After we looked at our respective top five stories of the year yesterday, time for my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I to hand out some completely unofficial hardware from the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season. No, we did not look at each other’s thoughts before compiling:
TONY DIZINNO: Will Power, Team Penske. Little else needs to be written here that won’t be elsewhere in terms of season-review type posts, but, in a year when drivers rose or fell depending on their circumstances, their setup or their temperament, Power had the best balance and resiliency throughout the field. With three wins, including a dominant drive when the title was on the line at Milwaukee, a near doubling of his laps led and finishing every lap but one, there was nobody better.
CHRIS ESTRADA: Will Power, Team Penske. The Aussie showed how you win a championship: Get the big results whenever possible, salvage the days when your car isn’t where you want it to be, and stay off the wall. Here’s an interesting stat: The closest anybody came to Power’s three wins and seven podium finishes was Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had the same amount of wins and just one less podium.
Power had zero DNFs. Hunter-Reay had five.
The lesson is old but remains valuable: If you want to finish first, you must first finish.
MOST IMPROVED DRIVER
TDZ: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. While I gave this distinction to him last year as well, this year represented the quantum leap that propelled Newgarden into “top tier in IndyCar” discussion (some of us have felt this was a long time coming). The qualifying gain was immense – a seven-spot average improvement from 17th to 10th – and really he was unlucky to have not converted more results. Potential podiums went begging at Long Beach and certainly Mid-Ohio, and there were other great qualifying results that didn’t bear fruit come race day. I’ll be interested to watch his growth – again – with a teammate and a Chevrolet engine at CFH Racing next season. Kudos go to the 23-year-old for being the biggest thorn in the “big teams’” side this year.
CE: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. This one’s no contest. At multiple stages of the 2014 season, it looked like the American was going to break through for his first career win only to have downright abysmal luck derail him. Nonetheless, he and the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing camp fought valiantly enough to have me excited to see what he can do as part of a multi-car operation at CFH Racing (SFHR + Ed Carpenter Racing).
MOST DISAPPOINTING DRIVER
TDZ: Sebastian Saavedra, KV/AFS Racing. Saavedra I wanted to do well this year. He’d earned a third chance – rare in modern-day IndyCar – and did so with a top-flight operation in the team that was the defending Indianapolis 500 champions. But while a ninth at Long Beach, 14 laps led and that fantastic pole in mixed conditions at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis seemed to indicate he was turning the corner at last, that stall from pole and heavy crash from others about summed up the frustration and missed opportunities from there. It was hard to notice Saavedra the rest of the season, and he fell to last among full-timers in points for the second year in a row.
CE: Sebastian Saavedra, KV/AFS Racing. I suppose I could have put James Hinchcliffe or Justin Wilson in this spot too, but I was expecting a lot more out of the Colombian upon his ascension to KV. He now had a decent team to work with, and he got Sebastien Bourdais as a teammate to help him evolve as a driver. Instead, Saavedra was pretty much just a field-filler in a season where he collected just one Top-10 in 18 races and sustained five DNFs.
TDZ: Houston Race 2. The Indianapolis 500 finish stands out, but it had been a fairly methodical race up to that point. Meanwhile, a race I wanted to expunge from memory as fast as possible last year was one I wanted to re-watch over and over this year. There was the combination of domination up front (Simon Pagenaud), two first-time podium finishers (Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth), Hawksworth’s incredible dice with Juan Pablo Montoya and Charlie Kimball, the contact and controversy between Helio Castroneves and Sebastien Bourdais and varying pit strategies throughout the order. Funny how that works. Good for Houston to go out on a high note, as it won’t be back for 2015.
CE: Sonoma. The penultimate round of the championship had pretty much everything: An opening-lap crash, fuel/pit strategies galore, the championship leader spinning out (and racing back to the front), and a breathtaking final lap that had said championship leader in the middle of it all. In my eyes, a fair representation of the series in its current state.
TDZ: Toronto Race 1. It was a pretty diabolical period from the race that was meant to occur on the Saturday and then was shoehorned and shortened into an already jam-packed Sunday. Teams were stuck in on-off-on-off mode for three hours on Saturday, from an already late 3:40 p.m. ET start time, waiting whether the race would go ahead. Power spun out, and then he and two others got sent to the back of the grid on Sunday even though the race hadn’t technically started. A first lap red flag occurred following contact between Simon Pagenaud and Luca Filippi, which blocked the track. It was more a race to endure than enjoy, although it at least ended with a popular return to victory lane for Bourdais.
CE: Grand Prix of Indianapolis. As I tweeted during the race, nobody would say this inaugural running at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course wasn’t memorable. But it wasn’t always for the right reasons. A nightmarish standing start crash, Martin Plowman going airborne over Franck Montagny, an exasperating restart crash with Juan Pablo Montoya and Graham Rahal, and James Hinchcliffe getting concussed by a piece of stray bodywork were among the lowlights.
BEST OFF-TRACK STORY
TDZ: Verizon coming on board as title sponsor is the obvious, but seeing Sam Schmidt take laps at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this May didn’t leave many dry eyes in the house. The SAM Project is an inspirational story and was the highlight, by far, of Indianapolis 500 qualifying weekend at IMS.
CE: We’ve learned over the years that sponsors who don’t activate are pretty much useless for a series struggling to gain a bigger national presence. So I looked at Verizon with a bit of a sideways glance when they took on title sponsorship of the IndyCar Series. But it turns out I need not have worried. Their deal came together late, but they still put in a good effort to push the series across various platforms. I’m looking forward to seeing how they’ll expand their role in 2015.
WORST OFF-TRACK STORY
TDZ: Schedule angst. I hit this in the “top five” yesterday but the teeth gnashing and hand wringing about the schedule is both justifiable and frustrating at the same time. There’s so many layers to the schedule, between date changes, condensed timing that drives the crews nearly insane with almost zero off days, oval races being in the crosshairs with perceptively low attendance (even if some are bigger) and now the long offseason always seems to get everyone’s knickers in a twist. One of the areas where NASCAR excels, even if some dates get shifted, is that they’ve consistently had a similar schedule of 36 races, most on the same dates for date equity, since 2001. IndyCar’s is a round robin of dates, venues, attendances and the like. It’s a conundrum that is as old as the series itself.
CE: As an old IRL fan growing up, it pains me to behold the sea of aluminum that greets the current series whenever it visits an oval outside of Indianapolis. Texas Motor Speedway’s days of pulling in nearly 100,000 are long gone. Milwaukee’s attendance is flat despite Andretti Sports Marketing’s efforts. And constant date changes have had a negative impact on the crowds at the season finale at Fontana. You can’t get ditch speedways or else IndyCar loses an essential piece of its identity, so something drastic has to be done. Single-day events with support from multiple ladder series? Co-promotion with tracks? Whatever. It just needs to be tried.