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DiZinno: Top 10 IndyCar Drivers of 2013

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It’s that time of year again when all the pundits rank the season just passed. With some time to reflect on the 2013 IndyCar Series season, my top-10 drivers are below, and my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada’s will follow. Without further adieu:

1. Scott Dixon

If the rest of the top 10 and beyond is hard to separate – and really, from second through about 12th, it is – Scott Dixon stands alone at the top of my 2013 IndyCar Top 10 list. In a year where drivers and others were great in some areas but lacking in others, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing were really the only complete package.

With four wins in total, dominance at the three doubleheader weekends and a resiliency to bounce back from both a rough first half of the year and back-to-back gut punches at Sonoma and Baltimore, Dixon embodied team principal Ganassi’s mantra that the No. 9 crew “never gave up.”

source: Reuters2. Will Power

Power in second may be a surprise choice but if we’re looking at drivers, not purely results, we have to take the Australian’s season into consideration. His results were erratic but consider his luck was abysmal for most of the year. He was speared at St. Petersburg under yellow, his engine grenaded in Brazil, he was taken out of Detroit Race 2, and saw other results go begging at both Toronto races and Baltimore after contact with the Target twins.

His wins were just reward for pace and persistence throughout the year, and apart from the actual results, Power’s stats were still otherwise phenomenal despite this being a year he didn’t contend for the title. He had the best starting average in the field by a full position, 4.31, led the most laps in the field, 351, and most notably upped his oval game as he finished all six oval races and scored a dominant, pivotal victory at the season finale at Fontana.

source: Getty Images3. Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud’s qualifying left something to be desired (11.5 average, with a rough first five races) but other than that, the Frenchman was firmly best outside the established “power teams” of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti Autosport. Frankly if he and/or Justin Wilson had that level machinery, it would be hard for most of the rest bar Dixon and Power to keep up.

Outside of a DNF in the season opener at St. Petersburg that almost knocked him off the radar, Pagenaud blended consistency and brilliance in the remaining 18 races. He won twice, surviving both attrition-filled debacles in Detroit Race 2 and Baltimore, and added seven other results of sixth or better. He was no worse than 13th in any other race outside St. Pete. Consider him a championship contender – probably Honda’s best shot – in 2014.

source: Getty Images4. Justin Wilson

Wilson was the same way in maximizing his equipment, exceeding his car’s potential on a near-regular basis and hassling the regular front runners on a consistent basis. The chemistry of having a second straight season with engineer Bill Pappas at the Dale Coyne Racing team was obvious from the get-go and Wilson quietly hung around and got the results the first half of the season.

Team and driver were even better in the second half and were unfortunate not to bag a victory – same as his three-weekend teammate Mike Conway did in Detroit. Justin was also unlucky to have been hit and injured at Fontana, but hopefully it’s not a setback and we’ll see the lanky Englishman back to his winning ways in 2014.

source: AP5. Helio Castroneves

Considering he nearly won the title, you might be surprised to see Castroneves so far down this list in fifth. Why, perhaps? The epitome of consistent but never truly great, in the sense others ahead of him either blitzed the field on one or more occasions or regularly outperformed their machinery. Or did both.

Where Power always seems to extract the max and then some, Castroneves has become a more methodical driver in letting the results come to him, rather than pushing for them. He’s needed to throttle back after an erratic 2011 season where he seemed to hit everything but the pace car, and went winless for the first time since he joined Team Penske.

And until Houston, that strategy worked perfectly. He led the points for 10 straight races on the strength of that consistency and finishing every lap. But the mechanical woes struck him in back-to-back races and that proved his undoing. The other thing that hurt? Of his six top-five finishes, five came in the first nine races, with only one in the last 10.

