Knocking On The Door

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The other night on Trackside, Curt Cavin threw out a stat that caught me by surprise. In this current field of twenty-two full-time drivers, only five have never won a Verizon IndyCar Series race – Josef Newgarden, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Muñoz, Jack Hawksworth and Sebastian Saavedra. He and Kevin Lee were speculating who might be the next to get their first win. They both seemed to think it might be Muñoz. My money is on Newgarden. He now has two second-place finishes in his short career. This past Sunday was just another race where Newgarden has been knocking on the door.

Many times, you’ve heard me and others claim that driver so and so is inching close to that first win. If he or she ever get it, look out – the wins will start coming in droves.

At times, that’s exactly what happens. Other times, the driver will get one or two wins but never really break through. More times than not, that elusive first win never comes.

Take Paul Tracy, for instance. When he first showed up in a Dale Coyne car at Long Beach in 1991, the pundits all said he had what it takes and he would be a star in the making. Later that season, he was tabbed by Roger Penske – who really doesn’t have much of a history of developing rookies. He lets other teams develop the talent and he hires them away in their prime. But at Michigan in July of 1991, Penske took a chance on the young Tracy due to his apparent talent. Three laps into the race, Tracy was in the outer wall of the front-stretch with a broken leg.

Penske stuck with the young, but raw talent in late 1991 and 1992. He was paid back with a lot of wadded up equipment and few decent results. Some were wondering which would come first, Tracy’s first win or a pink slip. But in 1993, Tracy delivered a victory at Long Beach. He followed that initial win with four more victories and three additional podium finishes on his way to finishing third in the championship.

We all now know that Tracy went on to win a total of thirty-one races, which ties him for eighth on the all-time list with Sébastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti and two wins more than the great Rick Mears. Tracy turned out to be a case of knocking on the door and finally kicking it in.

Others didn’t have it so good. About the same time period, much was expected of Tracy’s fellow Canadian Scott Goodyear. After coming ever so close to winning the 1992 Indianapolis 500, many felt Goodyear may be the next one destined for greatness. He did actually get his first win later that year at Michigan, but by the time he retired following the 2001 season, Goodyear had collected only four more wins – one in CART and three in the IRL, and was never really a factor in any championship beyond 1992, when he finished fifth. Granted, he was never in top-line equipment like Tracy, but he did not deliver the results some had predicted for him.

Last season was the breakout season so many had predicted for James Hinchcliffe (I promise I’m not picking on Canadians). He began his third season with that much-anticipated first win. He delivered two more for the season, but he also had several DNF’s and may have been lucky to finish eighth in the championship. With a strong team like Andretti Autosport behind him, many thought this season may see him contend for the championship. As it stands with three races remaining, Hinch is still winless and currently sits twelfth in points.

Last season saw another third-year driver get his first victory. Many thought Charlie Kimball would use that win to launch him to many victories for Chip Ganassi this season. Instead, he seems to have regressed and currently sits a very mediocre thirteenth in points.

Go back further and look at Bryan Herta. After winning the1993 Indy Lights championship, many penciled in Herta for greatness. Between Ganassi, Rahal and Andretti – Herta drove for some top teams along with Foyt. Yet, he never fully delivered on his potential. He had two wins for Rahal in CART and two wins for Andretti-Green in the IndyCar Series. Four wins between 1994 and 2006 was an overall disappointment for Herta.

But sometimes, that first win never comes at all. Between 2004 and 2008, Vitor Meira had eight second-place finishes – including two at Indianapolis. In that same time period, there were also seventeen top-five finishes. Meira was at the top of everyone’s list to be the next IndyCar winner. It never happened. Meira has not been in an IndyCar since the 2011 season, has never driven a DW-12 and is likely done for good.

After JR Hildebrand came within one turn of winning the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, many felt his first win was a question of when and not if. But almost two years to the day of that second place finish, Hildebrand was out of a ride. He has only been in a car three times since being dumped after the 2013 Indianapolis 500 – twice with Bryan Herta Autosport and this season at Indianapolis in a second car for Ed Carpenter. Everyone is still waiting for that first win.

