The speculation around the IndyCar Series this year is that it is more wide open than it has been since the merger. While it might feel that way right now, time will prove otherwise.
As they sit right now, there are eight different teams represented in the top ten of the season points standings. While that may be a strong argument for those that believe there is a lot of parody, it may be somewhat smoke and mirrors. There have been many factors that have led us to where we currently stand.
First off, we have only had three races this year. It is still too early to speculate as to how much parody there actually is in the sport today. We have not yet completed a quarter of the races on the schedule, and as we all know, drivers perform better at certain venues than others. For instance, Long Beach is one of the most demanding circuits on the schedule, both mentally and physically. As a result, some drivers are better suited for this course than others, while it may be the other way around for another driver.
While on the topic of the schedule, it is also important to note that we have yet to even see our first event on an oval. With so many new drivers and teams, it is impossible to predict how they will fare on the ovals against the top teams like Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti Autosport. When people talk about the equipment advantage that those three teams have over most everyone else, it applies even more when talking about the ovals. The dominance that those three teams have shown on the ovals, especially Indianapolis, is really the main thing you want to look at when considering how much parody exists.
Since 2000, only one team other than Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti has won the Indianapolis 500. That was 2004, when Buddy Rice won it with Rahal/Letterman Racing.
The growing perception about this season is that some of the smaller teams are finally able to step up and compete with the "big three" with new drivers. Veteran Tony Kanaan is now with KV Racing, Newman/Hass has seen a revival, Dreyer & Reinbold is looking to get into the mix with Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz, and some of the one-car teams have had success as well.
KV Racing has probably seen the biggest improvement this season, not only with T.K. leading the way, but Takuma Sato has been impressive as well. E.J. Viso continues to find different ways of hitting the wall and other cars, collecting more DNFs, but the team is still doing much better than any previous season. Experienced driver Oriol Servia has been one of the biggest surprises this year, and rookie driver James Hinchcliffe has been living up to the hype so far in just two races.
All of this does add up to more excitement for the series, but just how legitimate are the results just three races in? We have to start with Ryan Briscoe, and his horrible luck in the first two races. He was one of the victims of that lap 1, turn 1 embarrassment at St. Pete. The next week at Barber, he was having a great run in second place for most of the day before he got taken out by a terrible move by Ryan Hunter-Reay. He rebounded nicely last weekend, but those first two races cost him dearly.
Helio Castroneves has not been himself in any race this year, and with the points getting away from him and the Indy 500 just around the corner, I think he is going to return to form. He has one more race to prove it before Indy, but even if he doesn't do it next weekend he will probably still be lightning quick at Indy. The third Penske driver, Will Power, has looked good in the first three races. The ovals cost him the championship last year and he will not let that happen again.
Looking at the two (sorry Kimball and Rahal) Ganassi guys, there really is no cooler pair than Franchitti and Dixon. These two are quite the pair, on and off the track. While Franchitti has been his normal dominating self this year, Dixon has had some bad luck in two of the first three races. The first lap accident in St. Pete took him out of that, and after finishing in second at Barber, he got into Helio's mess at Long Beach. Both he and Dario are two of the best at Indianapolis and these two know how to get it done on the other ovals.
When talking about bad luck, you also have to mention Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Both of these drivers have had a couple of DNFs so far this season. Marco was flipped upside down in that first lap crash at St. Pete and RHR also got some damage that ended his day. Ryan also had some bad luck last weekend at Long Beach where it looked like he would win another one there, only to have mechanical problems end his run. Marco ended his day when he turned into another car leaving pit road.
On the same topic of Andretti Autosport, you have to look at Mike Conway. Despite winning last weekend's race, his first two races went south fast. He got tangled up in the opening lap crash at St. Pete and then had another accident at Barber that took him out of the race. It was great to see him rebound and get that win in Long Beach, which was really an impressive run.
The fourth driver at Andretti Autosport, Danica Patrick, has surprisingly been the quietest of them all. She has had mediocre runs in every race, but has been able to finish them all, to her credit. The spotlight will return to her once we hit the ovals, and as the midpoint of the season comes around where all anyone wants to talk about is her contract and future plans. She should be better once we get to the ovals, and she knows her way around Indianapolis.
Basically, the next few races are really going to show us if guys like Hinchcliffe, Servia, Sato, Wilson and Silvestro are going to be able to keep this up. Outside of the Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti teams, there are a few people that I think will be able to hang near the top. Veterans and proven drivers like Tony Kanaan, Alex Tagliani, and Justin Wilson should be in the mix at the end.
There are some fresh faces and people in new places, but that doesn't always translate into parody, especially in a sport that has been dominated by two or three teams. It was great to see some new blood like Conway win a race, but I don't know if we will see much more of that this season. I would like to be wrong, but it's hard to count out the big boys already.