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The Round Table: Welcome to the 2014 Season

Zachary Houghton, Eric Hall, Steve Wittich, and Mark Wilkinson
| Mar 27, 2014

It’s time for another IndyCar season! Our fearless blogging pundits are back, and are ready to give their thoughts and predictions on the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season! We hope you’re as excited as we are about this year!

Which team or driver has the most to prove this season?

Eric Hall, anotherindycarblog:
Juan Pablo Montoya – The argument could be made that Juan Pablo is one of the best all-around drivers of our generation. Not to mention, he is stepping back into IndyCar with one of the best teams on the grid. On paper, he should be able to steamroll the competition and clinch the Astor Cup with relative ease. However, we have seen seasoned veterans from all corners of the motorsport globe have a tough time competing with the IndyCar regulars. Montoya will have a bull’s-eye on his back all year long and it will be up to him to shake it off and prove he still has what it takes.

Zachary Houghton, IndyCar Advocate:
I’d have to say as a team, it is Andretti Autosport. No longer at Chevy, they are now the most powerful team in the Honda stable. Whether or not Honda’s new engine is a match for Chevy’s, Andretti has to keep winning a nice chunk of races each year if they want to remain on the “elite” list, along with Penske and Ganassi. If Penske and Ganassi take turns winning each week and Andretti has the look of an also-ran, fans might go back to thinking about the “Big Two” instead of a “Big Three”.

For drivers, I’d have to pick Takuma Sato. Taku showed he can win last year, and even led the point standings earlier in the 2013 season. However, a dismal end to the season didn’t do his perception any favors, even when some of the problems were most definitely not his fault. Sato’s legacy in IndyCar can either be one of a driver who overcame a ton of DNFs to have a great, winning career, or it can be that of a racer who went fast, but was just couldn’t finish races. We’ll see what the prevailing opinion is after this year.

Steve Wittich, The Set-Up Sheet:
Over the last seven seasons, Team Penske has had five Verizon IndyCar Series championship runner up finishes and placed 13 drivers inside the top five in the championship. That doesn’t really sound like a team that has much to prove, does it? But that is who I am picking for who has the most to prove during the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Team Penske has an impressive 12 IndyCar championships to its name, but it has been an eight years since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the title in 2006. That is three years longer than any of the team’s previous championship droughts.

Three time championship runner up Will Power won three of the last five IndyCar races in 2013, heading into 2014 with some serious momentum. Meanwhile, team leader and 2013 vice-champion Helio Castroneves showed he could be consistent enough driver to be a continued threat to win the championship. Buuuutttt… the big question is what impact will the addition of 1999 CART Champion Juan Pablo Montoya have to the chemistry of the team? Will he be able to push Power and Castroneves to new heights or will his addition add a volatile new element to the mix?

Mark Wilkinson, New Track Record:
An argument could be made that Andretti Autosport has the most to prove as a team. Jilted by Chevy and now carrying the banner for Honda, the team could prove the old Bum Phillips quote about Bear Bryant: "He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n." A championship would be a monster statement for Michael Andretti and Honda. Individually, the driver with the most to prove is Tony Kanaan. After working just to have a competitive ride in recent seasons and after his win at Indy last year, he finally has the top-of-the-line ride at Ganassi he has needed to be a consistent winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Will the crowd favorite step up his game or not? Anything less than multiple wins and being in the hunt for a championship is unacceptable.

Which IndyCar rookie will be Sunoco Rookie of the Year?

Which IndyCar rookie will be Sunoco Rookie of the Year? – Carlos Muñoz – With two stellar performances from 2013 already under his belt, there is little standing in the way of Carlos and the Rookie of the Year title. Mikhail Aleshin was a successful driver in the European ladder series, but is an unknown quantity on the ovals, while Jack Hawksworth could have simply used a few more years in the Mazda Road to Indy. Not to mention that Muñoz is taking on the season with Andretti Autosport; a team that Bryan Herta Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports will not be able to hang with over the course of an entire season.

