Newsstand » 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series driver preview Juan Pablo Montoya joins a familiar field of contenders, including Scott Dixon, Will Power and Tony Kanaan
The Verizon IndyCar Series (and that new name, thanks to the series’ recently signed title sponsor, will take some getting used to) begins this Sunday with a host of contenders, pretenders and intriguing storylines aplenty.
Autoweek breaks down the 22-car lineup that will take the green flag on March 30 in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Scott Dixon, Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet: Every championship pursuit should begin with the reigning champion, and Dixon has won three season titles driving for Chip Ganassi. Thing is, those titles have come every five years (2003, 2008, 2013), but that form doesn’t figure to hold. Dixon remains the elite among the elite with 33 race wins (most among active drivers) and years ahead of him. He can win the title again, and he just might.
Will Power, Team Penske, Chevrolet: Willy P. appears ready to return to contending form. He’s coming off consecutive wins in Houston (street circuit) and Fontana (oval) to end last season. The Fontana win was particularly impressive given the 500-mile duration. It was Power’s first full-race victory on an oval track. He led 103 of the 250 laps.
Tony Kanaan, Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet: It’s been a few years since the Brazilian was a championship contender, but he should be again in his debut with Chip Ganassi’s team. He will be the defending champion of the Indianapolis 500, and he should develop a strong partnership with Dixon (plus Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball). Only trouble is, Kanaan won only one race in three years with KV Racing Technology, and the No. 10 car he’s moved into hasn’t won since the 2012 Indianapolis 500. Doesn’t that raise at least one caution flag?
Helio Castroneves, Team Penske, Chevrolet: It’s mind-boggling to think this talented Brazilian has never won a series titles despite so many years in the hunt. It was almost heartbreaking to watch his team falter down the stretch last year, with mechanical issues in the Houston doubleheader in October among the worst of the worst moments. Still, Castroneves is as optimistic as ever, and he’s got a terrific team, obviously. He’s also building quite a resume: Twenty-eight race wins and 38 series poles. All he needs is that elusive first series title.
The next tier:
Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske, Chevrolet: It would be easy to put the series newcomer in the first group, but he might struggle, too, especially early. Montoya could be great or embarrassing, but more likely he’ll be somewhere in between. Can he beat Power regularly? Dixon regularly? Will he win one race this season? Two? None? It’s a tough call, but it will be fun to watch.
Simon Pagenaud, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Honda: The Frenchman in Sam Schmidt’s car finished a solid third in the series standings last year, but there are more questions this year (and competition). How will Honda fare in its transition to the 2.2-liter twin turbocharged V6 platform? Will it be behind the Chevrolet? Still, Pagenaud is worthy of a top-five finish. He won two races last year.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport, Honda: Like Pagenaud, the strength of the Honda likely will be a key factor in the Floridian’s championship pursuit. Hunter-Reay remains several cuts above most in the field, having won last year on a road course (Barber) and a short oval (Milwaukee), and he was poised to win Indy, too, before Kanaan got him on the final restart and the race ended with Dario Franchitti’s crash.
The third group:
James Hinchcliffe, Andretti Autosport, Honda: You’d think that a driver winning three races in a season would be a championship contender, but the Canadian wasn’t. He finished eighth and led only two races after the 500 in a feast-or-famine finish. He won at St. Pete, São Paulo (with a terrific pass of Takuma Sato) and Iowa.
Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport, Honda: The third-generation driver has won two career races (Sonoma and Iowa) and seems poised for a real breakout season. His approach to fitness and detail has never been better, and he wants to win Indy so bad he can taste it. It’s conceivable he wins a couple races in 2014.
Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet: This will be an interesting car to watch. Briscoe mostly got left on the sideline last year, picking up a ride with Panther Racing after JR Hildebrand was dumped after Indy. But a broken wrist in Toronto was a setback, as was Panther’s inability to secure sponsorship. Fortunately, he landed one of the best rides available as Ganassi expanded to four cars.
Sébastien Bourdais, KV Racing Technology, Chevrolet: There are so many people hoping this can be a top-level pairing. KV is the reigning Indy 500 champion; Bourdais is the four-time Champ Car champion eager for his best ride yet in the unified sport. Bourdais has been stuck on 31 race wins since winning in Mexico City in 2007.
Ed Carpenter/Mike Conway, Ed Carpenter Racing, Chevrolet: Carpenter did a smart and creative thing during the offseason when he hired Conway, a road-course ace, to drive on the non-ovals. Because they’ll share the No. 20 car, neither will win the drivers’ title. But combined, they could win the owners’ title.
Justin Wilson, Dale Coyne Racing, Honda: The popular shoe ended last season with a fractured pelvis at Fontana, but it still was a good season. He was fifth at Indy and had a late-season stretch of second-, fourth-, third- and fourth-place finishes. However, he lost two key engineers to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (Bill Pappas and John Dick).
Charlie Kimball, Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet: Last year was a breakthrough with the first win of the Californian’s career (he won at Mid-Ohio). But he fluctuated from eighth to 14th, proof of the balance the series presents. Kimball might take another step forward this season, but it might not show in the results.
Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Honda: This is a take-a-step-forward season for both the driver and his family-owned team. The $12.6 million National Guard sponsorship gives them everything they need. The pressure is on; it’s time to deliver.
Takuma Sato, A.J. Foyt Racing, Honda: Sato won his first IndyCar race last year at Long Beach, and he was the series points leader heading to Indy. But things got difficult the rest of the way. The No. 14 car had only one top-15 finish in the final 10 races.
Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Honda: The series is still waiting for a breakthrough from the former Indy Lights champion (2011).
Carlos Muñoz, Andretti Autosport, Honda: The Colombian was plenty impressive in finishing second in the 500 last year, but he was too aggressive in his other 500-mile effort (at Fontana). He crashed trying to use the very bottom line. Patience will be key for him this year.
The bottom group:
Sebastian Saavedra, KV Racing Technology, Chevrolet: Thirty-eight races, two top-10 finishes.
Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Honda: The Russian will be making his debut in a U.S. race this weekend.
Jack Hawksworth, Bryan Herta Autosport, Honda: He won three races, including St. Pete, last year in Indy Lights, but he finished fourth in the standings.
Carlos Huertas, Dale Coyne Racing, Honda: The Colombian tested twice with Panther Racing, but this weekend will be his first laps in Dale Coyne’s car.