When he had nothing to lose, as was the case at Fontana or early in the year at Texas, he was brilliant; sadly, those great performances were all-too-few in a year where “very good” simply wasn’t good enough. Even had he won the title, I still would have probably only placed him third or fourth on this list.

source: Getty Images6. Marco Andretti

7. Ryan Hunter-Reay

There was little to separate either of the next two on my list, Andretti Autosport teammates Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Consider if the top 10 was done after the first half, they may well have been 1 and 2.

But an absolutely abysmal second half plagued the entire Andretti team; it’s as if a lightning bolt struck the team after its front row lockout at Pocono and sent them into an irreversible tail spin of bad luck.

source: Getty Images

Andretti’s luck was much the same, except his bad luck struck on ovals. He reassessed his priorities in the offseason, working with a driver coach and altering his driving for road and street courses, moves that paid dividends. He should have won Milwaukee and Pocono but the races he did finish, he finished well. He ended with 15 top-10s and fifth in points. It was a career year, yet one that could have been even better if a few breaks went his way.

Hunter-Reay drove superbly in his two wins at Barber and Milwaukee and was due a third at Iowa after one of the drives of the season from the rear of the field. Street course results proved his undoing with only two results better than 18th in the nine street races. Those hurt and negated what was the second-best starting average all season, 5.3.

source: Getty Images8. James Hinchcliffe

Hinchcliffe I’ll place eighth because he was rarely as outright fast as Hunter-Reay or Andretti on most occasions, but he also bore the team’s bad luck in the first half of the season. It was a yo-yo of a year – win at St. Pete, followed by consecutive early race DNFs in Barber and Long Beach, dramatic win at Brazil, invisible at Indy, dominant at Iowa, wrecked first corner at Pocono – you get the point.

The second half brought at least a modicum of consistency with six top-10s in the final eight races, and the only two he didn’t was when adverse mechanical issues struck him on the grid at Toronto Race 2, and Houston Race 1. Additionally, it was commendable how well he managed to keep his cool on track while dealing with the pressure of being one of IndyCar’s two marquee free agents, before deciding to re-sign with Andretti. Make no mistake this was a better season for him than in 2012, and he can only get better for 2014.

source: Getty Images9. Sebastien Bourdais

10. Charlie Kimball

There was little to separate Bourdais and Kimball, as well, who I’ve placed in the last two spots ahead of Franchitti and Kanaan. You presume big things from Franchitti and Kanaan and relatively speaking, you expect less from these two given their equipment or experience level at their disposal.

Bourdais was excellent the second half of the year, and like Wilson desperately unlucky not to have secured a win, which would have been Dragon Racing’s maiden victory. The engineering switch to Tom Brown from Neil Fife paid immediate dividends both in qualifying and in the races. Yeah, we remember his podium trophy drop at Toronto, but my word it was great to see the Bourdais of old back. Three podiums included his near miss at Baltimore, and the outstanding ride at Fontana for his Dragon swan song. He had the best car in Champ Car with Newman/Haas but this was the best case of anyone in the field exceeding their machinery level – look at teammate Sebastian Saavedra’s season for a comparison.

source: Getty ImagesKimball finished just behind Bourdais in second half points (237 to 234, fifth and sixth most in the field the last nine races) and was arguably one of the year’s most consistent performers. Indeed he finished the most laps – 2,397 of a possible 2,433 – in the field. His methodical development included trips to the Firestone Fast Six on all three road courses, 10 top-10 finishes, and dynamic drives on four occasions: Barber, Pocono, Mid-Ohio and Fontana. Too often Kimball has just been known as “that driver with diabetes” but his talents beyond the advertising and marketing were on full display this year. It was a welcome sight.

Honorable Mentions: Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan, Mike Conway

Of the rest, Franchitti and Kanaan probably merited a spot if they had maybe one or two more ­­­great drives. Kanaan’s Indianapolis 500 win aside, he only had six other top-10 finishes, four of which were on ovals. He remains one of IndyCar’s oval aces but his team’s erratic performance on road and street courses, often in qualifying, left a lot to be desired.

source: Getty ImagesMeanwhile Franchitti went winless for only the fifth time in his illustrious 16-year career. He had the pace with four Verizon P1 pole awards, but for some reason or another couldn’t finish the deal on Sundays. His best stretch was a run of five straight top-fours from Pocono through Sonoma, but he didn’t look like winning any of them. He’s never felt entirely comfortable with the new DW12 chassis and for the first time since he came back to IndyCar in 2009, was further in Dixon’s rear view mirror than ever before.

