RACER's Top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2013

RACER's Top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2013

IndyCar

RACER's Top 10 IndyCar drivers of 2013

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Over the past couple weeks, Robin Miller, Marshall Pruett and I have analyzed drivers who filled the top 12 places in the 2013 IndyCar Series, and Marshall also covered the best of the rest, with positions 13 through 27. But all of that was set in order of the points table, even if we each tried to convey the context of each driver’s season.

However, it’s become a tradition at RACER to use that context ” basically, what a driver did with what he was given to drive and in what circumstance ” and then provide a true comparative order. In previous years, I’ve done this solo, and although that’s again true, adding Robin’s and Marshall’s perspectives to my own was valuable. Nonetheless, don’t blame them if you disagree with any/all of what follows?.

First, let’s get the usual disclaimers out of the way. This was based on facts and stats, but with a self-created system awarding marks for races and qualifying sessions. Teammates were a point of comparison (as they are for the drivers themselves), but the quality of teammate was also borne in mind. And in one case, having to deal with a constantly revolving roster of drivers in the other car was a consideration.

It should go without saying that personalities did not figure in this, unless it influenced a driver’s performance on track. Misfortunes ” things out of a driver’s control, such as badly-timed yellow flags, poor pit stops, getting caught in someone else’s shunt, etc. ” were accounted for with a projected finishing position.

As ever, the calculations had to be done all at once, in order to eradicate influence by mood: I was generous one day, downright mean the next, but all drivers benefited or suffered accordingly. It was particularly tight this year, reflecting both the closeness of competition but also a year of fluctuating performance levels, and I don’t just mean between teams and cars. Even the aces had weekends or longer periods of looking not quite on their A-game. In this year’s list, I can tell you that the drivers who take RACER‘s P2 and P3 were very close, as were P5 and P6. And you could throw a fireproof balaclava over positions 7 through 12 (yes, two drivers came oh-so-close to making our top 10 but missed the cut.) Which is why the analysis was done eight times over a two-week period until eventually the order remained consistent three times in a row?

ONE NOTABLE FAR MISS, TWO NEAR MISSES

Notably, one of the far misses in this case was someone who won a race and completed the whole season. Takuma Sato‘s season was extraordinary. I won a bet with one of his peers who had stated two years ago that Sato would never win an IndyCar race, but at Long Beach I was more happy that this good man, driving for a team led and populated by good people, had finally driven the race that his raw talent would suggest should be within his grasp on a regular basis. After a runner-up finish in Sao Paulo, Taku was leading the championship.

His tumble from that peak went virtually unchecked, however. Bearing in mind he was without a teammate, a drop in competitiveness as multi-car teams made strides was forgivable. Less so was the fact that his incidents in practice or race were too often self-inflicted. If he rediscovers the fine line he trod in Long Beach, he could still do Foyt’s team huge favors.

Charlie Kimball and Sebastien Bourdais, who finished ninth and 12th respectively in the 2013 IndyCar Series, came very close to making this list and were tied on the RACER points system, which is interesting because they came from completely different angles and are at very different stages of their U.S. open-wheel career ” Bourdais the four-time Champ Car title-winner who has F1 experience too, Kimball the kid who only made his IndyCar debut three seasons ago.

In terms of outright talent, Bourdais would be in most people’s top six, year in, year out, possessing what many of us describe as a natural talent. By contrast, it’s Kimball’s hard work and eagerness to keep on improving that has raised him to this level. Continuing at this rate means he is likely to make the grade next year.

Bourdais, I admit, is hard to assess in 2013. How good was Dragon Racing? How fair is it to compare him to his teammate, Sebastian Saavedra? Dragon, perhaps more than any other team, seemed to suffer problems with one or other car most weekends, so a direct Seb-to-Seb head-to-head was rarely possible. In addition, there was a disconnect between what they wanted from their cars; Bourdais wants a solid rear end, happy to deal with understeer, loathing high-speed oversteer. Saavedra is a better improviser, but prefers a car on the loose side, and struggles to beat Bourdais when the Frenchman has his car setup with push. The point is that each was less helpful to the other than was ideal. And their problematic days render the 9-9 qualifying comparison (Houston 2 was set by championship order) as near meaningless.

