In COUNTERPOINT, MoreFrontWing.com co-editors Paul Dalbey and Steph Wallcraft face off on topics relating to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Neither sees the other’s argument until the two sides are put together. It’s up to you to decide who’s made the better case!
This week: Can Andretti Autosport once again be counted among the top teams of the IZOD IndyCar Series?
PAUL says YES:
I’m not sure what argument to try to defend here because I can’t come up with any conceivable way that Steph could argue Andretti Autosport isn’t back as one of the top teams in INDYCAR.
By every possible metric, the guys driving for Michael Andretti are getting the job done and are a threat to win each and every weekend. In fact, top to bottom, they have made a strong case for being considered the top team in the IZOD IndyCar Series this year.
Starting with the most veteran driver of the group, Ryan Hunter-Reay is hot off two consecutive wins on the two shortest tracks the Series visits and sits only three points behind Will Power for the season championship. Ryan has been on top of his game all season long, starting with a pair of podiums in the first four races and a front-race start at Indianapolis. Traditionally, Hunter-Reay has been strong on the road and street courses as well, earning a win for Bobby Rahal on the natural-terrain road course at Watkins Glen and on the Streets of Long Beach for Andretti in 2010. Will Power may still have a perceived advantage on the road to the championship, but he’s going to have to survive a serious challenge from the 31-year old American.
James Hinchcliffe is, in my opinion, one of the most surprising and refreshing stories of the year. The young sophomore driver had a massive amount of attention this year driving the car formerly piloted by Danica Patrick and has rarely shown signs of his former habit of not finishing races after putting himself in a good position (Iowa race notwithstanding). James’s M.O. this year has been to run consistently but, more importantly, consistently fast. Before Iowa, and glossing over Detroit where he was taken out of the race by the deteriorating track, his worst finish was a trio of sixth-place efforts, in addition to a pair of thirds and a pair of fourths. Hopes were high for Hinchcliffe after an impressive Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011, and in all aspects he seems to have exceeded all realistic expectations placed upon him. If (and that is admittedly a big if) he can continue to finish races, he has a very good shot at finishing this year in the top three in points, and that would be something few people would have predicted before the season started.
The most difficult member of the AA trio to figure out this year has been Marco Andretti. At times, he has been brilliantly fast. At other times, he had been seemingly out to lunch. The biggest problem facing Marco is his inability to rein in his emotions and accept what the car is giving him. The hallmark of a great driver is to understand when you don’t have a car capable of winning and working to get the best possible finish without overstepping the boundaries of the car. As Marco’s emotions have spiraled out of control on occasion this season, his focus has waned and results have been poor. At other times, he has shown great speed and that flickering potential to run up front consistently. His run to the checkers at Iowa, even though he nearly flew off the handle when he thought his teammate raced him a bit hard, may show him that losing one position at the finish beats not finishing at all.
From a team-wide perspective, it’s difficult to claim any team has been more solid than Andretti Autosport. Obviously, Will Power still leads the points for Team Penske, but Helio Castroneves has cooled since his early-season hot streak, and Ryan Briscoe is still searching for the consistent results he needs to be a contender in the championship. At Target Chip Ganassi Racing, Scott Dixon has been strong but doesn’t seem to be quite strong enough to really bring the wins he’s used to (with the exception of the domination he displayed at Detroit). Dario Franchitti’s season has really been disastrous (if you want to consider eighth place in points to be ‘disastrous’) and riddled with rotten luck aside from his victory at Indianapolis (which admittedly makes an otherwise poor season seem pretty good). Whether they have been struggling with the new Honda engine or the DW12, the TCGR drivers just don’t seem to be as on top of their game as they have been for the last five or six years.
One important question that I won’t try to tackle but is appropriate to be presented is this: If Danica Patrick was still with Andretti Autosport, would she be joining in this resurgence or is the resurgence, in part, a result of her departure? The answer is much more complex than just a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Maybe we’ll tackle that in a Counterpoint down the road.
STEPH says NO:
Andretti Autosport has won two races in a row. Can the team once again be counted among the top contenders of the Series?
Not so fast.
We all recall when this group (then called Andretti Green Racing) was truly on top of its game: finishing 1-2-3-4 at St. Pete in 2005; winning the Indianapolis 500 in ‘05 with Dan Wheldon and in ‘07 with Dario Franchitti; and winning three Series championships in four years from ‘04-‘07.
Some people blame the distraction created by Danica Patrick for the team’s steep decline. Others claim that the event promotion arm of the Andretti Green organization meant the team’s leaders had their fingers in too many pies.
Whatever the reason, it was clear by the time the team’s winless 2009 season came to a close that things were absolutely not what they once were.
Then, the wins started returning. After Tony Kanaan won at Iowa Speedway in 2010, many observers were quick to say, “Look! Andretti’s won twice already this season! The superteam is back!”
The team’s best finish from that point forward that year was a lone second place for Danica at the season finale at Homestead/Miami Speedway.
When Marco Andretti won at Iowa Speedway in 2011, the celebrations started again. “The monkey’s off Marco’s back! This is exactly what the team needs! Two wins again this year – this team is coming back for sure!”
Other than Ryan Hunter-Reay’s win at New Hampshire – no less than a W, of course, but acquired under circumstances that were questionable at best – the team’s best finishes after Iowa in 2011 were a trio of thirds.
There are four important points to consider when weighing whether Andretti Autosport is truly on a resurgence:
1.) Andretti Autosport always shows extremely well at Iowa, so a win there for the team shouldn’t come as a surprise;
2.) Ryan Hunter-Reay has won Milwaukee before, so that’s hardly a shocking performance, either;
3.) Ryan Hunter-Reay has historically found the most success on short ovals, and we’ve just closed the books on the last one this season; and,
4.) We’re on our way back to road and street courses, which means that anyone who wants to claim to be surging or resurging at anything needs to get past Will Power first.
If by the end of this year Andretti Autosport has two or three more wins under its belt and at least one of its drivers has made a serious run at the championship, then it will be time to talk about whether the team is fully back on top of its game.
Until that time, though, a pair of wins at this point in the season hasn’t been enough to claim the recreation of a dynasty over the past two years, and it isn’t enough this year, either.
Paul Dalbey and Steph Wallcraft are co-editors of MoreFrontWing.com, a website dedicated to helping fans get a grip on INDYCAR news and views. Reach them both at firstname.lastname@example.org.