Saturday, May 23, 2015

Ranking Potential 99th Indianapolis 500 Winners

No matter who wins the Indianapolis 500, IndyCar still has a long way to go in growing common knowledge about the series. IndyCar won't have their "messiah moment" this weekend but there are drivers who if they win would be a greater baby step forward in getting IndyCar into the public eye and then there are drivers who if they win will just go over everyone's head.

This ranking does not list drivers from who I think are least likely to win the Indianapolis 500 to the most likely to win. This ranking looks at whom I believe would be the best Indianapolis 500 winner for IndyCar and the driver who would be the 33rd best Indianapolis 500 winner for IndyCar. We will start with 33 and work our way to the best.

Just to get this out of the way, feel free to disagree. There might be a driver I think would be good for IndyCar that you might think might not be as good and vice versa. There are no right answers.

33. Sebastián Saavedra
Saavedra is not a full-time driver and his best career finish entering this year's race is ninth. He's young but after this race he isn't scheduled to appear again until the season finale at Sonoma. Saavedra winning would be an upset but not the type that would get people's attention.

32. James Jakes
Jakes is a full-time driver but outside a second at Belle Isle and a third in the abomination at NOLA this year, he's never been a contender. He has six top tens in 55 starts. Once again, Jakes winning would be an upset but not the type that would get people's attention.

31. Tristan Vautier
This could be the final IndyCar race of Tristan Vautier's career. Granted he could be in the #18 at Belle Isle but he is on a race-by-race basis. He isn't full-time and the only reason he isn't last is because of the last-minute substitution narrative. Vautier winning would be an upset and might get a little attention but will be quickly pushed to the side.

30. James Davison
With all the movement at Dale Coyne Racing in the last month explaining the story to an average person would sound like Abbott and Costello's "Who's on First?" Davison is a talented driver and he pace just shows how much better Dale Coyne Racing can be if he hired real drivers. However, because he is just signed for Indianapolis, it would not be good if people tuned into Belle Isle only to fine out he isn't there. He actually will be at Belle Isle but in Pirelli World Challenge, not IndyCar.

29. Stefano Coletti
Coletti is a talented young driver; a winner in GP2 but the general public doesn't have a damn clue about junior formula series. This isn't like baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer where prospects are closely followed from when they are teenagers. The diehard motorsports follower might be happy to see him win but to the infrequent observer, it would stick as much.

28. Alex Tagliani
This could be the final IndyCar race of Alex Tagliani's career. He won one race in 2004 and won the 2011 Indianapolis 500 pole position, other than that, he has had an average career. This would be an upset and because he is Canadian, he might get a little more attention. Plus he and his wife just welcomed their baby daughter into the world and everyone loves babies. And he drives for A.J. Foyt, another positive.

27. Oriol Servià
Servià might be the most underrated driver in the last twenty years in IndyCar but that doesn't mean the general public will get that. While he has a pretty good track record at Indianapolis, he is just a one-off and won't be at Belle Isle and it would not be good if people tuned into Belle Isle only to fine out he isn't there.

26. Gabby Chaves
Positive: Young, full-time driver who could be in IndyCar for a while. Negative: Young, full-time driver who hasn't been around for a while. Chaves could develop and have a nice IndyCar career but right now he is an unknown and I am not sure he is an unknown people want to get to know.

25. Bryan Clauson
Clauson is the longest of long shots but his nationality helps him. An American short-tracker, cutting his teeth on dirt tracks in small towns across the country and making driving a race car into a career. Plus, he is a local boy. A Hoosier hasn't won since Wilbur Shaw in 1940. That would be a nice story but the negative is Clauson probably won't be in an IndyCar again until Indianapolis next year.

24. Jack Hawksworth
Hawksworth is kind of like Chaves. Young, full-time driver who could have a nice career but the problem is he hasn't been around long enough. He is talented but will people latch on to him? Drives for A.J. Foyt, which is a positive.

23. Takuma Sato
Sato is probably known by the average motorsports fan around the world and his one blip of glory in the United States is his failed attempt to take the lead on the final lap of the 2012 Indianapolis 500. It would be a popular win for the folks back at Honda's headquarters and he drives for A.J. Foyt. The drawback is he someone the average viewer will be find relatable?