I believe Mikhail Aleshin will be much better than folks anticipate, and I also thinking Jack Hawksworth will have some good moments on the road and street courses. However, Carlos Munoz has experience in the DW12, and has shown just how good he can be at ovals. I believe he’ll be the most consistent driver of the three candidates listed, and that’s why he’ll be your Sunoco Rookie of the Year.

The Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle could very well be the best battle of the season. Can I choose Juan Pablo Montoya?

Jack Hawksworth has shown impressive speed and an ability to win races at all levels, but will the setbacks he experienced on ovals in Indy Lights carry over to the big cars? Carlos Munoz proved he belonged in IndyCar with his second place at Indy, proved he could be patient with his stellar outing in Toronto, and proved that he could be prone to rookie mistakes with his drive at Fontana. Mikhail Aleshin will unfortunately come into the series with the tag of ride buyer, but you don’t win two European Championships (Italian Formula Renault Championship & Formula Renault 3.5 Series) without having some serious talent.

Over the years, the Verizon IndyCar Series has proven to be a series where experience, seat time and patience has won out over youth and blinding speed. Hawksworth is entering only his 5th season, Munoz is entering his 8th season while Aleshin is entering his 15th season. It is because of that experience that I am choosing Mikhail Aleshin to take home the Sunoco Rookie Of The Year.

According the list on IndyCar.com, the contenders for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year are Mikhail Aleshin at Schmidt, Jack Hawksworth at Herta, and Carlos Munoz at Andretti. The best ride belongs to the driver with the most IndyCar experience and the runner-up finish at Indy last year. Go ahead and engrave the trophy, Carlos Munoz will be the Sunoco Rookie of the year. With that said, it's always worth fireworks when a driver shows up with some European formula experience. Aleshin will be fast but inconsistent. It will be interesting to see whose feathers get ruffled by the Russian.

Who is your choice to win the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series title?

Simon Pagenaud – Knowing that SPHM should not be able to compete with the Big Three week in and out, there is just something special about the combination of Sam Schmidt, Simon Pagenaud and Honda Performance Development. Pagenaud is the people’s dark horse; a nice guy, an even faster racer, focused and often passed over as another great racer stuck in a team that may not equal his skill. With a little luck and touch more consistency, there is no reason to think that Simon wouldn’t be in with a shot at the championship.

Until he proves otherwise, I think you always have to list Scott Dixon as at least in close contention for the title. There’s nothing to suggest Dixie will have drop off this year, so I fully expect to see him either repeat or come amazingly close.

I’d love to pick Simon Pagenaud here, but Honda is sort of an unknown quality right now. Pags has what it takes to win the title, but I don’t believe this is his year. If I had to pick someone who will really push Dixon for the title, it would have to be Will Power. He showed last year he could finish the season strong, which seemed to be the only missing part of his resume.

I think I’ve chosen Will Power for this spot the last three years and nothing has changed to make me pick another driver. Power only qualified outside the top 9 on one occasion in 2013, and if not for some bad luck early in the season, he would have been in contention for his fourth championship run in a row. The 2013 season saw a more relaxed Will Power, combine that with winning three of the last five races, and it all finally adds up to a championship for the Toowoomba Tornado.

The easy picks for the championship are the Chevy teams of Ganassi and Penske. The championship will go through Scott Dixon; he's too consistent everywhere for it not to. If he falters, Helio Castroneves will be there to scoop up the trophy. Will Power's aggressiveness both wins and loses races. He will need some luck to be champion. Justin Wilson has a fast Honda for Dale Coyne, but can the team stay mistake free all season? Ryan Hunter-Reay for Andretti is the model of consistency, but will the Honda have twin-turbo growing pains? If I was a gambling man, I would call this a 6-5 pick 'em: Scott Dixon will be the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.


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