ROBIN MILLER'S PICKS:
When he became the youngest winner in Indy car history back in 2008 at the age of 19, Graham Rahal's potential looked to be off the charts. He was quick, smart and way more mature than any teenager had a right to be. But by 2010 the economics of the day had forced him to car hop with five different teams and he had to score his own sponsor to land a deal with Chip Ganassi's second (“G2”) platoon in 2011.
It's now been 74 races since Rahal last visited IndyCar's Victory Lane. He was ninth in last year's point standings but that absolutely fails to do justice to his performance. Bad strategy cost him at least one win, maybe two and he was out-running the Target “G1” team by season's end.
That's why Rahal will be a championship contender in 2012. He and engineer Martin Pare click and Rahal has been fast in preseason testing. He's also learned how to bring his car home and take what it gives him on an oval. More importantly, Rahal excels at qualifying, especially under the gun, and on a schedule loaded with street and road courses that's invaluable. It's a ticket to the front and that's where he'll be this season.
Finding an identity has almost been as difficult as securing a full-time ride for RHR. After bouncing from team to team for a few years between Champ Car and the Indy Racing League, he's finally found a home at Andretti Autosport.
Since first getting the open-wheel racing community's attention in Formula Atlantic, Ryan has always been fast in an Indy car but, perhaps because of the ever-changing landscape, lacked consistency. He could be brilliant one weekend and nowhere the next. Not any more. He's as fierce on an oval as he is on a road or street circuit, he's a darn good qualifier and comfortable in what will be an unprecedented third straight season with the same team and engineer (Ryan Gosselin), overseen by Allen McDonald.
At 31, Hunter-Reay is at the crossroads of his career. He'll either continue as a good driver in a good team or become a factor in deciding the championship – and all signs point to the latter. Hunter-Reay was a little too aggressive early on last year and had no shot at the title but settled down and drove all the way up to seventh in the standings. He'll move up this season. Way up.
JEFF OLSON'S PICKS:
There's a dexterity to Ryan Briscoe's work that lends itself to long-term consistency, which is the first requirement of a champion. He isn't prone to unforced errors, so all that's needed is the transformation of a few second- and third-place finishes into victories. Underlying that is early evidence that Team Penske and the Chevrolet engine will be ahead of the curve for at least the first part of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season, if not all of it. If Will Power stumbles, Briscoe is in line to take this championship.
Critics point out that last year's numbers weren't good for Briscoe – no wins, no poles, just four top-five finishes and 45 laps led. They'll tell you he probably took a pay cut for 2012 after Penske barely managed to piece together sponsorship to keep Briscoe's car rolling for 2011. They'll tell you he'll be the first one out if Penske ever downsizes back to two cars.
What they won't tell you is this: While not a savant like Power, Briscoe is clean, reliable and steadfast. He rarely crashes – during the past three years, he's been running at the finish of 46 of the 51 races – and doesn't over-drive. Three wins, maybe four, are all it takes. The missing pieces in the Briscoe puzzle are well-timed aggression and simple luck. He's got everything else.
The word “potential” has been following Marco Andretti since he first advanced to IndyCars in 2006. It haunts him, as does another word that's intertwined with potential: Andretti. Since the kid with a face strikingly similar to a young Mario Andretti came into focus, we've attached that carrot/shame of potential to our descriptions of him. It's as if we know how good he can be, we're waiting for him to prove it – and when he doesn't, we blame him. Truth is, Marco is all of the things we expect of him. Blessed with familial talent, high-def vision and cat-like reflexes. What he didn't have in the past, some argued, was race craft. He wasn't being properly taught to race.
Nonsense. It was as plain as the speed chart what he didn't have, and that's the equipment to win races. Andretti Autosport had fallen so far behind Penske and Ganassi that even Marco's victory last year at Iowa was remarkable.
Here's where the Marco ship should right itself. Michael Andretti's decision to follow Penske to Chevrolet will be the right move in the early stages of the car/chassis segue. Marco should have the upper hand – or, at the very least, a competitive ride. Give the kid a car that can win, and watch his numbers pop.
BUT, DON'T BET AGAINST...
• JR Hildebrand finishing the job he so nearly completed at Indy last year, nor should you bet against him putting the Chevrolet-powered Panther Racing car into unfamiliarly lofty positions on road and street courses.
• Helio Castroneves joining Al Unser, A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears in the four-time Indy 500 winners' club, and thus taking Team Penske to IMS Victory Lane for an astonishing 16th time. Castroneves is adapting to left-foot braking and thus may struggle to match his teammates on street courses initially, but Power informs us that the Brazilian veteran has lost none of his pace on high-speed corners – like Turns 1, 2, 3 and 4 at the Speedway…
• Milwaukee getting far stronger attendance figures than last year. Michael Andretti, a five-time winner at the Mile, has got his Andretti Sports Marketing team on the case simply because “it's an ideal track for Indy cars and always produces exciting racing for the fans.” We agree 100 percent.
• The partnership between Justin Wilson and Bill Pappas at Dale Coyne Racing producing another win. The Briton remains the most unfulfilled talent in the paddock, and we'd expect to see him frequently heading the Honda runners – which could well mean leading the whole field.
• Tony Kanaan winning the Indy 500. His terrible luck at the Brickyard is legendary and has made him more of a star than winning the 2004 IndyCar title did! But a KV Racing car with a Chevrolet engine could offer him his best chance of victory since '07. Oh, and he's one of the favorites to scoop Milwaukee and Iowa, too.
• Oriol Servia, who finished fourth in the championship last year with Newman/Haas Racing, building on this momentum and getting the win he so richly deserves. Lotus DRR, with only one car to run (except perhaps at Indy) could be real dark horses this year.
• Servia's former teammate James Hinchcliffe giving Go Daddy its first trip to an IndyCar Victory Lane. He's confessed he has to radically alter his driving style to get the best from the new DW12, but in the second half of the year, he should be up with his Andretti Autosport teammates on all tracks.
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, you'll need the April 2012 issue of RACER magazine, which is NOT available on newsstands.
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