I’d have to give Mike Conway the “part-time driver of the year” award, unofficial though that may be. The Englishman jeopardized his own career, resigning himself to criticism after deciding the risk of racing on ovals was simply too much for him. But RLL Racing gave him a shot at Long Beach – Conway promptly stuck a third, previously unraced car in the Firestone Fast Six – and we immediately remembered what a silent ninja assassin this guy is on a street circuit.

Dale Coyne snapped him up for the three doubleheader weekends as it turned out. Conway was simply sublime at Detroit. He did things with that previously unloved, geriatric second DCR Honda that didn’t seem humanly possible around the 2.3-mile street course. The win and third-place were deserved results. He added three other top-10s from his other four starts, and when all was said and done had the second-highest point total in the field on doubleheaders. His 180 trailed only Scott Dixon’s 263. There should be a bidding war to secure his services for the entire 12 road and street race schedule in 2014.

Josef Newgarden channels his inner ‘Ted Crasnick,’ fools almost all IndyCar drivers

"Ted Crasnick," aka Josef Newgarden, in action Thursday. (Photo courtesy ESPN)
(Photos courtesy ESPN)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Ted Crasnick stole the show during Thursday’s Indianapolis 500 media day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Who?

Well, Crasnick’s alter ego is IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden, who dressed up with heavy makeup, a huge fake nose and looked like something out of the 1950s — and then pretended to be a member of the media.

“I wanted to do this idea three years ago,” Newgarden said. “I wanted to first do it as a yellow shirt (track security), but logistically it would have been too difficult.”

Newgarden’s plan finally came to fruition when ESPN agreed to tag along with him during media day for a feature that will be aired Sunday on ABC’s pre-race show before the Indianapolis 500.

“ESPN and I decided together this would be a better idea to do it in the media crowd and I’d be part of the media.”

Newgarden was part of the second scheduled group of drivers that came through later in the session, allowing him to transform into “Ted” for the opening segment – and with no one being the wiser.

Well, almost no one.

Crasnick/Newgarden fooled everyone – with the exception of Will Power. Even one of Newgarden’s best buddies, Graham Rahal, fell for the ruse.

“Will Power was the only guy that knew it was me, and I was shocked he figured it out,” Newgarden said. “No one else knew. Oriol (Servia) didn’t know, Helio (Castroneves) didn’t know, Graham, I don’t think knew. Mikhail (Aleshin) was just awkward to talk to.”

Even Newgarden’s boss, Ed Carpenter, was completely in the dark.

“Ed didn’t know,” Newgarden said. “The one guy that probably should have known it was me didn’t know it was me.”

Newgarden’s alter ego posed as a “reporter” from several outlets, including HarveyWorld.com, Boca Raton Senior Society, ProstateHealth.com and RVWorld.com.

Josef Newgarden begins his transformation into "Ted Crasnick" Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Josef Newgarden midway through his transformation into “Ted Crasnick” Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo courtesy ESPN)

Two of “Crasnick’s” most memorable exchanges were with Oriol Servia and Helio Castroneves.

“Oreo, good to meet you. You’re named after a cookie, I understand,” Crasnick said. … “Oreo, I love that name, it’s so sweet.”

To his credit, Servia played it straight and answered all of Crasnick’s questions, even one that involved, uh, err, “relieving” himself in his race car during a race.

Now, Castroneves was a whole different story.

“Helio lost words about halfway through,” Newgarden said with a laugh. “I’ve never seen him at a loss for words.

“That was the funniest part. I was asking him about peeing in the car and he was so confused about what I was asking him that he just didn’t know what to say.”

