IndyCar points analysis: 2016 vs. 2017

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The Verizon IndyCar Series has developed a taste for the unexpected. Quite literally, any team and driver could win at any given time. The unpredictable nature of the series generally makes it one of the most entertaining championships across all racing platforms for several years.

A comparison of the points standings after two races between 2016 and 2017 reveals as much. Last year, Simon Pagenaud led the way after a pair of second-place finishes to start the year. Scott Dixon trailed on the heels of his win at Phoenix Raceway. Juan Montoya was third, Ryan Hunter-Reay fourth, and Tony Kanaan fifth. In short, that made IndyCar’s three “powerhouse” teams in the top five.

Things narrowed even more after last year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Pagenaud, Dixon, and Montoya stayed 1-2-3, while Helio Castroneves took over fourth, with Kanaan holding down fifth. That meant Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing held down all positions within the top five. The highest-ranked driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi stables was Takuma Sato, who was sixth in the championship after three races for A.J. Foyt Racing.

The 2017 season is a much different story. Sebastien Bourdais leads the way for Dale Coyne Racing on the heels of a win and a second place to begin the year. James Hinchcliffe sits second for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports following his Long Beach triumph. Pagenaud ranks third, followed by Dixon in fourth and Penske newcomer Josef Newgarden in fifth. That makes four different teams represented in the top five: two from powerhouses and two from smaller underdogs punching above their weight.

What’s more: in 2016, Max Chilton was the top rookie after two races. At the time, he ranked 10th in the standings, and sat 13th after Long Beach. This year, Ed Jones, the lone rookie competitor on the grid, has been a standout, finishing in the top ten in each of the first two races to sit seventh in the championship. Currently, Jones outranks all four of the Andretti Autosport drivers, three Chip Ganassi drivers (Kanaan, Chilton, and Charlie Kimball), and one Penske driver (Will Power), among others.

In fact, the aforementioned Power sits 19th in the standings after finishes of 19th and 13th in the opening two races. It’s Power worst start since 2008, when he finished 25th and 8th for KV Racing Technology in the first two races of the newly merged Verizon IndyCar Series.

The topsy-turvy trend could continue at this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. In seven years, the event has seen five different winners (Power and Hunter-Reay are the only ones to repeat), and frontrunners like Bourdais, Hinchcliffe, Dixon, and Kanaan have yet to win on the 2.38-mile road course.

Practice for Sunday’s race begins Friday at 12:45 ET (11:45 local time).

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”