Young drivers star in mixed, primarily wet conditions at Watkins Glen

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One of the highlights of this past weekend’s IMSA event at Watkins Glen International, which featured the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen as the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship headliner but also additional races from four other championships, was seeing so many young drivers drive so well in arguably the toughest conditions a driver can face.

Both Saturday’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge and Sunday’s TUDOR Championship races presented an opportunity for drivers to hang onto their cars on a dry track, drying track coming off rain, a wetter track where rain intensified, or a crazy heavy rain.

Here were the standout performers:

  • Cameron Lawrence, No. 93 Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R, TUDOR. Lawrence, in only his third TUDOR start, ran smoothly while on slick tires as rain began to intensify from the fourth to fifth hours in the six-hour race. His final stint, taken after teammates Al Carter and Marc Goossens raced earlier in the event, helped place the car into position for Goossens to bring the car home to win. The under-the-radar 22-year-old should be on the radar for bigger teams, and in contention for a full-time ride in 2015.
  • Conor Daly, No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports Oreca FLM09, TUDOR. I’ve written at length about “CD” this year and it baffles me as to why the 23-year-old from Noblesville, Ind. doesn’t have a full-time ride (yeah, OK, it comes down to financial reasons, but that doesn’t make it right given his efforts this year). In the opening hour of the race, Daly put more than a minute on the rest of the PC class field, nearly lapping it before the first yellow of the race. Daly has proven multiple times this year, both in IndyCar and sports cars, he can star in wet conditions – and it’s because they’re one of his favorites. “The car was amazing on the stint. I love these conditions. Sadly we got the yellow when we did which ruined the strategy. I was happy with what I could do,” Daly told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after his stint, after yet another great drive following a last-minute call-up.
  • Daniel Burkett, No. 16 BAR1 Motorsports Oreca FLM09, TUDOR. If Daly’s call-up was last-minute, Burkett’s was last-second. The 20-year-old from Winnipeg has previously been known for his red hair and humorous, self-deprecating “trying to find sponsorship” videos, but had his first test in a PC car with BAR1 only last week. It was only as of Thursday Burkett even knew he had a ride with the team for the race; once in the car, it didn’t take long for the Pro Mazda rookie to get within half a second or less of the team’s more experienced lead pro, Martin Plowman, a past 24 Hours of Le Mans class winner. Burkett led during his sports car debut and certainly opened some eyes, as together with Plowman and 17-year-old Matt McMurry they finished third in the PC class.
  • Ashley Freiberg, No. 46 Fall-Line Motorsports BMW M3, CTSC. Freiberg and the Fall-Line team, together with co-driver and defending GS class champion Trent Hindman, have had a challenging year with the venerable BMW M3 down on power compared to other cars in class. With rain the great equalizer, Freiberg stormed up to second in her stint at a track she’s won at before in another category. Hindman didn’t get a chance to match or exceed it with heavy rain forcing the race to end under yellow, but Freiberg, 23, had done enough to put the car a season-best second.
  • Austin Cindric, No. 158 Multimatic Motorsports Ford Shelby GT350R-C, CTSC. Cindric, youngest of this group at just 16, drove far beyond his years in the mixed conditions to take the debuting car to the lead at one point in his stint. It’s shaping up as a banner year for the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric, who’s raced Bathurst, won the opening two GRC Lites races in Red Bull Global Rallycross, and has this full-season effort with Multimatic and Ford.
  • Kenton Koch, No. 60 JDC Motorsports, IMSA Cooper Tires Prototype Lites. In both dry and wet conditions, the lanky, personable and down-to-earth 20-year-old won his fourth and fifth races in six races this season. Koch turns 21 next month, but has already been a rising star in sports car racing for the last three years; he’s well on his way to adding a Prototype Lites title to the Mazda MX-5 Cup crown he achieved last year.

IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things have to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Otherwise, whether he wants it to be that way or not, Kanaan could be doing a farewell tour in 2019 – and not have a choice about it.

Follow @JerryBonkowski