22. Carlos Muñoz
Muñoz is a talented driver and has finished second and fourth in his two previous 500 starts. He is fast but like Sato, is he someone people can relate to? To the full-time IndyCar follower, Muñoz winning makes sense but to the average viewer, Muñoz winning would probably just go over there heads.

21. Sébastien Bourdais
Four-time champion but he has one win since returning to IndyCar in 2011. Like Muñoz, a full-time IndyCar follower would understand Bourdais winning but the average person wouldn't. The other negative is if only his car owner was Paul Newman, then that would definitely get some coverage but Paul is gone as is Newman-Haas.

20. Justin Wilson
Starting sixth but only a one-off. Wilson is a very good driver but was shafted out of a full-time ride. He might be at Belle Isle as a substitute but that isn't a guarantee and he falls into that boat all the other one-offs are in. The Rolling Stones livery might catch people's attention but for how long? After all, like Wilson, that livery is a one-off.

19. Townsend Bell
We all love Bell as he tells it like it is but this is it for him in terms of driving an IndyCar. He will be at Belle Isle but in the IMSA race. He will be at most of the remaining IndyCar races but as a broadcaster. Being a broadcaster might be a minor positive as at least people will get to hear his voice and see his face but I am sure people would be tuning in to see him race, not talk.

18. Conor Daly
Daly benefits from being a local boy. Daly winning would be a very popular victory and it would have to put him in the catbird seat to be substitute for James Hinchcliffe at Belle Isle and would probably get him the full-time ride he has been waiting for. Plus, he knows how to use social media and that is something that the younger generation can relate to. The negative is he isn't guaranteed to be at Belle Isle and he probably won't be in a car again this year if he doesn't win.

17. Charlie Kimball
Kimball is a quiet guy. He isn't flashy. He isn't seeking attention but when people want to talk to him, he is friendly and engaging. If anything, he is the IndyCar driver who should be out there more talking to the media. A positive for him is he drives for Ganassi and that might lock Kimball down in a respectable ride for sometime to come.

16. J.R. Hildebrand
This is the redemption story we want to see. Four years after having an Indianapolis 500 victory within his grasp only to slide across the line in second with his right side tires gone, Hildebrand winning would make that memory go away. It would be the comeback story we would all love to see. The negative is he isn't full-time and while CFH Racing might be able to get him in more races, can they get him entered for the rest of the season? 

15. Simon Pagenaud
Pagenaud is undeniably talented and could be a championship in the next few years, especially since he is driving for Penske. If wins this year's 500, it could be the domino to set off an amazing career. If he wins at Indianapolis he could go on to win three or four more races this year and people love winners. At only 31, Pagenaud could be around for the next decade and someone the average person can come to know.

14. Tony Kanaan
Kanaan is a fan favorite and he tells it like it is. He is just one of the good guys. He just won and two Indianapolis 500 victories in three years would get people's attention. People love to be front-runners. They want to tune in and pull for the favorite and if Kanaan wins this year, here is their front-runner to pull for. The negative is Kanaan is 40 going on 41. How many more years will he be around? And if he is gone after two or three years, will those people find another driver to latch onto or move on to something else?

13. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya is the greatest driver of this generation. He already has an Indianapolis 500 victory, he has an IndyCar championship, he has won in Formula One and he has won in NASCAR. Another 500 victory would just add to his legacy. Plus, he has some Verizon sponsorship on his car and while he isn't their #1 driver, if he wins Verizon has to celebrate the fact that they were on his car. The negative is I think Montoya will retire at any moment. He leads the championship and if he wins another Indianapolis 500, he would be in prime position to win another title. If he were to do that, what else would he have to prove? He is turning 40 this September and he might decide that this is it.

12. Ed Carpenter
Local boy. Kind of. He was born in Illinois but he has lived in Indiana most of his and is a Butler University graduate. He has been a staple in IndyCar for over a decade, which is hard to believe but it's true. He only races on ovals, which is a negative because he only races six times all year and wouldn't be racing at Belle Isle but he would be there as a car owner and at least he would be at every race.

11. Ryan Briscoe
Like Vautier, this is the underdog, who has the last-minute substitution narrative on his side. He is the driver who wasn't suppose to be there who now has a shot at history. The other positive is his wife Nicole works at ESPN as a SportsCenter anchor. If he wins, he will get attention. He has an in and has a hell of a story to tell. And Schmidt Peterson would have no choice but to have Briscoe be the substitute for Hinchcliffe until the Canadian is ready to return.