Bourdais’ high points of course came in Toronto double-header, where he clocked a third and a second place. He also looked strong at Sao Paulo, Houston, Baltimore (finished third) and Fontana. But he made errors at Detroit, triggering that huge race-stopping pile-up and in qualifying at Baltimore ” each times when he could have shone.

Then again, the desperation of trying to take advantage of the few chances you have can do that to even the best of them. And Bourdais is one of the best, as he should be able to prove next year at KV Racing.

Kimball’s exploits ceased to surprise this year as he became a regular figure in the top 10. He remains very much a ?confidence? driver; when aero grip and/or mechanical grip are high, he’s certainly brave enough to exploit it, but is less happy when in-cockpit acrobatics are necessary for fast times. That hole in Charlie’s repertoire may eventually be filled by experience, but as things stand, his most impressive showings will always come on the natural road courses and ovals, and together they comprised just nine of the 19 races in 2013.

What has been there pretty much since he joined the IndyCar grid in 2011 is the combativeness that belies his out-of-cockpit demeanor. His passes on Power at Barber and Pagenaud at Mid-Ohio were clean, instinctive and, most importantly, decisive. The win at Mid-Ohio was one of the most memorable moments in a season full of them.

Next year, I expect CK to be in our Top 10, as he runs further up his learning curve.

10. TONY KANAAN

TK generally agreed with our assessment of his 2013 season and is also aware that next season will be the big test for him, in a consistently strong car once more with the great all-rounder Scott Dixon as a direct point of reference. But he made a valid point that his often poor results in qualifying for road and street courses in recent years have often had a valid explanation that many of us don’t consider.

?You must realize,? he said, ?that at KV Racing over the past three seasons, we knew we couldn’t realistically go for the IndyCar championship, and to be honest, the last couple of seasons at Andretti Autosport, that was true too. So we had to go for specific targets where we could aim our effort, and obviously the big one was the Indy 500 because that was traditionally one of my strongest tracks. So look at our results at Indy with KV ” fourth, third and this year, first. So we had less money to spend on engineering great setups for a street course, but you could say the way we planned our efforts paid off, right??

Right. Damn right ” and TK’s face will appear on the Borg-Warner Trophy to prove it!

And as usual, Kanaan’s remarkable ability to stay out of trouble even when buried in the jostling pack at Turn 1 on any type of track during a double-file start or restart served him well. The clash with Servia at Long Beach and understeering into a wall at Houston were among the rare misjudgments. So too was knocking off his front wing at Pocono (where he might have won), but Tony now completes the whole set of IndyCar drivers who have done this, simply because it’s impossible to see the nose of the car from the cockpit and the front wings are so deep. In other words, clipping the rear of another car is virtually inevitable at some point in the season.

But there were positive surprises too. Kanaan rediscovered his street course mojo at Long Beach, Sao Paulo and Toronto, and as ever, he was fast on all the ovals. So yes, a big intra-team challenge awaits him next year, but he didn’t too bad in 2013?

High point: Like you don’t know.
Low point: Way off the pace at Mid-Ohio and ultimately ended in a DNF (not of his making).

9. MARCO ANDRETTI

The stat books show that Marco Andretti led more laps than the champion, Scott Dixon, yet all but 19 of Marco’s tally of 259 came on ovals. If the Indy car schedule was split 50/50 between ovals and road/street courses, he’d surely be higher in these rankings ” and might be the IndyCar champion! But the fact is that the split in 2013 was 13-6 in favor of tracks with right as well as left turns, and IndyCar is supposed to be all about the most versatile drivers in the world.

