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Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 5

Photo credit: Ned Leone

All week we’ve been counting down some of the most important storylines in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series. Today, we address the top five. These stories will likely influence the entire complexion of the season, so keep them in mind as the sport puts on its most important championship in years. (If you need to catch up, here are the first, second, third, and fourth parts of the series.)

5. The rumored driver boycott of Texas will be a serious problem for the series.

FICTION: Besides the fact that plenty of drivers have dismissed the notion, a boycott stands fully against common sense. In the series’ many years of racing at Texas, the worst wreck took place in 2003, effectively shortening Kenny Brack’s driving career but not quite ending it. With the new rear wheel covers meant to prevent liftoff in rear-ending situations, the new Dallara DW12s are safer (and reportedly slower on ovals), and clearly the sanctioning body will take every precaution to make sure that this year’s Texas event is as clean as any IndyCar race in history.

4. Rubens Barrichello will be one of the series’ top drivers in 2012.

FACT: The only worry for Rubens will be ovals, which he has never run before, but the stars are aligned for a strong season. Barrichello will drive for KV Racing Technology, perhaps the third-best team in the sport behind Ganassi and Penske, and will have good friend Tony Kanaan’s brain to pick over the nuances of American open-wheel racing. He’s been fast in testing, and with road and street courses comprising the bulk of this year’s schedule, he won’t be too far out of his element after nearly two decades in Formula 1. Expect at least one win.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

3. IndyCar will miss Danica Patrick greatly, for both diversity and marketing reasons.

FICTION: For every reason that the sport may miss her, the rest of the paddock can probably rattle off four others why they won’t. Diversity isn’t an issue, with plenty of female drivers still in the series. And while the marketing end now lacks an international superstar, this will allow both the sport and the networks to focus on other (perhaps more successful) drivers.

2. Dan Wheldon’s passing will lead to major safety changes in IndyCar the way that Dale Earnhardt’s did in NASCAR.

FACT: The safety changes were already somewhat in place before Wheldon’s accident at Las Vegas, with a brand new cockpit and new rear wheel guards on the new Dallara chassis that will now bear his name. But in an age where racing has become much safer than ever before, any fatal accident has significant sway over the public’s perception of the sport. NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow was the long-developed response to Earnhardt’s accident; IndyCar will have no choice but to go further in the wake of Wheldon’s.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

1. Dario Franchitti will win his fourth consecutive IndyCar title.

FICTION: Dario’s going to make me look stupid for saying this, but it just seems like it’s time that a new champion is crowned. Dario’s won each of the past four titles he’s chased (remember, he skipped 2008 for an ill-fated NASCAR adventure), as has Chip Ganassi (Scott Dixon took that title). As Jimmie Johnson showed in NASCAR last season, any streak that lasts longer than a presidential term isn’t much longer for this world, because bad luck has a way of catching up eventually. He’ll challenge, but this might just be somebody else’s year. My money is on Will Power.

– Chris Leone

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Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 4

Photo credit: Ned Leone

We’ve finally broken into the top ten stories of our IZOD IndyCar Series season preview with today’s post. After going through some of the stuff that’s under the radar in the past three days (see part one, part two, and part three), today we begin to address some of the biggest stories coming into the season.

10. Engine shortages will be a serious problem in 2012, and may even impact the Indianapolis 500.

FICTION: Lotus’ production struggles aside, Chevrolet and Honda have stepped up to fill the void at the start of the season, and we should see 26 cars on the grid at St. Petersburg. That means we only need seven more cars to fill out the Indy field. Andretti Autosport, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises should all be good for at least one more car, while Michael Shank Racing hopes to be up and running by the 500. If guaranteed rides for Jean Alesi (with Lotus money) and Bryan Clauson (through the Road to Indy scholarship) don’t come with any of those teams, that’s 33 cars right there. And if the money is there, the engines will be there.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

9. Will Power’s team will learn to stop beating itself this year.

FACT: With an owner like Roger Penske, this team no longer has a choice but to get it together. Two great seasons have ended in disappointment because of late-season chokes, both by Power and his pit crew; you can’t imagine that Penske will tolerate that much longer, as he hasn’t won a championship since Sam Hornish Jr. took home the title in 2006. As long as Power doesn’t check his reflexes after the Las Vegas incident – though, keep in mind, he’s injured his back before – he’ll have everything he needs to win at his disposal.

8. Because oval races are outnumbered more than 2-1 on this year’s schedule, most of the top 10 in points will be skilled road racers.

