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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 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

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: Graham Rahal

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#38 Service Central Dallara-Honda, Chip Ganassi Racing

Born: January 4, 1989

Home: Columbus, Ohio

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: After a part-time 2009 season, Rahal joined a new Chip Ganassi Racing effort housed in Don Prudhomme’s old race shop. He scored three podium finishes, at Sao Paulo, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee, and finished ninth in points after ranking as high as fifth.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: The new Ganassi team started slow, and Rahal ranked 21st in points after the first three races. He suffered three DNFs, including a fuel pump failure in the second half of the Texas doubleheader and first-lap crashes at both Edmonton and Loudon.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Despite operating out of a different shop from Ganassi’s top drivers, Rahal is entitled to all of the same information and will retain his key personnel for 2012. He’s part of Honda’s flagship team, something that can’t be emphasized enough, and a second year together should give the team an opportunity to get to the next level.

That’s a step that Rahal absolutely has to take. He only led laps in two races all season and was, in the end, a consistently mid-pack driver who benefitted in the standings because so many other drivers had streaky years. We know from his time with Newman/Haas that he can win at the highest level, especially when turning both left and right, and there’s no shortage of money behind him. He just needs to put everything together.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Dario Franchitti

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#10 Target Dallara-Honda, Chip Ganassi Racing

Born: May 19, 1973

Home: Edinburgh, Scotland

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: Franchitti won his third consecutive championship (his fourth in four tries since 2007, since he didn’t compete in 2008) on the strength of four victories, nine podiums, and a 4.8 average finish. He led laps in 11 of 17 races, including the most laps in six of those events.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: After winning the season opener at St. Petersburg, Franchitti failed to lead laps in the next three races and only finished 12th at Indianapolis. He also crashed out at Loudon after restarting next to Takuma Sato, and while he claimed Sato was at fault, consensus opinion stated otherwise. This allowed main title rival Will Power back into the championship race.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Franchitti is clearly the gold standard for IndyCar drivers after winning three of the last four titles, and driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, he has many advantages besides his driving talent. Ganassi has the lucrative Target sponsorship (which pits Franchitti in many alternate liveries over the course of the season), all of his key personnel returning, and the flagship Honda contract.

That combination means that Franchitti has both the skills and equipment to win on any course on the IndyCar schedule. Last year, he took two street course victories (St. Petersburg and Toronto), one flat oval win (Milwaukee), and one high-speed oval win (half of the Texas doubleheader). With only three finishes worse than fifth all of last season, there’s not much to question with this team.

– Chris Leone

IndyCar Season Preview: Scott Dixon

Photo credit: Ned Leone

#9 Target Dallara-Honda, Chip Ganassi RacingBorn: July 22, 1980

Home: Auckland, New Zealand

2011 HIGHLIGHTS: For the fifth consecutive year, Dixon finished in the top three in points, placing third with two road course victories from the pole at Mid-Ohio and Motegi. He also led 73 laps at Indianapolis on the way to a fifth place finish.

2011 LOWLIGHTS: A 16th place finish at St. Petersburg did not make for a good start to Dixon’s season, and he never really got back on track until Indy. He also didn’t win until the 12th round of the season, making it difficult for him to challenge for the championship.

SEASON OUTLOOK: Chip Ganassi Racing has been one of the top teams in IndyCar since first aligning itself with Honda, and that doesn’t seem likely to change in 2012. Not only is Ganassi the anchor team for the new HPD motors, key team personnel aren’t changing from last year, meaning that everything will remain relatively intact. In a transitional year for all teams because of the new car and engines, that should mean a lot for Dixon’s consistency.

Dixon will be one of the top threats, then, to end teammate Dario Franchitti’s reign atop the series. But with both drivers in the same equipment, and both instrumental of the development of the Dallara DW12, it will likely come down to which driver has better luck over the course of the season.

– Chris Leone