That’s not to say that Andretti is uncompetitive on road and street courses, but he’s certainly not as competitive there as he is on ovals and doesn’t have the all-round game of many of his rivals. That said, he made a considerable step forward in 2013, and his podiums at St. Petersburg and Sao Paulo owed much to his pacing the life of his tires over a whole stint, and then using his instinctive flair for battling to get past others as they wilted. But that was when Andretti Autosport was at its finest. As Penske came on strong and Ganassi made their big leap forward, Marco was pushed back into midfield anonymity once more, and only staying power and his innate (Kanaan-like) instinct to avoid the worst of trouble kept him scoring reasonably heavily and way up in the points.

He’d have been even further up had he had better luck on the ovals where he excelled. At five of the six oval races, Marco could/should have finished in the top three but a blend of bad strategy, bad luck and bad pit stops prevented top-three finishes in any of them. If someone said he was the best all-rounder on the round and round tracks, I’d struggle to argue. There are some who match him at the various ovals, but Marco is consistently right there. Not that you’d guess it by looking at his results this year?

High points: His drives at Indy, Milwaukee and Pocono, any of which might have ended in victory.
Low points: His bad luck at the first, mechanical problem at the second, fuel consumption at the third.

8 DARIO FRANCHITTI

Not a great year by his high standards but Dario Franchitti’s own high standard of driving was maintained ” and those aren’t words written in sympathy. When you can beat Power, Dixon, Hunter-Reay and co. to pole position four times on street and road courses, you’ve clearly still got the pace to be champion. And had the cars been quick enough through the oval part of the season, he’d surely have taken full advantage. 

Franchitti suffered more than Dixon during Ganassi’s early-season blues, and he was struck by Honda unreliability at inopportune times. For instance, where might Dario have finished in the second Detroit race if he’d started from the pole position he earned, rather than 11th following an engine change? Probably a podium at the very least. But in a way, that epitomized his season: the little things that have to fall into place for a driver to win a race never seemed to fall in favor of Ganassi car No. 10.

What was extra-impressive about his charge through the field from last place to fourth in the second of Toronto’s races, is that in the first of them, he’d been using his tires too much. Yet a setup change overnight and a tweak to his technique had enabled him to go even harder the next day and without encountering the same issues. Right to his very last season, Dario was expanding his mental data bank, refining his talent, and his ability to make driving these cars look so easy was reminiscent of Al Unser Jr. And yet, as with Little Al, beneath that purist style was the heart of a racer.

At Iowa, while rumors increased that he was thinking of retirement, Dario told me off the record that he wanted one more year in IndyCar. It’s a damn shame that circumstances robbed him of that opportunity to go for his fourth Indy 500 victory and fifth title, because I think he was capable of both. And I believe that simply because he believed that: Franchitti is a proud man who would not have allowed himself to continue if he felt like he’d slipped from the top rank of drivers. And he never did, whatever the 2013 records show.

High point: Pole at Sonoma.
Low point:
Aside from the Houston crash, it’s got to be the awful Iowa weekend.

7 JAMES HINCHCLIFFE

James could never walk the walk as consummately as he talks the talk, because in the latter role there is no one better in IndyCar. But if Hinchcliffe talked like he mounted a season-long campaign, there would be bouts of jibberish or even silence?followed by oratory worthy of JFK.

On his best days, in other words, Hinchcliffe has few peers when it comes to blending speed, race smarts and bravery with the ability to create opportunities and take advantage of them. His second win, at Sao Paulo, utilized all of these talents. Yet two weeks earlier at Long Beach, he tried an impossible move at Turn 1 after a restart, and got taken out. At Iowa he was blisteringly fast, didn’t put a wheel wrong and dominated, yet at the next week later he lost it on the opening lap at Pocono.

It’s important to remember that this is only Hinchcliffe’s third season in IndyCar, and there’s not a driver out there who wasn’t making the occasional ?What-were-you-thinking?? blunder in their third year. Heck, there are those with far more experience who screw up more often. But equally, Andretti Autosport did have the best cars for half the season and James didn’t always put himself in the best position to take advantage of that.

