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Season Review/Preview: Ryan Briscoe

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IDecember 13, 2009

HOMESTEAD, FL - OCTOBER 09: Ryan Briscoe drives the #6 Team Penske Dallara Honda during practice for the IndyCar Series Firestone Indy 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on October 9, 2009 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Ryan Briscoe entered the 2009 IndyCar Series season looking to improve on his fifth place standing in 2008. He had won three races, including the Surfers Paradise event that made him the first Australian to ever win the race, but was still clearly the No. 2 driver in the Penske Racing stable, behind teammate Helio Castroneves.

When Castroneves encountered legal troubles before the season, however, Briscoe was thrust into the lead role, representing Penske’s best hope for the championship. Will Power, Castroneves’ replacement and Briscoe’s countryman, was still learning oval racing, and it was unknown how long Castroneves was going to be unavailable.

Immediately Briscoe jumped at the opportunity, winning the season-opening race at St. Petersburg after passing Justin Wilson on a late restart and asserting himself as a legitimate challenger for the title. However, bad luck and bad runs in Long Beach, Kansas, and Indianapolis put Briscoe back in the standings. He led laps at Indianapolis, but a bad set of tires midway through the race dropped him in the order. He finished 15th as teammate Castroneves drank the milk in victory lane.

Rebounding from three less-than-stellar finishes, Briscoe posted three consecutive second-place finishes at Milwaukee, Texas, and Iowa, putting him back in the title hunt. A 19th-place finish at Richmond broke the streak, but proved an aberration.

Although Castroneves, having only missed the St. Petersburg race, was still very much alive in the title hunt, it was clear that Briscoe was the quicker driver; Castroneves only beat Briscoe in Texas because he got out of the pits quicker under caution, and the aerodynamic package on the cars had created one of the few boring Texas races in IRL history.

In Watkins Glen, where Briscoe had won the pole, he again found himself behind Wilson on a late restart. This time, he was unable to make the pass, giving Wilson an unexpected victory, the first for Dale Coyne Racing in its 25-year existence. Regardless, this strong finish sparked a streak of seven consecutive finishes of fourth place or better, with a win at Kentucky, a pole at Mid-Ohio, and a win from the pole at Chicago the highlights. Suddenly Briscoe found himself atop the points standings, rendering him the likely champion with two races to go—unless something went horribly wrong.

Then Briscoe had a horrible day at Twin Ring Motegi, finishing 18th and losing his entire advantage over the Ganassi cars of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Entering Homestead, Briscoe needed to win and for both Ganassi cars to drop a little in the order to claim the title. He came up one place short; Franchitti took the victory and the title.

Given his performance in 2009, it’s clear that Briscoe will be a title threat in 2010, but he needs to work on finishing well in pressure situations. He only had four finishes worse than fourth, but they came at horrible times. Finishing poorly in Castroneves’ return at Long Beach hinted that he wasn’t ready to usurp the role of lead driver. The finish at Indianapolis was due to bad luck, but no driver wants a poor finish in the series’ crown jewel, especially after qualifying second and leading laps. Richmond broke up what could have been an 11-race streak of Top-Four finishes, and the Motegi finish lost him the championship, plain and simple. Perfection is unlikely and nearly impossible, but Briscoe picked the wrong races in which to underperform.

Look for Briscoe to be strong at Texas, Mid-Ohio, Infineon, and Chicago. His combined average finish at those tracks is 2.0 since joining Penske. However, in three Richmond starts, he has two DNFs and a 19th, and his performance at Motegi (13.5 average finish) hasn’t been stellar either. Worst of all, he’s been ineffective at Indianapolis since the fifth place finish in 2007 that impressed Roger Penske enough to hire him; he crashed out with Danica Patrick on pit road in 2008 and had the aforementioned bad luck in 2009. Briscoe needs to overcome that Indianapolis jinx in order to win the championship.

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