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:
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!")