Some of these scrapes also happened because he didn’t qualify as well as he should, causing him to take greater chances. He still has no pole positions to his name and this year qualified on the front row only once (but started there twice thanks to someone else’s engine-change penalty).

Hinch made the point that he’d won in three different ways, leading the final quarter of a race (St. Pete), leading the final 400 yards of a race (Sao Paulo) and dominating (Iowa). But let’s not ignore his performance in the second part of Houston’s double-header. James knew he didn’t have the pace to tackle Dixon and Power, so did just enough to keep out of range of Justin Wilson and drive it home to third place.

At various points in the season, Hinch showed a wide variety of skills. Many people, not least team owner Michael Andretti, will be looking for improvements in consistency in 2014. If he also allies this to one-lap pace, he’s a future title winner.

High point: Imperious at Iowa
Low point:
The oh-no at Pocono.

6 HELIO CASTRONEVES

Those who think we had the knives out for Mr. Castroneves this year couldn’t be more wrong, although ranking the championship runner-up in sixth hardly helps our side of the story. However, a good barometer of anyone’s professional worth is the regard in which he or she is held by his or her peers. And while every worthwhile driver respects Helio’s considerable talent, surely none could say that we saw the best of him this season. In fact, you’d have been hard-pressed to find any IndyCar driver pre-Fontana finale who felt that Helio’s 2013 campaign was worthy of the series title.

Said one of his rivals post-season: ?I love Helio ” still a hell of a driver, great for the sport and all that good stuff ” but he didn’t get the right balance this year, between going for it and settling for points. The rest of the fast guys were winning one weekend and wanking the next. Or, like Scott [Dixon], did nothing for half a year and then did it all in the second half. I tell you, if Helio had just been a bit more aggressive at a few more tracks, I don’t think Dixie would have caught him.?

Helio’s other problem is that in a way he was his own worst enemy: like Hinchcliffe, Helio’s excellent performances kept putting his poor ones into perspective. His Texas Motor Speedway performance was beyond the reach of anyone else. The cynics continue to grumble that was because the No. 3 car wasn’t as legal as it should have been, but Castroneves’ teammate Will Power saw the data traces afterward and remarked: ?I don’t think Helio had an easier ride than the rest of us. I just think he does a great job dealing with high-speed oversteer. Respect.?

If that was Castroneves in dominant form, it was Helio as fighter that revived memories of his performances in 2012 and 2010. At Milwaukee, for instance, he made a brilliant run from 18th to second, at Mid-Ohio he went from 14th to sixth, and at Fontana he thrust his way to the front for a total of 27 laps. What was the common theme in these events? He went into the race with low expectations, either for the race or for the championship, and suddenly the self-imposed restraints were lifted and he could get back to being Castroneves ” cocky, sure and fast. That’s what we want to see a lot more of in 2014.

High point: Texas is too obvious, so let’s go for Fontana where he reminded everyone that he still can be both  fast and aggressive.
Low point: Baltimore ” too many mistakes for someone of his vast experience.

5 JUSTIN WILSON

Ten years and 150 starts into his U.S. open-wheel career, and Justin Wilson has seven wins to his name ” a tally that did not go up in 2013. On the other hand, he finished sixth in the championship, ahead of all but one of the Andretti cars and two of the Ganassi cars. And, if anything, he cemented his reputation as an ace. Yes, temporary teammate Mike Conway kicked his ass in Detroit, but Conway towered over everything but the Renaissance Center in the first race that weekend. And anyway, every established star at some point has a weekend where his preferred setup handling-wise seems directly contrary to what his car needs to go quick. And remember too that Justin did get on the podium that weekend, despite a far less favorable pit stop strategy?.

No, when I think of Wilson in 2013, it will be for being the only Honda runner with a chance of victory in Indy, that brilliant second place at Sonoma where he hassled both Dixon and Power for the lead, the elegant car control as he slid his way into the top four in both rounds of the Houston double-header?

