With only one race remaining in the 2011 season, there are still a number of entries looking for that elusive victory. Of all the teams representing those entries, perhaps the closest to victory circle without tasting it would be Newman/Haas Racing.
Look, amidst all the championship talk and flash for Las Vegas this weekend, can we take a minute to appreciate this team’s resurgence? It’s easy to forget that this team seemed to be on the ropes this year, mired in an uninspiring season, with repeated midpack finishes (or worse) by Hideki Mutoh. It looked like it might have been the end of a tradition for one of the most historic, successful teams of American open wheel racing. This was the team of Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Sèbastien Bourdais, Cristiano de Matta. It was the team of Paul Newman, and of a combined eight championships. Yet in 2010, the light of those incredible accomplishments seemed very dim indeed. Some rumors even suggested the team might not be able to answer the bell for the 2011 season.
Yet 2011 would prove to be a different year indeed. Retaining the services of NHR alum and veteran driver Oriol Servia, this team showed its experience, staff, and legacy was far from dead. A well-respected journeyman for much of his career, Servia was repeatedly in contention for podiums throughout this season, with six Top 5 finishes, including a P3 and finishing runner-up twice. Going into the finale, Servia finds himself locked into P4 in the overall championship standings. The #2 Telemundo car has simply been a fixture up front this year.
That in and of itself would be impressive enough, but Servia wasn’t alone out there. James Hinchcliffe joined the team in the second race and has done nothing but take the lead in a hard-fought Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaign. Hinch has racked up 7 Top 10s in the #06 Sprott car, and has had near-misses on two podiums. Sure, he’s looked like a rookie at times, but far more often, he’s looked like a true veteran out there.
Who would have imagined at the end of 2010 that this team would have experienced such a renaissance this year?
I’ve got a lot of drivers and teams I like in the mix at Las Vegas, but if Newman/Haas were to win Sunday, it would bring a story of redemption full circle. Do they need to in order for this to have been a great season for the team? No, but I’d like to see a team that defines perseverance, redemption, and a proud tradition get the win. It would seem to be a fitting exclamation point on what they’ve managed to do this year.
When you’re watching this Sunday, take a minute to appreciate what Newman/Haas has accomplished this season. INDYCAR is simply better when there’s a strong Newman/Haas team in contention.