10. Hélio Castroneves
You are probably surprised that a potential fourth Indianapolis 500 victory for Castroneves is so low. Well, people love history and it would get people's attention but will a fourth 500 be the thing to finally get people to stop pronouncing his name "Hee-lio?" If the first three didn't do that than what makes you think a fourth will? Another negative is he is 40. How long will he be around? We all know that if he gets fourth he will want to a fifth but at what point would he settle with four?

9 and 8. Pippa Mann and Simona de Silvestro respectively
You cannot deny that the first women to win the Indianapolis 500 as a driver would be a massive story, especially if it isn't Danica Patrick. Mann and de Silvestro would go down in sports history. Neither are full-time drivers but what sponsor would say no to them if they were to win the Indianapolis 500? It would have people talking. Mann benefits from having a great cause in the Susan G. Komen on the car. I put de Silvestro ahead of Mann because de Silvestro has been a competitive driver while Mann has never been close to a full-time ride.

7. Josef Newgarden
Newgarden just won at Barber, he has a bigger sponsor on the car in Century 21, he has Sarah Fisher as a co-owner, he is young and he is an American. What else could you ask for? Granted, Century 21 will probably be gone after Indianapolis even if he wins but that would open the door for someone to bounce on the young driver and make him there own.

6. Sage Karam
Should Karam win, he would become the youngest Indianapolis 500 winner. IndyCar wants younger fans? Nothing would be better than the youngest driver winning the biggest race. Karam is someone the fans can grow up with. As they go through different stages in their life, they could have the one constant of watching Sage Karam race. He is active on social media; he is driving for one of the best teams, like Newgarden, what else could you ask for?

5. Scott Dixon
People love winners and here is the active leader in IndyCar victories who already has three titles and he is starting from pole position. Dixon has been around for over a decade but he only 34! He will be around for at least another five or six years and he could make an assault on the all-time IndyCar win list. He probably won't catch A.J. Foyt's 67 victories but he sits on 36 victories. Al Unser will be caught, as Dixon is three back of him. Michael Andretti sit son 42 and he might be caught toward the end of 2016 or early 2017. Next would be Mario Andretti. Could Dixon end his career second all-time in IndyCar victories? Perhaps new fans would want to tag along just to fine out.

4. Marco Andretti
It's all in the last name. Andretti. Andretti winning. It would turn heads. It would feel like a rite of passage, a passing of the baton. Perhaps this opens the floodgates for Andretti. Perhaps getting the Indianapolis monkey off his back will see him become a championship contender and winning on a regular basis. That isn't a guarantee but you can't pass up an Andretti winning at Indianapolis.

3. Will Power
Power is the defending champion, driving for the most successful team in IndyCar history and just happens to be sponsored by the series sponsor. If he wins, Verizon will get him attention. People love winners and at 34, he could also make an assault on the all-time IndyCar win list. He has 11 victories fewer that Dixon but who is to say he won't end with his name mingled in with the Unsers and Andrettis? And like Dixon, perhaps a few new fans would want to tag along just to fine out where Power lands.

2. Ryan Hunter-Reay
Defending Indianapolis 500 winner and an American. Having a familiar face for the public to get to know would be great for IndyCar. Not only is Hunter-Reay the defending Indianapolis 500 winner but a past champion. He already has the résumé for people to love him, now IndyCar has to promote him but a second Indianapolis 500 victory, especially if he becomes the sixth driver to win back-to-back 500s could cement him as the figure that comes to people's minds when they hear IndyCar.

1. Graham Rahal
Rahal has the name. His sponsors seem to love him. He has the wind under his wings after consecutive runner-up finishes. He has the people around him in Bobby Rahal and David Letterman. Letterman might have retired but perhaps he could use his connections to get Rahal prime television appearances. Rahal has the looks. He has the fiancé in Courtney Force, as they are the motorsports power couple. And he is young. He's been around for a while but he is 26 years old. He could easily be around for the next 15 years and become the driver for a generation.

Regardless of who wins the 99th Indianapolis 500, IndyCar has to promote them. If IndyCar wants their drivers to become public figures, show them off to the public and let them know whom the faces of IndyCar are.