And then there’s that charging drive to third in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Wilson missed qualifying due to Dale Coyne Racing not having a wrap on the rear wing (apparently a requirement on an IndyCar in order to pass technical inspection) and there was insufficient time to remedy the situation. Given the nature of the course, JWil looked gloomily ahead to a long race from the back of the field. Wild strategies, while considered the only option for those of ambition in circumstances such as these, rarely pay off in reality, and can only work if the guy in the cockpit is committed and fast. Enter Justin, who strode majestically up the lap chart while others in superior cars threw themselves at each other or the wall, and he even ended up beating the polesitter to the final place on the podium.

Which is a microcosm of his season. In 2013, Justin Wilson put his car far ahead of far better funded rivals, from race to race and in the points table. In a normal world, this would earn him a ride in one of the big teams.

High point: A forgotten one ” qualifying and finishing fourth at Baltimore, while others drove like beginners.Low point: His one significant error of the year, in the finale at Fontana, which led to a collision and a pelvic fracture.

4 SIMON PAGENAUD

Among the outpouring of disappointment and sadness following Dario Franchitti’s announcement of his enforced retirement, there were many writers, fans and stars of the sport who couldn’t help but use the expression that Franchitti’s absence ?leaves a void.? It’s impossible to disagree, especially when he was still one of the best drivers out there.

Yet pondering this last week, it suddenly struck me that the IndyCar driver with the potential to fill the Flying Scotsman’s racing boots is this 29-year-old from Alsace, France. In the engineering trailer, he’s intelligent, meticulous, hard-working, open to fresh ideas, and his mere presence is motivational to those around him. Out on the track he makes few errors while traveling at a pace few can match, and he appears able to consistently avoid trouble. To continue the comparison further, both Pagenaud and Franchitti took to Indy car racing immediately and scored more than one win in only their second season at the top of U.S. open-wheel racing. (While it isn’t relevant in an assessment of driving performance, Simon even shares Dario’s eloquence and ease with the media and close ties with Honda.)

By finishing third in the 2013 IndyCar Series, sophomore Pagenaud and third-year team Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports made a bold statement: they were not one-hit wonders, but instead a strong and ever-improving force that could turn the Big Three into a Big Four. And while the remarkable consistency of their first year together was absent for periods of this past season, this remarkable combo got its act together to notch up two wins.

If there’s an area that Simon needs to address, it’s his qualifying performances, but Sam Schmidt himself takes the blame on behalf of his team for many of Pagenaud’s struggles in this area. Whether it’s the result of SHM’s relative inexperience, relatively restricted funding compared with Penske/Ganassi/Andretti, or just growing pains as it expanded to two cars and stretched its manpower, the fact is that there were wild variances in the No. 77’s qualifying position. Even its peak (third at Baltimore) isn’t as high as you’d expect. But there’s also the reasoning that, given Pagenaud’s other qualities as listed above, so long as he started top eight, come race day he could turn himself into a potential podium finisher or winner.

Still, Simon will doubtless be hunting for more one-lap pace over the winter, which will further endorse the view that he’s the next Dario.

High point: His relentless flying laps during the second race in Detroit that sealed his first victory.
Low point:
The first race in Detroit.

3 WILL POWER

A couple of question-marks and one or two obvious mistakes are enough to knock Will Power from the P1 he’s held for the last three seasons in the RACER Top 10.

Let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first. That was a proper misjudgment on that now infamous restart at Baltimore, which took him and Dixon out of the race. You’ve got to love him for trying to pass Franchitti for third on the last lap in Toronto 1, but the fact that Will admits it was a 50/50 chance and it ended with him nosing into the tire wall, means it has to be classified as a mistake. And his setups at both Long Beach and Detroit (first race) rendered him powerless to tackle the true pacesetters on both race days.

Then there are the question marks. While tactics are a team decision, he is part of that team, and thus must share the blame when they go wrong. Power’s poor start at Barber dropped him from P2 to P9 on the opening lap. Was it necessary to go for a two-stop strategy which meant spending the afternoon cruising some 1.5sec per lap off his ultimate pace? Sure, some yellow-flag laps would have loosened the fuel situation, allowed him to go hunting for the leaders, but why leave yourself at the mercy of a maybe? When the No. 12 team ” in the company of several other crews, it must be said ” repeated this overambition at Mid-Ohio and didn’t switch when they realized the ridiculousness of the situation, I couldn’t help feeling they deserved what they got: fourth place.

