The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season is now in the history books. Like any season, there were highs and lows that provided endless entertainment, and incredible action on the track. There were ten different race winners this year, including a surprise champion drinking the milk at Indianapolis. A fabulous underdog story, indeed.
The Month of May always takes center stage, and this year was no different. In fact, this year’s race actually had more buzz and intrigue across the globe. That is quite a statement, considering last year’s sold-out race was the 100th Running of the iconic event. Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso made waves with his entry in the field of 33. He was flawless inside and outside of the car. Having McLaren back at Indy was also very special.
Familiar faces at Indy like Oriol Servia and Juan Montoya were great, but others like Gabby Chaves, Larry Curry, and Sage Karam were a breath of fresh air. New players in the game like Michael Shank and Tony Stewart, along with the teams of Harding Racing, Juncos Racing, and McLaren-Honda added an extra buzz to an already magnificent event.
The championship was decided at the season-ending race for the 12th consecutive year, as five drivers took aim at the Astor Cup. In the end, it was Team Penske hoisting yet another championship trophy in Sonoma. That is just part of the story though, as the journey to the final round was equally dramatic, and breathtaking.
Best Team: Team Penske
No surprise here, as Penske had another near perfect season. As a team, they won 10 of the 17 races, and earned 11 poles among the four drivers. They also were the four highest lap leaders in 2017. They led 1,462 of the 2,331 laps this season, and Simon Pagenaud completed them all. He joins Tony Kanaan as the only drivers in the history of the sport to finish every lap in a season. When looking at the history of CART, USAC, Formula One, and the NASCAR Cup series, the only other person to complete every lap in a season was the great Michael Schumacher.
Newgarden delivered the 15th open wheel championship for Roger Penske, in his first season with the team. He won the title in his 100th career start, one year after Pagenaud won his first title in his 101st career start. Add Will Power’s 2014 championship, and The Captain seems to be sharing the wealth amongst his drivers. Whether or not Helio Castroneves returns to the team full-time next year, he did manage to have one of his best seasons of his 20-year open wheel career. Castroneves finished in the top four of the final championship standings for the 13th time.
Most Disappointing Team: AJ Foyt Racing
The odds were stacked against AJ Foyt Enterprises entering the season. The team was switching from Honda to Chevrolet. They were running one car out of their shop in Indianapolis, and the other out of their main hub in Houston. They had a massive staffing overhaul, in addition to the two new, young drivers. All of this coming on the heels of a dreadful 2016 season. It truly was an uphill battle from the very beginning.
The addition of Carlos Munoz was thought to greatly benefit the team on the ovals. After a successful Rookie season, Conor Daly was set to fit right in with the team where he made his IndyCar debut. Everything on paper looked good, but the transition with all of the moving parts and pieces was just too much. More changes appear to be on the horizon, with rumors that Tony Kanaan is headed to the No. 14 car. Some veteran leadership could be very beneficial. Conor did show his potential toward the end of the year. His last three results were 5th, 11th, and 10th respectively.
Most Disappointing Driver: JR Hildebrand
Both Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe had disappointing seasons, based on expectations at the beginning of the year. Hunter-Reay hasn’t won a race since 2015, and while Hinchcliffe did win a race this year, he finished 13th in the final standings, and had six DNFs. When looking at Hildebrand, this was the feel good story last off-season, when ECR named him as the full-time driver of the No. 21 car, after the departure of Newgarden. JR absolutely earned the opportunity he was given, but things just didn’t go well over the course of the year.
While JR did have a pair of podium finishes at Phoenix and Iowa, those were also his only two top-ten finishes of the entire season. He didn’t have a great month of May, and he ended up 15th in the final points standings. The team struggled as a whole in 2017, with a combination of poor performance and bad luck. Unfortunately for Hildebrand, his future is now in doubt as the team announced last week that Spencer Pigot will take over the No. 21 car next season. Hildebrand doesn’t know what his 2018 plans are yet, but hopefully we haven’t seen the last of him in the series.
Biggest 2016 Turnaround: Alexander Rossi
It seems odd to give this to the driver that won the Indy 500 last year, but looking at it big picture, it makes the most sense. While that was no doubt the highlight of his career, the rest of his Rookie campaign was not good. He led just 23 laps all season, and his fifth place result in the last race at Sonoma was his only other top-five finish in 2016.
Rossi was arguably one of the five best drivers this season, finishing seventh in the championship. He ended the year with three podium finishes, including his win from pole at Watkins Glen. The pace was there early in the season, but lady luck wasn’t on his side. Things started clicking towards the end of the season. Rossi’s last five finishes were 2nd, 6th, 3rd, 6th, and 1st, before mechanical issues ruined his day at Sonoma. After signing a two-year extension with Andretti a few weeks ago, we can expect him to remain as one of the top drivers in the series for the foreseeable future.
Honorable Mention: Takuma Sato
Best Pass: Josef Newgarden, Mid-Ohio
There was a lot of passing this year, especially on the ovals. We saw 23 lead changes at Texas, 35 at Indy, and 42 passes for the lead in the race at Pocono. It was the tight confines of Mid-Ohio though, where we saw arguably the best move on the track this season. Newgarden was trying to get around his teammate Power, and pulled off this brilliant move to make it happen. His controversial move on Pagenaud at Iowa would be a great choice here too, but this one was more of a sly move, catching Power (and everyone else watching) off guard.
