PHOTO: INDYCAR, JOE SKIBINSKI

SPOTTERS’ STAND: Dark Horse Championship Contenders

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 dark horse championship contenders. Check back with Slipstream Network regularly for more IndyCar season previews.


Ryan Hunter-Reay

 

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At any point in a season, regardless of his recent performances, Ryan Hunter-Reay is capable of stringing together several excellent races. Consider the following consecutive finishes during the past four seasons:

PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

  • 2012 – three straight wins at Milwaukee, Iowa, and Toronto

  • 2013 – second, first, and second place at Texas, Milwaukee, and Iowa

  • 2014 – first, second, and first place at Barber, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, and the Indianapolis 500

  • 2015 – first, seventh, first, and second place at Iowa, Mid Ohio, Pocono, and Sonoma

These finishes would make anyone in the series jealous. At his best, Hunter-Reay is untouchable.

Weakness: lead lap finishes

The problem for Hunter-Reay is what happens when his hot streaks end. He finished off the lead lap in five of the 16 races (31%) last year. Even during his 2012 championship, Hunter-Reay finished off the lead lap in 27% of the races. Contrasting Hunter-Reay’s lead lap finishes with the champions from 2013 to 2015, who finished off the lead lap in 16%, 6%, and 13% of races respectively, suggests that a champion finishing off the lead lap in a quarter of all races was the exception rather than the rule. Hunter-Reay must ‘bring it’ every weekend if he’s going to contend for another championship.


Simon Pagenaud

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Given Pagenaud’s struggles in races during 2015, it’s easy to forget how well he did in qualifying last year. He had the best average starting position on ovals, the fourth best average starting spot on road courses, and the third best

PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

PHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER

starting spot on street circuits. These were his best average starting positions on all three track types since the debut of the DW12.

Overall, he had the third best average starting spot in 2015. Put another way, when qualifying rainouts are excluded, Pagenaud’s third worst starting position in 2015 was fifth.

Potential weakness: chemistry

Disappointingly for Pagenaud, he was unable to convert his good starts into solid finishes. He wasn’t terrible; he had seven finishes between ninth and 12th, and only two finishes worse than 18th. The problem was that he had only four top-5 finishes, and none of them were wins.

We already established that Pagenaud’s speed wasn’t an issue last year. I’m reluctant to refer to vague concepts like ‘momentum’ and ‘chemistry’ when I primarily focus my writing on statistics, but I don’t know what else could explain Pagenaud’s 2015 results. He contended for the championship in both of his last two years with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (SPM), a much smaller team than Pagenaud’s current employer, Team Penske. Pagenaud didn’t forget how to drive during the 2014 offseason when he moved to Penske, and he states that Penske’s cars are superior to those he had at SPM.

Given Pagenaud’s lackluster performance in 2015, his expectations will be high for 2016. A pair of wins and a top-5 finish in points will make memories of 2015 fade away, but another sub-par season like 2015 might result in an open seat at Team Penske in 2017.

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