With half a season of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series firmly in the books, we know a few things. Dario Franchitti is currently tops in the points battle, but the Top 5 drivers are separated by less than 100 points. Four different teams have won this year, and lap times on the track have never been closer.
It has all the marking of being an ultra-competitive second half of the year for, but for now, it's awards time! Let's review some of the best (and worst) of the season's first half:
Best Driver: Dario Franchitti
As befits his being P1 in the championship standings, Dario has shown every inclination repeat as series champion. He's really not had many races where he's not in some manner of contention for the win.
Best Rookie: JR Hildebrand
Hildebrand struggled on the early road and street courses, but truly got things going at Indy, where has was within a quarter-lap of winning as a rookie. He also had a great result Iowa (P4). However, he's been inconsistent overall, and fellow James Hinchcliffe is only 27 points behind despite missing the first race. This category could flip in a hurry.
Best Move: Marco Andretti, Iowa Corn Indy 250.
18 laps from the finish, Marco pulled off an edge-of-your seat pass on Tony Kanaan to grab the lead and his first IndyCar victory in five years. I must have watched the replay a dozen times. It was perhaps the best moment of the best on-track duel of the year.
Best Comeback (Driver Category): Mike Conway Wins At Long Beach
Less than a year after his horrific Indy crashed that saw a severely broken leg and back injuries, Mike Conway blew past the leaders to win his first series race. It's been an up-and-down season for Mike, but no one can doubt his courage and heart in returning.
Best Comeback (Team Category): Newman/Haas Racing
Newman/Haas Racing seemed adrift in 2010. They had poor results throughout the year, and this championship team's legacy seemed a distant thing at times. But Newman/Haas reloaded, adding veteran Oriol Servia and rookie James Hinchcliffe for a 1-2 punch that's run up front for most of the year. If they can find victory lane, the comeback will be complete, but either way it's tough not to cheer for one of the classiest, historical organizations in all of INDYCAR.
(One thought, though: had Andretti Autosport done well at Indy, they might have grabbed this instead, having already equaled their number of wins from last year. KV Racing with Tony Kanaan leading the charge also has to be in the hunt).
Most Improved Driver: Takuma Sato
Taku finished P21 in the overall standings last year while racking up a multitude of on-track incidents. He's still seeing too many crashes, but he's P13 in the standings, with good finishes at St. Pete, Brazil, Texas, and Milwaukee. He also sat on the pole for Iowa, and was running well until his crash there. Still, he needs to continue to reduce his mistakes to grab a Top 10 points finish for the year.
Most Disappointing Season: Helio Castroneves
Helio ran a midpack effort only at the Indy 500, which was surprising. He's since shown signs of recovering, but bad luck with cut tires cost him possible wins at Milwaukee and possibly Iowa as well. He's been close, but with a couple of wins in a Penske car and out of the Top 10 in points, the season has to be viewed as a disappointment thus far.
Worst Crash: Simona de Silvestro, Indianapolis 500 Practice
We've seen our share of crashes as always, but whenever any gets airborne and ends up with the car on fire, you just know it's going to be bad. Simona managed to recover from burns on her hands to qualify her backup car in the 500, truly earning her newly-coined “Iron Maiden” nickname.
Best Story: Dan Wheldon Wins The Indy 500; Hildebrand Crashes In Turn 4
Without a full-time ride, on a small, one-off team, Dan Wheldon showed why he is truly one of the greatest to ever grace the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He kept the pressure on leader JR Hildebrand in the closing laps, and when Hildebrand crashed, Wheldon sped past to join the rarefied ranks of two-time Indy 500 winners. It was one of the most unexpected, bittersweet endings to a race any of us will ever see. JR Hildebrand came amazingly close, but in the end, his Turn 4 crash with less than a quarter-mile to go dashed his victory hopes in a way none of us will ever forget. He'll now have to wait and watch for that first victory.
We'll watch, too, to see what the second half of this wild, crazy, occasionally maddening, and rewarding IZOD IndyCar Series season has in store.
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.