Biggest Heartbreak: Fernando Alonso
To be clear, the disappointment here was with how things ended for Alonso. The entire situation could not have been better — for Alonso, for the team, and for IndyCar. The Spaniard was top notch, and nailed everything, both on and off the track. He had never been in an IndyCar before, or even on an oval, let alone the fiercest one in the world. All month long though, Alonso never turned a wheel wrong. His precision was on point, and he was fast. Very fast.
Forget the fact for one moment that he was one of the five best cars in the biggest race in the world. As good as he was behind the wheel, he was even more impressive with the media, the fans, and the other drivers. For all intensive purposes, he was perfect. With 25 laps to go in the race, it felt like he was actually going to do it. It was ironic the way that it ended, with everything going on with his F1 situation this season. Still, it was a pleasure to have him here, and the respect that he showed for the race and the entire event was about as classy as you could ask for.
Best Race Outside of Indianapolis: Pocono
While we didn’t have a photo finish at any race this season, there were plenty of events that were filled with drama. When there are 42 lead changes and cars are fanning out seven-wide on the front stretch, it is tough to beat. James Hinchcliffe had an epic save at one point in the race, and Ryan Hunter-Reay went from the hospital bed to the lead after starting in the last row. The racing at Pocono is always fast and furious, but the way this race played out was very different.
Will Power suffered damage to the front of his car, and was forced to make a stop to change the front wing. After going down a lap, he and the team battled back through cautions, fast laps, and quick work in the pits. He cycled through to the lead, and held off a furious rally by Newgarden and Rossi, using a clever move entering Turn 3 that denied Newgarden the opportunity to pass. Road America is always a thrill, but this race had a little bit of everything.
Honorable Mention: Road America
Scariest Moment: Sebastien Bourdais, Indianapolis
The feel good story of the season entering qualifying weekend at Indianapolis was the run that Bourdais and Dale Coyne Racing were on. The Frenchman led 69 laps and won the season-opening race in St Petersburg, and followed that with a runner-up finish at Long Beach. He and Rookie teammate Ed Jones had the two fastest laps of the entire month of May, and were primed for the big race, when it happened. Entering Turn 2, the car stepped out on Bourdais, and the correction sent him nearly head-on into the outside wall. The impact fractured his pelvis and hip, and appeared to end his season altogether. Three months later though, he was back in the car. After testing at Mid-Ohio, Bourdais raced at Gateway.
Honorable Mention: Scott Dixon, Indianapolis
Best Moment: Helio Castroneves, Iowa
With Helio’s future in IndyCar up in the air, we all began to wonder if he would ever make a trip to victory lane again. Fortunately, he did so at Iowa Speedway in July. It was his first win in more than three years. That win in Detroit in 2014 seemed like forever ago, but he definitely earned this one, leading 217 of the 300 laps. Helio is always full of excitement and oozing with energy, but even more so when celebrating a victory like this. While every driver wanted to win the race, you could tell that most of them were happy to see Spiderman get the monkey off his back.
Honorable Mention: Gabby Chaves / Harding Racing
Funniest Moment: Hinchcliffe/Ganassi
The race at Texas was costly for a lot of teams, as only six cars were able to finish all 248 laps. Though the incident involving Tony Kanaan, James Hinchcliffe, and Mikhail Aleshin wasn’t humorous, James did have one comment that was. When asked about Chip Ganassi’s comment, the Canadian was quick to address it in a way that only he could.
Rookie of The Year: Ed Jones
This one was a no-brainer. Jones got off to a great start in his first two races, finishing 10th at St Petersburg and 6th at Long Beach for Dale Coyne Racing. Though he never led a lap all season, he had five top-ten finishes, and only really had problems at Texas. It was a great season for Ed and the team, as he finished 14th in the championship standings.
Jones had his best finish on the biggest stage, finishing third in the Indianapolis 500. He had the fastest lap of the entire month during practice, and was flawless each and every time he took to the course. If Coyne keeps Jones in the No. 19 car next season, they can continue to build on this strong veteran/young talented two-car lineup. If he is not back with them, another team would be wise to add Jones to their lineup as quickly as possible.
Best Helmet Design: Helio Castroneves
There were many worthy choices here in this category, as most of the helmet designs today are very well done. There are so many possibilities. In the end though, I had to go with the gold and white color combination that Castroneves had at Indianapolis. When the sunlight hit it just right, it was glorious when paired with the Shell Fuel Rewards livery.
Best Livery: Graham Rahal, RLL
I always save this one for last, because it is one of my favorites. There are a lot of people that put in an incredible amount of work and effort into making these four-wheel monsters look so good. We all loved the papaya orange livery that Fernando Alonso and McLaren brought to Indy this year. Sage Karam and DRR’s Mecum Auctions car was top notch as well. From ECR’s green and gold, to the many different liveries for Team Penske, there were plenty to choose from.
In the end, I decided to go with RLL’s Soldier Strong livery that Graham Rahal drove to a sixth place finish at the IndyCar Grand Prix at IMS. The car was obviously gorgeous, decked in red, white, and blue. More importantly, it continued a partnership with SoldierStrong, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing advanced medical technologies to veterans. Through the Turns for Troops program, United Rentals was set to donate $50 to SoldierStrong for every lap that Graham completed during the 2017 season. In all, they donated a total of $152,380 this year.
Congratulations to Josef Newgarden and the entire Team Penske organziation on an incredible season.