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SPOTTERS’ STAND: Verizon IndyCar Series 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 winnersthreats for multiple wins, dark horse championship threats, and championship contenders. Here I preview the main championship contenders.


SCOTT DIXON

 

To put it simply, Scott Dixon is the man. He’s won two of the last three IndyCar championships, he’s the only multi-time champion since the PHOTO: INDYCAR, CHRIS OWENSDW12 debuted in 2012, and his 11 wins tie him with Ryan Hunter-Reay for the most wins in the DW12 era. In the years he didn’t win the championship, he finished third, giving him an average championship finish of 2.0 over the last four seasons.

Dixon’s recent performances are all the more impressive when you consider how the DW12 leveled the IndyCar playing field and took away a lot of the advantage that well-funded teams, like Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing team, had over smaller teams. Furthermore, the IndyCar field in the DW12 era has been quite deep. Race wins don’t come as easily when 75% of the field has a legitimate chance to win.

Before the start of the 2015 season, I said that Dixon was the best all-around driver in IndyCar. That opinion hasn’t changed. Dixon is a threat to win on any type of track the series visits. Will Power qualifies better and may be a bit better on twisties than Dixon, but Dixon is still clearly superior to Power on ovals.

Potential Weakness: first half of the season

Dixon’s struggles in the first half of the season are well documented. At the midway point of the past four seasons, Dixon has been third, seventh, ninth, and third in points, respectively. Of Dixon’s 13 wins in the DW12, only three have come in the first half of a season.

The really good news for Dixon is that he’s unbelievably strong in the second half of seasons. From 2012 to 2015, he went on to finish third, first, third, and first in the championship standings. He has also won nine races in the second half of each of the last four seasons. Ben Hinc summarized Dixon’s situation well in a recent episode of the Push to Pass Podcast: if Dixon puts together a decent first half of a season, he will be untouchable.

Dixon’s win at Phoenix last weekend was a step toward untouchability for 2016. He currently sits second in points, only four back from leader Simon Pagenaud. It’s certainly possible that Dixon will put together an entire season’s worth of great performances this year. He has won races at two of the next four tracks IndyCar visits (Long Beach and the Indianapolis oval), and has six podium finishes (although no wins) in six starts at Barber. Another win for Dixon in or before race #2 in Detroit would make him a heavy favorite to repeat as IndyCar champion.


JUAN PABLO MONTOYA

 

I was surprised by the restraint that Montoya showed in 2015. While he was known for his ultra-hPHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHERigh levels of aggression during his first two years in CART, Montoya was much more deliberate during his first year back in 2014, and continued to show restraint in 2015. I was expecting Montoya to be a ‘checkers or wreckers’ driver when he returned to IndyCar, but instead he had ten finishes between second and eighth. Montoya’s conservatism kept him out of trouble: he had only two finishes worse than 13th last year.

Potential weakness: wins

If there was a downside to Montoya’s conservatism, it might have cost him a few wins. Mathematically, Montoya had three wins in 2015, but two of those came from the double points Indianapolis 500. IndyCar champions seem to need four wins to earn a championship. Even though Montoya only won two races, his lack of bad finishes (only two finishes worse than 12th) kept him in the championship hunt.

I’m not sure that having so few bad finishes is sustainable in the long run because there are simply too many random things that can cause a bad finish. Montoya may need to be a touch more aggressive to win the championship in 2016. Wins give extra points that can be used to compensate for bad races, and he may have an extra bad race or two this year. Based on the results of the St. Petersburg race, it seems like Montoya’s season is off to a great start.


WILL POWER

 

Like Simon Pagenaud, Power’s lack of wins in 2015 overshadowed his speed, especially in qualifying. Power earnedPHOTO: INDYCAR, SHAWN GRITZMACHER six poles in 2015, and started second five other times, although two of his second place starts were due to qualifying rainouts. Even when the rainouts are excluded, Power started on the front row in 64% of the races last year.

Power was the victim of several negative, low probability events in 2015. Four of those events happened in races where he won the pole. Each of these events cost Power significant track position in races where he should have been at the front. In addition to these four races, the Long Beach race also had two low probability events that hurt Power’s chances at a win. During qualifications, Power was caught unprepared by a red flag that prevented him from setting a fast lap and forced him to start at the back of the field. During the race, Power stalled while attempting to avoid another stalled car in the pits. I don’t think he will be hampered by this many issues in 2016, which should allow him to pick up a few more wins.

Potential weakness addressed: penalties

Power won the championship in 2014 despite being penalized five times. In 2015 he was only penalized once for an on-track incident, when he took out Takuma Sato at Barber. He was also fined $25,000 for pushing a safety worker at Fontana, but there was no on-track penalty. This was a good sign for Power. Winning an IndyCar championship against Scott Dixon and three other Penske drivers is hard enough without having to overcome penalties.

Major championship disadvantage: missing St. Petersburg

Power missed the St. Petersburg race due to illness and was replaced by Oriol Servia. Power earned a single point for winning the pole, but scored no points from the race. Replacing Power was a somewhat strange decision since Power would have earned four points had Servia not raced the #12 car. Perhaps Penske needed to run the car to maintain its eligibility for the Leader’s Circle payout. Regardless, it will be fascinating to see whether Power can dig himself out of this hole in 2016.

Kyle Brown