When Franchitti followed his Indy triumph with a sterling performance at Belle Isle, slipping through the field from 14th on the grid (blocked by a backmarker in qualifying) to finish second, you had to wonder if there might yet be a Franchitti revival, but those ideas were quickly extinguished. He went into freefall down the order at Texas with a car that spent the race trying to turn right…tail-first. At Milwaukee a squeeze from Briscoe sent him into the wall, at Iowa his engine blew on the warm-up lap (and that was a race where he could surely have fought the Andretti Autosport cars for victory) and at Toronto, Briscoe again squeezed him into the wall, although Dario himself was more to blame for that one. Having said that, he was back in the pack largely because of Race Control's decision to close the pits during the first yellow-flag period and then a fumbled a pit stop exacerbated the problem. Otherwise, Franchitti would have been battling Power for victory.
Poor results continued at Edmonton, when the Target Ganassi cars weren't in the hunt on race day and a rare error at Mid-Ohio saw the champ crumple his front wing on the back of James Hinchcliffe's car. Two races later, it seemed that nothing went right in Baltimore. But sandwiching that event were two races where we saw Dario at his finest, giving 110 percent trying to separate Ryan Hunter-Reay from his third place in Sonoma (Alex Tagliani took the less refined route) and then giving at least as much again trying to catch the better-handling car of Ed Carpenter at Fontana.
A lot went wrong for Franchitti in 2012, and much of it wasn't of his own making, and seventh place in the official championship standings doesn't do justice to a driver who turned in some performances that rank with his best. The high point of Dario's season is obvious, but more significantly, the high points of his own personal performance were high enough and frequent enough that they should provide the launch pads for a full-scale attack at the IndyCar title next year.
3 – RYAN HUNTER-REAY
Best qualifying position: 1st (Edmonton)
Best finish: 1st (Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto, Baltimore)
Championship position: 1st
Yeah, controversial one this, because it was fairly close between the top five drivers. But while the No. 28 team as a whole – Ryan Hunter-Reay, Michael Andretti, engineer Ray Gosselin, all the other team and crew members and Chevrolet – collectively did the best job overall, as is shown in the championship standings, I don't believe that Hunter-Reay was the best IndyCar driver in 2012. Not quite. Does that make him an unworthy champion? Hardly: this ranking is one person's opinion with one person's philosophy and one person's points-scoring system applied, and the scores were close enough that other assessors with different methodologies would put Ryan or Scott Dixon on top. In fact, I know of one – Sebastien Bourdais – and you can read his opinion of this Top 10 later this week here on RACER.com.
From the very start of the season, it was clear that, barring the ridiculous amounts of misfortune that hit him (quite literally) in the first half of 2011, that he would be a title contender. Third in St. Pete, what could have been third in Long Beach but for the penalty for spinning Sato on the last lap and a fighting second in Sao Paulo laid the foundations. Mechanical DNFs at Indy and Texas and a tepid performance in Detroit threatened to sideline the title campaign but then Hunter-Reay went on a tear.
His performance at Milwaukee had strong echoes of his drive at Loudon last year – he established himself as the man to beat, and no one could do it. And at Iowa, there was a very interesting confidence shift that might not have been there in the Hunter-Reay of a couple years ago: he went into the race with low expectations, unhappy with how his car had been handling, but he ignored his instincts, just put his head down and charged. That final stint, when he whipped past everyone in front of him and then held teammate Marco Andretti at arm's length, was the sort of performance that champions are made of.
Toronto was different, though; you can call it champion's luck if you like, but it was the team's decision to make an early pit stop, and the front runners' inability to make a pit stop due to the closed pits, that put Hunter-Reay at the front of that race. Up to that point, from qualifying seventh, he appeared to have the pace to finish fifth, maybe fourth.
The other Canadian race saw a complete reversal, where this time he qualified first and finished seventh. But his dogged refusal to give up that day in Edmonton with a balance far from being the best now looks startlingly important: in the final moments of the race, he grabbed that seventh from Briscoe and thus gained three points – the margin by which he'd win the championship.
Ryan's third mechanical DNF of the season at Mid-Ohio was a body-blow, and so too was getting punted out of third place at Sonoma. The combination might have felled a lesser driver, scrambled his mind and blurred his focus. But RHR has been through far worse in his career and has made him resilient. This latest bad luck instead just strengthened the resolve of him and everyone in the team, and gave them an obvious direction: from here on, it was win or bust.
At Baltimore, the red flag early into Hunter-Reay's Q1 session scrambled the grid and left him an unrepresentative 13th on the grid, and his fans must have wondered, “What next? What more could go wrong?” But on race day, Hunter-Reay and Andretti made all the right moves in the prevailing weather conditions, the No. 12 Penske team did not, and a remarkable victory put the No. 28 right back in the game. No, for what it's worth, I don't think Hunter-Reay's final restart at Baltimore complied with the rules, but given that the guy in P1 at that stage, Ryan Briscoe, had chosen the outside line and his push-to-pass boost wasn't working, I'm pretty sure American Ryan would have gotten past him at some point in that lap anyway.
And Fontana….well, I'm assuming you remember what happened: Hunter-Reay held onto his slow car and made it better, Power lost control of his quick car and made it wreckage. And because of that, and the fact that Ryan suffered three mechanical failures on race days while Will suffered none, I suspect the majority will say that Hunter-Reay should be ahead of Power in this list, that the championship standings are an accurate reflection of driving performance in 2012. But it's not that simple. If we ignore the Indy 500, when both drivers retired long before either had shown his potential and instead look at where they ran in the other 14 races without the influence/intervention of their respective teams or Race Control, Hunter-Reay outperformed Power at St. Pete, Milwaukee, Iowa and Fontana. And that's it. The difference between them in qualifying is even more stark: RHR was faster just three out of 15 times (Indy, Milwaukee and Edmonton).
Again, let's emphasize that I'm not denigrating Hunter-Reay nor suggesting he isn't worthy of an IndyCar title. This is a team sport, he's a vital part of Andretti Autosport and his performances relative to his teammates have effectively made him the team leader. Without him, where would Andretti Autosport be? Picking up occasional wins a la 2008, probably. And it took Hunter-Reay to prove the team is a lot better than that, by proving that he is better than many people realized. But I'd expect him to drive even better as a defending champion than as an aspiring one.