Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Dark Horses: 6 INDYCAR Drivers Who Can Win In 2012

(Welcome to IndyCar Advocate's week-long INDYCAR Kickoff! Each day, we'll be featuring a different big article in anticipation of this weekend's big IZOD IndyCar Series opener at St. Pete).

There’s expectancy to some point among IZOD IndyCar Series fans that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Simply put, there’s the idea that super-teams Penske Racing and Target Chip Ganassi Racing will again be at the top of the standings. That the perceived status quo will always prevail. Of course, we quickly forget that Andretti Autosport won three races last year, Sarah Fisher’s team won at Kentucky, and that the smallest team on the grid last year won the Indianapolis 500.

Sure, Penske and Ganassi will get their share of glory with the new car, but there will also be twists, turns, and battles that none of us could have foreseen. With that in mind, here are 6 drivers who didn’t win last year that could very easily remedy that situation this season. Count them as "dark horses", count them as "underdogs", but whatever you do, don't count them out:

Tony Kanaan
It’s probably not fair to call Tony Kanaan a “dark horse”, as he came close to victory several times last season while finishing a striking P5 in the overall standings. However, after nabbing 7 victories in the period between 2006 to 2008, he claimed only one win from 2009 to 2011. However, during that period, has there been any driver so continually and agonizingly close to making it happen?

TK has his best friend on his team this year, a seat with a KV team that finally seems ready to finish that final step to the next level, and he’s still considered one of the best drivers to not win the Indianapolis 500. It could be a renaissance year for Kanaan, which would be welcome news indeed for the fan favorite.

Nothing's inevitable. Ask Dario.
(Courtesy IndyCar Media)
Graham Rahal
When Graham Rahal was born, 23 years ago, Rubens Barrichello was just starting his open wheel career in Formula Ford. John Andretti was competing in his second Indianapolis 500. Jean Alesi, who plans to run the Indy 500 this season, ran his first season in Formula One.

The point is, we forget Rahal is still a young driver. It seems like Graham’s been around forever, but that’s because he made the jump to INDYCAR at such a young age. He was only 19 when he won the Streets of St. Petersburg, and it seems like we’ve been waiting for that breakout year ever since then, even when he was with a struggling Newman/Haas team, or during 2010’s dizzying carousel of driving part-time for four different teams.

Graham already came within a single position twice last year of grabbing another win. Now, Rahal is going into his second year of having a Ganassi program behind him, and that can only mean good things. Some consider this a Ganassi "B" team, incapable of directly competing with their senior brothers on-track. If you grew up with siblings, you know full well that there's always comes a time where a little brother has his moment of triumph.

Justin Wilson
Here’s a question: when’s the last time you felt this good about a Dale Coyne Racing effort going into the season? Well, you should feel good about it. Dale Coyne should have a good engine, he’s got Justin Wilson, and just as importantly, he’s got Bill Pappas back with the team. That’s the same engineer/driver combo that grabbed Coyne his first-ever win at Watkins Glen in 2009. We all know that Wilson is one of the best road/street drivers in the Series. The circumstances of this season should put another victory solidly in the realm of tantalizing possibility.

James Hinchcliffe
Hinch was superb as a rookie with the now-dormant Newman/Haas effort last season, and has jumped to what seems like a very good fit for him at Andretti Autosport. All indications are that the new teammates are clicking nicely, and Andretti showed last year they can still compete and win on both ovals and street circuits alike. As for Hinch himself, 7 Top 10s and 3 separate P4 finishes as a rookie are nothing to sneeze at, and there seems to be a consensus that he’s destined for big things in INDYCAR. It would be a mistake to see Hinch for his personality and miss the driving talent that comes along with that.

Takuma Sato
Yes, Takuma Sato had some horrible moments on the track last season. He also had two pole positions and eight top ten finishes. As a F1 refugee, he’ll also be quite familiar with the carbon braking the new cars offer. There are still some doubts about how robust the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing efforts will be overall this season, but honestly, Sato already has the tools and speed to win. He also has been exceedingly enthusiastic in regards to the DW12, and it sounds like he considers it a good fit for his style. That’s a great sign for his fans.

If we see the Taku of 2011, it’s going to be quite possible he wins. If he regresses to 2010 shape, well, obviously, you can probably strike this name off the list.

Simon Pagenaud
Schmidt Hamilton Racing’s driver was a “relief pitcher” extraordinaire last year, jumping into a seat for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing twice and HVM Racing once. There’s a reason Honda has had their eye on Pags for awhile now, and it doesn’t take much looking beyond his performance in both INDYCAR and the American Le Mans Series to see why.

