This is part of a set of articles 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 (part one and part two), potential winners, threats for multiple wins, dark horse championship threats, and championship contenders. Here I preview the potential winners. Check back with Slipstream Network regularly for more IndyCar season previews.
Castroneves’ likely 2016 performance is one of the most difficult to categorize. He finished in the top-5 in points every year since 2012, and was runner-up in both 2013 and 2014. He’s excellent at collecting podiums: he scored three, five, six, and five podiums from 2012 to 2015, respectively.
Potential weakness: wins
The problem is that he only won four races during those four years, and went winless in 2015. The IndyCar champion typically wins four races in one year, which suggests that Castroneves isn’t a true championship contender. I’d be surprised if Castroneves wasn’t in the top-5 at the end of the year, but I’d also be surprised if he won the championship.
It’s hard to envision a championship win for Castroneves that doesn’t include a win in the Indianapolis 500. The good news for Castroneves is that the ‘500’ pays double points, and a win there counts as two of the four wins the 2016 champion will probably have. Castroneves is already a three time ‘500’ winner, and he also has two second place finishes and one third place finish. Yes, two of his wins came in 2001 and 2002, but Castroneves has finished no worse than seventh in the last three races on the Indianapolis oval, and finished a very close second in 2014. Castroneves is as likely to win the ‘500’ as any other driver. A win in ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ is probably a necessity for Castroneves to claim his first IndyCar championship.
Hinchliffe moved from Andretti Autosport to Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM) for 2015. Before the 2015 season, that move seemed like step backward for Hinchcliffe, but based on Andretti Autosport’s 2015 performance, I’m not sure that’s the case. Ryan Briscoe replaced Hinchcliffe for eight races in 2015, and Briscoe scored four top-8 finishes. It seems reasonable to expect Hinchcliffe could have done better than Briscoe since he tested with SPM before the 2015 season started. Hinchcliffe had a chance to knock the off-season rust off and build chemistry with the SPM engineers. A win for Hinchcliffe is a real possibility in 2016.
Potential weakness: lead lap finishes
From 2012 to 2014, Hinchcliffe finished on the lead lap in 60%, 58%, and 50% of races, respectively. I view finishing on the lead lap as IndyCar’s version of the Mendoza Line. If a driver finishes off the lead lap very often, I question whether (s)he deserves to be in the series. Unfortunately, Hinchcliffe struggles to finish on the lead lap consistently. I’m willing to overlook a few bad finishes if a strategy gamble didn’t pay off, but I don’t think 40% of Hinchcliffe’s races were impacted by strategy calls that didn’t work out. A transition to a championship threat will require more lead lap finishes.
Munoz took significant steps forward in his IndyCar career last year. He won his first race and improved his average finish on road courses by an impressive 5.1 spots to 12.4. His average oval finish held steady at 10.3, an impressive feat given Honda’s lackluster 2015 aero-kits. If Honda and Andretti Autosport get their respective acts together, the upward trend from the first two years of Munoz’ career should continue in 2016.
Potential weakness: anonymous performances
Munoz had nine finishes between 13th and 24th last year. He will have to eliminate these over the next several seasons if he hopes to become a championship contender.
Kanaan’s average finishing position at both ovals and street courses fell from 2014 to 2015. I hoped that his win in the 2014 season finale showed that he had settled in at Ganassi and would be win a race or two in 2015. That didn’t happen.
Instead, Kanaan went winless and finished on the podium three times. I don’t expect Kanaan to contend for a championship, but it’s clear that the No. 10 car is capable of wins. After all, Kanaan’s teammate Scott Dixon won multiple races and the 2015 championship.
Likely 2016 improvement: ovals
The good news for Kanaan is that his 2015 oval performance was unusually poor. All three of Kanaan’s 2015 DNFs came on ovals. Kanaan is at his best on ovals, and remains one of the elite oval IndyCar drivers. There were only six ovals on the 2015 schedule, so the DNFs cut the number of chances Kanaan had for wins in half. It’s unlikely that Kanaan will have so many issues on ovals in 2016, so a return to 2015 form on ovals wouldn’t be surprising.
Even if Kanaan doesn’t win on an oval in 2016, I expect his average oval finish to improve. A crash in the Indianapolis 500 resulted in a 26th place finish, a position that wouldn’t have been possible at any other race on the calendar because of Indianapolis’ 33-car field. The unusually bad finish in the ‘500’ artificially pulled down his average oval finish, relative to a crash in any other race. A drivetrain issue at Iowa and a crash at Pocono also hurt his oval stats. An improvement on ovals is probable in 2016.
Graham Rahal may be the toughest driver to evaluate for the 2016 season. Rahal had an impressive 2015 season, earning two wins and finishing fifth in the final point standings, all while driving an obviously inferior Honda. Prior to 2015, though, Rahal had struggled to remain relevant, and I said as much in my 2015 preview of Rahal.
The question for Rahal is whether a good 2015 was indicative of legitimate, long-lasting improvement, or just an anomaly that came after seven mediocre-to-bad seasons. Sadly for Rahal, I think it’s the latter.
There are several reasons I think Rahal will regress in 2016. First, the circumstances behind both of Rahal’s 2015 wins are unlikely to happen again in 2016. The initial win at Fontana featured a terrible no-call from Race Control when Rahal left his pit with the fuel hose attached. Had Rahal been appropriately penalized, he would have at least had to work his way back through the field from being the last car on the lead lap, or more likely would have gone a lap down. A win after a penalty would have been much more difficult. Rahal’s other win at Mid-Ohio featured a pair of cautions that interrupted cycles of green-flag pit stops. The second Mid-Ohio caution gift wrapped the race lead and dropped it into Rahal’s lap.
I’m not trying to question the legitimacy of either of those wins, because Rahal still had to hit his marks until taking the checkered flag. However, neither of those strange circumstances are likely to repeat in 2016.
Second, Honda’s aero-kit upgrades will probably hurt Rahal. The Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan (RLL) team understood the 2015-spec kit much better than any other Honda team, but it’s unlikely that RLL will have the best understanding of the Honda aero-kits again in 2016. The offseason changes to Honda’s kit will, at minimum, reduce the advantage Rahal had over other Honda drivers. At worst, they may put Rahal at a disadvantage relative to other Honda teams if RLL struggles to adapt last year’s setups to the new aero-kit. The bottom line is that Honda’s updated aero-kit will be a disadvantage for Rahal relative to other Honda cars.
Potential weakness: street courses
Rahal had single digit average finishes on both ovals and road courses in 2015. His average finish on street courses was 11.4, and that was his best average street course finish since the DW12 debuted in 2012. If Rahal wants to improve on his 2015 performance, he should concentrate his effort on street courses.