FACT: Assume that the Penske and primary Ganassi teams will all take top 10 spots. That leaves five spots open for drivers like Rubens Barrichello, Mike Conway, and Justin Wilson, all of whom spent much of their early careers racing junior formulae in Europe. Add Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan, two well-rounded IndyCar veterans, to the mix, and you have your probable top 10.

7. The winners of this year’s races at Long Beach and Indianapolis will once again be surprises.

FICTION: Just because flukey winners were the norm in most major American races last year, doesn’t mean they’ll happen again this year. Last year, Mike Conway took his first win at Long Beach, while Dan Wheldon led only the most important lap in what had been his only planned start of the season. But more often than not, the drivers who have won those races have been serious championship contenders; since 2003, the Long Beach winner has taken the Champ Car or IndyCar title five times, while the Indianapolis 500 winner has also taken the title five times since 2005. Besides that, from 2003 to 2010, no Indy 500 winner had finished worse than fourth in points in the season in which they won the race. Last year’s victories, while popular, scream “outlier.”

6. The Dallara DW12 will be significantly faster on ovals than the old car by the time the series makes it to Indianapolis in May.

FICTION: With a smaller engine that’s due to produce less horsepower (at least for the moment), don’t expect any new track records to be set at Indianapolis this year. The new car could only reach 215.6 miles per hour in testing in November, while aerodynamic testing in January showed that the body work is limited to a top speed of 218.4 miles per hour. The lap that IndyCar’s aerodynamic team used as a baseline for Indianapolis was a lap of 227.3 miles per hour from last year’s qualifying. If the new cars are more challenging to drive and produce more entertaining racing, this may not matter as much, but the lack of new track records at Indianapolis since “The Split” of 1996 have seriously held the sport back.

– Chris Leone

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 3

With today’s post, we’re halfway through our season preview for the IZOD IndyCar Series. We’ll break down stories 15-11 today; the first ten stories went up in the past two days (see part one and part two), while the top ten will be revealed in the next two days.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

15. Mike Conway will bring A.J. Foyt’s team back to relevance with a strong season.

FACT: Conway, last year’s surprise Long Beach winner, has improved every year he’s been in IndyCar. Foyt, meanwhile, landed a Honda engine contract early in engine negotiations and will be one of the brand’s top teams in 2012. With an emphasis on road and street courses, tracks where Conway excels, the Foyt team has hired the right driver to put together a competitive season, especially since they’ve never been particularly strong on those sorts of tracks.

14. Los Angeles will provide a better setting for a series finale than Las Vegas.

FACT: Last year’s tragedy aside, Los Angeles and the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana actually have a few natural advantages over Las Vegas for IndyCar. For one, IndyCar’s media headquarters are in Los Angeles, and with the announcement of a new Dreamworks film, “Turbo,” about a snail that dreams of winning the Indianapolis 500, it’s not a stretch to figure that the series will have plenty of marketing tie-ins to utilize. The sport has had ties with plenty of movie stars over the years, from the late Paul Newman’s team ownership to Mark Wahlberg’s IZOD commercial appearances in the past couple of years. Las Vegas has its attractions, including a parade on the Strip that highlighted last year’s event, but the thought of taking over Tinseltown is too good to be true.

13. With the strongest freshman class in years, the 2012 Rookie of the Year Award is anyone’s to win.

FACT: 19 years of Formula 1 experience rendered Rubens Barrichello ineligible for rookie honors in IndyCar according to new race control czar Beaux Barfield, and ovals aside, he’s probably right. That leaves the class open to two former Champ Car drivers, Simon Pagenaud and Katherine Legge, who receive rookie status again in IndyCar because of the different sanctioning body. Meanwhile, Josef Newgarden will move up from Indy Lights, while Luca Filippi shifts from the European GP2 championship starting at Indianapolis. All have plenty of talent, and with the right luck, could feasibly take the honors. Smart money goes to Pagenaud, however, as his Schmidt-Hamilton Motorsports team has the most full-time experience.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

12. Helio Castroneves is revitalized enough to be a consistent performer all season.

FICTION: 11th place in last year’s points should be motivation enough for Castroneves to pick up his performance in 2012. But for all the time he’s spent in the employ of Roger Penske, the popular Brazilian has never shown late-season consistency in his hottest seasons, and never had quite enough sizzle in his more consistent years. It seems a little late in his career to finally pick up a first championship, but keep in mind that Dario Franchitti spent a decade in the sport before his first title. And even if it never happens, Castroneves will still have three Indianapolis 500 wins (at least) to hang his hat on. Don’t expect a title, but that fourth Indy win doesn’t seem out of the question.

