MotorSportsTalk 2014 IndyCar Season Review: Top 5 Stories

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With the Verizon IndyCar Series season in the rear view mirror, and as we await some news items into the offseason, we’re looking back on the season just completed a little under a month ago.

My MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I each digest our top-five stories from the year, below:

Tony DiZinno’s Top Five:

Will, finally: The stars finally aligned for Will Power, despite what seemed to be a rash of midseason penalties that could have destroyed him. There wasn’t the usual level of dominance on the road and street courses, but there was an uptick on ovals and a carryover in the attitude of win first, rather than points race, that served him well. A deserving Verizon IndyCar Series champion.

Montoya’s comeback: The fact Juan Pablo Montoya came back to IndyCar was a story in and of itself, but I doubt few had him performing the way he did. From a methodical race-by-race growth at the start of the year to his race win at Pocono and his frequent hassling of the leaders, particularly on ovals, JPM was back with a vengeance in 2014. Coupled with a full offseason and renewed momentum, he should be a title contender in 2015.

Verizon’s arrival: It was a major boon for the series to gain Verizon as entitlement partner just before the start of the 2014 season. Considering the company’s resources, available dollars and technological advances, the partnership just made sense. While Verizon got their lay of the land this season in its first year as title sponsor, I’m very intrigued to see what they can do now for 2015 with a full offseason to sink their teeth into the product and see what kind of growth and further activation they can plan out.

Continued parity: 11 winners and 20 different podium finishers in 18 races – and with Chip Ganassi Racing having gone winless in the first 14 races before taking three of the last four – again served to show the competitiveness, and randomness, that IndyCar continues to showcase. All four full-time rookies scored at least one podium finish. There was the emergence of Josef Newgarden on the single-car Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team. The question for 2015 is whether the aero kits will have the desired effect of providing visual car differentiation and better brand identity for the manufacturers, while not negatively affecting the excellent level of on-track competition.

The schedule: From St. Petersburg through to Fontana in the five months that made up the 2014 calendar, the schedule was a major talking point. This was for both good and bad reasons. The good? There was a heavy volume of IndyCar racing with no more than two-week gaps at any point in the season, and even then, the one two off-weekend stretch in June still featured a bevy of testing and media appearances. The bad? There was no rest for the weary at any point this year, and while TV ratings were up, stemming the tide of negativity about the pre-Labor Day ending point is a challenge for the series to overcome. As of this writing, we still don’t have a schedule yet for 2015, even though we’re still ahead of the 2014 schedule release point last year.

Chris Estrada’s Top Five:

Power, Penske reign at last: Will Power had endured through three championship collapses, which in turn helped extend Team Penske’s IndyCar title drought for nearly a decade. But both problems were finally solved this season as Power captured the crown with a season that wasn’t always perfect, but proved the value of perseverance. A litany of mid-summer penalties failed to sink him, and then after winning at Milwaukee, he spun out at Sonoma in mid-race only to charge back into the Top-10 – a superb salvage job that set him up to claim the title at Fontana. Every champion cherishes their breakthrough, but considering his history and how hard he had to work, Power may appreciate this on an even deeper level.

Never a dull moment: Just as I said following last season, the level of competition in IndyCar was superb this year with a record-tying 11 different winners. And how some of these victories came about were just tremendous. You had Ryan Hunter-Reay hold off Helio Castroneves in a thrilling climax at the Indianapolis 500 and also rip through the field late to win at Iowa. Carlos Huertas notched a stunning upset in Houston that served as the lone victory from a solid rookie class. Then there was Scott Dixon’s sublime performance at Mid-Ohio where he came from dead last on the grid to take the checkered flag. The 2014 season may have been a shorter ride than usual for IndyCar fans, but it packed as much excitement as ever.

More fans join the flock: We may be in a gee-whiz digital age where races can be watched on phones and tablets, but those TV ratings remain critical for a racing series and its sponsors. On that front, IndyCar made some noticeable progress as ratings for its events went up by double digits on both cable partner NBCSN (+34 percent over 2013) and network partner ABC (+14 percent over 2013). While I don’t completely agree with IndyCar boss Mark Miles’ assertion that the ratings jump was due primarily to this year’s condensed schedule, you can’t argue with the numbers. But how will this newfound momentum be sustained? And will said momentum eventually draw in new partners that can boost the series?

Getting re-acquainted with a master: After a seven-year run in stock cars, it was easy to wonder which Juan Pablo Montoya we were going to get when he decided to return to open-wheel racing. Would we get a JPM closer to the driver that dominated in CART at the turn of the millennium or would we get a JPM that was sadly past his prime? Thankfully, we got the former. After a period of acclimation to the DW12, Montoya surged into championship contention in mid-season with the help of a win at Pocono. While he ultimately did not figure into the title outcome, he proved without a shadow of a doubt that he is still a force to be reckoned with. Respect.

Double the fun: Running the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 in the same day is an incredible undertaking, no matter who the driver is. But when former Sprint Cup champion Kurt Busch aligned himself with Andretti Autosport for the ‘500,’ we knew we were in for something really good. And everyone involved in the Outlaw’s adventure came out better for having done it, including IndyCar, which enjoyed added attention during its pivotal Month of May and had Busch constantly espouse the values of the series before he bagged ‘500’ Rookie of the Year honors with a sixth-place showing. Busch gained a lot of respect this May, but I think IndyCar did the same as well.