There were high expectations for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for good reason. It was the return of iconic venues like Phoenix, Road America, and (eventually) Watkins Glen. There was intrigue surrounding the revised aero kits, and newcomers like Alexander Rossi and Max Chilton. There were great story lines about guys like Conor Daly finally getting his full-time ride, and the return of Mikhail Aleshin to SPM.
The spotlight is always on Indianapolis in the Month of May, but even more so this year, with the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 taking center stage. The hype had been built up for more than a year, and it absolutely lived up to it. It was an incredible race, and there were many more along the way as the 2016 campaign once again came down to the final race of the season to determine the champion.
In the end, it was Simon Pagenaud that put on a magnificent performance, from start to finish. There was just one new race winner this year, but it was quite the win for Rossi, and a wonderful déjà vu moment for Bryan Herta. Television viewership was up, the Indy 500 sold out, and fans came out in droves at places like Road America and Watkins Glen. There were a lot of positives for IndyCar this year.
Though the busy off-season has already begun, lets look back at what was a terrific 2016 season.
Best Team: Team Penske
This first award is fairly obvious, as Roger Penske’s team was even more dialed in than usual. Pagenaud, Power, and Castroneves took the top three spots in the standings, with Montoya finishing 9th, although he tied Charlie Kimball (8th) in points. A team sweeping the top three spots in the championship has only been done once before (1994), and that was once again Team Penske. As a team, they won 10 of the 16 races, and earned pole position in 11 of them.
Pagenaud led the way with 5 wins, 7 poles, and 8 podium finishes. Power had 4 wins, 2 poles, and 7 podiums. Montoya won the season-opener at St Petersburg, and had 3 podium finishes of his own. Castroneves didn’t win a race, but there were quite a few races where he had a car to win, but circumstances just didn’t allow for it. He did manage to grab 2 poles and collect 4 podium results for yet another top-three finish in the championship.
Most Disappointing Team: Andretti Autosport
Sometimes a team just has a bad year. Still, most of them aren’t as bad as this one was for Andretti Autosport. That’s really saying something, considering they won the Indianapolis 500. The fact is, apart from that race, they were just downright awful. Carlos Munoz was the highest finishing Andretti car in the standings, and he was 10th. The other three finished 11th, 12th, and 16th. Rossi’s monumental victory was the only win for the team this season. Marco’s best finish all year was 8th in the final race, and he never even led a lap during the 16 races.
The Honda aero kits can take some of the blame, but other teams like RLL, SPM, and Coyne managed to grab decent results now and again. There was some rotten luck that the team had to deal with as well, but the fact is they under-performed across the board, and it was ugly. Fortunately Hunter-Reay, Rossi, and Andretti will all soon be locked into multi-year deals, and sponsors like DHL and HHGregg are on board too. This team is too good to not figure it out. Expect them to rebound nicely in 2017.
Still, Andretti clearly wasn’t the worst team in 2016. That honor would go to AJ Foyt Racing. Neither Takuma Sato or Jack Hawksworth led a single lap all season, and Hawksworth never even finished a race in the top-ten. They were 17th and 20th in the standings, and it appears neither will be back next season, as the team looks to make major changes.
Most Disappointing Driver: Ryan Hunter-Reay
Staying with the Andretti theme, this award goes to the 2014 Indy 500 winner and 2012 series champion. The frustration was evident on the face and in the voice of Hunter-Reay all year long. Though he managed three podium finishes, he never visited victory lane, or even earned a pole. It is the first season since 2009 that Hunter-Reay has gone winless. His strong Indy 500 run ended with a sour taste in his mouth, after contact with teammate Townsend Bell in pit lane. Bad luck seemed to follow Ryan around a lot, but for his sake, we hope it’s finished.
There were a few other worthy candidates for this award. After nearly winning the championship after dominating last season, Montoya seemed to hit a wall this year. He was obviously not in the same class as his three teammates. Marco also had a dismal season. It was the first season in his 11-year career that he failed to lead a lap, or record a top-five finish. Neither driver for AJ Foyt Racing led a lap this year either. Though it was only five races, Ed Carpenter did have the worst statistical year of his career.
Biggest Turnaround From 2015: Simon Pagenaud
Pagenaud won this one by a landslide. Looking back at the other drivers that improved from last season, it wasn’t even close. In his first season with Team Penske last year, Pagenaud finished 11th in the standings, didn’t win a race, and had just two podium finishes. Expectations were high entering that season, but as with most things, it takes time. It was worth the wait for Simon, who just delivered Roger Penske his 14th championship.
The stats speak for themselves, but a lot of the credit also needs to go to his engineer, Ben Bretzman. The two have been together since 2010, and are in constant communication, on and off the track. The relationship they share is key to the success they’ve had, and there was plenty of it this season. They are focused and determined to get the best out of each other. That same work ethic rubs off on the entire crew.
Best Battle: Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud (Barber)
The final few laps at Barber Motorsports Park were action packed, thanks to an intense battle between Rahal and Pagenaud. Both drivers showed a lot of aggression as they fought for the lead, which was somewhat surprising on Simon’s end. There isn’t much room to go side-by-side at Barber. This was wild, but just imagine what would have transpired if Hawksworth wasn’t in the way there towards the end.
Biggest Heartbreak: Mikhail Aleshin (Pocono, Mid-Ohio)
Many people felt bad for Hinchcliffe after Rahal beat him to the finish line at Texas. Still, Hinchcliffe already has multiple IndyCar wins, and his team was penalized after the race anyway. It was his teammate though, that will win this award.
