BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT (Lotus/Honda)
Alex Tagliani / (272, 17th)
Poles: One (Texas) / Best finish: 5th (Edmonton)
Avg. Start: 11.4
Points Per Race: 19.3
Laps Led: 93
Expectations weren't terribly high for Bryan Herta's team, making a leap into full-time competition in 2012, with a soon to be 40-year-old Alex Tagliani and a Lotus engine. With three difficult races out of the gate – although with hindsight, qualifying 17th and finishing 15th at St. Petersburg was probably one of the top two or three races for a Lotus all year – Herta's squad dropped the anchor to save itself from a Titanic-esque situation where the team might not survive the year.
The improvement, after missing Brazil to fit its new Honda, was incredibly impressive. Tagliani and team were arguably Honda's second best threats after the powerhouse Target Chip Ganassi squad on a consistent basis. Four straight Firestone Fast Six appearances from Detroit through Mid-Ohio – although two had grid penalties assessed – belied the team's improvement. A 17.3 average start with Lotus improved to 9.8 with Honda. There was a pole at Texas, and top-10 finishes in eight of 11 starts with Honda.
Sonoma and Fontana were the disappointments. At Sonoma, Tag made his infamous passing attempt gone awry when he pitched Ryan Hunter-Reay into a spin. While RHR was the big loser, Tag dropped down the order too to serve an avoidable contact penalty but still ended ninth. He probably could have won Fontana had it not been for a late mechanical failure with just 20 laps to go.
All told, there was plenty of life in the old dog yet. Tagliani could have been demoralized after his 2011 included selling his team to Sam Schmidt, then being dumped two races before the end of the year, but responded with his best season in years – even if at the end of the day, the standings didn't reflect it owing to the poor start.
ED CARPENTER RACING (Chevrolet)
Ed Carpenter / (261, 18th)
Best start: 5th (Fontana) / Wins: One (Fontana)
Avg Start: 20.5
Points Per Race: 17.4
Laps Led: 62
An IndyCar anomaly, Ed Carpenter is realistically the last driver who can say they made it into the series on the strength of his or her oval prowess in a series now increasingly populated by road and street courses. It was no surprise, then, that Carpenter's struggles on the latter circuits were balanced out by being one of the top oval drivers of the season.
Carpenter took a big risk by starting his own team, and doing so as an owner/driver, but surrounded himself with good people. Team manager Tim Broyles and engineer Matt Barnes led the crew at the track, with additional input from Derrick Walker in running the program on races that didn't conflict with his American Le Mans Series schedule. He did well on equipment, too, finishing 14 of 15 races (Baltimore the exception) although he had a big crash in qualifying at Indianapolis.
The simplest way to describe Carpenter's season is that he knew his place. In qualifying on road and street courses, Carpenter was almost always first driver out in his group, figuring he'd get his laps in and be done earlier to attempt to stay out of the way of the faster drivers. There were occasional moments where some blamed him for blocking, but I'd argue it was ill-advised for some drivers to wait as long as they did to go out. Making the top 12 qualifying at Baltimore, although it probably wouldn't have happened on outright pace, was a fair result for the team's efforts
But, on ovals, Carpenter continued to shine. He came from nowhere to run third at Indy before spinning late, drove through the field at Texas and finished a frustrated eighth at Milwaukee and Iowa – knowing he had the ability to do better. To win after being genuinely in the top three or five all weekend at Fontana served notice he's a contender on these circuits. All told, a respectable debut season for Ed the owner, and a fair one for Ed the driver in his first full season since 2009.
A.J. FOYT RACING (Honda)
Mike Conway / (233, 21st)
Wade Cunningham / (29, 28th)
Best start: 4th (Conway, Barber) / Best finish: 3rd (Conway, Toronto)
Avg Start: 14.9
Points Per Race: 16.6
Every year, hope springs eternal that this is the year A.J. Foyt Racing returns to Victory Lane, and every year since 2003, that hasn't been the case. Cast against the series overdogs, tight midpack teams and upstart overachievers, Foyt's team has more or less just been on the grid the past few seasons with maybe one or two great weekends and the rest anonymous.
The Mike Conway (driver) and Don Halliday (engineer) pairing should have panned out better than it did. You had one of the series' top road and street course racers matched with a veteran engineer, but it never really bore fruit. Fourth on the grid at Barber was as much because several drivers were caught out by an ill-timed red flag, and the team's best qualifying effort of second at Baltimore was negated by a 10-spot grid penalty.
Conway's podium at Toronto was an OK drive but he was the beneficiary of odd circumstances that jumbled the field, and a dive-bomb move at Turn 1 on a late restart knocked Charlie Kimball into Sebastien Bourdais – he was lucky to escape a penalty. His race at Edmonton two weeks later was far better, a 25th-to-11th drive in a race with no cautions and the push-to-pass advantages were largely negated because it could be used as much to defend as to overtake.
But his undoing – possibly for his IndyCar career – came on ovals. He and Indy 500 rookie teammate Wade Cunningham seemed out to lunch on setup and speed all month, before Conway's race came to a crashing halt when he was sent out with a broken front wing, then catapulted into the catch fencing with Will Power underneath him with nowhere to go. Further oval starts at Texas, Milwaukee and Iowa were just as challenging before he decided to call time prior to Fontana, a gutsy but brave decision few would publicly make.
Cunningham did far better at Fontana than Indy, especially given the circumstances. While his sharp sense of humor would be enough to earn him a full-time spot, gathering budget will determine any future appearances.