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2016 IndyCar Season Preview, Part 1

This article is part of a series previewing the 2016 IndyCar season. I recently predicted that the 2016 IndyCar Champion would score between 548 and 561 points and win four races. Based on those predictions, I classified drivers into the following categories based on how I anticipate they’ll perform in 2016: long shots, potential winners, threats for multiple wins, dark horse championship threats, and championship contenders. Here I preview the first half of the long shots. Check back with Slipstream Network regularly for more IndyCar season previews.


MARCO ANDRETTI download (24)

Photo: INDYCAR, Joe Skibinski
Photo: INDYCAR, Joe Skibinski

Andretti has two wins in 167 IndyCar starts, and the last one came in 2011. Andretti’s winless streak seems unlikely to end. The IndyCar field is too deep to realistically expect upsets of the magnitude that would be required for Andretti to win.

That’s not meant to completely discount Andretti’s skill. He also averages two podium finishes each year, although those are rarely on the top of the podium. More importantly, he has finished between seventh and ninth in the final point standings in seven of his ten IndyCar seasons. Although I’d be surprised if Andretti visits Victory Lane in 2016, I’d also be surprised if he finished outside the top-10 in the final point standings.

Statistic to Watch: road course finishes

In 2015, Andretti had average finishes better than 8.0 on both ovals and street courses, his best average finishes in the DW12 era. Road courses were not his strong suit last year. His average road course finish was 12.0, and he was anonymous in most races. If Andretti can improve his road course form and maintain his performance at other tracks, a top-5 overall finish seems possible.


MIKHAIL ALESHIN

Aleshin

PHOTO: INDYCAR, JOE SKIBINSKI
PHOTO: INDYCAR, JOE SKIBINSKI

Aleshin will return for his second IndyCar season after sitting out for nearly all of 2015 due to sponsorship issues. He showed plenty of potential during his 2014 rookie season, earning seven top-10 finishes. Impressively, three of those top-10s were on ovals; surprising considering Aleshin’s lack of oval experience prior to joining IndyCar. 2014 wasn’t all good news: Aleshin crashed out of five races, and missed the season finale at Fontana after being injured in a scary practice crash.

I’d love it if Aleshin picked up where he left off in 2014, however, I fear that will be more difficult than expected. 2014 was the last year before aero-kits were introduced to IndyCar. Other drivers have a year’s worth of experience setting up and racing with the aero-kits, while Aleshin has only one race with the kits. Making things more difficult, Aleshin’s Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports team uses Honda engines and aero-kits, and Honda was at a well-documented disadvantage last year. If those issues aren’t resolved, Aleshin will have an uphill battle this year.

Potential Weakness: crashes

Aleshin’s inexperience showed in his crashes in 2014. That’s understandable for a rookie, but as a second year driver, Aleshin needs to tidy things up if he wants to challenge for a spot in the top-10 in points.


GABBY CHAVES (HOPEFULLY)

Chaves

chaves photo
PHOTO: INDYCAR, JOE SKIBINSKI

Gabby Chaves, after a quietly successful rookie year, will be looking for a ride after getting dumped by BHA less than one month before the start of the 2016 season. Chaves was quietly successful in 2016, even though the deck was stacked against him.  He was a rookie driving for the smallest single-car team in the paddock.  2015 was the first year with aero-kits, so Chaves’ Brian Herta Autosport team had no notes or previously existing setups for any track.  I suspect funding was tight at BHA, so Chaves didn’t have the luxury of being able to crash as many cars as the typical rookie does.  To make matters worse, Chaves was driving Honda’s obviously inferior aero-kit.

If you had given Chaves and BHA the option to ‘lock in’ a 15th place final points rank with no crashes and a lone finish of 20th or worse before 2015 started, I suspect they would have taken it in a heartbeat.  That would have been the correct decision.  Someone had to finish last in points among the 18 full season drivers, and given his situation, Chaves was a likely candidate to do so prior to the start of the season.  His 15th place final points finish placed him ahead of three other full season drivers in the point standings, and that was a major accomplishment.

Potential Weakness: speed

I’m not 100% sold on Chaves because I’m not convinced he’s capable of being consistently fast. Chaves didn’t qualify that well in 2015.  His best start was 12th at Milwaukee, and his second best start was 16th at both the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Pocono.  He didn’t have any stand out finishes, and only had two top-10 finishes (ninth at Detroit #2 and tenth at Texas).

There’s a difference between being quick and not being slow.  Chaves clearly wasn’t slow last year, but he wasn’t quick either.  Seeing Chaves running in the top-5 was a rare event in 2015. Yes, Chaves led a few laps at Pocono, but he got to the front by pit strategy, not speed.

I’m not saying that Chaves doesn’t deserve a second season in IndyCar. Chaves overcame some major obstacles as a rookie. However, I’m not driving the Chaves bandwagon, either.


MAX CHILTON

PHOTO: INDYCAR, JOE SKIBINSKI
PHOTO: INDYCAR, JOE SKIBINSKI

Chilton will make his IndyCar debut with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2016. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about Chilton’s chances. Chilton was consistently outperformed by teammate Jules Bianchi and was essentially irrelevant during his two seasons in Formula 1. Admittedly, he was with perennial backmarker team Marussia, but he never seemed to have a standout drive.

His Indy Lights season in 2015 was equally uninspiring. He finished fifth in the championship after missing three races, but his average points scored per race only ranked fourth among the top-5 finishers in the championship. Furthermore, Chilton only won a single race during a season where the largest starting grid consisted of a mere 13 cars. Chilton had no control over the size of the grid, but I would have hoped for a few more wins against a field that small.

Potential Weakness: ovals

The number one concern for a rookie whose experience consists primarily of European racing is ovals. Chilton has a single season of Indy Lights experience in 2015, but only made two oval starts last year. To his credit, he dominated one of those races at Iowa.

Kyle Brown