The 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season had a little bit of everything. There were first-time winners, surprise winners, an epic Indianapolis 500, and a championship that wasn’t decided until the final turn on the final lap of the final race. The Penske and Ganassi rivalry is alive and well, but the smaller teams were also in the mix every weekend. In all, six teams won at least two races this year, with Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti Autosport each winning three.
After 16 races, and calculating bonus points, two drivers actually tied for the top spot in the championship. To have a scenario play out like that is absolutely incredible. This is only the third time it has ever happened, and Juan Montoya has found himself on both sides of the tiebreaker. Scott Dixon is a four-time champion, and he earned it in dramatic fashion. It was the 100th IndyCar win for team owner Chip Ganassi, who called this 11th championship of his, the sweetest one of them all.
While there were a number of special moments in 2015, we lost a great human being in Justin Wilson. It was a tough time for everyone, but it was inspiring to see the motorsports family come together in a time of need for his wife and two daughters. Oriol Servia filled in admirably for his longtime friend in the season finale at Sonoma. In case you missed it, Robin Miller had a touching tribute that aired just before the race on Sunday.
The off-season is officially here, but there are some awards to hand out before we put a bow on the 2015 season.
Best Team: Rahal Letterman Lanigan
While the championship battle came down to Penske and Ganassi, I don’t feel as though either of those teams were good enough across the board to warrant this award. Only three of the eight drivers on these powerhouse teams won a race. As four-car operations with Chevrolet engines and the preferred aero kits, it wasn’t very impressive. The smaller, single-car RLL team won two races, had more podium finishes than anyone in the series, and was in second place in the championship entering the last race. All of this without any help from teammates, while utilizing the lesser Honda aero kit.
For Team Penske, it was another championship lost in the waning moments. In the last 10 races of the season, the four Penske drivers combined for zero wins. Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud were winless in 2015. By their own team standards, three wins for that driver lineup is unacceptable. For Ganassi, it was a one-man show with Scott Dixon.
This season was all about the performance of RLL, from the guys in the shop, to the engineers, to the fearless and determined driver. Even early on, it was easy to see that there was something different about Graham this year. He seemed to be oozing with confidence every weekend, and for good reason. Once he became confident and aggressive, that’s when he began collecting podium finishes.
Between this season, his engagement with Courtney Force, his Ohio State Buckeyes winning the National Championship, David Letterman, and the fabulous Steak ‘n Shake sponsorship, it’s been an incredible year for Graham. Whatever formula this team has been trying to find over the past few years with all of their personnel changes, well, they seem to have finally found it.
Most Disappointing Team: AJ Foyt Racing
There were three full-time teams that failed to win a race this season. The single-car team of Bryan Herta Autosport with Rookie driver Gabby Chaves, the less funded Dale Coyne Racing team with a revolving door of drivers, and AJ Foyt Enterprises. The Foyt operation stepped up to a two-car team this year, adding Jack Hawksworth to the mix with veteran Takuma Sato. They also added a new place of business here in Indianapolis. Unfortunately, the results were less than impressive in 2015.
At Indianapolis, they qualified 24th and 28th, with their third car driven by Alex Tagliani starting 20th. The three cars finished 13th, 17th, and 24th respectively. While that might be considered acceptable by some people’s standards, it’s definitely not for a team owned by AJ Foyt.
Looking at the standings, they finished 14th and 17th this season. The last two events were decent for Sato, but his average finish was 14th, and he only had one podium finish all season, while crashing out of four races. Hawksworth is not the veteran that Sato is, but his average finish was 16th, and he too had four DNFs on the season. Unable to record a top-five finish this year, Hawksworth’s best finish was seventh at Belle Isle.
Best Race Outside of Indianapolis: Fontana
The side-by-side, wheel-to-wheel action was intense, and non-stop at Fontana. It was wild, frantic, and spectacular racing, that featured an astonishing 80 lead changes. In the end, it was Graham Rahal taking the checkered flag for just the second time in his career. It snapped his 125-race winless streak, going back to St Petersburg in 2008. Marco Andretti finished third, making it the first time since 1996 that a Rahal and Andretti were on the podium together. That was the Molson Indy Vancouver, which Michael Andretti won, and Bobby Rahal finished second.
