(Originally posted by Paul to Planet-IRL.com.)
As the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series takes a week off after the first quarter of play, things in the Series are pretty much where most people expected them to be following the first block of road and street courses on the schedule.
Six weeks ago, when the Series kicked off at Brazil, most people anticipated that the Penske and Ganassi teams would continue their stranglehold on the competition while hoping that Justin Wilson and Ryan Hunter-Reay would provide some much-needed revitalization to the next group of contending teams. Following four straight road and street courses, Team Penske has continued its stranglehold on the competition and Justin Wilson and Ryan Hunter-Reay have provided some much-needed revitalization to the next group of contending teams. Let’s pause momentarily and look back at some of the biggest stories coming from the IZOD IndyCar Series thus far in 2010.
5. Slow start by Target Chip Ganassi Racing: When Dario Franchitti scored the pole position at São Paulo, it sent a warning that 2010 was going to start off much in the same manner as 2009 concluded. However, after leading for a majority of the first half of the race, Dario eventually faded to a seventh-place finish. His string of uneventful races has continued with a fifth-place finish in St. Pete, a third at Barber, and a 12th at Long Beach (though I must say his final 10 laps at St. Pete were some of the best I’ve seen in many years of watching the road and street courses). Likewise, stablemate Scott Dixon has also had a slow start, including an uncharacteristic mistake at St. Pete that ended his day in the turn 9 wall. Though the Target boys have been slow out of the box, there is no need to panic and consider the season to be a lost cause — yet. Scott had a terrible start to the 2009 season as well, recording DNF’s in his first two races but bounced back strong with a dominant victory at Kansas. Likewise, Dario (with the exception of Long Beach) has been pretty competitive but seemingly just a small step behind right now. This team works too hard for them to not make up whatever small difference is holding them back and if it’s true that “the harder you work, the luckier you get,” then I expect Target Chip Ganassi to be back on their game very quickly.
4. Danica has gone MIA: She appears to have gotten what she has wanted all along. No, I don’t mean another bajillion dollars by racing taxis around at speeds 40-50 mph slower than what she is used to. Danica Patrick seems to finally be getting treated like “just another driver” when it comes to her media coverage and expectations this year — at least on the Versus telecasts. It’s no secret that Danica has had a miserable start to her 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, especially considering that each of her teammates have had at least one or two very strong runs so far. However, other than a seventh-place pit strategy finish at St. Pete, Danica has been almost completely off the radar this year and Versus, to their credit, is giving her races the attention they deserve. We haven’t seen or heard constant coverage of how she is driving while mired in 18th position. We haven’t seen coverage of her pit stop, dropping her from 15th to out of the top 20. We haven’t been waiting with bated breath to see if she will make it out of the first round of qualifying when her practice speeds haven’t been good enough to even be in the top 10. Finally, after all these years, the coverage of Danica is becoming equal to the quality of her races. Now, with that being said, I fully expect her to perform much better in the next streak of ovals that the Series will visit, but we can hope that her coverage will continue to be fair and accurately reflect her race. As a side note, no, I do not think that her foray into NASCAR is the cause of her struggles this year. I simply think that she has failed to improve her road and street course skills while the level of the competition gets higher and higher each year. The off-season is very long in the IndyCar world, and some seat time in sports cars or other formula cars is never a bad thing.
3. KVRT struggles to even finish a race: When the KVRT lineup of drivers was announced shortly before the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series kicked off, I predicted that KVRT could set the record for the most expensive IndyCar season for a team in history. Unfortunately, it seems to be coming at least partially true. Neither Takuma Sato nor Mario Moraes survived the first turn at São Paulo. At St. Pete, a fluky gearbox issue knocked EJ Viso out of the lead, Takuma Sato found the tire barriers, and Mario Moraes was a completely innocent victim of Dan Wheldon’s mechanical failure. The bad luck continued at Barber where a throttle cable failed in Sato’s car, relegating him to a last-place finish several laps behind the rest of the field. Finally, at Long Beach, Moraes was able to secure the team’s first top-10 of the season but Viso and Sato struggled again, coming home in 15th and 18th places respectively. Hopes were high surrounding the KV Racing Technology team going into the 2010 season as they really showed in 2009 that they were getting the hang of the IndyCar schedule. To say that the start of the 2010 season has been a disappointment would be a massive understatement. With three young, inexperienced, hard-charging drivers, the ovals could be a either turning point that gets the team moving in the right direction or another source of frustration leading to more wadded-up equipment and questionable confidence levels.
