I wasn’t surprised that Scott Dixon was able to drive the kind of race he did at Sonoma to win this year’s IndyCar championship. It was a classic Dixon performance: he drove a smooth, clean race and didn’t make any mistakes while Montoya and Graham Rahal ran into trouble.
I was impressed by Montoya’s consistent and smart driving throughout the season until Sonoma. When he was put in bad positions – like when he hit trouble in the pits at Indianapolis and had to go to the back of the field – he didn’t unravel or get upset at all. He just let things play out and drove a smart but aggressive race to win the biggest event of the year.
He carried on like that for the rest of the year until Sonoma, when he was caught out by a yellow. As a result, Juan and Will Power got stuck in the middle of the field, but they were ahead of Dixon and Graham Rahal when they ran into each other and spun. It was halfway into the race and at that stage you can’t recover from running into the back of your team-mate, damaging your wing and having to make an extra pitstop.
It was a catastrophic mistake that put Montoya to the back of the field on a track where it’s all but impossible to pass. That’s what lost him the championship.
After the race we heard some sour grapes from Juan about double points, but he certainly didn’t feel that way about getting double points at Indianapolis. Of course, you can argue until the cows come home about whether or not a 500-mile race or the season finale is worth double points. Everybody has an opinion.
I have to say Power and the Penske guys were right to complain about the yellow that scrambled the field. I said on TV that there was no reason for a full-course yellow, just because Luca Filippi’s car was running slow. He had some trouble but he was still running and made it back to the pits so there was no reason for that yellow. But it changed the whole character of the race.
It must have been very frustrating for Roger Penske and Tim Cindric to have three cars capable of winning the championship and not be able to convert that into one. But frankly, in recent years Team Penske doesn’t have a good record of championships. Over the last eight years Penske has been in either first or second place and capable of winning the title going into the final race, but it’s only managed to win one championship in that time.
I think it really comes down to having four number one drivers vs Ganassi’s team, which is really circled around Dixon. I would say Tony Kanaan is a strong co-number one, but Dixon is definitely the team leader. They have two younger drivers in Sage Karam and Sebastián Saavedra who are going to be good in the future, but right now they’re providing a supporting role for Dixon, as is Charlie Kimball.
Ganassi won by working together as a team to get one guy the championship, while for most of the season Penske had four guys who were fighting each other with their own agendas. And that ultimately spelled the downfall of their championship hopes, because at the end of the day you can’t deny that Will and Juan were racing each other hard throughout the whole race and they ended up getting into each other. When that happened it was the end of the championship.
For Ganassi to win the championship was a gigantic shot in the arm for his team because there were rumours that Target was on the fence about the level of involvement that they were going to continue to have with the team. Target had a huge presence at Sonoma, with a big hospitality tent for their employees and customers, so it was a perfect environment for Dixon and the team to put on a tremendous show and revive interest in the program. I’m sure it’s going to have a positive effect on Target’s sponsorship deal with Ganassi for 2016 and maybe beyond.
Honda has yet to re-sign with IndyCar so it will be interesting to see what its negotiating ploy is. To be honest, I think Honda’s performance is much better than it’s arguing about – it’s in a lot better shape than it claims. Certainly, in the last half of the year they were very competitive.
Honda won three out of the last four races with Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay, who made a big resurgence over the last four races. If Honda gets its situation sorted out Hunter-Reay and the Andretti team could be a factor once again and contend for another championship.
Graham should also be a championship contender in 2016, having stepped up to a completely different level this year. There’s still another step to go to get to Dixon’s level, but he definitely made a big jump this year. He’s been calm and positive in providing the right feedback to his team and there’s no reason not to expect all that to continue in 2016.
The big question is: what’s going to happen to Josef Newgarden? Does he stay with CFH Racing and at what level will the team be able to perform? There are questions marks over sponsorship at CFH.
Newgarden is one of the biggest talents in IndyCar; he’s fast, he’s smart and the iron is hot right now, but there may not be anywhere for him to go. He’s got all the talent in the world, but the timing may be off for Josef to find a better seat.
He would be a perfect fit for Penske because he’s a good-looking American kid with blue eyes who speaks well and is great with sponsors. He should be the perfect Penske guy, but there’s no room for him there because all four of Roger’s guys have contracts.
There are rumours that Newgarden might go to Ganassi, which would also be a good fit. If you want to reach the pinnacle in IndyCar the only two teams to be with are Penske and Ganassi. So hopefully Josef will get that opportunity at some point, if not this time around.
It’s been nice to see IndyCar’s TV ratings enjoy a good upswing in the second half of the season. I don’t know whether to attribute that to people wanting to watch IndyCar again or whether it’s a matter that with all of NASCAR’s programming switched over to NBC the NASCAR fans are looking for NBC Sports when previously they weren’t familiar with that channel. So there’s been a cross-over of some NASCAR fans watching IndyCar. I think that’s a large part of the uptick in the ratings.
I have to tip my hat to NBC because they have become the motor sport channel for North America much like Speed was in the past. NBC is covering Formula 1, NASCAR, IndyCar, MotoGP, motocross and every form of racing that’s out there.
I assume I’m going to continue doing NBC’s colour commentary for the IndyCar races. We haven’t made an agreement, but I don’t see any reason why we won’t – I’ve managed not to swear on air and everything seems to be good. I think I add something to the broadcast and the fans seem to like what I have to say. I’m enjoying it so I hope to continue doing the job.
Meanwhile, I hope it doesn’t take too much time before IndyCar is able to announce next year’s schedule. Everyone’s waiting to see what new races may be added and where and when the 2016 season will start and finish. So there are lots of interesting things to contemplate over IndyCar’s long off-season.