Just a couple days shy of April, the last major racing series to start the 2014 season, IndyCar, heads to the west coast of Florida for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday. The newly named Verizon IndyCar Series will have several returning and recognizable faces along with a new well-known name that is no stranger to open-wheel racing.
A new schedule with a shorter season will present itself as the series tries to make adjustments and add storylines to American open wheel racing that is still trying to gain traction after dismissing their innovative CEO a couple seasons ago. IndyCar also lost one of the sports all-time best drivers when Dario Franchitti had to retire after a horrific accident at the next to last race of 2013 on the streets of Houston.
Despite these issues, the sport must move on. So then, amongst another strong field of drivers in 2014, who will win this year’s championship? Let’s take a look at the top five contenders and few more dark horses that could emerge. The top five are listed in alphabetical order.
Helio Castroneves – It’s hard to imagine that the three-time Indy 500 winner has yet to win a series championship. He’s a three-time runner-up including last season when he led the points for much of the year. Always upbeat and animated, Castroneves will be in the battle for a title once again in 2014. Actually, the Penske Racing organization as a whole has not been able to win a championship since Sam Hornish Jr. won it back in ’06. Could this be the year that Helio finally earns the series title for himself and the team?
Scott Dixon – Although the defending champ may not have his former teammate Franchitti pushing him anymore at Chip Ganassi Racing, the three-time IndyCar champion should be considered a frontrunner in 2014. Ganassi has left Honda and moved over to Chevrolet to battle his nemesis Penske Racing heads-up. It would be surprising if Dixon wasn’t contending for a fourth title this season.
Ryan Hunter-Reay – This 2012 champion struggled at times last season even though no one had more podiums than Hunter-Reay. A frontrunner most of the year, too many finishes near the back of the pack kept him from challenging for the championship. His team, Andretti Autosport, has switched over to Honda from Chevrolet and it will be interesting to see if that will work in their favor or not for 2014. If Honda is competitive, watch for Ryan to run to the front and possibly grab a second IndyCar title this season.
Juan Pablo Montoya – The NASCAR experiment finally ended after seven uneventful years. Now driving for Penske, Montoya is back in open wheel racing where he made his mark earlier in his racing career. It’s been a while since JP raced in a North American open wheel series; but, it’s worth pointing out that in just two short years of CART, driving for Ganassi, he won 10 races including an Indy 500 plus a championship. Montoya might take a little while to get himself re-accustomed to IndyCars, but don’t be shocked if he is one of the contenders come the end of the season.
Will Power – Snake-bitten too often, Power may well be the best driver in the series. At times he has dominated, especially on street courses, but will the three-time series runner-up finally figure out how to win a championship in 2014? He wins roughly a quarter of all races he’s entered in and comes into this year on a two-race win streak, with victories on a street course at Houston and then the two-mile oval of Fontana – an adversarial track for Will if ever there was one. As part of a loaded lineup at Penske this season, Power should be a favorite … or maybe THE favorite to finally win the title.
There are a few others to consider, including Simon Pagenaud who seems to have become a perennial dark horse. Pagenaud won twice last year and the only thing keeping him back this season will be the performance of Honda. If Honda performs competitively, Justin Wilson could surprise more folks in 2014. It’s not that Wilson isn’t good – he’s a very good driver – but his Dale Coyne Racing team is the proverbial underdog with an underfinanced operation. A driver that might be flying under the radar but should be watched is Ryan Briscoe. Briscoe has a full-time ride with Ganassi, so don’t be surprised if Ryan sticks his nose into the title race.
If you want a longshot choice, go with Sebastien Bourdais who is now teamed up with KV Racing. This combination might be just what’s needed to renew the former four-time ChampCar series winner, who has as much talent as anyone to contend for the championship.
The field is packed with talent – who do you think will win it all?
Additional sources: IndyCar, Racing Reference