If this all sounds overly critical, it’s only because I’m holding Power, Penske president Tim Cindric and race engineer Dave Faustino to their own traditionally high standards. Generally, they did a superb job, and only JR Hildebrand, a mechanical failure, and pit-closed/full-course caution cost them strong shots at victory at St. Petersburg, Sao Paulo and Houston 1. Elsewhere, Tristan Vautier, Bourdais and a mechanical issue prevented possible podiums at Long Beach, Detroit 2 and Iowa.

But when Power says this was a great learning year, he’s absolutely right. His oval performances leapt up in quality, culminating in that decisive victory in the season finale at Fontana. From Detroit onward, his restarts became as good as anyone else’s (bar Kanaan, maybe?). And early on in the season, when he could barely get his score off the ground and started feeling he had nothing to lose by going for it, Will demonstrated to any last doubters that he doesn’t need to lead from pole in order to succeed; he can fight for it, too. At Sao Paulo, Detroit and Houston, his passes were forceful, decisive, fair ” and unforgettable.

The fact that he led 15 of the 19 races and led more laps than anyone else shows Power’s consistent quality, too. And so, although this season was a somewhat misshapen one for Will and the Penske No. 12 team, the run of three wins in five races to close out the year may yet prove portentous.

High point: Yes, all three of his wins were great but racing from 22nd to 11th in just 16 laps at Sao Paulo (without touching his push-to-pass boost) was a stunning effort.
Low point:
Baltimore, Dixon, you know the rest?

2 RYAN HUNTER-REAY

Two wins from 19 races sounds like a pretty mediocre effort, but we all know about lies, damned lies and statistics, right? In actuality, Ryan Hunter-Reay’s defense of his crown was at least on a par with Franchitti’s in 2010 (which earned Dario another crown) or Dan Wheldon’s in 2006 (which he lost only on a tiebreak). Basically, Hunter-Reay made just two significant driving errors all year and yet came away with a mere seventh in the championship. He wasn’t even top Andretti Autosport driver in the points standings, and that too, is misleading. Just as the team’s pace in the first half of this season killed off the notion that Michael Andretti’s team had simply thrown a lucky punch at setup when IndyCar rebooted with the Dallara DW12 last year, so Hunter-Reay spent this season proving he possesses all the skills necessary to earn multiple titles.

Pace? Hell yeah, he’s got it! Power was genuinely shocked by RHR’s speed around Barber Motorsports Park on his way to pole. At Mid-Ohio, Hunter-Reay was able to run fresh reds (alternate compound) in Q3 because he had so much pace in hand that he could use the harder blacks (primaries) to get through Q1 and therefore had two fresh sets of reds for the next stages of qualifying. Result? Another pole. This was particularly impressive because by then, Ganassi had the fastest cars.

Fighting qualities? Yeah, Ryan has those in abundance ” has done for many years, in fact ” but they were never better demonstrated than at Iowa this year. Clipping Graham Rahal’s car forced the No. 1/28 to pit for a new nose section, but he was steely, relentless and quick as he surged forward, eventually completing a Hinchcliffe-led Andretti Autosport 1-2. And how about RHR’s pass on Helio Castroneves at Barber, his second place at Texas and his sixth place at Sonoma? Whether he was fighting another ace, his own car or the repercussions of a poor strategy, Ryan never gave up.

Not only that, he maximized his opportunities, kept AA in the top six each race long after it had slipped to third in the competitive order of teams, and retained his patience as a variety of misfortunes pushed him out of title contention. Unfortunately, a puncture at Sao Paulo, mechanical failures at St. Petersburg and Baltimore, electrical issues at Toronto and Houston, assault by Sato at Pocono and a 50/50 collision with Power in the second Toronto race? all kept Ryan from easy top four finishes at the very least, and probably two wins. Combined, they punched a hole through RHR’s attempts to retain his crown.