Check out a few hits from social media showing “Crasnick” at work:

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Guess who showed up at Indy? New NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 26:  Mark Martin, driver of the #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, stands in the garage arstands in the garage areaduring practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samuel Deeds 400 At The Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 26, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Newly NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee-elect Mark Martin isn’t even entered in either race, but he’ll be doing the proverbial motorsports “double” on Sunday.

Martin will be in Indianapolis for the start of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. A few hours after the green flag drops on the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, he’ll be on a plane headed for Charlotte to take in the Coca-Cola 600 that evening.

Actually, there’s a bit more to all that. Martin felt he had such little chance to be chosen for the Hall that he left his native Arkansas earlier this week to attend the 500.

“It was a bucket list sorta thing,” he said.

But then came Wednesday’s announcement that he had been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2017 – while he was on the road headed to Indy, no less – and Martin’s travel plans suddenly got a lot more complicated.

He was in Indy on Thursday, attending Indianapolis 500 media day. He flies to Charlotte Friday afternoon, returns to Indy on Saturday, and then does the Indianapolis-Charlotte jaunt on Sunday.

“I was speechless, still not sure what to say, other than I’m surprised,” Martin said of his selection for the NASCAR Hall. “If I’d been voting, I’d have voted another way.

“But I’m humbled and honored and not only to be in this class because of the performance of the people in this class and the people, the persons they were. … I just feel really fortunate. It’s like icing on the cake, like the race you never won but always wanted to, and more.”

To further illustrate his total surprise at being chosen for the Hall, Martin quipped, “I did not expect it, or otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the motor home driving up here yesterday.

“I hadn’t been to (the Indy 500) in my lifetime, so now it appears I’m going to be doing the ‘double.’ I’m not driving, but I’m doing the ‘double’ anyway.”

Here’s a few posts from Martin’s Twitter account about his time at IMS on Thursday as well as his selection for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

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Oh, Canada! James Hinchcliffe hopes to repay countrymen for support with Indy 500 win

JHH_5358
Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS — Polesitter James Hinchcliffe wants to obviously win Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 for himself and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

He also wants to win for his family – all 35 million of them.

Hinchcliffe understands very well the huge significance of what his being in the 500 means to everyone in his native Canada.

Since winning the pole, Hinchcliffe has been front-page news from Halifax to Vancouver. He also knows millions of his fellow Canadians will be watching the 500 on television and cheering for the guy who proudly wears the maple leaf.

“After last Sunday, the amount of support pouring out of home was very overwhelming,” Hinchcliffe said during Thursday’s Indy 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “The amount of messages I got that were ‘regardless of what happens Sunday (in the Indy 500), we’re all behind you,’ that’s so nice.”

Now Hinchcliffe hopes to repay the faith his countrymen have had in him throughout his racing career.

“Being the only full-time Canadian driver in the field. I want to do my country proud,” Hinchcliffe said. “I want to give Canadian motorsports fans something to cheer for.”

Hinchcliffe is one of a number of IndyCar drivers that have hailed from north of the border. Among those have been Paul Tracy (from Scarborough, Ontario), Scott Goodyear (Toronto), Alex Tagliani (Montreal) and Patrick Carpentier (LaSalle, Quebec). Tagliani, who starts 33rd, book-ends the field of 33 this year.

And let’s not forget Jacques Villeneuve (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec), the only Canadian to ever win the 500, having done so in 1995, ironically when Goodyear passed the pace car.

“The support I’ve felt from back home from Day 1 of my IndyCar career has just been incredible,” said Hinchcliffe, who hails from the outlying Toronto suburb of Oakville. “We’ve had some good years and bad years, and regardless of the results and in true Canadian fashion, they’re behind you win, lose or draw.

“It’s just incredible. I’ve gotten so lucky to come from that place. To know you have that support and they’re behind you in any situation is huge.”