Mikhail Aleshin looked primed to win his first race at Pocono, only to finish second behind Will Power. The Russian earned his first pole in qualifying, and was easily one of the strongest cars in the race. Aleshin has opened a lot of eyes this year, and for good reason. He grabbed a pair of top-five finishes at St Petersburg and Iowa, and a sixth-place finish at Toronto. Aleshin had Mid-Ohio in the bag, until a mistake during a pit stop cost him there. He led 87 of the 200 laps at Pocono, and has shown that he has the talent to win a race, and that it just may be a matter of time.
Best Finish: Texas
The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 lived up to the hype, and the finish was dramatic as it came down to a few drops of fuel, but even that finish paled in comparison to what we witnessed at Texas Motor Speedway.
Best Race Outside of Indianapolis: Road America
The return to Road America lived up to the massive hype. Widely regarded as being the greatest road course in the United States, the scenic 4.014-mile track in Elkhart Lake showcased some incredible racing. The fans came out in droves, and the drivers put on one hell of a show. There was passing everywhere you looked. Power led 46 of the 50 laps en route to victory, but Kanaan was in attack mode in the final laps. The margin of victory was just 0.743 seconds.
Things got interesting early, when Dixon’s engine let go, which netted him a 22nd place finish. Pagenaud fought his way up to second late in the race, then experienced engine issues himself. He would finish 13th in the race, but still held a commanding 74-point lead heading into the next round. There was a great back-and-forth battle between Kanaan and Rahal, as both drivers made daring moves in the high-speed turns. It was truly an exciting event, from start to finish.
Worst Moment: Josef Newgarden, Texas
This was no doubt a scary incident. The crash looked horrible live, and when Newgarden collapsed after getting out of the car, everyone held their breath. Fortunately Josef only suffered a broken collarbone and a mild hand fracture. In what can only be described as an incredible recovery, the young American driver was back in the car two weeks later. Because all of the safety devices did their job, this wreck was far less damaging than it appeared.
Best Moment: James Hinchcliffe, Indianapolis
The mere fact that Hinchcliffe was able to get back out onto the track and showed no fear, was impressive. The crash just a year before then drastically changed his life, and the lives of many others who were involved in his recovery. As Indy 500 qualifying began, everyone was thrilled to see him make it into the Fast Nine, and have the opportunity to go for the pole.Not only did he do it, he did it in the typical dramatic fashion you would expect. He was the last car to go out, and earned himself pole position for the Indianapolis 500.
Not only was it great to see Hinchcliffe on pole one year after the accident, but his team owner Sam Schmidt also took some laps around IMS in the Arrow Electronics C7 Corvette Z06. It was an emotional day for everyone at SPM, and even though the race didn’t work out the way they wanted, Hinchcliffe was strong, leading 27 laps and finishing 7th.
Funniest Moment: Scott Dixon, Sonoma
We saw a different side of Dixon this year. Known as ‘The Iceman’ for his calm, cool, demeanor, there were a few instances this season where he showed some different character. First was the ill-advised move at Mid-Ohio where he tried to force his way under Castroneves and ended up taking himself out. It was strange to see him make such a desperate move. Then came the double birds at Texas, directed at Carpenter. Again, it was out of character for him.
Those were surprising, but seeing this gem before the race at Sonoma just made me laugh.
Rookie of The Year: Alexander Rossi
The easy answer here would be to award this as a tie between Rossi and Daly. I’m not doing that. Still, I think the bodywork of the entire season should carry more weight than just one race – even the great Indianapolis 500. With that said, Rossi earned that win, and it was no fluke. He may have won it running on fumes, but he was consistently one of the fastest cars in practice every single day. He was named IndyCar’s Rookie of The Year at Sonoma, and there is no doubt he is the real deal. In my mind, he didn’t win this award until Sonoma.
Daly and Rossi are good friends, and both are deserving of this award. Conor had 5 finishes in the top-six and led 56 laps, which was more than Rossi, Kanaan, Bourdais, Rahal, and Munoz. The points are interesting though, as Rossi’s two best finishes came in the double-points races, and Daly’s two worst finishes came in the double-points races. Conor’s average start to average finish position was among the best in the entire paddock.
Best Livery: Josef Newgarden, ECR
My personal favorite award is always one of the toughest to determine. Rahal had some gorgeous black, red, and chrome PennGrade cars. Pagenaud had many different beautiful liveries, including the Menards dayglow of course. There was even the throwback lightning bolts for Dixon’s Target car. There were a number of great candidates this year. (Photos: IndyCar)
In the end though, I had to give the award to Ed Carpenter Racing’s Fuzzy’s Chevrolet, driven by Newgarden. The blue and white Preferred Freezer Services cars were easy on the eyes, and the traditional green ECR car is nice, but the gold and white Fuzzy’s machine was a notch above the rest. The bricks symbolizing IMS on the car were a fantastic touch, and the whole design was just so unique. (Photos: IndyCar)
The long off-season has begun, and many IndyCar fans will be starving until March. Obviously the football season is well underway, and for basketball junkies like myself, the action on the court gets going in the next couple of weeks. There will still be plenty of noteworthy IndyCar news as the Silly Season really gets going. The speculation of new drivers, new teams, and additional cars will keep us busy through the winter.
Congratulations to Pagenaud and Team Penske, on one hell of a season.