There was the obvious controversy with Rahal’s fueling incident, in which he wasn’t penalized for during the race, as well as the post-race topic of pack racing. Both of those topics are still being discussed today. Unfortunately, Auto Club Speedway won’t return to the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule in 2016, but it sure didn’t go quietly.
Drivers were hanging it out, going five-wide in the closing laps. It proved costly though, as several big-name drivers left California with a DNF. The CFH Racing cars of Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden actually took each other out, and Will Power took out his teammate Helio Castroneves. Ryan Briscoe and Ryan Hunter-Reay were battling for the lead in the final laps, but ended up in the grass in what was a hair-raising moment as Briscoe’s car went airborne.
Click here to see all of the highlight videos from this season.
Best Finish: Indianapolis 500
As is the case most years, the best finish of the year came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This year, it was Juan Montoya nearly losing control of his Penske machine in Turn 2 with five laps to go as he ran in third position. Watch him charge to the front and win his second Indianapolis 500-mile race.
Biggest Turnaround From 2014: Graham Rahal
As much as I considered putting Josef Newgarden here, I just couldn’t justify it. There really isn’t even a choice, considering just how big of a swing this was for Rahal. After finishing 19th in the standings a year ago, he entered the final race of the season in second place, with a realistic shot at winning the championship. Not only that, but he won more races this season, than he did in his previous eight years combined.
As I said before, Graham just seemed different this year, and you could sense that just from speaking directly with him. The confidence level has soared higher than it’s ever been, and his results on the track reflect that. He was more aggressive this year, but also more calculated when making his moves. To put it simply; he looked like a veteran out there.
In each of the previous three seasons, Rahal notched just one podium finish. This year alone, he finished with six podiums, which is more than any driver in the series. Last year Rahal’s average average starting and finishing positions were 14th and 15th. By comparison, those numbers were 11th and 8th this season. He completed more laps and led more laps in 2015, and also had less DNFs. Rahal led the way for Honda, as they had a
big hill massive mountain to climb all season. Some things changed inside the RLL organization, but something also changed in Graham, and we all witnessed that this year.
Biggest Disappointment: Simon Pagenaud
Every driver has a year where things just aren’t clicking, for whatever reason. For Pagenaud, it was just his turn. Perhaps no driver came into 2015 with more expectations on them than Simon, but it was understandable. Having won four races over the past two seasons at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, it was just an afterthought that he would have similar, if not more, success at Team Penske.
The results were tough to explain for Pagenaud. He wasn’t crashing or having breaks every other weekend, as he only had two DNFs all season long. He led 132 laps in 2015, which ranked him eighth among all drivers. The qualifying was there, as he had an average starting position of fifth, including his Pole Award at Fontana. Still, he seemed to always fade away late in races, and each time it was just ho-hum, on to the next race.
Maybe expecting results in his first year with the team was premature, but finishing 11th in the standings while driving a Chevrolet, Team Penske car is well below where he should have been, in my opinion. I believe this is a one-time, throw away season for Simon, and that he’ll return to impressive form next year.
Best Moment: Josef Newgarden Wins
There were quite a few great moments during the 2015 season. Graham Rahal winning in his home state at Mid-Ohio, solidifying his stature as a legitimate championship contender. KV Racing getting to victory lane not once but twice with Sebastien Bourdais. Ryan Hunter-Reay finally breaking through and winning at Iowa, ending his dreadful first 3/4 of the season. Even watching Juan Montoya recapture his youth and enthusiasm as he crossed the yard of bricks to win his second Indianapolis 500, 16 years after his first.
The best moment of the 2015 season though, has to be Josef Newgarden getting his first career win at Barber Motorsports Park. We knew it was coming, it was just a matter of time. Apparently that wasn’t enough to satisfy Newgarden’s hunger, as he went out and captured another win north of the border on the streets of Toronto. On top of that, he had two other runner-up finishes, and won the Pole at Milwaukee. Those all made for a great season, but it all began with that first career win.
