Mar 3, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
As the days begin to count down for IndyCar before its season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 30, most of the field is set and most will have gotten in anywhere from two to three offseason tests – some more so, depending on available budget.
What sets up is a fascinating battle between three distinct generations: the older guard, closer to the end of their careers than the beginnings, the veterans who all have substantial experience and are in the middle of their careers, and the younger generation, who have shown glimpses of brilliance but not contended for wins and championships on a weekly basis. Yet.
THE VETERAN TRIO: TONY KANAAN, HELIO CASTRONEVES, JUAN PABLO MONTOYA
The two Brazilians have been inextricably linked since they moved to America in the mid-1990s, coming up through Indy Lights and then into CART in 1998. Then in 1999, a then-unheralded Colombian named JPM stormed ashore and swept to the CART title as a rookie.
In 2014, their goals are different. “TK,” who at present would take over the series’ unofficial elder statesman role at 39, has a long-awaited chance with one of the best seats in IndyCar, taking over the No. 10 Target car from Dario Franchitti. He’s got a great chance to win his second championship, 10 years after his first.
For Penske’s pair of Castroneves and Montoya, both 38, the stories are different. Helio seeks that elusive first championship in what, like Kanaan, will be his 17th season of racing, and his now proving-to-be-elusive fourth Indianapolis 500. For Montoya? It’ll be about getting reacclimated to open-wheel after an eight-year layoff, and showcasing the sublime driving ability he showed from his two CART years in 1999 and 2000.
THE MID-CAREER VETERANS: TAKUMA SATO, JUSTIN WILSON, SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, SCOTT DIXON, RYAN HUNTER-REAY, RYAN BRISCOE, WILL POWER, ED CARPENTER, MIKE CONWAY
This group all ranges from age 30 (Conway) up to 36 (Sato), and you figure they have anywhere from maybe four to up to 10 years still to go. And all still have something to prove after their careers in top-level American open-wheel have stretched back as far as 2001 (Dixon’s rookie year in CART).
Dixon, 33, and the defending series champion, is undoubtedly at the peak of his powers … but so too is Power, also 33, who came on like wildfire at the tail end of the 2013 season. A proper Dixon vs. Power title battle would be the treat IndyCar fans have waited to see for years.
But don’t discount the Ryans. Hunter-Reay, 33, is keen to rebound from a 2013 mired with bad luck and recapture the title-winning form of 2012; Briscoe, 32, could stealthily slide under the radar, pick up a win or two and play himself into title contention in Ganassi’s fourth car.
Wilson, 35, remains criminally underrated, and will have to perform miracles once again to threaten the establishment with Dale Coyne Racing. But he should work well with new engineer Michael Cannon. Bourdais, also 35 and now at KV, is a championship dark horse. If he wins a race early in the year, he could play spoiler.
For Sato, it’s about establishing further consistency and building on the success of his first year at A.J. Foyt Racing, that included the popular Long Beach win and Houston Race 1 pole. Carpenter, 31 today, has established a team now that can contend for wins at every race, with his oval expertise in those six races and Conway’s road and street course prowess in the other 12.
THE NEW WAVE: SIMON PAGENAUD, CHARLIE KIMBALL, JAMES HINCHCLIFFE, MARCO ANDRETTI, MIKHAIL ALESHIN, GRAHAM RAHAL, SEBASTIAN SAAVEDRA, JOSEF NEWGARDEN, CARLOS MUNOZ
The youngsters, all under 30. At 29, Pagenaud is just entering the peak of his powers and at 22, Munoz is the youngest current driver in the field. Between this group of 9 drivers, there are only 9 career victories (Pagenaud 2, Kimball 1, Hinchcliffe 3, Andretti 2, Rahal 1). But it feels like that number could grow substantially this year.
Pagenaud’s technical ability is renowned and after two years of consistent growth with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, nothing less than a championship challenge will suffice. For Aleshin, 26, proving better than Tristan Vautier over the course of the season should be his goal.
Andretti’s trio of Marco, 26, “Hinch,” 27, and Munoz set that team up best for long-term potential growth as a collective unit, while the Ganassi and Penske teams have opted more for veteran, sage experience (Kimball is the only one of their seven combined drivers under 30, and he’s 29). This is a big year for Marco in particular, who made a big step forward in 2013 with fifth in points, but needs to be winning races – plural – something he’s not done in his career dating to 2006.
Same story for Rahal, 25, who should finally have the necessary ingredients to put it all together and recapture the heights he achieved at times in 2008 and 2009. He has the engineering depth, the primary sponsor of the National Guard, and for now at least doesn’t have the distraction or burden of a second car. He’s the sole focus for RLL’s 2014 full-season effort.
Newgarden and Saavedra, both 23, will likely find the road toughest in 2014, primarily because of extenuating circumstances more than their own ability levels. Newgarden’s Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing team will need to dig deep and emerge stronger from offseason personnel shakeups, but in year three, he should make a leap close to the one Hinchcliffe and Kimball did a year ago.
As for Saavedra, the KV equipment at his disposal should provide an increase over where he was with Dragon Racing last year, but the field is so deep and tight that it will take some phenomenal efforts to emerge even in the top-10 on a regular basis.
THE WILD CARDS: THE TBAS
Dale Coyne’s second car and Bryan Herta Autosport’s sole entry are yet to be confirmed. At least initially, the drivers of these two will probably find the road toughest because of the lack of testing time by comparison to the field this winter.
But as the field sets out in St. Petersburg later this month, the generation battle on display will be as interesting to watch as the battle between the teams. Last year, it was Hinchcliffe taking one from Castroneves. We’ll see who breaks through in only a few more weeks.
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