While Hinchcliffe was a huge Villeneuve fan, the one Indy car driver that he has tried to emulate in his career is the late Greg Moore, who was killed in a crash at Fontana, California, in 1999.

Moore never got the chance to race at Indianapolis, primarily due to the split between CART and the Indy Racing League in 1996.

“Obviously, we lost him too soon,” Hinchcliffe said of Moore. “I was a huge (Jacques) Villeneuve fan. He was really the guy that got me into it (Indy car racing).

“And when he switched to F1, sure, I followed his F1 career very closely, but in IndyCar, his replacement was Greg Moore. And that’s the guy that really connected with me somehow, and not just how he drove.

“There were a lot of bad-fast racing drivers, but Greg was a really great human being. That was the guy that I looked at and thought, ‘Hey, if I ever get to do this for a living, that’s the guy I want to be like.”

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Indy 500 Thursday notes: Logos, lights, Lilly, lunches and more

DalyLilly18
Photo: Dale Coyne Racing
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INDIANAPOLIS – The beauty of media day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is that you get a lot of interviews done. The downside of media day is that you then have to transcribe those interviews.

Alas, even though on-track activity was limited to just Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires practice and qualifying, it’s still been a busy day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Quick notes are below:

  • 101st500logoThe logo for the 101st Indy 500 and the “race to renew” were unveiled. Much, of course, is being made about the 100th running of the race and as you’d expect, the powers-that-be are concerned with the retention plan for the 101st race, which will take place May 28, 2017. A full release from IMS is linked here, while the logo is posted to the right.
  • Indy Lights qualifying got canceled. Not from a lack of effort. Practice was shortened from three hours – 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. – to just 90 minutes from 9 to 10:30. Juan Piedrahita led the way for Team Pelfrey. Qualifying then got through the first eight drivers before an accident for Zachary Claman De Melo and then rain hit. Carlin’s Ed Jones will have the pole position, with the field set by points, over Santiago Urrutia and Kyle Kaiser. The race airs live at noon on Friday as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, which begins at 11 a.m. ET.
  • Other lights announced. “Lights at the Brickyard” was announced late Wednesday, to tentatively run from Nov. 18 to Dec. 31. Here’s that full release.
  • Lilly to Conor Daly’s car. Lilly Diabetes joins Conor Daly’s No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda as co-primary sponsor. From a team release: “Lilly Diabetes of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company (LLY) will serve as co-primary sponsor of the No. 18 ShirtsForAmerica.com/Lilly Diabetes Honda, driven by Conor Daly, in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 29. As part of the sponsorship, Daly’s No. 18 car will run a special patriotic paint scheme with a series of four stars, one colored in blue to recognize the one in four veterans who live with diabetes, which is two and a half times greater than the general population.”
  • Newgarden “wins” media day. My colleague Jerry Bonkowski have a boat load of interviews to get through that you’ll see on NBCSports.com throughout the coming days. But a quick hat tip first to the Indianapolis Star, who already has this post up on Josef Newgarden’s prank as an interviewer himself.
  • Pennzoil, Penske host lunch. Team Penske’s usual Thursday night media dinner shifted to being a lunch this afternoon to pay tribute to its partnership with Shell Pennzoil – Pennzoil adorns the No. 3 “Yelio Submarine” Chevrolet driven by Helio Castroneves – and to prepare for the 100th Indianapolis 500 race. Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya all spoke along with Roger Penske, Tim Cindric and a key Shell executive. Penske said IndyCar has “one of the best products” and is determined for his team to win his 17th Indianapolis 500 with any of its four drivers.
  • So does Townsend Bell with California Pizza Kitchen. Based on the pics below, we’re in for a doozy tomorrow as part of our Carb Day coverage.

  • Which speaking of that coverage… It runs from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN and will feature Carb Day practice, the Indy Lights Freedom 100, and the 2016 Pit Stop Competition.

The Pit Stop Competition bracket is below:

PitStopComp16

More to come from Indy later today and tomorrow.