Friday, December 30, 2016

2017 IndyCar Predictions

Here we are. Final set of 2017 predictions, final post of 2016 and it will be on the series that has the longest offseason. IndyCar has not raced since September 18th, 103 days ago and there are still 72 days until the season opener at St. Petersburg but that has given us plenty of time to thoroughly think out what the 2017 season could behold.

1. Penske Repeats as Champion
I was going to predict the opposite because Team Penske has not won titles in consecutive seasons since 2000-01 with Gil de Ferran. Team Penske is a model of success and failure when you consider all the championships and how for the better part of the last decade the team has gagged away championships. However, with Ganassi now at Honda and a freeze in aero kit development and the team signing Josef Newgarden away from Ed Carpenter Racing, the ball is in Penske's court. Simon Pagenaud could repeat. Will Power could dethrone his teammate. Newgarden could stun everyone in year one but it wouldn't be that great of a surprise. Hélio Castroneves could be in his final year but I am not sure he has the ability to be the top Penske driver let alone the top driver in IndyCar. Either way, if you offered me the four Penske drivers or the field, I will take the four Penske drivers.

2. Carlos Muñoz Will Have a Better Average Finish Than Conor Daly
Both Muñoz and Daly are coming off strong 2016 seasons and while Muñoz could arguably being taking a step back, Daly is arguably making a step up. A.J. Foyt Racing hasn't had the best time the last couple of seasons as the team wasn't able to turn Takuma Sato into a consistent driver and Jack Hawksworth never found his footing. Muñoz has done a good job of bringing the car home in one piece and Daly did a great job when strategy got him to the front and he was able to hang with the big boys. However, I think Daly is behind Muñoz in development. It didn't help Daly that Coyne lacked a strong oval program while Muñoz was with the team with arguably the best oval program. Muñoz has the clear advantage in at least six races in 2017 and that could put him well ahead of Daly.

3. Dale Coyne Racing Will Get One Podium That Wasn't Because of Going Off Strategy
The team has stacked up on drivers for 2017. It is surprising we knew both Coyne drivers before Thanksgiving let alone Christmas. The team has brought Sébastien Bourdais back and Ed Jones has moved up to IndyCar after winning the Indy Lights title. Coyne has been the king of strategy the last few seasons but the team held its own on speed when it got to the front. I think the team might still be lagging behind on ovals but Bourdais can't be ruled out of qualifying in the top seven or eight on a road course and then fighting his way to a podium.

4. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Tony Kanaan End Winless Droughts
Hunter-Reay was kept off the top step of the podium in 2016 for the first time since 2009 and Kanaan hasn't won a race since the 2014 season finale at Fontana. It wasn't for a lack of trying by each driver. Hunter-Reay was taken out in the pit lane while contending for the victory at Indianapolis and had the car hiccup on him while leading at Pocono. Kanaan only had two podium finishes and five top five finishes but his average finish was 8.8, his best since the 2010 season. Both drivers can win any of the six ovals. Both will be in Hondas in 2017 and while Honda has slacked on road/street courses I would favor Hunter-Reay over Kanaan to win on a road/street course considering Kanaan hasn't won a road/street race since 2007.

5. JR Hildebrand Sets Career-Highs for Top Fives and Top Tens
After spending the better part of the last four seasons on the sidelines, JR Hildebrand returns to full-time IndyCar competition in 2017 in the #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. While Hildebrand has made it a habit of getting strong finishes as a one-off in the Indianapolis 500 with three consecutive top ten finishes in the race since being canned by Panther Racing. He has actually improved his Indianapolis 500 by two positions each of the last three years. Hildebrand has only run two full seasons in IndyCar and both were with Panther Racing, a team that had a dreadful road/street course program, leaving Hildebrand with a less-than-impressive record on those tracks. In each of his two full seasons he had two top five finishes and in his sophomore season he had six top ten finishes. While he has been away for a bit and Ed Carpenter Racing has lost lead engineer Jeremy Milless to Andretti Autosport, I think the team can still get decent results and I don't think it is crazy to think Hildebrand could end up with three top five finishes and seven top ten finishes.

