Following the assessment of positions 10 through 6 in our Top 10 of the season, the countdown concludes with the top five… any one of whom could have been a worthy champion.
5. Juan Pablo Montoya
Team Penske-Chevrolet / Championship rank: 2nd
As a points accumulator, Juan Pablo Montoya had no peers in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series, and it’s often that kind of season-long form that is rewarded with the big prize. Only three times was he classified outside the top ten, and of those results, only one was his fault. Montoya knew how to pick his fights, knew when to give way and when to stand firm and generally kept out of trouble. The result was that he came as close as possible to clinching the championship without actually doing so.
That being the case, a minuscule improvement on any one of his results in the double disappointment in Detroit, the mechanical failure at Iowa, the strategy flip-flop at Mid-Ohio, the drive-through penalty he earned at Barber Motorsports Park or the punting of his teammate at Sonoma would have seen JPM win the second Indy car title of his career, 16 years after his first. He’s also not wrong to point out that the double-points in Sonoma was his downfall: even if the Indianapolis 500 had not rewarded in the same way, he’d have been champ.
Fair enough. But it’s also not unreasonable to consider that if points had been awarded for qualifying at Indy as in previous years, polesitter Scott Dixon would have had a clear margin in the final standings. And in truth, both of Montoya’s victories this year owed a little to luck. St. Petersburg’s dominant force, Will Power, suffered a long final pit stop, allowing the No. 2 Penske into the lead. And while JPM won a thrilling flat-out duel with Power at Indy, he was fortunate to have earlier a) created his own yellow by dropping his broken rear wheelpod on the track, and b) escaped penalty for hitting pit equipment.
That’s not to decry Montoya’s efforts, nor those of his race engineer Brian Campe. Juan’s improved pace in road/street course qualifying sessions was perhaps the biggest year-on-year progress shown by any driver (bar Graham Rahal) this past season. And while he was gifted poles (set by championship position) at both NOLA and Detroit 2, he was able to lead temporarily and keep Power at bay both times in the wet conditions.
It’s hard to recall any occasions in 2015 when Juan looked the class of the field even though there are aspects of racing where he’s the best (restarts and confidence on cold tires). But if his off-season progress continues at the rate it did last winter, the rest of them will struggle to beat him in 2016.
4. Will Power
Team Penske-Chevrolet / Championship rank: 3rd
Will Power put up a reasonably strong defense of his hard-earned IndyCar title but too many factors – occasionally self-induced – combined to limit him to third in the final standings, and some way off the top two. Six times he took pole, more than any other driver as usual, but only once did he find victory lane. As his former boss Jimmy Vasser remarked earlier this year, “Shit just happens to Will that doesn’t happen to anyone else.”
At St. Pete, Will was left on his jacks too long at his final pit stop while dominating. At Long Beach, his anti-stall device failed as he attempted to negotiate his way around a stumbling Luca Filippi at pitlane entrance. But Power’s chances had already been ruined by a crashing backmarker bringing out the red flag during qualifying, relegating the No. 1 Team Penske entry to 18th on the grid. At Detroit the electronics on Power’s steering wheel shorted out, dropping him to the back of the field. He still might have won, too, having climbed back to fifth – but was squeezed into the wall by Tristan Vautier.
Tribulations continued at Toronto, a yellow flag period burying him mid-pack after leading the early stages. Fontana saw him bury his feelings for pack racing to lead most laps but came together with Takuma Sato. At Milwaukee he was collected by a spinning Ryan Briscoe. At Sonoma the caution flags went against him, again while leading, and then his own teammate dropkicked him.
By no means was Power faultless. The drive-through penalty for colliding with Sato at Barber was a fair call, even though Power was unsighted as he emerged from pit lane. (His charge back to fourth that day was one of the drives of the season, incidentally.) At Texas and Iowa, he lost his setup mojo, despite being best of the Penske cars in the latter event. He performed that amusing half-donut around Dixon on Pocono pitlane. And some of his starts and restarts – whenever he wasn’t leading the pack and controlling the pace – varied between cautious and lame.
But on the one occasion when things went just “normally” – at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, with no caution flags after Lap 2 – Will was untouchable. His championship challenge was held back by a high concentration of bizarre misfortunes, the sort that have afflicted him every year bar 2014.
3. Josef Newgarden
CFH Racing-Chevrolet / Championship rank: 7th
In terms of what he did with what he had, Josef Newgarden enjoyed a remarkable 2015 season. It wasn’t just a breakout year in terms of hard results; it was the panache with which he and race engineer Jeremy Milless moved the whole CFH Racing team to a new plane that was most impressive.
Despite the compressed nature of the IndyCar Series grid from fastest to slowest, and the fact that there were usually a dozen entries at each race from the Big Three Teams, Newgarden became a regular contender for podiums and victories this past season. As with the Sebastien Bourdais/KVSH combo, it became unremarkable to see the No. 67 scrapping in the top five, and that spoke volumes also for the way Newgarden, Milless and CFH tackled the uncharted territory of aero kits. Several more fancied runners struggled by comparison, and that first win at Barber was as richly deserved as it was decisive.