Nonetheless, Hunter-Reay and race engineer Ray Gosselin had much to be proud of in 2013 in terms of performance, and they are worthy adversaries of any combo in the paddock. Hunter-Reay is clearly one of IndyCar’s best, and has many more seasons to prove it further. He will surely be Honda’s leading representative more often than not next year.

High point: Milwaukee: how can anyone be 2mph quicker than the Penske pair in the first laps after a restart? Only RHR knows, and it led to a brilliant victory.
Low point: Clipping the wall in Detroit’s second race was a clear unforced error.

1 SCOTT DIXON

Scott Dixon scores runner-up finishes at Barber Motorsports Park as surely as Power takes pole in qualifying at St. Petersburg ” each has now achieved four straight. But this year, in both cases, it was something of a false dawn. Power’s tribulations have been chronicled earlier in this story, while Dixon’s issues have been the main tale in every 2013 IndyCar review. When was the last time the champion of this series could so clearly define his campaign as a season of two halves?

As our own Marshall Pruett pointed out, in the first 10 races of the year, Dixon led just one solitary lap. And that second place at Barber was his sole podium finish over that same stretch.

More significantly, there was no race in those first 10 at which he could point and say, ?I could have won that,? or even, ?That should have been a top three.? Chip Ganassi Racing was simply ” and unusually ” outperformed. Even in Sao Paulo, where he broke his wing on Castroneves’ car, Dixon was no more likely to contend for victory than about eight other drivers.

Scott’s redeeming quality through these times was his determination to make the best of it. While in previous years, teammate Franchitti had looked error-free, Dixie, in his anxiety to make up for early-season DNFs, would sometimes compound his situation by making the odd error, failing to exploit the weekends when Ganassi was strong. This year, it was his lack of errors when the car was wayward that kept him in the title hunt, as he demonstrated, for example, with glorious car control and improvisation at Milwaukee. Had he hit the wall like Dario did at St. Petersburg and had he also spun while controlling a car with damaged rear suspension at Detroit 2 ” he scored a fifth and a fourth in these two races ” he would have gone to the Fontana finale pretty much level on points with Helio. That in turn would have meant that strategist Mike Hull couldn’t have risked bringing his guy in for the unscheduled pit stops that enabled the crew to clear the sidepods and helped prevent his Honda overheating in a terminal manner.

Then, too, incidents like the failed gearbox at Texas Motor Speedway, the sick engine at Iowa and the wipeout by Power at Baltimore would have looked hideously expensive. Plus Dixon would have had cause to rue that moment at Sonoma where he cut it too fine while leaving his pit box and knocked a couple of Penske crew-members to the ground.

Dixon kept his head through the troubled times and then cut loose with fantastic drives at Pocono and both Toronto races, three straight wins that would form the backbone of his title quest. For the No. 9 boys ” along with many others ” Mid-Ohio was a missed opportunity, but his first and second places in the Houston rounds were a perfect response to the negative vibe that had surrounded him in recent events.

Over the final couple of races before the season finale, I asked several drivers who they thought would make the most worthy champion, and while most expressed some sympathy and affection for Castroneves, the man who’d never won it, they all gave Dixon the nod. When I asked a team owner the same question, he not only nominated Dixon, but without further prompting added: ?Dixon’s always been one of those few guys out there who can win you a race even when your car’s not the best. But these years alongside Dario, he’s also learned how to capitalize when the car’s really good, and he’s not making many mistakes. Not big ones, anyway.

?So in a year like this, when everyone’s had at least a couple of good weekends and the points are spread around a lot, every single point seems to make a difference. That’s when having Dixon as one of your drivers is a major, major help. He’s the complete driver.?

Which sums it up nicely.

High point: Dominant victory in second race at Toronto.
Low point:
The fracas in Sonoma.

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