MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 1

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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 beginning our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our top five on-track stories this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. In the meantime, our first thoughts, without further adieu:

Tony DiZinno’s Top Five:

Dixon and Ganassi’s comeback: You pretty much know the story by now. Down 92 points to Castroneves 10 races into the season, Dixon and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team turned things around thanks to Honda’s updated engine specs and a one-day summer test at Sebring that paid huge setup dividends the rest of the season. The Pocono 1-2-3 sweep was a shock, but it was backed up less than a week later with Dixon delivering a crushing “I’m baaaaack!” blow with a doubleheader sweep in Toronto. That propelled him into title contention and while he had to overcome setbacks in Sonoma and Baltimore, the team went out and won the title and did not luck into it. A thoroughly deserved title for both driver and team.

Another lost title for the Penske file: It was a very good year for Helio Castroneves and Team Penske … but they will have to kick themselves for the mechanical woes back-to-back days in Houston. And the pit road call-in mistake by “the Captain” at Fontana. And the missed opportunities by Will Power in the first half of the year. The team’s still one of IndyCar’s best three, but the lack of a title since 2006 looms large when Ganassi and Andretti Autosport have swept the last seven.

Parity, Pagenaud, and Wilson: Ten different race winners, 20 different podium finishers, and a driver’s and manufacturer’s title that went down to the last race. The parity in IndyCar, 2013 was simply phenomenal. And the two best examples of those who should get a lot more credit than they currently earn are Simon Pagenaud and Justin Wilson. Pagenaud is a beast, a setup demon and emerging superstar in this series who earned his first two wins at Detroit Race 2 and Baltimore and finished third in the championship for a team with fewer resources, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. The same holds true for Wilson, who despite not winning this year was once again the thorn in the “big dogs’” side for Dale Coyne Racing. He would have finished fourth had it not been for his Fontana accident.

Mixed family fortunes: Marco Andretti was much improved and Graham Rahal had a season from hell. There’s enough other American stars – 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and emerging talents Charlie Kimball and Josef Newgarden – that could capably carry the banner for Americans in IndyCar if the “anointed ones” fail to live up to their surnames. Andretti took several steps in the right direction this year and it paid dividends; Rahal, despite a homecoming, and the team often missed the setup from the off and left them mired in the field. A midseason engineering change helped but was not a cure-all.

Part-time stars: A year ago, only two drivers – Giorgio Pantano and Bruno Junqueira – were called on as injury replacements to full-season regulars, thus removing one of the best parts of the IndyCar season: the one-off star. This year, with only 23 of 38 drivers doing a full season or close, we were afforded a greater variety of surprises that had a shot to make their mark on the field. The standouts would have to be Mike Conway, Carlos Munoz and Luca Filippi, and there’s a very good chance the latter two will have full season rides next year. AJ Allmendinger brought excitement – good and bad – in his first six open-wheel races since 2006. Others also made their debuts and had their moments. It was a refreshing tonic to break up the monotony of the same lineup in all cars, each race.

Chris Estrada’s Top Five:

Level of competition stands out: The depth of the IZOD IndyCar Series is the one element that stands out to me with 2013 in the books, as 10 different drivers claimed victories over the 19-race season. Yes, the bigger teams eventually took control of the proceedings after smaller squads like A.J. Foyt Racing, KVSH Racing, Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports turned the first half of the year upside-down. But it was still refreshing to see such competitiveness from top to bottom, likely a by-product of teams having a year of experience with the new Dallara DW12 and turbo-charged engines.

Dixon, Ganassi strike again: Even during their first-half struggles, I noted that it would be unwise to count out Target Chip Ganassi Racing. And look what happened in the end. Championships are always tremendous achievements but this one has to mean a little bit more for TCGR and Scott Dixon, who rallied over the second half of the season and survived a season-finale full of incidents in Fontana to pull out another IndyCar title over their arch-rivals from Team Penske. Their rise to the top showcased their skill and tested their fortitude, but once again, “Team Target” reigns supreme. Bow to the kings.

The next generation: Say what you will about IndyCar’s legion of off-track issues, but the series’ crop of young drivers are showing signs that we’ll be in for more tremendous racing in the years to come. The new core is forming nicely around competitors such as Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, and Josef Newgarden. Toss in Carlos Munoz, seemingly bent on following Tomas Scheckter as the “Mr. Excitement” of the series, and other strong Mazda Road to Indy prospects like Indy Lights champ Sage Karam and Pro Mazda champ Matthew Brabham, and open-wheel fans have a lot to look forward to.

“Month of May” returns: This coming May will be a historic one for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as it hosts two IndyCar races during the month. The inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis, to be run around a reconfigured IMS road course, will open proceedings and lead into preparations for the 98th Indianapolis 500 on the Brickyard’s beloved oval. It’s certainly not the traditional Month of May but at this point, IndyCar has to find ways to wake up the public that continually sleeps on them despite putting on some of the best racing on the planet.

Will it ever happen for Helio?: In the Houston doubleheader earlier this month, the other shoe finally dropped for Helio Castroneves after he had completed every lap of every race going in. Mechanical problems in both Houston races caused him to go from 49 points ahead of Scott Dixon to 25 points behind him and he was unable to close the gap at Fontana. Once again, the three-time Indy 500 winner has lost out on a championship and with each passing year, the window gets a little bit smaller. It should be noted that, outside of Houston, this was perhaps his most consistent season ever with one win, five podiums, and 16 Top-10s. But the question remains: Will that IndyCar crown ever be his?