The 2008 Indycar Series season was going to a big year, one way or another.
The off season saw it lose, arguably, its two biggest names in reigning champion and Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti and multiple race winner and past champion Sam Hornish, Jr. to NASCAR.
If Indycar was to do anything to address this slide, they needed to do something big.
And "big" was exactly what they got. When Champ Car went bankrupt, IRL head honchos offered the now displaced teams huge benefits to join a new, combined series.
I have to say I was a little skeptical, following the on-off-on negotiations through various websites and commenting on them in various rant pieces on other websites. I wondered if it would ever go ahead, and what sort of ugly baby the unlikely parents would create.
In the end it did happen, but far from smoothly.
Because of the separate contractual agreements of the two series, the pre-arranged races at Long Beach (Champ Car) and Montegi (IRL) had to take place on the same weekend.
That left the world with a less than ideal scenario of two races on two different continents on consecutive days (with two different cars as the Champ Car teams dusted off their Panoz chassis for a final run in anger). Plus, both would toward the championship, making the situation more complex.
Great tracks were also lost; Toronto and Cleveland did not hold races, and Surfers' Paradise was left only the crumbs of an exhibition event.
Even when the racing started, things weren't looking good.
The opener at Homestead was exactly what the skeptics had said it would be: The old IRL teams ran away with it, despite everything the sanctioning body did to help the old Champ Car teams and drivers. It would be an IRL season in every manner minus the expanded fields.
Off of this bad start and the uncertainty of the winter the series needed a few big headlines. And big headlines they got.
First, at the first road course of the year, St. Petersburg, the series got a double boon with it's youngest ever winner, Graham Rahal, who won in his first start, having missed Homestead after a crash in practice.
In his win, there was also the first win of from a newly arrived Champ Car team, coming from the Newman/Haas/Lanigan, IRL's big name capture in the merger.
Suddenly, it seemed this new merger might just work.
Then the big one came.
Danica Patrick, the series' S.I. swimsuit posing, FHM friendly de facto pin up came to the fore.
When the laps were winding down in Montegi and fuel mileage was coming into play, along came Danica, past Helio Castroneves and into the history books as the first woman ever to win an Indycar event.
You can say what you like about fuel mileage races, but Danica deserved the win, and it gave Indycar the biggest possible draw ahead of the Month of May, and the Indy 500.
Unfortunately, the Indy 500 was where the drama and early season headlines faded and the week in, week out of a racing series took over.
The race itself was nothing special, with cautions all too common and only a handful of moments over a rain affected month standing out.
Only Vitor Meira's pass, threading between two cars on a restart in the race, and Mario Dominguez's banzai final qualifying run (in which he got nothing but the wall) stood out in the memory this far down the line.
Alongside was Danica's post crash strop down the pit lane with several burly/important looking people presumably telling her "he's not worth it" as she marched towards Ryan Briscoe.
What the month did bring was more names and teams. Mario Dominguez, Sarah Fisher, and Tomas Scheckter all took part at Indy, and have continued to race some subsequent events. It was clear that Indycar was growing, and it could only be a good thing.
Unfortunately, the growth became stagnant, and memorable moments became fewer. Meira's unscheduled flight in Milwaukee in the race ending crash, Dixon's spin under the safety car in Watkin's Glen, and Ryan Hunter-Reay's underdog breakthough win at the same event were the only landmark moments after Indy.
It was fast becoming a two horse race. Ganassi's Scott Dixon against Penske's Helio Castroneves. Dixon won six events by season's end while Helio claimed two, beside a feast of seconds.
For a while, it looked like Dixon would walk to a title, but a late season charge by Castroneves (both of his wins come in the final three events) sent it down to the wire. All the while, we were reminded of the competition; Justin Wilson claimed the second win for the transition teams at the penultimate event at Detroit.
In the end Dixon won the title, and deservedly so given the dominant season he had.
But, the stats only tell half the story.
There were first time winners all season. There were signs that the transition teams were improving with every race, and signs that at its best Indycar can give you some of the best racing on earth.
Last season, Dario Franchitti claimed the title, effectively on the final corner of the season. The title battle was over long before that this year, as Dixon had the title claimed so long as he finished higher than eighth.
But, the race winning margin (Castroneves over Dixon) was a scant 0.0033 seconds, the closest since Indy in 2006.
Of course, there is still the exhibition event at Surfers' Paradise to go, which may add another factor to the year, but I think the people behind IRL can be pleased with themselves with making the best out of a bad situation.
On to 2009.
The transition teams will have an extra year of oval experience behind them. Maybe some of the names who ran part time in 2008 will make the jump to full time. Maybe more money and sponsorship will come to the newly gelling series. The Toronto street track is back, Long Beach is still in, even Surfers' is trying to get a points race in 2009.
Oh, and some guy named Franchitti is coming back.
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