11. Lotus will be a distant third in this year’s engine manufacturer race.

FACT: Things look bad for the British engine supplier, which prepares its products at John Judd’s base in England. They got a late start in developing their engine, and the results showed in testing. With a solid driver lineup and what appears to be a conservative plan to gradually work its way up the charts this season, don’t expect too much from Lotus in the early stages of the year. They’ll improve later in the season, but that may be too late to compete with Honda or Chevrolet over the course of the full year.

– Chris Leone

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 2

Photo credit: Ned Leone

Today, we count down stories 20-16 at the beginning of this year’s IZOD IndyCar Series season. This is the second part of a five-part series previewing this year’s IndyCar season; the first post went up yesterday, while the next three will go up in the coming days.

20. The Milwaukee Mile will flourish with Michael Andretti at the helm as promoter.

FACT: Unlike last year’s promoters, Andretti is doing everything he possibly can to make Milwaukee an attractive race for all sorts of fans. Four tickets for the race go for under $100, which goes a long way towards keeping the event affordable for families. Beyond that, there will be plenty of entertainment to entice fans to make the Milwaukee IndyFest an annual event on their calendar. Andretti must have learned something about good business from his stint on Celebrity Apprentice, because everything he’s done with the event so far suggests that the track’s promoter troubles are through for good.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

19. Oriol Servia will be Lotus’ top driver this year.

FACT: Last year’s fourth-place points finisher is working with Lotus’ most experienced entrant, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. That being said, this team doesn’t seem to have an obvious fatal flaw compared to its fellow Lotus competitors. Sebastien Bourdais may be the brand’s most talented driver, but Dragon Racing has been one of the most tumultuous teams in the sport in the past few years. Alex Tagliani and Bryan Herta Autosport are making the jump to full-time competition for the first time together, a transition that will likely lead to some growing pains. As for Simona de Silvestro and HVM Racing, they’ve never been particularly lucky in IndyCar. If only by process of elimination, Servia is Lotus’ best entry.

18. IndyCar’s street race in China will not only avoid the problems that Champ Car had staging a similar race, but it will also lead to a lengthy association with the sport and the country.

FACT: First things first: IndyCar’s management structure right now is far more stable than Champ Car’s ever was. But one of the issues with the Champ Car China round was an inability to secure a decent promoter. The series took the original promoter to court, while their replacement wanted to switch the inaugural Chinese Champ Car Grand Prix from May to October. The FIA rejected the new date, and so the race was shot down. IndyCar doesn’t foresee the same problems with the Qingdao Indy Grand Prix or its August race date, claiming the full support of the local government, and so any bad premonitions may be a non-issue.

Photo credit: Ned Leone

17. Tony Kanaan can match his top five finish in points from last season.

FICTION: There’s just too much talent in the sport to make this a sure bet. If you want to be bland and predictable, the top Ganassi and Penske cars total five on their own. But Andretti Autosport will hope to put at least one of their cars in the top five, while even friend, teammate, and IndyCar rookie Rubens Barrichello could steal a top five position if he adapts to ovals well enough.

16. Either Chip Ganassi Racing or Penske Racing, depending on whose engine is better, will see its lead drivers slip down the standings in 2012.

FICTION: Not based on Sebring testing, they won’t. Penske Chevrolets were the class of the field in their test session, while Ganassi Hondas made everybody else look slow in theirs. Different weather conditions on different days make the two sets of data difficult to compare to one another, but the point is that they’re both going to be strong this year as usual.

– Chris Leone

Fact Or Fiction: 25 IndyCar Storylines for the 2012 Season, Part 1

This is the first post of a five-part series predicting the 25 biggest storylines of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season. We’ll be addressing some of the top assumptions coming into the year, and either reaffirming them as fact or dismissing them as fiction. Today, we’ll count down stories 25-21. Enjoy!

Photo credit: Ned Leone

25. Ed Carpenter Racing is simply the second coming of Vision Racing.

FACT: This time around, Tony George didn’t simply buy the assets of a folded team like Kelley Racing and turn it into an outfit to keep Carpenter in the series. This is Carpenter’s team, and he hired the perfect person to run it: Derrick Walker, the longtime CART owner, who was responsible for launching Will Power’s career and turning Gil de Ferran into a contender. While Carpenter is still lacking in speed on road and street courses, he’s surrounded himself with the right people to make him faster.

