looked like 2002. But in 2016, it might have been better.

Pagenaud takes pivotal fourth place finish in Texas

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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The resumption of the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway offered Simon Pagenaud a challenge: recover from his first and thus far only mistake of the year on Monday in Pocono and put forth a championship-caliber performance, or incur a second straight dud result that could put pause to those hopes.

But despite the “weird” nature of the day that faced him going into it, Pagenaud delivered a key drive aided by a good strategic call from his No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Team Penske Chevrolet team to secure a potentially pivotal fourth place finish for the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series season.

After a spate of late-race accidents, Pagenaud was one of two drivers along with Tony Kanaan who opted to pit for fresh Firestone tires.

The gamble paid dividends because inevitably, those cars with the fresher tires would move towards the front in the later stages.

Pagenaud, who’s certainly been better on ovals this season in his second year with Team Penske but hasn’t yet had that incredible “tip of your tongue” memory oval drive, had to balance fighting for the win with three hungry drivers who hadn’t yet won this year – Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe and eventual winner Graham Rahal.

But he did just that, fighting hard yet clean in an intense four-way battle on a night he needed a big result to restart his title momentum, in a race that was looming large on the calendar.

Yeah, he ended fourth – but with Will Power in eighth, he gained eight points to stretch his lead to 28 points – and that provides the latest pendulum swing between the two in a year full of them.

“My spotter said, ‘four-wide’, and I’m like uh, oh, that’s no good,” Pagenaud said post-race. “And then Rahal touched me and I touched Hinchcliffe, so I was actually loose going into the corner and had to back out of it.

“It’s unfortunate. I really wanted to get that first oval win. But, I think no matter what, that was a great performance. The HP car was amazing all night. Thanks to Chevy, obviously; this aero kit is really amazing. It really shows what the IndyCars can do. I think tonight we had a great show. Did you guys enjoy it? I did. I didn’t have any breath left, you know?

“Wow. That was exciting! I don’t think I have any breath left. I thought we were going to get it, but when it went four wide I got touched and pushed me into (James Hinchcliffe) and I had to back out of it or there was going to be a big wreck. The Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevy just got better and better all night. I really thought it was going to come together right at the end when we got back on the lead lap. We were able to come in for tires. Everything nearly came together.”

Dixon, Carpenter disagree over contact at Texas (VIDEO)

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Scott Dixon and Ed Carpenter are both good dudes, dads, husbands, and fathers to multiple children. They’re both good friends who embrace Indianapolis. And they both happen to wheel an IndyCar pretty well.

Yet rarely do their paths cross on the racetrack – primarily because Carpenter only races in the Verizon IndyCar Series on ovals – but tonight they did at Texas Motor Speedway in the resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600.

And it got interesting when the two collided in the final 40 laps of the race.

Carpenter, who was wearing a throwback helmet, restarted in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet from fifth place and Dixon from 14th in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet when the race resumed.

For a while, Carpenter had about the only car capable of challenging the pretty much dominant driver and car of the night, James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

For a moment, it appeared as though Carpenter would seek to match Hinchcliffe’s strategy to get to the finish on potentially one less stop than their competitors.

Any strategy hopes went out the window though when Dixon, who was lapped at the time, and Carpenter made contact on Lap 213. The first replay made it appear as though Carpenter chopped Dixon, but that was misleading; upon a second replay, appeared actually more of a racing incident.

As Carpenter took the second apex in the tri-oval, Dixon also moved up, and it sent Dixon spinning out of control into Turn 1 – and then back across the track where fortunately all other cars (except the seemingly luckless Helio Castroneves, who’s been a magnet for other car contacts this year) managed to avoid hitting him.

A less than pleased Dixon channeled his inner Will Power at Loudon in 2011 responded by giving Carpenter an infamous “double bird” salute. Carpenter continued, and Dixon was done on the spot.

