With a bit of a breather present for IZOD IndyCar Series fans before the all-important final three race weekends of the year, it’s a good time to take a look at the battles shaping up through the field. While most eyes are on the intense battle between Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves, and Scott Dixon for the Series championship, that’s hardly the only fight that counts.
While specifics haven’t been released for the 2012 TEAM program as of yet, the roughly $1.2 million that comes from qualifying for the program is an integral part of many team budgets. Last season, it ended up being the Top 20 car entries that reaped this reward, and it is extremely likely we see something akin to that for 2013.
If we do presume finishing in the Top 20 will put you in good standing for the TEAM program, where does that leave the drivers hovering right around that position? In a year that has seen nearly every team with a great finish at some point, there are some surprisingly good entries still hanging around the bottom of the list.
We’ll start with the outliers—entries that really don’t need to worry about the Top 20, and presumably form our line of demarcation for the purposes of evaluating those who need to work hard to remain in the Top 20. The #26 car (Marco Andretti) sits P16 in the entrant standings with 227 points, just 5 points behind the combined 232 points of the #83 machine (Charlie Kimball/Giorgio Pantano). Realistically, both these entries should be fine over the last three races of the year.
Let’s take a look at the other relevant entries, as they currently stand in the points:
P17: Car #8 - KV Racing Technology (Rubens Barrichello), 215 points
P18: Car #98 - Team Barracuda-Bryan Herta Autosport (Alex Tagliani), 214 points
P19: Car #14 - A.J. Foyt Enterprises (Mike Conway), 203 points
P20: Car #5 - KV Racing Technology (E.J. Viso), 198 points
P21: Car #20 - Ed Carpenter Racing (Ed Carpenter), 187 points
P22: Car #19 - Dale Coyne Racing (James Jakes), 184 points
P23: Car #67 - Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing (Josef Newgarden), 174 points
P24: Car #7 - Dragon Racing (Sebastien Bourdais), 149 points
P25: Car #78 - Lotus HVM Racing (Simona de Silvestro), 147 points
Before we go any further, it’s interesting to note that if you added the three ovals Katherine Legge did after Dragon cut back to one car, that would add 42 points to Bourdais’ total, which would put him at P21 in the current standings. The latest makes it sound as if the entries will be split, so unless Bourdais can have some spectacular successes in the races he has remaining, he’s probably stuck outside the Top 20 despite his body of work this season.
Josef Newgarden has shown some speed as a highly-vaunted rookie, but the team has yet to put together a start-to-finish performance to nab a Top 10, especially when paired with some late bad luck along the way. There’s no doubt Newgarden is a great young prospect, but unless the team finds some major results the next three race weekends, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing’s first full-time season will end outside the Top 20. Similarly, James Jakes has had a couple of good race weekends this season, but the overall results simply haven’t been there. He’s in striking distance of the Top 20, but needs more finishes like Toronto (P8) or Texas (P10) to have a shot.
If you look at the first man out if the season was to end today, driver/owner Ed Carpenter gives us a bit of a puzzle. Only one driver has finished more laps this season, and no one has an active, longer DNF-free race streak going than Ed. However, while he might be running at the end, his road and street course results have been absolutely forgettable. He’s averaging a road/street finish of P19, and with two of the final three races on twisties, that’s a bad sign. He’ll have to hope his experience as an oval specialist will help him score a great result at Fontana. Otherwise, a Top 20 finish looks bleak.
The last man in, EJ Viso, hasn’t had a perfect year by any means, but has cut down heavily on the on-track incidents that marked his previous IICS seasons. He’s holding onto P20 by a dozen points over Carpenter, but has only finished better than P20 in one race since Milwaukee (Edmonton, P16). This entry has struggled in recent races, and if they don’t pull out of it soon, they could very easily find themselves nudged out of the way.
Mike Conway is also not in a position to rest easy. It’s been a difficult year for the #14 Foyt entry, with a podium at Toronto almost alone as a bright spot in the later part of the season. As we’ve seen at both Toronto and races such as Barber, Conway can catch fire and duel with the leaders, but it seems as if more often than not, this program hasn’t hit on all cylinders this year. Realistically, the #14 needs one good weekend at either Sonoma or Baltimore to completely cinch that Top 20 finish.
Ahead of Conway lies a pair of drivers who seem on very different trajectories at the moment. Despite missing a race, Bryan Herta Autosport’s Team Barracuda #98 has been ably driven by Tagliani to Top 10 results in six of the past seven races. Currently in P18, Tagliani could very easily jump up several more positions in the standings before the season ends. BHA’s inclusion in the Top 20 entrant list seems virtually assured at the point.
On the other hand, Rubens Barrichello has struggled at times this year, and has been publicly unhappy with the situation at KV Racing Technology in recent weeks. He probably has enough of a cushion to manage a Top 20 result, but public grumbling at the end of a campaign usually doesn’t help results any.
Just as fans can’t be sure how the tight Championship battle will play out in the IZOD IndyCar Series, no one can be 100% certain what the entrant points list will look like after the checkered flag falls at Fontana. Yet in both battles, it should be a fight for every point possible.
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, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.