The final year of the current car regs could produce a classic season for the IZOD IndyCar Series. OK, so the champion will surely come from Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske, but who will it be? Between them, Chip and Roger now have seven cars. It would also be a brave gamble to bet against Andretti Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing taking wins. And there are some strong outsiders, too.
Can Target Chip Ganassi Racing win four consecutive IndyCar titles?
Heck yes! Chip's boys did it in Champ Car in 1996-'99 and now, like then, the team's basic package of chassis/engine/tires/ace drivers isn't changing. Only bizarre circumstances – bad luck, in other words – would prevent Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon from being frontrunners at all circuits on the IndyCar schedule. Ganassi has huge strength in depth throughout its IndyCar squad, and there's not much wrong with the guys in the cockpits, either, who have five IndyCar titles between them. Franchitti is as quick as ever, and will consistently bank points when the car's not at its best. Dixon hasn't quite got that in-cockpit composure nailed down, in that he sometimes allows issues to escalate into problems. But he's as fast as Dario, he can make winning races look easy – and because of his teammate winning the last two titles, Scott's got more to prove, too. This season will be make or break for him – but he can't afford to let that show.
Will Graham Rahal win the championship?
Yes, but not in 2011. Rahal has the talent to win races, even now the front of the grid is as packed with aces as it was in CART's heyday, and with Ganassi's Service Central car underneath him, he should have one of the best-prepared cars on the grid. Consistency, though, is what wins titles, and counting against Rahal in this department is that (a) the team will take a while to gel like the crews on the Target cars, and (b) being thrust into a great car from a midfield one, any driver takes a while to adjust to the talent and tools now at his or her disposal. For example, has Rahal yet experienced an oval car that was great from the start of a race to the finish and therefore only needed fine-tuning to make it a winner?
Meanwhile, his teammate in the Novo Nordisk car, Charlie Kimball, is a smart cookie for a rookie. The Indy Lights graduate won't overreach himself, but will instead gain confidence in the big cars, provide excellent feedback and, by the second half of the year, should be able to spring surprises.
Is 2011 the year that Team Penske captures its first title since 2006?
There's no reason why it shouldn't…but that's been the case for the last three years, too, and the team's come up short. Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and Will Power all have the breadth of driving talent to match the Ganassi boys at all tracks, but temperament, at least in the case of Briscoe and Castroneves, is more open to question. It's also fair to wonder if having team owner Roger Penske, team president Tim Cindric and A.N. Other calling the raceday strategy for individual drivers is the wisest course of action. Sometimes The Captain or Cindric pull tactical masterstrokes for “their” driver that could be best used to favor all three, or at least the one who's highest on the leaderboard and/or in the championship. Having RP and TC in more advisory roles could give the team an edge that Ganassi would struggle to combat. Also, all three pit crews need to be as slick as Franchitti's was in 2010.
Has Andretti Autosport lost its talisman by ditching Tony Kanaan?
No; that happened when Franchitti left at the end of 2007. Kanaan is a fast, determined and brave driver who, although the most senior of the AA lineup, struggled to guide the team out of its engineering disarray over the 2008-'09 seasons. Last year, he and Ryan Hunter-Reay liked similar setups on road and street courses and it was the American who made the most of them over the course of the season and made fewer mistakes. So it's good that team owner Michael Andretti has at least kept Ryan who has also become a fine oval racer.
With him are Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and Mike Conway. Andretti, now entering his sixth year in the series, needs to win and show all around him that he's hungry to match his raw talent with dedication. Otherwise he's going to be shoved aside as one of racing's what-might-have-beens, which would be a sad waste of his ability.
Conway has much to prove following his leg-breaking shunt at Indy last year that curtailed his sophomore season after five rounds. If he's 100 percent recovered, look for him to be the quickest of the Andretti Autosport cars on occasion. He can learn a lot from Hunter-Reay.
So too, could Patrick who, for a second year, splits her time between IndyCars and the NASCAR Nationwide Series. She remains quick on ovals (in an IndyCar, at least), and as she proved in her battle with Kanaan in last year's finale, she knows how to race hard, too. But while her loyalties are divided, she'll only progress as a by-product of team improvements.