2. Fresh blood at the front: Nobody has ever doubted the talents of Justin Wilson and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Justin gave Dale Coyne his first victory as a car owner in 2009 at Watkins Glen International, and Ryan gave former car-owner Bobby Rahal that team’s last victory at WGI in 2008. Unfortunately, neither of them have been in equipment that has allowed them to compete at the top level until this year. Now, both men are showing exactly what they are made of and providing some new names at the top of the points standings in 2010. Justin Wilson’s presence at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing seems to have made that entire team better, a claim that Ryan can also make about his short tenure at Andretti Autosport. Of course, these men have only been tested on the road and street courses thus far. The true test for seeing how far they have moved their teams forward will come over the succeeding weeks when we see how the oval programs at DRR and Andretti Autosport have progressed since the 2009 IndyCar finale.
1. Will Power Ok, so we knew Will Power was good. But nobody, and I mean nobody, expected Will to be as dominant as he has been in 2010. [Except Steph. -S.] Even though he only (only?) has two wins to show for his efforts, Will has dominated nearly every practice and qualifying session, and when he didn’t win, he generally had one of the fastest cars on the track. If it wasn’t for a strange transmission glitch while leading at Long Beach, Will could very easily have a third win to his credit already this year. It really isn’t even fair to say that Will has been the class of the field because he truly has been in a class of his own thus far in 2010. Consider this: the largest points lead any driver had in 2009 was when Ryan Briscoe led Dario Franchitti by 25 points following the thriller at Chicagoland Speedway late in the year. After two races on the 2010 calendar, Will Power led Ryan Hunter-Reay by an astounding 44 points, more than one full race. The question mark in my mind continues to be how Will will handle the ovals on the schedule, but as has been pointed out by others thus far, he is so exceptional on the road and streets that he really just needs to survive the ovals in order to put a bow on the championship. Of course, being in a Team Penske ride means he’ll likely succeed on the ovals as well. If Will runs well at Kansas and the rest of the ovals on the schedule, it will be tough for the competition to catch up. If Will finds a way to win this weekend, it could be a long year for anyone not driving the #12 Team Verizon Dallara.
Looking ahead at the next set of races on the ovals, I expect to see a bit of a shake-up in the standings before we turn right again, but I imagine it will more of a reshuffling than a complete shakeup. Yes, the cream will certainly rise to the top, and I expect both of the Target Chip Ganassi drivers to get back on form, but we can hope that Justin Wilson and Ryan Hunter-Reay will continue to provide a positive boost to their teams going forward. I look for Andretti Autosport to continue their strong run this year, and if Danica can get back into form on the ovals, Michael Andretti’s team will be strong with four bullets in that gun. Ryan Briscoe should kick-start his season as well and be running amongst the leaders once again (recall that Briscoe captured the last two “cookie-cutter” oval wins at Kentucky and Chicago last year by a combined total of about four feet). We can also hope that Justin Wilson and Larry Curry can get the Dreyer & Reinbold team into contention on the ovals and really give the fans an underdog team to root for.
If recent history holds true, I don’t expect to see a thrilling wheel-to-wheel finish this coming weekend at Kansas considering that track has produced pretty lackluster racing since 2007 (long before the aero issues of 2009) and, right now, the weather is looking a bit iffy. Remember, too, that there has been no official League testing on an oval this year. Most teams did not test on ovals in the off-season, so many drivers have not been on an oval since October and not on a D-shaped oval since August. At least three drivers (Simona de Silvestro, Takuma Sato, and Bertrand Baguette) have never been on an oval, never even tested on an oval, so this will be a whole new can of worms for them. (EDIT: Takuma Sato did run a couple demostration laps in a BAR Honda F1 car at Motegi in 2005.) We can hope that all three of those drivers will put their cars back on the truck with all four wheels still attached and 300 miles of oval racing under their belts.
Stay tuned to Planet-IRL as we provide coverage of the IZOD IndyCar Series event in Kansas throughout the weekend!