6. Graham Rahal Increases His Amount of Top Ten Finishes but not Top Five Finishes
The American driver finished fifth in the championship and while he averaged a top five finish in every other race in 2016, he had zero finishes between sixth and tenth. For every strong day he had, he had a race where he was behind the eight ball or threw the race away and got into the barrier (Watkins Glen). I think he will be a little more consistent and end up with ten or 11 top ten finishes but perhaps only six or seven of those are top five finishes. If he can find the right balance, Rahal could end up in the championship fight again in 2017.

7. James Hinchcliffe Scores His Best Finish in the Championship
I predicted for 2016 he would at least match his career best finish by saying he would finish in the top eight of the championship. Hinchcliffe dropped to 13th in the final table after being deducted points after his runner-up finish at Texas for a car that was too low, running out of fuel on the final lap at Watkins Glen and rallying from 20th on the grid to 12th at Sonoma. Now I am predicting he will at least finish in the top seven. I think he can do it though. He is going to have to improve on the road and street courses where he finished outside the top ten in six of 11 races and outside the top fifteen in four of those six.

8. Alex Tagliani Does Not Lead a Lap in the Indianapolis 500
Believe it or not, Alex Tagliani has led a lap in the last six Indianapolis 500s. If he leads a lap in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, he will match Tony Kanaan's record for most consecutive Indianapolis 500 led. While the Canadian famously won the Indianapolis 500 pole position in 2011, his best finish in the race was tenth and has averaged a finish of 16.5 in eight starts. Most of the times he has led have been during a pit cycle or by going off strategy. I am not sure Tagliani even ends up in a ride this May but if he does, I think he won't be under the lap leaders column in the box score.

9. There Will Be More Lead Changes at all Short Oval Races From the Previous Race at the Tracks
Last year, Phoenix had two lead changes, Iowa had 11 lead changes (which seems ridiculously high considering Josef Newgarden led 282 of 300 laps) and the last Gateway race in 2003 had five lead changes. The Phoenix aero package wasn't great for on track action and I think the series made the wrong decision to apply it to Iowa. I hope we see the horsepower increased and downforce decreased for this year's short track races and not the proposed less horsepower, more downforce, push-to-pass button enable races at these three tracks but I believe whatever change will be made will increase passing, especially at the front of the field.

10. At Least Two Drivers Improve by at Least Five Positions in the Championship
A five-spot jump up the championship table seems like a lot but Ryan Hunter-Reay finished 12th and could easily finish seventh. James Hinchcliffe finished 13th and I already said I think he could finish in the top seven, which would be a six-spot jump. Sébastien Bourdais finished 14th and could easily finish ninth. Then there is Scott Dixon, who finished sixth and you aren't ruling him out for the championship even if he is in a Honda. Then you have JR Hildebrand, who finished 23rd in the 2016 championship after only running two races and I think he will surely finish inside the top fifteen let alone the top eighteen.

11. A Ridiculous Rumor About a Driver Out of IndyCar at Least Three Years is Published on Either or
Remember when Mario Domínguez was rumored to have a few million dollars for an Indianapolis 500 one-off? Well, why couldn't we hear that Vitor Meira is working on a comeback or Jay Howard or Jaques Lazier? Hell, maybe even Sam Hornish, Jr. enters the rumor mill.

12. Jenson Button Will be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway During the Month of May
I am not saying he is going to be in a car making an attempt to qualify but I could see him being there as a VIP to Honda. He could even be on the grid on race day but I think Monaco seems more appealing than Indianapolis at the end of May. But I think Button will make a trip to Speedway, Indiana come May.

That is it. All predictions are out. With the final day of 2016 approaching, don't forget to check out 2017 predictions for NASCAR, Et Cetera, sports cars and Formula One. We will be back in the present after the calendar flips over. Have a Happy New Year. I look forward to writing to you in 2017.