24. Taking a few seasons off won’t impact Bobby Rahal’s team as it returns to full-time competition.

FACT: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing usually put up solid performances in its limited IndyCar appearances over the past few years, nearly stealing last year’s Indianapolis 500 win with Bertrand Baguette, so returning to two full-time cars should be a cinch. Because they’ve moved back up to full-time competition, they were able to select from a better (and better-funded) pool of drivers. Lead driver Takuma Sato showed his typical speed and improved consistency last year, while Luca Filippi will be an intriguing young prospect once he starts his season at Indianapolis.

23. The NBC Sports Network will be a major step up from Versus, its predecessor.

FACT: If you’ve watched any of NBCSN’s coverage of any sport since the rebranding, you can tell that the broadcasts are going to look and feel professional. Everything from NHL hockey, its lead property, to niche sports like the Dakar Rally and Red Bull Crashed Ice have been covered with skill and care. With NBCSN also committing to air all Indy Lights races this year, expect an extra level of attention to detail in 2012.

22. Simona de Silvestro will finally have a breakout year in 2012.

FICTION: Despite de Silvestro’s HVM Racing employers being the lead Lotus team this year, Sebring testing may have been an indicator of where they’re going to be in the points. There’s simply so much talent in the series right now that the top of the standings is going to be crowded, and breaking out may take an other-worldly performance. While de Silvestro has the raw talent, she hasn’t had the luck in her IndyCar career. If Lotus is as far behind as some think they are, that might not change.

21. Chevrolet will outperform Honda consistently in its return to the sport.

FACT: Honda has Chip Ganassi, but Chevrolet has two advantages on its side: a more experienced engine builder and a deeper lineup. Chevrolet once worked with engine builder Ilmor to create the Chevy Indy V8, which won 64 of 78 CART races from 1987 to 1991; after years of building the old Honda engines, the two companies have reunited to produce the new turbocharged V6s. And while Honda has secured the always strong Ganassi squad, Chevrolet has more teams in winning contention under its belt, with Roger Penske, Michael Andretti, Jimmy Vasser, and John Barnes among the owners who will sport the bowtie this year.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Alex Tagliani

Photo credit: Albert Cesario (CC BY-NC-ND)

#98 Barracuda Networks Dallara-Lotus, Bryan Herta Autosport

Born: October 18, 1972

Hometown: Montreal, Quebec

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Tagliani scored three top fives in his second season driving the #77 Bowers & Wilkins car, this time for Sam Schmidt Motorsports. He also scored a surprising pole in Indianapolis 500 qualifying, as most of Schmidt’s cars were incredibly fast.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Tagliani dropped through the field at Indy before hitting the wall on lap 148 and finishing 28th. Then, after scoring a season-best fourth place finish at Motegi, he was removed from the car at Kentucky in order to give Dan Wheldon a practice run before Las Vegas.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Tagliani landed on his feet with Bryan Herta Autosport at Las Vegas after a season of team-driver tension at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, and managed to hit it off with the team there. The quick chemistry that the two ex-CART pilots developed led to a full-time ride with BHA in 2012, as the team attempts to run its first full-time IndyCar program.

Tagliani’s experience and Herta’s determination to run his team the right way give them the potential to be the top Lotus program in 2012. But where that ranks them in the standings will depend on how well the late-developed Lotus engine stands against the Hondas and Chevrolets. If the Lotus underperforms, it doesn’t matter who’s running the show at BHA – this team won’t be in the top 15 at season’s end.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Charlie Kimball

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#83 Novo Nordisk Dallara-Honda, Chip Ganassi Racing

Born: February 20, 1985

Home: Camarillo, California

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: The main highlight of Kimball’s season was converting a fourth place finish in the 2010 Indy Lights championship to a contract with Chip Ganassi, after bringing a decent sponsorship contract from Novo Nordisk. Kimball’s best finish was a ninth place run at Loudon.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Kimball had six DNFs, including crashes at St. Petersburg, the first Texas race, and Toronto, and running off course at the very end of the Motegi race. He only finished 19th in points, which is not what you’d expect from anybody driving for Chip Ganassi.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Kimball is a long-term project for Chip Ganassi. Not only was the team new last season (one of the two Ganassi teams that operated in a satellite shop), Kimball was not experienced in cars as big as the Dallara IR07. That being said, Ganassi is more than willing to be patient, signing both Kimball and his sponsor to long-term deals.

