Monday, October 10, 2011

Rating The Contenders: INDYCAR in Vegas

34 cars entered. A fast 1.5 oval that should encourage passing. A championship battle, a rookie battle, and $5 million possibly at stake. With that, the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships at Las Vegas this weekend should have all the excitement a fan can handle.

Of course, with 34 drivers and in the wake of Ed Carpenter's titanic duel and victory at Kentucky, thoughts naturally turn to what sort of chances these drivers have to come away with the last victory in the current Dallara. For my thoughts on how the field will do, I've divided the drivers into multiple divisions based on what I see as their chances. The categories start at least likely to win, and move upward from there. Note that drivers within the categories themselves are in no particular order:

The Also-Rans

Ana Beatriz: A bad day for Bia in Kentucky exemplified what sort of season it's been for the rookie. Simply put, the results have not yet kept up with expectations. Las Vegas will be a last chance to finish on a good result.

James Jakes: Jakesy has had a respectable season for an unheralded rookie, but hasn't shown much in the points standings yet. A clean midpack finish here while learning another oval would be a good result for him.

Pippa Mann: After a qualifying incident in Kentucky, Pippa kept it clean and improved the car over the course of the race. Her next big challenge will be showing improvement and staying out of trouble in a very crowded Vegas field.

Alex Lloyd: No one denies Lloyd's skill, but this Dale Coyne car just hasn't done much on the ovals this year. It'll be likely be a fight for Alex unless the team figures out some of the issues they've had, but he'll get all he can from the machine.

Sebastian Saavedra: Saavedra is back in the #34 car for the finale, but despite showing flashes of speed, he's not had great results this year. His 2012 plans are unclear, and this will be his last chance to impress before the long offseason.

Simona de Silvestro: The Iron Maiden was surprisingly fast in qualifying for Kentucky, but HVM's "Pork Chop" had some mechanical issues. We'll watch to see if she can have similiar speed in qualifying, and stay out on track during the race.

Charlie Kimball: Kimball is another rookie we perhaps expected to see a bit more from, but outside of a couple of Top 10s, it's been a rough learning season. He's quite capable of a Top 10, but can't have any mistakes in this talented and deep of a field.

Davey Hamilton: The only driver in the field who raced here with the IRL (several others did with ChampCar), this might be Hamilton's final race in INDYCAR. If it is, let's hope it's a good one.

The Longshots

Paul Tracy: Honestly, I'm not sure what Dragon Racing or PT have left for 2011, but I'm not going to count out a good finish for the veteran. This team has had a poor season overall, but PT's usual aggression could at least make their season finale interesting.
Let's see what PT and Dragon have.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

Jay Howard: Howard might be one of the biggest question marks in the field. I fully believe he can find speed with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, but am curious to see how he does over the course of the race. He gets lumped in with the dark horses, simply because I can't make up my mind.

Mike Conway: Outside of his Long Beach win, Conway's season has been pretty forgettable. Yet I'm still not totally comfortable counting him completely out. He has a way of popping up out of nowhere when it's least expected.

EJ Viso: With Viso, there's always that glimmer of hope. He managed twin Top 10s in the Texas races, a track that's reasonably similar to Las Vegas. The question, of course, is can he stay out of trouble in this crowded of a field? You be just as well off and obtain as much accuracy asking a Magic 8-Ball as you would a racing pundit.

Vitor Meira: It's been a pretty average year for Vitor and the AJ Foyt team, but they usually manage to at least have a chance at a Top 10 finish. As much as I'd like to see Vitor break his winless streak, I don't think this is the week for it.

The Dark Horses

Helio Castroneves: With his string of 11 straight seasons with at least one win in jeopardy, Helio comes into the last race of the season. Honestly, he doesn't seem to have much mojo working for him right now, but you still can't count him out on the ovals.

Tony Kanaan: TK's results have been pretty up-and-down lately, but he's usually one of the most exciting kind of drivers at this type of track. Let's hope the super-exciting, pass-happy TK is the one showing up this weekend, along with a car to match.
I had to use this pic. Somehow.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)

Takuma Sato: Taku has shown the raw speed to compete and potentially win this year. Outside of an early out at Indy and a midpack result at Kentucky, he's been impressive on the ovals. His raw speed will need some discretion and luck added to pull off the Vegas win, however.