Pagenaud is one of the most versatile drivers in the field; in recent weeks, he’s jumped behind the wheel of a rally car in his native France, ran the 12 Hours of Sebring, and of course took part in an IndyCar test. Furthermore, he’s looked sharp doing it. In a season where a lot is going to come down to figuring things out on the fly, Pags’ adaptive nature is going to be a huge asset. He may still be technically considered a rookie when it comes to IndyCar, but watch for some lively battles up front involving the #77 car this season.

Of course, the law of averages says perhaps not every driver on this list will end up in the victory circle, but don’t doubt for a moment that this is the deepest, most talented field we’ve seen in a decade and a half. The fun is in finding out who gets it done this year, and who remains a “could have won”.

Agree? Disagree? Perhaps you have a dark horse of your own to submit? Comments are always welcome below!

(Check back tomorrow for more INDYCAR fun, when bloggers compete in "Last Driver Standing!")


  1. Good list. I think I'd agree with everyone but Justin Wilson. I just can't see Coyne winning this year, but maybe that's just me.

    1. Well, don't sell that team short. The Pappas/Wilson team-up has proven fruitful before, and if their Honda engine is sharp, they should be right up there. Wilson has proven he can run up front before.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Josef Newgarden. I have a feeling he will win this year. :)

    1. I think everyone would be very, very happy if that happened, Gina. It couldn't happen to a nicer team, so to speak!

  3. Like we discussed on Twitter, I think Carpenter could be added as a 7th dark horse to win at Indy. Consistently, with Vision Racing, Vision/Panther Racing, and then with Sarah Fisher Racing, Ed put his car in a position to win. A fuel mileage issue when with Vision/Panther in 2010 kept him from a much better finish; then in 2011 with SFR, he caught at least 2 cautions in Turn 3 of the lap he was to make a pit stop, that put him back in the pack on the double file restarts. I expect the same type of performance this year with newly formed Ed Carpenter Racing with Michael Cannon as his engineer and Chevrolet power under the cowling.

    1. I would love to see Ed win Indy. I really like the support and engineering structure his team has built, too.

      The only reason I didn't add him on my list for that is because he won last year--not winning a 2011 was one of my qualifiers for the list.

  4. Tough to say. As I personally don't consider TK, Rahal, or Hinch to be lacking for anything in the 'Resources Depts.', I go a bit farther into the field for what I consider a 'dark horse'.

    My dark horses that could very well surprise would be:
    - Ed Carpenter: brand new team, but Chevy power and could take one from the limited ovals schedule.
    - Justin Wilson: Skills to pay da bills.
    - Pagenaud: see Justin Wilson.
    - Mike Conway: Single-car teams are always at a disadvantage but this bunch just may catch lightning in a bottle given the amount of twisties.

    1. Definitely. I think that's one of the enjoyable aspects to this topic--we've all got a different idea of what makes a "dark horse", which is why I try to define mine in the actual posting.

      I have to say, though, I like your picks on this. Carpenter could be a joy to watch on the ovals, especially at Indianapolis.

  5. Great list and great reasoning for each! I mentioned to you yesterday that I think Hildebrand will have a big year as well. I like Wilson on here for sure, he is a great call. I think he could steal 2-3 wins this year and really shock some folks. The Coyne boys have it together this year. Great article!

  6. Ken @AbuelosDeTreceMarch 22, 2012 at 7:48 AM

    A "Darker Horse" that haven't been mentioned so far is EJ Viso, who just won his class at Sebring.
    Sharing setups with the strong team mates of TK and Rubens, EJ Viso will not be lacking for a good car. If you remember last year, all the KV drivers tried different things during practice and each took the best from each for their qualifying and race set ups which generally placed them quite well. Every driver makes mistakes and gets caught up in the mistakes of others, or has mechanical issues at some point, but if EJ has half the issues he had from last year, 2012 could be his year to shine. I belive he was running in the top 10 last year at St. Pete before tire went flat from debris from a previous crash. I always wonder "what if" when things like that happen and feel bad when any driver is taken out by the mistakes of others. I for one am hoping as a team "KV Racing" will put all three drivers on the podium!

    1. I might be in the minority, Ken, but I like Viso to show some definite improvement this year. He's had the speed to win; he's been one mistake away from winning on a couple occasions. Can he put it all together? I'd like to think so, but that's why we run the races!