Race Weekend Central

IndyCar Year In Review: Drivers 1st Through 13th

_Now that the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season has come to an end, the Frontstretch IndyCar staff will be taking some time to review the year that was. Last week, we looked at those who finished “14th through 26th”:https://frontstretch.com/tmontgomery/41607/ in the season points standings. This week, we take a look at the top half of the running order, leading up to champion Ryan Hunter-Reay._

*13. Oriol Servia* – Servia moved from Newman-Haas Racing, which shut down due to lack of sponsorship for 2012, to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. DRR started the year with Lotus engines, but like several other teams was dropped when the manufacturer cut back to one team. They were able to join forces with Panther Racing, who had an available Chevrolet engine lease, and moved into the Panther shops in May to become Panther/DRR. With Lotus, Servia had mediocre runs with a best of 11th and a worst of 16th. After the Chevy switch, it seemed to be feast or famine, with Servia either running with the leaders or at the back of the pack. Tumultuous both on the track and off would be the best way to describe 2012 for Servia.

*Best finish:* 4th at Indy and Milwaukee
*Worst finish:* 25th at Mid-Ohio
*Grade:* B-

James Hinchcliffe was a fan favorite in 2012 thanks to his outgoing personality — including opening the season as “Manica” after taking over the GoDaddy.com ride from Danica Patrick. Photo courtesy INDYCAR LAT USA

*12. Rubens Barrichello* – Coming to IndyCar after years toiling on the F1 circuit, it’s difficult to know what was truly expected of Barrichello’s first season. His experience on road courses should have been a major asset, but the change, and to a second-tier team running Lotus engines at the onset set him back. (The team later switched to Chevrolet.) His results, however, were somewhat decent as he finished 10th or better in eight events. It should be noted that IndyCar failed to grant Barrichello rookie status, which would have benefited him with more track time on ovals. He lost more time learning there when he failed to start the Texas race due to mechanical issues — meaning perhaps there’s room for natural improvement in 2013?

*Best finish:* 4th at Sonoma
*Worst finish:* 25th at Detroit
*Grade:* B

*11. JR Hildebrand* – The unlikely rookie who almost won the Indy 500 last year had a much quieter sophomore season. Hildebrand dodged the sophomore slump as well, improving both his average start and finish over last year and finishing three spots higher in the final standings. While mostly quiet on track, things were more hectic off it. Hildebrand’s Panther Racing team had hoped to start a second car, thinking it would help Hildebrand’s team, and the opportunity arose when they combined operations with Oriol Servia and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing before the Indy 500. The driver also weathered a sponsor scare when government legislation that would have forced the National Guard to pull support was narrowly defeated.

*Best finish:* 5th at Long Beach and Texas
*Worst finish:* 22nd at Milwaukee and Iowa
*Grade:* C

*10. Graham Rahal* – The highlight race of the year for Rahal easily has to be Texas, where he led late in the going before the handle faded on his car and he relinquished the top spot to eventual winner Justin Wilson. Rahal had some nice runs and some terribly unremarkable ones driving for Chip Ganassi’s B team. Still, this area in points is about where Rahal usually tends to finish. He has yet to find the consistency needed to contend for a higher spot.

*Best finish:* 2nd at Texas
*Worst finish:* 24th at Long Beach
*Grade:* C

*9. Tony Kanaan* – Kanaan finished the year still looking for that elusive first win since moving to KV Racing Technologies prior to the 2011 season. He started the year behind the curve after mechanical issues in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, then steadily climbed the rankings to as high as sixth before crashes in the final two races dropped him to his final position of ninth on the season. That’s an impressive performance, though for a team that’s still a step behind IndyCar’s top tier. One of the highlights for the year was seeing Kanaan drive to the lead late in the Indy 500, much to the thunderous approval of the crowd on hand. He couldn’t quite hang on to it, though and ended the day in third.

*Best finish:* 2nd at Milwaukee
*Worst finish:* 25th at St. Petersburg
*Grade:* B+

*8. James Hinchcliffe* – Taking over the bright green ride from the departed Danica Patrick, the Canadian driver had a solid but unspectacular season. Having come over from the Newman-Haas team, the switch put Hinchcliffe in better equipment, but the Andretti Autosport team still seemed a bit hit-or-miss at times. Example: Hinchcliffe took P2 in Indy 500 qualifying, yet also endured three finishes in the twenties. Hinchcliffe should feel optimistic for the 2013 season, though as he will now have a championship-winning teammate in Hunter-Reay to rely on for information.

*Best finish:* 3rd at Long Beach, Milwaukee
*Worst finish:* 26th at Sonoma
*Grade:* B

Helio Castroneves performed his trademark fence climb in tribute to a fallen friend at St. Petersburg after winning the season opener. Photo courtesy INDYCAR LAT USA

*7. Dario Franchitti* – With the exception of the Indy 500, Franchitti’s year was forgettable. Off to a bad start, with a 13th-place finish at St. Pete, Franchitti and his team seemed like they never really got going. Sure, there were flashes, with a few podium finishes, and of course hoisting the Borg-Warner trophy feels good. Overall, though the Scotsman just did not show anything special beyond Indianapolis. Whether it was the changes to the car, or possibly a letdown after back-to-back championships, Franchitti was never a factor, with eight finishes outside the top 10 – a surprise compared with his usual success. Whether 2012 was a one-year aberration or something different, how Franchitti rebounds will be one of the top storylines for next year.