The last twenty-five years have plenty examples of under-achievers. For all of his likeability and good qualifying results, Mauricio Gugelmin scored only one win. The same goes for Scott Pruett and John Andretti. Robby Gordon had two. After his solid finishes in the early nineties, I still can’t believe Raul Boesel never won a race.

I’m still going to go with my pick for Josef Newgarden being the next first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series. I think he’s that good and is overdue for a win. I’ll also pick him to be the next Paul Tracy – that rare driver that finally breaks through with that first win and lets that open up the proverbial floodgates with additional wins. That first win may or may not come this season, but I’ll make a bold prediction right now – by the time qualifying for the 99th Running of the Indianapolis 500 roll around next May, Josef Newgarden will have won at least one race. Who knows, by then he may have opened up the floodgates. But right now, like many others before him – he’s knocking on the door.

George Phillips

Please Note:  This Monday, I am having a routine medical procedure done that requires some…ummmm…weekend prep, that may not be conducive to writing an article (anyone over fifty can probably relate). Therefore, there will be no article here on Monday. I actually chose this date because it is an off-weekend for IndyCar. I will (hopefully) return here on Wednesday Aug 13. Have a great weekend. Chances are, yours will be better than mine. – GP

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9 Responses to “Knocking On The Door”

  1. Now that The SFHR team has learned their lesson to be prepared and ready to go at all times, I think young Newgarden’s opportunity to get his first win will happen soon and together they will make the most of it.

  2. Ron Ford Says:

    Of all that you listed, I was most surprised that Vitor Meira never won.

    Good luck with your…..ummmm……..medical procedure. Been there and done that.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Scheduling an important medical procedure around the Indycar schedule? Dedication.

    I voted Newgarden, but all five full-time non-winners have shown podium pace at least once this year. Among the five, Newgarden and Munoz are the two that seem most likely, and whose wins would probably not initially be seen as requiring the “stars to align”, so to speak (see Huertas, Carlos or Lazier, Jaques). Of course, Marco, Graham, Gugelmin, Scheckter, Herta, and Gordon’s first wins all felt like that same way…

    Vitor Meira is supposedly a part of this group promoting next year’s not-quite-official race in Brazil. Perhaps someone will find a car for him.

  4. If Newgarden has plans of winning, I think it is clear he needs to go to a better team, which is easier said than done these days. Teams like SFH are vital to the success of the series. Unfortunately, top talents in the car or the garage will always move on to better things. Munoz has the speed and the top ride to win multiple races which is why I would pick him. His odds just seem better with their current rides.

  5. I probably would have agreed with you a year ago and still hope you are right about Newgarden. I am beginning to have my doubts. SFHR needs a veteran driver to get the team off the dime and Newgarden needs a new team owner who will kick his butt and quit pampering him.

  6. Ballyhoo Says:

    My personal choice for his first win would be Josef. He has shown such flashes of brilliance this season. I am still gutted that he lost in Mid-Ohio and by a hose. I am not sure there is a place for him on any of the bigger teams next year. I haven’t given up on SFH Racing.

    Best George for your Sunday and Monday.

  7. For my money, my two “unsung” stars of the season this year are Josef Newgarden and Jack Hawksworth. Hawk has shown fairly consistent flashes of speed, as a rookie running for one of the smallest teams on the grid. Even though I thought he’d moved up too fast from Lights (I thought he needed one more year of seasoning), I will admit that I was probably wrong. He’s easily got the talent for a mid-field ride (thinking in the Schmidt/Rahal/Foyt tier here) as early as next year, and I think he’d put up a whole bundle of top-10s and a couple of podiums in that capacity.

    As for Josef, I’ve been saying (mostly to myself and my dog, since we are the only ones in the room when I watch the races on the DVR) since about Indy that he’s more than proved that he’d win races immediately, were he in a “Big 3″ car. He’s run in the top-10 in the majority of races this year, usually just for some anvil to fall out of the sky in the last quarter of the race and leave him with not much to show for it. 16th in points does not begin to tell the story of where he’s run most of the season for a small, one-car team with fairly blank sidepods. If Josef somehow found his way into a Ganassi or an Andretti car next year (Penske looks full), I fully believe we would see a “Tracy in ’93” type of season.

  8. All the best to you, George. Here’s very much looking forward to seeing you back in full health soon.

    Thanks for pointing out that so many race-winning drivers have rides right now.

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