Our long nightmarish offseason is officially over today. It has been 209 days since an IndyCar turned a wheel in competition. Regardless of the reason, that’s too long. But I’m hoping that’s the last bit of complaining I do about it. As of today, it’s all behind us. Let’s hope it’s never near that long again.
Just three weeks ago, it was hard to convince me that the season was approaching. We were having our second snow day from work in three weeks. Single digit temperatures in March is something Nashville is not accustomed to. It seemed like the winter doldrums were going to last forever. But a couple of weeks ago, the sun came out, the temperatures were suddenly in the high-seventies and the grass (weeds, actually) suddenly needed mowing. It suddenly felt like racing season.
Lo and behold, here we are. Although it would be nice to be in St. Petersburg this weekend seeing the action firsthand, it will be good seeing IndyCars in full competition again. An even bigger plus is that practices will be streamed with Paul Page and the IMS Radio Network (sans Pippa Mann – boo!) providing audio commentary.
I would be lying if I said I had a clue how this race will shake out. Based on times from the open test at Barber Motorsports Park a couple of weeks ago, you’d have to say that all four Penske cars and two of the three Ganassi cars have the inside track. That may actually be the case, but who really knows? We don’t know if the Hondas are really behind the Chevys in development or not. If they are, are they lacking horsepower or are they behind aerodynamically? Maybe it’s both or neither. We don’t know.
But not only are we wondering who will win the race this weekend, we’re also thinking about the championship and, of course – the Indianapolis 500. Although it’s always fun to think about the Month of May, it’s too early to start making predictions for Indianapolis. We’ll leave that one alone for a while. But teams and drivers will start their march to the championship this weekend.
I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of drama near the front of the field in this race. Penske and Ganassi will probably dominate qualifying – not just because their aero kit is perceived as better, but their teams are better. They’ve known their budgets and driver lineups since the fall. While other teams have been scrambling to pull things together at the last minute, these teams have been tweaking their already well-oiled machines.
What I’m really interested in, for this race anyway, is to watch what happens in mid-pack. That’s where I expect to see if the Foyt and Rahal teams are as improved as I think they are. I’m expecting Graham Rahal to make a huge jump from his poor showing in 2014. I’m also interested to see how Takuma Sato works with his new teammate Jack Hawksworth. I was very impressed with Hawksworth last season and think he’ll be much improved with a full season under his belt and at a better team. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hawksworth driving the famous No.14 in 2016.
I also think that Andretti Autosport will have a better showing than what they gave us at Barber. Nor do I think all of their cars will be in mid-pack. Ryan Hunter-Reay has gotten all of the press lately, but Marco Andretti hasn’t been slow. If Marco can make it through Turn One on Sunday, he could be something of a wild-card. It would be a mistake to overlook Carlos Muñoz also. Any of the three full-time Andretti drivers have the potential to win this race and certainly the ability to run near the front. I don’t look for Simona de Silvestro to be a threat for the win, but I do expect her to have a decent showing, even though she has been out of an IndyCar for quite a while.
Both KV cars will be fast. Sébastien Bourdais has been consistently fast since his win at Toronto last summer. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go to the front and come away with a win in the season-opener. His new teammate, Stefano Coletti, may be a rookie; but his reputation from GP2 is that of a fast driver that will find his way to the front. Before he tested with KV earlier this season, I had never heard of him – but that means nothing. I don’t follow very many of the ladder series. But people that I trust and respect have said that he will be one to watch, sooner than later.
I’m also very interested in the newly merged teams of Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing that resulted in CFH Racing. Josef Newgarden and the SFHR side has had to transition from Honda to Chevy; but they got to stay in their building on Main Street, while the Ed Carpenter side had to relocate. Assuming most of the growing pains are behind them, they have the potential to win any given weekend. They’ve certainly improved the livery for both cars this season.
Ed Carpenter and Luca Filippi will split time in the Fuzzy’s Premium Vodka No.20 car, depending if the race is an oval or not. Josef Newgarden will return for his fourth season driving the No.67 car. The Nashville native has shown slow but steady progress for the past three seasons. Now that he will be having teammates for the first time, I’m expecting big things for Newgarden. He is overdue for his first win and I expect him to notch it before the Month of May – perhaps even this weekend.
I’m also interested in the pairing of James Hinchcliffe at Schmidt Peterson Motorsport. I’m not sure how much James Jakes brings as a teammate, so the Mayor of Hinchtown may be fending for himself. Hinch is fast and this team provided winning cars for Simon Pagenaud last year. But Rob Edwards was their engineer last season and has since moved on to Andretti Autosport. I think Sam Schmidt’s team may struggle to match their two wins from last season.
Although I’m a big fan of their team, I look for Bryan Herta Autosport to struggle this year also. Bringing on Gabby Chaves from Indy Lights will show glimmers of promise and potential, but typical rookie mistakes.
And then there is Dale Coyne Racing. He has re-signed Carlos Huertas, who did win a race for them last season, for the No.18 car. He supposedly has a decent driver lined up starting in May, but has given no indication who it might be. In the meantime, Coyne has signed unproven Francesco Dracone for the first four races of 2015 for the No.19 car. I’m not familiar with Dracone, but I’ve heard a lot of negative comments regarding his lack of talent. I kind of doubt we’ll see Dale Coyne in Victory Lane this weekend. Depending on who the mysterious driver is, it’s sounding like Pippa Mann could be the team’s most experienced driver in this year’s Indianapolis 500.
So, it’s time for predictions – not only for this weekend, but for the championship. I’ve gotten my championship pick right for the past two seasons, so I’m on a roll. Since I’m not going out very far on a limb, I’ll also include some dark horses – just for kicks. First my dark horses: For the weekend, I’m going to go with Graham Rahal as my dark horse. For the championship, my dark horse will be Helio Castroneves, who has gotten closer and closer each season. My full-fledged pick for the weekend is the same for the championship – Will Power. Once he broke through last season, I think he’s currently unstoppable. We’ll see.