But Carpenter’s race didn’t last much longer, as he got loose exiting Turn 4 and crashed out, again collecting Castroneves. Max Chilton spun in avoidance to the infield grass on the tri-oval.

With both drivers out, it marked a frustrating end to their nights.

Dixon’s continually frustrating 2016 season sees his championship hopes all but mathematically end tonight. After finishing 19th and with a maximum of 158 points left on the table, Dixon sits 132 back with just two races to go. His perhaps greater streak, finishing in the top three in points every year since 2006, is also in jeopardy; he sits sixth.

“I like Ed [Carpenter] and he’s a good friend, but I don’t know what the hell he was doing out there,” Dixon said, via post-race quotes distributed by Chevrolet.

“Three laps before that he nearly crashed me doing the same thing going into Turn 3. And then going into Turn 1 he just turned left into me. I don’t know if his radio wasn’t working or he didn’t have a spotter, but how you don’t get a penalty for that I have no idea.”

Carpenter ends his 2016 season behind the wheel with only one race finish – a lapped 18th in Iowa – in five starts. What he thought was his best chance to bank some sort of result tonight went awry after the contact, and later, his own car getting loose out of Turn 4. He ended 18th tonight.

“The car was awesome. On long runs, I think we were for sure the best car out there. I’d cut into James’s lead every stint. He was a little quicker. We didn’t have the fastest car, but it was good on the long runs,” Carpenter said.

“I’m just bummed. It’s been such a rough year. We’ve had such better cars that what we had last year and really just can’t catch a break.

“Whatever happened with Scott and I there, when my left rear touched his front wing, it must have cut a tire and that led to the accident.

“I’m just really bummed. I thought tonight was a night that we could have gotten a good result. It’s going to be a long off-season before I can get back in the car, but we’ll come back strong next year.”

Spencer Pigot returns to Carpenter’s No. 20 Chevrolet for the final two races at Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway. The latter site is where Pigot made his IndyCar test debut a year ago driving for Team Penske last year, and captured the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title in 2014.

Kanaan praises “old school Texas” as he delivers another star drive (VIDEO)

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The haters can say Tony Kanaan should retire. The haters are incorrect.

Kanaan’s incredible 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season in the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet rolled on Saturday night in the resumption of the rain-delayed Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, when he finished a perhaps hard-luck third after another stout drive.

Kanaan’s been among the best – if not the best – drivers in the field to have not won this year. He came close to ending a near two-year winless drought Saturday night in Texas after fighting with James Hinchcliffe for the lead of the race in the waning stages, with team owner Chip Ganassi and strategist Barry Wanser opting to pit him for fresh Firestone tires in the waning stages.

Graham Rahal got them both by the checkered flag, but Kanaan, 41, still proved there’s plenty of life left in the “old dog.”

“Oh, that was so much fun. I’ve got to thank the fans that came back. I didn’t think there was going to be a lot of people but whoever didn’t come missed a hell of a race,” Kanaan told NBCSN’s Robin Miller post-race.

“That was some old school Texas right there.

“It was a good night. We started way in the back, but we made up positions right away. I think with INDYCAR not changing the rules and the earlier race being a day race, we had a ton of downforce that we had to run during tonight’s race, so the cars felt a lot closer as you could see. I had to dig into my hard drive and remember pack racing again. It worked out pretty well.

“Big props to the guys in front who gave each other room, that’s why we finished the way we did. It’s always a pleasure to race like that. I feel bad for the people that didn’t come back tonight from the first race to watch because it really was a hell of a show.”

Kanaan described the finish: “On the inside. But if Graham (Rahal) wasn’t pushing Hinch (James Hinchcliffe), I was going to have it. So, I was hoping for Graham to get greedy and go three wide. That was going to slow everybody down, but that didn’t happen. He was smart enough.”

With this result, Kanaan is now third in the points, only behind Simon Pagenaud and Will Power. Although he hasn’t won yet in 2016, he has five top-five finishes and only one finish (25th at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis) outside the top-12 all season.