6 – Ryan Hunter-Reay
Best finish: 1st
Best start: 2nd
Championship position: 7th
Back in the February issue of RACER magazine, I wrote that no one had seen the best of Ryan Hunter-Reay yet because since his rookie season in Champ Car partnering Jimmy Vasser, he'd never found himself the happy combination of both a consistent environment and being partners with a strong teammate. It had been impossible for any of us fans and media to put him into context, and Ryan himself was desperate to prove to others what he already knew of his own abilities. So forgive me for feeling smug that Michael Andretti's choice of Ryan has been thoroughly vindicated. On the road and street courses, RH-R's IZOD No. 37 car was the one you expected to see leading the Andretti Autosport attack, and his victory at Long Beach, under pressure from Justin Wilson and Will Power, was no more than he deserved. If the team sorts out its consistency issues, Ryan can win them more races in 2011. And now, everyone knows that.
BEST: The Long Beach weekend as a whole: out-qualified everyone but Power, outraced everyone, period.
WORST: Crashing in qualifying at Kentucky.
5 – Justin Wilson
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
Best finish: 2nd (x2)
Best start: 1st
Championship position: 11th
If this top 10 was based on raw talent alone, Justin would be higher. But it's not and thus things like his dropped catch at Toronto and his as yet unproven skills on ovals drag him down to No. 5. In terms of the ovals, there's no doubt he's improving – the Chicago and Kentucky races are evidence of that. So, too, is his excellent performance at Indy, where he led and finished seventh. But elsewhere there were struggles and whether the fault lay with the team or the driver depends on which side you ask. Perhaps both parties overestimated how far up the learning curve Justin is, or perhaps one or other underperformed. As of October 2010, there's no definitive answer…at least, on the record.
On road and street courses, of course, Wilson has little to learn. The stunning pole that he carved at Toronto was followed up by a perfect race drive…up until that final restart. Both he and the team were mortified by his tiny misjudgment of grip level that led to the Z-line Designs car falling down the field but Justin was apologetic, and his crew stoically sucked it up. And so the runner-up finishes achieved in St. Petersburg and Long Beach would remain the No. 22 machine's best results of the year. Frustrating, yes, but as one of his rivals pointed out, “When Wilson finishes a race, you know that car couldn't have been driven any quicker.”
BEST: Keeping the pressure on Power and beating the other two Penskes at St. Petersburg.
WORST: It's obvious isn't it? Spinning away a potential victory at Toronto.
4 – Scott Dixon
Chip Ganassi Racing
Best finish: 1st (x3)
Best start: 2nd (x3)
Championship position: 3rd
For the second year in succession, Scott was beaten to the championship by his teammate Dario Franchitti. Given that TCGR has been his home for nine years, that must hurt, even if Dixon admits that being partnered with the Scot has made him a better driver.
However, it wasn't the walkover that some assumed. Sure, when the Target No. 9 team missed on setup, particularly on ovals, they missed by a larger margin than their in-house rivals: Dixon looked like an also-ran at Chicago and Motegi, for example. But the main hindrance to his title quest were incidents – atypical mistakes at St. Petersburg, and 50/50 clashes with Castroneves at Watkins Glen and Hunter-Reay at Toronto. On the nine road and street courses, the Ganassi drivers were as evenly matched as possible in qualifying (5-4 to Franchitti), but Dixon didn't always capitalize on that like he did at Long Beach, Barber and Edmonton. When you're being directly compared to a driver of Franchitti's quality, every opportunity must be grabbed especially when his crew is the most consistently fast and reliable in pit lane.
It wasn't a terrible year: Scott's wins at Kansas and Homestead were strong, and he remains one of the top five drivers in the series. At the age of 30 there are several more wins in him. But avoiding 2010-type troubles will be easier in the future if he can nail a setup early on in a weekend in order to qualify higher – ahead of the potential trouble spots. Should he achieve this, there should also be more IZOD IndyCar Series titles in him – whoever his teammate is.
BEST: The final race of the year: when he was cut free of wing man duties for Franchitti at Homestead, there was no other likely winner.
WORST: Race day errors at St. Pete.
3 - Helio Castroneves
Best finish: 1st (x3)
Best start: 1st (x2)
Championship position: 4th
In my opinion, Helio appeared to push himself harder this year than at any time since the 2000-'01 period, his first two seasons at Penske. From being roughly equal with Briscoe in pace over the previous two seasons, Castroneves stepped it up this year to try and match Will Power and frequently cast Ryan into the role of third Penske driver on road and street courses.
OK, so Castroneves was out-qualified by teammate Power at every road and street course venue, but the scary commitment he showed in Edmonton qualifying to get within a tenth of Will was remarkable. At the age of 36, with a comfortable lifestyle and a beautiful family, he could be forgiven for stroking it. The fact that this performance came right after his spooky accident at Toronto made it all the more commendable.
On the other hand…that Toronto clash with Vitor Meira was the result of a misjudgment by Helio and, at the risk of aggravating both Castroneves and Tim Cindric, I'd say his choice to drive down the right-hand side of the pit straight to hold off Power at Edmonton's final restart was an error, too. Yes, the IndyCar Series' rule regarding blocking, particularly on a circuit as wide as Edmonton's runways, is unnecessary. For a driver to hold the inside line – i.e.,not the racing line – in order to make his pursuer go the long way around seems entirely reasonable to me. And as Cindric suggests, forbidding this also makes the leader a sitting duck on every restart!
However, this rule does exist, and if Helio didn't like it, he should have raised an objection in the pre-race drivers meeting, not on lap 92 of 95. He took a risk and got bitten by it, regardless of whether others pulled the same stunt earlier in the race. For those who still think that Castroneves was hard done by at Edmonton, note this: he only had the lead because Power had strictly adhered to this no-blocking rule on lap 78. Power was balked by the lapped car of Tomas Scheckter, so Helio caught up with him and drafted him up the pit straight. No. 12 took the conventional line, and car No. 3 easily slipped down the inside and into the lead. Thus when positions were reversed, Power hung on and hung on behind Castroneves expecting the same treatment until eventually Will felt compelled to try a late move around the outside instead. The result was that Penske handed a win to Ganassi. Sorry to belabor the point, but it got overlooked in the anti-Brian Barnhart tsunami that swept the Internet in the aftermath.
Helio would be the first to admit that the Kentucky win – and his Barber Motorsports Park victory – owed much to Cindric's brave tactics, but his Motegi triumph was as dominant a performance as anyone turned in this year. So as a racing fan, first and foremost, I'm relieved Power didn't get past Franchitti. Had he done so, dominant race leader Castroneves might have been ordered to back off and let Power win. That would have been unpleasant for all involved: Helio deserved the win, Will would have hated his first oval victory to have been a gift, and spectators would have felt cheated because there would have been no subtle way of manufacturing that result, such was the No. 3 car's lead.
Castroneves' problem in mounting a championship challenge continues to be his inconsistency. There are too many weekends when he becomes anonymous and/or makes little mistakes with big consequences.
BEST: Motegi. The event couldn't have had a more deserving pole-sitter or winner.
WORST: That Toronto misjudgment, or slipping back in the pack at Texas, making himself vulnerable to backmarkers.