For now, though, Kimball’s most notable contribution to the sport will remain his pioneering as a diabetic racer whose car requires special extra gadgets to monitor his blood sugar. Kimball is an excellent brand ambassador, a trait that a big-budget team like Ganassi’s clearly reveres, and it’s not as if he didn’t earn his way into the series. But with Scott Dixon, Dario Franchitti, and Graham Rahal also on the team, he’s the clear-cut number four driver.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Simona de Silvestro

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#78 Entergy Dallara-Lotus, Lotus-HVM Racing

Born: September 1, 1988

Home: Thun, Switzerland

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: The 2010 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year signed a long-term contract with HVM Racing and multiple new sponsors, securing her place in IndyCar for years to come. She responded by starting the season with a fourth place finish at St. Petersburg and ninth place at Barber.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Things fell apart for de Silvestro from there. She crashed heavily in qualifying at Indianapolis, suffering burns to her hands; she crashed again in qualifying at Milwaukee, causing her to pull out of that race early and skip the Iowa round after suffering concussion-like symptoms. Then, a passport snafu after a visit home in Switzerland forced her to miss the Sonoma race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: After a disastrous sophomore season, de Silvestro could have a serious shot at stepping up her game in 2012. Her HVM Racing team is now the flagship effort for the new Lotus-Judd engine program, after the brand shifted its focus away from KV Racing Technology. Her team may also make serious additions in the engineering department as a result of that partnership.

But Lotus was far and away the slowest of the three engine manufacturers to develop its 2.2-liter V6, and while Honda and Chevrolet engines spent plenty of time on track shaking down the Dallara DW12, Lotus was nowhere to be found. If they’re at a serious power disadvantage, as is the logical fear, de Silvestro may stay in that 20th place vicinity.

IndyCar Season Preview: Simon Pagenaud

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#77 Hewlett-Packard Dallara-Honda, Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports

Born: May 18, 1984

Hometown: Poitiers, France

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Pagenaud competed in three IndyCar races in 2011, twice as an injury replacement at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and once at HVM Racing when Simona de Silvestro could not make it to Infineon due to a customs issue. His best finish was eighth at Barber. Meanwhile, Pagenaud also finished second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Peugeot that he shared with fellow French IndyCar driver Sebastien Bourdais.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: Pagenaud had planned to run the Indianapolis 500 for Highcroft Racing, running a blue No. 16 that hearkened back to some of the race’s earliest, French-born winners, but sponsorship failed to materialize.

SEASON OUTLOOK: The 2006 Atlantic Series champion will compete full-time in major American open-wheel racing for the first time since he finished eighth in the 2007 Champ Car World Series. Pagenaud inherits the flagship car at Sam Schmidt Motorsports, which won the pole at Indianapolis with Alex Tagliani behind the wheel and scored plenty of solid road and street course finishes.

That should bode well for Pagenaud, whose bread and butter has always been turning both ways. The 2010 American Le Mans Series champion has raced on most of the series’ road and street circuits, whether in ALMS, Champ Car, or IndyCar. Meanwhile, the ovals will mark a completely new challenge for the flying Frenchman. Much like Bourdais, his countryman, Le Mans teammate, and former Champ Car rival, his overall finishing position at the end of the season should be decent thanks to a road and street-heavy schedule, but his ability to adapt to ovals will determine whether this team can finish in the top 10 or lag somewhere between 11th and 20th.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Josef Newgarden

Photo credit: Indy Racing Review (CC BY-NC 2.0)

#67 Dallara-Honda, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing

Born: December 22, 1990

Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Newgarden absolutely destroyed the Indy Lights Series, clinching the championship before the final event and winning the title by 94 points. Newgarden won five of 14 races and three poles to add his name to the long list of talented feeder series drivers employed by Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: The lone disappointment of Newgarden’s season came at Long Beach, which saw him lead 31 of 43 laps but fail to finish the race. With only minutes remaining in the shortened event, driver error forced Newgarden to improperly negotiate a turn and hit a tire barrier.

SEASON OUTLOOK: While Sam Schmidt had looked to promote his top Indy Lights driver to IndyCar for the 2012 season, Sarah Fisher will make Newgarden the first full-time driver in the history of her organization. Fisher’s team, which picked up its first win last season with the departed Ed Carpenter at Kentucky, will rely on the young American (and his $1 million scholarship for winning the Lights title) to make an even bigger dent in 2012.

Fisher’s team is solidly growing, as oil magnate Wink Hartman has added extra financial support and his name to the single-car effort. SFHR also secured a Honda engine deal in late February, bringing the final piece of the puzzle together and helping the sport avoid the nasty public relations black eye that would have come with an engine shortage. The combination of Fisher, Hartman, and Honda bodes well for Newgarden, who won’t suffer the same uncertain fate of many recent Lights champions. He hasn’t landed with the biggest team in the paddock, but he’s with an outfit that will be happy to build around him for the long haul.

– Chris Leone