MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 1


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?

With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”