This article was originally posted to INDYCAR Nation on September 14th, 2011. To view More Front Wing’s exclusive INDYCAR Nation content as soon as it’s released, sign up for INDYCAR Nation today at indycarnation.indycar.com.
It’s just the nature of the game. Some teams dominate more than others, and some drivers catch rides with those teams and have the opportunity to showcase a vast array of skills and be vaulted into stardom. Others, though, languish in sub-par equipment or with teams that just aren’t gelling and wait patiently for the breakthroughs that will finally see them have their turns in the spotlight.
Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series field is as chock full of talent as any that has come before, but some of the drivers who have yet to score a win in 2011 unquestionably still have their best days in an INDYCAR ahead of them. Here are five names to watch for in 2012 and beyond.
Graham Rahal. To say that 2011 has forgotten Rahal may even be a bit premature — it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he could find victory lane in one of the remaining three events of the season. It’s taken some time, perhaps more than some expected, but the second-tier Chip Ganassi Racing team has stabilized and found its footing, and it’s ready to start producing results with the maturing talent of Rahal behind the wheel. Provided Honda comes ready to party, 2012 should see Rahal’s four-year drought in the win column come to an end.
Oriol Servia. Servia’s career statistics in no way speak to the brilliance he’s shown on track, and he finally appears to be on the cusp of his opportunity to shine. The entire Newman/Haas Racing operation has found new life this season with the combination Servia’s experience and the raw talent of his teammate, James Hinchcliffe. Not only did Servia come so very close to his second win at New Hampshire, but this season has seen him take three podium finishes, two more finishes in the top five, and nine finishes overall in the top 10, and he currently holds the season lead for laps completed having run all but eight so far. Come 2012 when the playing field is more even — depending on the team remaining more or less in tact and running a competitive engine — Servia could turn out to be downright dangerous.
JR Hildebrand. Maybe it’s too easy to pick a rookie for this list — after all, any driver clearly has his or her best days ahead when there aren’t yet all that many days behind. But Hildebrand came one corner away from winning the Indianapolis 500 on his first try. It doesn’t matter how the rest of his season has gone or even whether he walks away with the Rookie of the Year title. That takes a special kind of brilliance, and it’s most definitely not the last we’ve seen out of him.
Simon Pagenaud. The timing of Pagenaud’s ascent through the ranks left his career a victim of the split just before he was able to garner the attention he deserves. If the rumors are true that Pagenaud will be driving for a Honda-powered Sam Schmidt Motorsports next season, the rest of INDYCAR had best stand up and take notice. There’s a reason that the paddock has been using him as the perpetual substitute: he can be counted on to wring a decent setup out of a car on very short notice and bring the equipment home in one piece with, at minimum, a passable result. Take that reliability and consistency and spread it over an entire season with a stable team behind him and this becomes a name we’ll all be hearing on a far more regular basis.
Justin Wilson. Wilson’s career has been defined by doing magical things with sub-par equipment, and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing was hoping to benefit from this uncanny ability until a freak accident at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course brought Wilson’s 2011 season to an early end. (Maybe. There’s buzz that he may be back in the car for Vegas. But is it really worth possibly aggravating his injury to run only the final race of the season?) Wilson is a free agent at the end of this year, but regardless of where he lands for 2012 — and rest assured that he will land somewhere — having the entire field starting with next to no data on the new cars puts his team at a distinct advantage. Plus, drivers making comebacks from injuries seem to have fires lit under them these days: just ask Mike Conway — or Will Power.