Danica Patrick: This is Danica's last full-time race in the Series, and it should be her kind of track. Expect at Top 10 result at least, and she could duel for even better results depending on how things go. I think we all remember her battle with Tony Kanaan in the Homestead finale last year.

Townsend Bell: Bell recovered nicely in Kentucky after a weak start, and I like his status as an "Oval Assassin". He gives Dreyer and Reinbold a decent shot at a good finish for the #22 machine.

Buddy Rice: As a second driver for Panther Racing this weekend, Rice should have a pretty good shot at another strong race. You can't count out a Panther driver on ovals, especially not a former 500 winner and oval ace such as Rice.

Alex Tagliani: Tag has sat on the pole twice this year on ovals, but Dan Whelon will be in his usual #77 Bowers and Wilkins SSM car. Instead, Tagliani will be in the #98 BHA/SSM car, which will likely lack some of the raw speed of his usual entry. Tag is another driver with an unknown future, but after sitting out Kentucky, he should be even more driven at Las Vegas.

The Sarah Fisher Entries

Tomas Scheckter: By merit of rocking it at Kentucky, SFR gets their own favorable slot here. Scheckter will go 3 wide, pass about 8 dozen cars, and will generally make life more exciting for fans and fellow drivers alike.

Ed Carpenter: Momentum? Las Vegas might not be a second home for Carp like Kentucky is, but he should still be able to manage a good finish. Let's hope Sarah's good luck charm Baby Zoey is in attendance again.

The Super Rookies

JR Hildebrand: Hildebrand ran well as expected at Kentucky until his pit incident doomed his day. He'll now have to hope another quality Panther oval outing can propel him past Hinch for Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

James Hinchcliffe: The Mayor just missed out on a podium at Kentucky, and looked like an old veteran doing it. If he can pull together one more quality race, he could have the rookie title in the bag.

Wade Cunningham: Texas wasn't kind to Wade, but he slung that AFS/SSM #17 entry around Kentucky like he'd been in the Series for years. If he shows that sort of polish again, he should be fun to watch.

The Contenders

Oriol Servia: Arguably the best driver to not win a race this year, O's got one more shot at it in Vegas. It would be a fitting exclamation point to the resurgent season of Newman/Haas Racing if it were to happen--and it absolutely could.

Ryan Briscoe: Briscoe's season has been up-and-down, but he had a pretty nice result at Kentucky and has generally looked better as the season has wore on. His future at Penske is a big question mark right now, so it would be doubly nice if he could find victory circle to close out the season.

Marco Andretti: Until his collision in the pits with Alex Lloyd at Kentucky, Marco looked to be in line for at least another podium result. Instead, the most mercurial of the IICS drivers saw a good day go south quicky. The question is, will Las Vegas be an Iowa or a Kentucky for the young Andretti legacy?

Ryan Hunter-Reay: RHR was dueling it out with the leaders until the final laps in the last race. He's already won this year at New Hampshire, and might be Andretti Autosport's best chance at another win going into this race. Few drivers through the field look as sharp as he has lately.

Graham Rahal: Yes, running out of fuel at Kentucky didn't do much for Graham Rahal's disposition. He should at least contend this weekend, but at this point, but at this point you have to wonder if he can have a mistake and bad luck-free race.

The Favorites

Scott Dixon: Dixie was again right in the mix in Kentucky, and there's no reason he shouldn't be a favorite at Las Vegas. He'll work with teammate Dario Franchitti to protect the Scotsman's championship lead over Will Power, while seeking another victory himself.

Dario Franchitti: Let's face it: Dario has the experience, the luck, and a decent points lead going into the last race. He's going to be tough to stop in this one, unless that famous Franchitti fortune turns sour.

Will Power: Yes, Target Chip Ganassi will be a formidable foe, and 18 points are a lot to make up. But Power's going to have a fast car, and still has plenty of fight left in him. It only takes a single moment to change everything.

Last, but not least, may I present...

The Big Question

Dan Wheldon: Wheldon will start P34 as part of the Go Daddy $5 Million Challenge, but will have an impressive 1.5 oval record and a likely fast car to rely on as he fights his way forward. Can he do it? Sure it'll be tough, but in that little part of our soul that makes us pull for the underdog and dream that Hollywood-style finishes can happen keeps hope alive.

Welcome to INDYCAR's Championship Week. It's going to be a great one.

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