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Team Grades: End-of-season edition

Zachary Houghton
| Oct 28, 2011

With the IZOD IndyCar Series offseason upon us, it’s time for that most honored of traditions, the end-of-year team report card. Some teams exceeded expectations, while others failed to produce the expected results. Some gave us moments never to forget, while others would like to forget the entire year. Let’s run through each team and see where they ended up:

AFS Racing: B
For a part-time, last-minute team, AFS had some success out of the gate with Rafa Matos, though the team did fail to make the field at Indy. Martin Plowman did a quality job as a rookie with the team. Wade Cunningham did a fine job at Kentucky as a rookie as well. Both rookies ran under the combined Sam Schmidt AFS banner, which seemed to be a solid combination. All in all, not too shabby for an inaugural IICS campaign.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises: C
It was a pretty unspectacular year for Foyt’s team, and they parted ways with driver Vitor Meira as both sides grew frustrated with the lack of results. 7 Top 10s isn’t terrible, but they weren’t exactly running at the front most races. After a promising start, they really seemed to personify that average mid-pack team.

Andretti Autosport: B+ (outside Indianapolis)
Andretti sent 3 different drivers (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway, and Marco Andretti) to victory circle this year, but problems in qualifying reared their ugly head multiple times throughout the year. Hunter-Reay was their best driver, with one of the best second-half performances of anyone in the field. Marco again showed uncanny speed and guts at times, but also that frustrating inconsistency. Outside of schooling everyone at Long Beach, Conway struggled and didn’t finish enough races. Danica had another Top 10 season in her farewell tour, but never really threatened to win another race. Their disaster during qualifying at Indianapolis would obviously drop their grade, though Marco and Danica recovered for some nice finishes there. While this wasn’t the quite dominant Andretti team of old, it was better than many predicted, with drivers continually running near or at the front.

Bryan Herta Autosport: A+
Few believed a team this small could win Indy, even with Dan Wheldon at the helm, but they were fast all month, and in the end they pulled it off in stunning fashion. This was a simply amazing success for BHA and everyone involved, and will stand as a part of Indy legend. Their magical result at Indy will long stand as a tribute to the team, as well as to our departed buddy DW.

Chip Ganassi Racing: A (Target), B (Service Central), C (Novo Nordisk)
Ganassi sees their grade split three ways, since you need to look at each of their team efforts separately. Obviously, for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, you have to look at Dario Franchitti winning the overall championship, as well as Scott Dixon picking up his two wins later in the year. If any full-time driver had worse luck this year than Graham Rahal, it wasn’t by much. Every time we thought Graham was going to pull it off, disaster in some form or another seemed to strike. He’s got better days ahead. Charlie Kimball didn’t really do quite as much as perhaps expected as a rookie, though a pair of Top 10s gives some hope for the future.

Conquest Racing: C-
Sebastian Saavedra had flashes of speed during the year, but ultimately Conquest seemed to regress slightly performance-wise from where they were with Bertrand Baguette and Mario Romancini in 2010. Pippa Mann making the field at Indy in the second car was a nice moment, but this team never really managed to find their way to the front for any sustained amount of time.

Dale Coyne Racing: Split Grade: F/B
Leading up to Indy, this team was a disaster, severely underperforming despite having Sèbastien Bourdais for the road courses. James Jakes looked every inch the rookie early on, and Alex Lloyd needed a tremendous run to squeeze in the field at Indy. However, the team improved after the 500, with Bourdais turning up some great results as the team started to click. Joining him was Jakes, who never quite got the finishes his improvement over the season seemed to warrant. They were a fun team to watch in the second half, and hopefully have some confidence and momentum going into 2012.

Dragon Racing: D
Rising from the ashes of De Ferran Dragon Racing, no one was quite sure what to expect from this team. Bottom line, their season was largely a wreck. Paul Tracy’s results were average at best, but would be the high spot of the team’s year. Indy was an unmitigated disaster, resulting in two wrecked cars and missing the 500’s Centennial altogether.