*Best finish:* 1st at the Indy 500
*Worst finish:* 25th at Iowa
*Grade:* C-

*6. Ryan Briscoe* – This one perhaps may be a story of too little, too late. Briscoe has never quite seemed to live up to the potential one would expect from a Team Penske driver and what makes it worse is having two teammates who are winning races and in the championship hunt. He’s not terrible but, if his equipment is equal to that of Will Power and Helio Castroneves he is frequently underachieving. Briscoe did come to life late in the season when he won at Sonoma and nearly won at Baltimore, but two good races do not a solid season make.

*Best finish:* 1st at Sonoma
*Worst finish:* 25th at Sao Paulo
*Grade:* B-

*5. Simon Pagenaud* – Perhaps no other driver made such an impression in IndyCar as did Pagenaud. After four years racing the American Le Mans Series, Pagenaud finished fifth in his first full season in open wheel, cruising to Rookie of the Year honors. Driving for the one-car team of Sam Schmidt Motorsports, he was consistently able to keep his car inside the top 10. With this year of experience gained, greater things can be expected of Pagenaud, though it might be difficult to leap the better-funded programs. Thus, his final position may be difficult to replicate next year but the fact he’s this good in this equipment is nothing short of spectacular.

*Best finish:* 2nd at Long Beach
*Worst finish:* 20th at Edmonton
*Grade:* A

*4. Helio Castroneves* – 2011 was an absolutely dismal year for Castroneves, his worst ever in the IZOD IndyCar Series, but those who thought it might be indicating the end of his career were obviously premature. Castoneves bounced back admirably in 2012, winning twice, including the season opener at St. Petersburg, and placed himself firmly in the championship picture all year. He was mathematically in contention all the way to the final race and battled with Scott Dixon for third in the finale. Ever the good soldier, Castroneves fought to the last lap in Fontana, not just for his own points position, but in an effort to help teammate Will Power win the championship for Team Penske.

*Best finish:* 1st at St. Petersburg and Edmonton
*Worst finish:* 17th at Belle Isle
*Grade:* A

It came down to the last lap of the last race, but when the dust cleared, Ryan Hunter-Reay was your 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Champion. Photo courtesy INDYCAR LAT USA

*3. Scott Dixon* – It’s a little scary that 2012 was actually a bit of an off year for the uber-consistent Scott Dixon. He still posted two wins, but overall he had fewer podium finishes than is typical and posted his lowest numbers in both average start and finish since 2005. He still finished third in the championship for the third year in a row, however, and he hasn’t finished a year outside the top five since 2005. Engines were a bit of a sticky spot for Dixon this year. Per the rules, teams get only five fresh built motors over a season but Dixon needed some seven engines to make it through. The result of all the powerplant changes was a number of ten-grid-spot penalties that left Dixon playing catch-up a lot. Still, there are a lot of drivers, notably his own teammate, who would love to have one of Dixon’s “bad” years.

*Best finish:* 1st at Belle Isle and Mid-Ohio
*Worst finish:* 25th at Toronto
*Grade:* A-

*2. Will Power* – What can be said about Will Power’s season? For the third straight year, Power was in contention to win the IndyCar title in the final race. And for the third straight year, a letdown. It’s hard to argue against Power being one of the premier talents in the series, driving for one of the premier teams, but his problems on the oval tracks continue to be where he falters. Should he develop an acumen on the circular tracks, one that is even average, he could become scary good. As it was, he did lose the title by only three points. The question that will loom over his team during the offseason though is that, after letting three straight titles slip away, does he again have the mettle to be in place to raise the Astor Cup? History, thus far, tells us yes.

*Best finish:* 1st at Alabama, Long Beach and Sao Paolo
*Worst finish:* 28th, Indy
*Grade:* F, for coming so close yet again and failing to win the big trophy

*1. Ryan Hunter-Reay* – Hunter-Reay has for years been considered the hot American prospect that for some inexplicable reason could not get the equipment and the support, both team and sponsor, to contend the way that many suspected he could. He finally found the belief of a team owner, one Michael Andretti, and Andretti went out and got him the needed sponsor dollars to make a serious run. The result? Hunter-Reay delivered, precisely as many always thought he would.

Hunter-Reay made his presence and his intentions known during the summer months by winning three races in a row at Milwaukee, Iowa, and Toronto. Those are also three completely different tracks, so he showed flexibility as well. Although he faltered a bit, to the point it looked like Will Power might finally capture that title, Hunter-Reay reasserted himself with a win in Baltimore to pull himself back into contention and then did what he needed to do to win it all at Fontana, wrestling an evil car to a top-tier finish and a well-deserved championship for Andretti Autosport.

*Best finish:* 1st at Milwaukee, Iowa, Toronto and Baltimore
*Worst finish:* 27th at Indianapolis
*Grade:* A+

*Connect with Toni!*

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