All four of them held a significant role in forming the current formula, and all four of them hit home runs. The package they put together has created exciting, safe racing and has given us one of the most unpredictable and topsy-turvy seasons in recent memory, with seven drivers separated by 51 points as we head for the final six races. No one could ask for more, and everyone from Dallara, Firestone, Honda, and Chevrolet deserve all the credit in the world for making it happen.
It’s not easy being a one-car team in modern day motorsports. But, the Schmidt-Hamilton team and driver Simon Pagenaud have embraced the role and shined in it. With a pair of podiums to their credit, the combination sits sixth in the standings, 40 points out of the lead. Given that five of the final six races will be on road and street circuits (Pagenaud’s strength), this group is a legitimate championship contender.
Michael Andretti’s outfit is regaining its title-winning form from 2004, 2005, and 2007 after a handful of lean years when they struggled to find outright pace. Ryan Hunter-Reay’s consecutive victories at Milwaukee and Iowa have him only three points out of the lead as he is illustrating the talent that has made him one of the more underrated drivers in the paddock. James Hinchcliffe is still searching for his first career win, but has been arguably the most consistent driver this season. And, though Marco Andretti’s year has marred by bad luck and poor showings, his second place at Iowa Speedway gives him something to build on as the summer gets going.
The Andretti group also gets bonus points for injecting new life into the Milwaukee Mile.
Helio Castroneves and Will Power won the first four races, but have not won since, otherwise they’d also be in the “A” category. Power holds a slim three point-lead in the overall championship, but is buoyed by a return to road and street racing. Helio Castroneves is also enjoying a solid year and sits fourth in the standings. Ryan Briscoe has also shown great speed, but has been held back by bad luck and currently sits ninth.
Target Chip Ganassi Racing
Ganassi’s “A team” has been feast or famine in 2012. Scott Dixon has a win and four podiums, but also three finishes of 17th or worse. Dario Franchitti won the Indianapolis 500 and has other finishes of second and fifth, but hasn’t run better than 14th in the last three races.
As surprising as this may sound, if either of Ganassi’s stars are going to claim this year’s title, they need to find consistency. You shouldn’t count them out, though. Between them, Dixon and Franchitti have six IndyCar championships and usually set the benchmark for the rest of field. Indications are that they’ll get things right more often than not.
Dale Coyne Racing
The highlight of their season was Justin Wilson’s triumph at Texas Motor Speedway, also with a seventh and three tenths also bright spots. The return of Wilson and engineer and Bill Pappas has sparked life into a team that has become one of the lovable underdogs over the last four seasons, James Jakes’ speed is improving, but he still has trouble finishing his runs off and lags back in 21st at the moment.
Panther Racing/DRR Panther Racing
J.R. Hildebrand and Panther Racing have greatly improved their road and street course program and would likely by in the 10 if not for a mechanical failure at the season opener in St. Petersburg. However, the young American is still learning to harness his aggression and will make the occasional mistake (see Iowa Speedway). But, the speed is there.
As is normally the case, Oriol Servia’s heroics are going unnoticed. Originally saddled with an underpowered Lotus engine to start the year, he the Dreyer and Reinbold team then partnered with Panther Racing and switched to Chevrolets. Servia has rocketed up the standings to 12th and has passed more cars than anyone this year. Plus, his influence within the Panther team will go a long way to grooming the young Hildebrand. Big things may be on the way if they can keep their performance up.
KV Racing Technology
Mechanical failures saw Tony Kanaan last in the standings after the first two races, but he has regrouped with three podiums and now sits seventh overall, 51 points behind Power. He’ll need to snag a win if he wants to make up more ground, but Kanaan is very much a factor heading into the final six races.
Rubens Barrichello continues to improve and has shown an increase in speed over the last month. Though a victory may be asking a bit much, he could easily wind up on the podium before the year’s out.
E.J. Viso has also improved, but remains slightly erratic and doesn’t have much to show for his efforts (he sits 17th overall). He’ll need to start getting the proper results, but his increased maturity has been one of the better stories of 2012.
Service Central/Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing
Much like his Team Target counterparts, Graham Rahal has been feast or famine. He finished fourth at Barber Motorsports Park and nearly won at Texas Motor Speedway. But, he has also finished 12th or worse four times, leaving him barely in the top 10 after back-to-back ninth place finishes at Milwaukee and Iowa. He should improve in the second half of the season, but he’ll have to wait until next year to be a title contender.
Charlie Kimball continues to improve, with four top tens to his name already (with a fifth one at Long Beach taken away after a mechanical failure). Kimball is a steady, if unspectacular driver, but continues to develop and is showing great potential.
Ed Carpenter Racing
Though Carpenter is improving his form on road and street circuits, it is not yet at high enough of a level to make IndyCar’s newest team more than a mid-pack runner. Ovals remain his bread and butter, with a pair of eighth-place runs at Milwaukee and Iowa and a near-upset at Indianapolis before spinning. His newly formed operation is progressing nicely but will need more ovals to show its true promise.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing
They knew there’d be some growing pains a single-car team with a rookie driver. What they didn’t count on was the black cloud that has hovered over them. Josef Newgarden and Sarah Fisher Hartman group have been lightening quick in practice sessions, but typically run into bad luck or driver error during qualifying and the races. As a result, they sit a dismal 23rd in the standings. They have all the potential in the world to turn it around, and Newgarden is definitely a future star. However, he’ll have to harness his outright speed and limit mistakes, along with shaking the back luck.
A.J. Foyt Racing
While no one expected this combination to threaten for championships, we did think that podiums, if not race wins, were within reach. But, with only two top tens and seven finishes of 16th or worse, Conway and the A.J. Foyt team are the season’s biggest underachievers. Also, they drew the ire of some at Indianapolis by not changing a damaged front wing, which ultimately led to his frightening accident with Will Power. Conway is a former race winner, but has fallen well short of expectations since his victory at Long Beach last year and remains one of the most puzzling drivers in the series. His talent is obvious, but when push comes to shove, the results just aren’t coming.
Lotus HVM Racing
Hamstrung by the underpowered Lotus engine, it would be unfair to grade Simona de Silvestro and HVM Racing, as their lack of performance is strictly down to the engine. However, they have handled a very difficult situation with great class and have easily earned an “A” for dignity.
Again, as one of the teams that started with a Lotus engine, Bryan Herta’s group made the switch to Hondas prior to the Indianapolis 500. They have seen a massive upswing in performance, but have yet to seal the final race result to show. They have climbed up to 20th overall but expect to see more during the final six races.
The last to opt out of Lotus contacts and switch to Chevrolets, limited engine supply saw them scale back to one car for the remainder of the season. Katherine Legge has been steady in her return to American Open Wheel Racing, while Sebastien Bourdais will now have a chance to fight with the big boys on the road and street circuits.