Newgarden led 46 of the 90 laps that day, winning by 2.2 seconds. After the race, he was just glad it all went down like it did. “This is the way I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to win on some crazy incident or on luck. This team deserves it. They gave me an incredible car and let me get out there and rip with the thing and pass people on pure merit.” It will be interesting to see if CFH Racing can retain the young American driver, as he is now a free agent.
Hold Your Breath Moment: Ryan Briscoe, Fontana
The race itself had us all on edge, throughout the entire event. The shootout in the final few laps was utter chaos. Fortunately, both drivers were okay after this scary incident in the grass, in which Briscoe’s car got airborne.
Best Driver Tweet: Marco Andretti
This particular tweet from Marco came after he was fined $500 by IndyCar for not having his visor down in pit lane.
Roller Coaster Season: CFH Racing
Carpenter Fisher Hartman Racing has just gotten off the ultimate roller coaster ride. The two-car operation had some amazing highlights, but also some brutal blows over the course of the season. There were the two wins for Josef Newgarden, including a 1-2 finish for the team at Toronto, as Luca Filippi finished runner-up. Newgarden led more laps this season than any other driver, and was constantly running up front. Trouble always seemed to find him in pit lane though.
Most of the ovals were not kind to CFHR, especially Indianapolis. Both Newgarden and Ed Carpenter suffered breathtaking accidents in practice, in which they both got airborne and flipped over. The team regrouped, and got the new cars prepared in a matter of hours. As for the race itself, Carpenter and Oriol Servia got together and they went slamming into the Turn 1 wall. It was a sign of things to come for Carpenter, who suffered four DNFs in his six races this season. It’s the first time since 2007 that he failed to record a top-five finish in a season.
Fontana was a particularly bad day for the team, as Carpenter lost control of his car, pinning Newgarden between him and the wall. It was a DNF for both cars, which was ironically the first race after they swept the top two spots at Toronto. It was a season to forget for Carpenter, and while it was feast or famine for Newgarden, he did collect his first two career IndyCar wins.
Rookie of the Year: Gabby Chaves
Sage Karam might be the popular pick here, and I can understand why. Conor Daly would also be a solid choice. He ran five races with two different teams in three different cars. Each race that he started, Conor greatly improved his finishing position from his starting position, including a sixth place finish at Belle Isle. We all know what he can do in the car, it’s just a matter of dollars and cents. Still, I’m going with Chaves on this one. Not only did Gabby win this award for the Indianapolis 500, but he also won it for the season during Monday night’s IndyCar Championship Celebration.
Chaves kept his nose clean all year, in all 16 races, and performed very well for the smaller, single-car team of Bryan Herta Autosport. He finished the year 15th in the standings, and recorded five top-12 finishes. His average finish is five positions ahead of his average start, and he completed 99% of the laps this year, more than any driver other than Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Chaves earned the ROY Award at Indy after finishing in 16th after starting in 26th position. He also led 31 laps at Pocono before his engine let go just three laps from the finish. I know I’m not the only one giving my vote to Gabby this year, as long as The Pusher has a vote.
Best Livery: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (No. 5 car)
This last one is always the toughest category. There are so many worthy candidates this year, it wasn’t an easy pick. In the end though, I had to give the nod to the gorgeous No. 5 SPM black and gold Arrow car.
Some of the other beautiful liveries this year were the Indianapolis 500 cars of Townsend Bell, Oriol Servia, Alex Tagliani, and Justin Wilson. Scott Dixon’s Jurassic Park car at Toronto was epic, and Graham Rahal’s Steak N Shake machine was a welcome sight all season. Juan Montoya’s red reflective ride, and the CFH Racing cars were incredibly good looking as well.
The 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series had some incredible highs, but some terrible lows. Another chapter has been added to the record books, as we look ahead to the 2016 season, which will provide plenty of interesting topics. The 2016 schedule release, Derrick Walker’s replacement, Josef Newgarden’s decision, completed renovations at IMS (Project 100), and of course the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.