Dreyer and Reinbold Racing: D+
This team was expected to turn the corner this year, but it seemed like they instead regressed. Justin Wilson seemed to have someone smash into him every other race before a broken back sidelined him for the remainder of the schedule. Ana Beatriz was unspectacular as a rookie, and never really seemed to have that breakout moment. The team will look to regroup with the new car, and will hope that the future is brighter than the 2011 season turned out.

HVM Racing: C-
For tenacity, this team gets an A. Unfortunately, they needed every bit of that tenacity, as a nightmare year unfolded on the track. Hard hits at Indianapolis and Iowa really hurt this team (and in the case of Indy, cost them their primary car for the season). Simona de Silvestro started the year with an inspired P4 at St. Pete, but with a couple of exceptions, the rest of the schedule was pretty dire. Sometimes, a season is just about gutting it out, and that’s why HVM at least deserves a passing grade. (Plus, getting introduced to Porkchop was pretty neat).

KV Racing Technology: B
The surprise signing of Tony Kanaan just before the start of the season was a boon to the team, although parting ways with engineer Michael Cannon seemed to signal some hiccups for the TK’s ride later on in the year. TK looked sharp overall, and almost came away with the win at Iowa. Takuma Sato snagged pole position twice, and had some quality finishes, though he was still not as consistent as anyone would like. EJ Viso continued with additional on-track incidents, while showing just enough sparks of speed to drive his supporters as well as detractors insane. This team didn’t quite complete the jump to the top tier of teams, but they were definitely improved over 2010’s dismal crashfest.

Newman/Haas Racing: A
Certainly Newman/Haas was the comeback team of the year. Oriol Servia looked every inch the talented veteran, managing a sparkling P4 in the overall standings. James Hinchcliffe missed the first race, and still managed to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle. This team was tantalizing close to winning on a couple of occasions, which was the only thing that kept their grade from being an A+. The Series is a better place with this team revitalized.

Panther Racing: B
There was a concern that this team would be hurt by going to a rookie driver in 2011, but JR Hildebrand largely held up well, narrowly missing out on Sunoco Rookie of the Year. Of course, there was the last-second crash at Indy, but finishing P2 there as a rookie is still pretty heady stuff. The season wasn’t perfect, but overall the good definitely outweighed the bad.

Team Penske: B+
Honestly, if we’re grading on a curve, this should be even lower. This is Roger Penske’s team, and as such, we anticipate excellence. However, Helio Castroneves finished outside the Top 10 in points in an incident-filled mediocre campaign, and Ryan Briscoe didn’t seem to find his form until later in the season. The team wasn’t a factor at Indy, and outside of Will Power’s mastery of the street courses, this team simply looked off its game for 2011.  This simply wasn’t the Penske team we expected to see.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: B-
Bertrand Baguette came within a few laps of winning the Indy 500, and that P7 was this team’s highlight for the year. Jay Howard qualified well for Indy, but was out early. Pippa Mann’s races for this team were rough, with the entry missing New Hampshire after an injury in practice. It was a very uneven year for the part-time team, thought certainly they showed they are still a team to be reckoned with at Indianapolis.

Sam Schmidt Motorsports: B+
SSM’s “umbrella” of data-sharing among small teams at Indianapolis helped in winning Alex Tagliani the Indy 500 pole, as well as having some hand in the victory of Bryan Herta Autosport and Dan Wheldon in the Centennial Year’s main event. Outside of Indy, Tag won pole at Texas, but two P4s and a P5 were the team’s best finishes of the year. Obviously, the loss of Wheldon in an SSM car at Las Vegas was especially hard on this team, but hopefully they find their way through and into 2012 competition.

Sarah Fisher Racing: A
SFR did a nice job at Indy before a few unremarkable finishes in the middle portion of their schedule, but the Little Team That Could made history when Ed Carpenter edged Dario Franchitti at the line in Kentucky. No one is quite sure what Sarah Fisher’s crew will have in place for 2012, but it’s impossible not to appreciate what this team is building, and how they go about doing it.

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.


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