While strategic luck played a part in the Toronto victory – Newgarden had just pitted when the caution flags came out and the pits closed – so too he lost out on potential wins at Iowa and Milwaukee because of tardy pit stops, and at least a runner-up finish at Sonoma due to his car catching light on pit road. Come to think of it, who knows where he might have ended up at Fontana had he not been crushed into the wall by his team boss Ed Carpenter? As for Josef’s own mistakes, the sole major one came in the second Detroit race, where he made violent contact with the wall after losing control on cold tires.
There was also clear confirmation of the kid’s ultimate speed. Only three times in the 16 races in which the grid was set by qualifying (as opposed to championship order) did Newgarden start behind a teammate – the highly touted Luca Fillipi on road/street courses, Carpenter on ovals – and only once did he finish there.
Two wins in a year when the Penske quartet, Ganassi quartet and Andretti trio only took three wins apiece… Josef and CFHR sure made those Goliaths look vulnerable.
2. Scott Dixon
Chip Ganassi Racing-Chevrolet / Championship rank: 1st
Before anyone thinks putting the champ second is somehow declaring him unworthy of his fourth title, that is not the intention. God knows, Scott Dixon is probably the most complete driver in the IndyCar field. Chart any quality required of a topline racer, and he’d rank somewhere between eight and ten out of ten.
But it is remarkable that aside from his three wins – admittedly more than any other driver this year – Dixon scored just one other top-three finish. And fair or not, a team is a team and the driver has to take some of the blame for his team struggling as Ganassi did at the start of the year. That was highlighted by Team Penske regularly putting all four of its drivers in the Firestone Fast Six during qualifying.
However, Scott certainly wasn’t to blame for his St. Petersburg mess when jacks failed during a pit stop, and NOLA’s appalling stop/start farce didn’t allow enough time for team manager Mike Hull and race engineer Chris Simmons to play a canny strategy for their driver and get him further up the field from his lowly grid spot. But there were other weekends when Dixon was somewhat anonymous. Fontana and Pocono were understandable – experience taught him not to play with the crazies – but at Detroit, Toronto and Milwaukee, he flew very much under the radar.
By contrast, Long Beach he won decisively, and he dominated the second half of the Texas race. His recovery drive to 10th in the Grand Prix of Indy after that infamous punt by Helio Castroneves was remarkable in that there was no yellows to help him; yet a cruelly timed yellow at Mid-Ohio cost him a probable victory. And another huge win perhaps went missing in the Indy 500, when he lost power with blocked radiators as he fought the Penskes in the closing laps.
As for Sonoma, that was a champion’s drive. Even without the yellow flags turning the order on its head, Power and Newgarden were going to have to fight Dixie all the way to the checkered flag. And if there was an element of luck in that the wretched double points were on offer, they were on offer to everyone. Anyway, the result was some compensation for the atrocious fortune that has struck Dixon both before and during season finales over the past ten years.
1. Graham Rahal
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda / Championship rank: 4th
If there has been such a major turnaround in an IndyCar driver’s form in the last two or three decades, it’s hard to recall. Graham Rahal, the kid who had sloped dispiritedly out of the Ganassi team and proceeded to finish 18th and 19th in the past two years for his daddy’s team, sprung from comatose to alert as startlingly as Uma Thurman’s character on receiving the adrenaline shot to her heart in Pulp Fiction.
Suddenly here again was the driver who had carried Newman/Haas almost single-handedly in 2009, who had scored a handful of podiums in his rookie Champ Car season of 2007, and who had lit up the Atlantic Series with several dazzling drives to victory in ’06. And Graham had every right to be smug – throughout the winter he’d been convinced a favorable change was gonna come along with the shift in personnel at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Actually, the change in fortunes wasn’t quite that sudden. After three rounds, the highest he’d finished was eighth, matching his best grid position so far. But in the closing stages at Barber he was astonishing, scything past Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dixon to claim runner-up spot. And thereafter his confidence was tangible. If there was a bad qualifying session – as there was at the very next round, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis – he just got his head down and charged. That weekend, Rahal climbed from 17th on the grid to finish second.
What’s more, he was doing all this under the Honda banner, at a time when several HPD teams were complaining about the engine’s lack of mid-range torque and puzzling over the complexities of the brand’s aero kit. Fittingly, therefore, Graham was top Honda runner in the Indy 500 (fifth). He hit a low note as part of a multi-car accident in the first race at Detroit, but the very next day he bounced back to finish in the top three. There again was the self-confidence nurtured by race engineer Eddie Jones.
Fontana… yeah, Graham was exceedingly lucky that Race Control failed to spot him dragging part of his fuel hose onto the track and therefore avoided a pitlane drive through penalty. But given the nature of that race, there’s every chance he could have fought his way to the front from the back. Lending credence to that view was his stunning never-say-die performance at Iowa, when twice he went a lap down through no fault of his own, and twice he battled back, eventually finishing fourth.
Victory on home soil around the Mid-Ohio course was a strong effort even though it must be said the mid-pack group got lucky in the way the cautions fell. Nevertheless, Rahal was strong in attack, stout in defense, as he had been all year.
The final two races of the season ended on sour notes, both times the innocent party in a two-car accident, but Graham had nothing to be ashamed of by dropping from second to fourth in the final standings. He’d spent the season wringing the neck of a car/engine package that had flummoxed some of the top talents in the series, he’d made very few errors while running on the limit, and he had taken a one-car team to heights unimaginable pre-season.