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IndyCar: More Drivers to Watch in 2016

by Frank Santoroski        @seveng1967

VZ_IC_RGB_POSThis is the conclusion of a two-part article. Part one can be found here.

As the start of the 2016 season approaches, the teams and drivers of the Verizon IndyCar Series are ready to start with a clean slate and make a run for the title.

Today I’d like to look at two past Champions looking to regain form, and two young drivers looking to make a splash.

Ryan Hunter-Reay won the season Championship for Andretti Autosport back in 2012, and has followed it up with three rather inconsistent seasons. Each season featured multiple wins, including the 2014 Indianapolis 500, but the mediocre finishes through the bulk of the schedule kept him out of the top five in points.

RHR23Admittedly, the Andretti Autosport team itself has had some growing pains over the course of those seasons as they transitioned from Chevrolet to Honda power. They were then dealt the blow of losing long-time director of operations, Kyle Moyer, to Team Penske.

Being the de Facto Honda factory team, Andretti AutoSport shouldered the bulk of the development of the Honda aero-kit in the 2014-15 off-season. Coming into 2015, it seemed as if the Andretti team struggled with the transition more so than the other Honda teams, like Rahal Letterman.

I can certainly buy the argument that the team had precious little time to work on set-ups, chassis development, and the like because of the time spent with the aero-kit.

This seemed to be blatantly evident as the team began 2015 with a string of forgettable finishes, save for Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti taking a 1-2 in the rain-shortened Grand Prix of Detroit.

For Ryan Hunter-Reay, he seemed to be even further behind the curve than his teammates, finding it difficult to set up the car to his liking.

It wasn’t until Iowa, found 13 of 16,  that RHR seemed to finally feel comfortable with the car. The California-born driver took wins at Iowa and Pocono, and capped off his season with a second in the season finale to salvage sixth place in the final standings.

Finishing 2015 with good momentum, Ryan Hunter-Reay has been generally positive with the gains Honda has achieved with the aero package for 2016. The Andretti AutoSport team will merge with Bryan Herta Autosport, giving the team four full-time 2016 entries.

Look for Ryan Hunter-Reay to come out of the box strong in St. Pete, and put the challenge to Ganassi and Penske. Despite the recent inconsistencies, RHR still ranks as one of the better all-around drivers on the circuit, and he is overdue for another Championship run.

TK6-2Over at Chip Ganassi Racing, we find another former Champion in need of a turnaround season, Tony Kanaan. The Brazilian driver has become a bit enigmatic in my mind over the past few seasons, as I cannot find a compelling reason why he shouldn’t be winning more races.

Kanaan spent eight seasons with the Andretti team, taking fourteen wins during his tenure, and giving the organization its first series Championship back in 2004.

When his 7-11 sponsorship wasn’t renewed in 2010, he found himself rather unceremoniously released from the team. He spent a couple of seasons at KV Racing Technology with mixed results, the highlight of which was winning the 2013 Indianapolis 500.

From there, he landed one of the most coveted seats in Motor Racing, at Chip Ganassi, replacing four-time Champion Dario Franchitti.

Now, in his third season with the team, the results have been quite a bit off of the mark of what I have expected.

It certainly appears that since Franchitti retired, that a pecking-order has developed at the Ganassi team, with Kanaan being a solid #2 behind Scott Dixon.

Unlike the Penske organization, where the drivers become embroiled in on-track battles with one another, the Ganassi Team seems to function more as a cohesive unit with a single team goal in mind.

I would hate to think that Tony Kanaan has lost of bit of his competitive spirit, and is content to play Rebuens Barichello to Dixon’s Schumacher.  It actually pains me to even entertain that thought, so I’m going to keep a close eye on TK this year looking for that turnaround moment.

Newbie15_7693995119759254717_nJosef Newgarden had a breakthrough 2015 season that saw him take two race wins with the Carpenter/Fisher/ Hartman team. Amid rumors that Penske and Ganassi were interested in the young driver from Tennessee, he opted to stay put in 2016.

In the off-season, it was announced that Wink Hartman would pull his financial support of the team, effectively dissolving the partnership between Fisher and Carpenter.

Reverting back to Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was retained as the full-time driver, with Ed Carpenter competing only in the oval events.

Newgarden’s friend and mentor, Sarah Fisher, will have a dramatically reduced role within the team, and it remains to be seen how that will affect the young driver.

However, Carpenter and Newgarden seem to have a good working relationship, and Newgarden will undoubtedly be able to improve his oval track program working with Carpenter.

The Carpenter team was strong before the merger with Fisher and Hartman, taking three wins in 2014. With Chevrolet power, and backing from Fuzzy’s Vodka, there is no reason to believe that Newgarden will not find the winner’s circle on a few occasions in 2016.

HawkAJack Hawksworth had a 2014 season with BHA racing that saw him win the Tony Renna Rising Star Award. He parlayed that success into a full-time ride with A.J. Foyt Racing partnered alongside Takuma Sato.

Both Sato and Hawksworth had forgettable 2015 seasons that left them mired deep in the final standings. The team struggled with the transition to two cars, and with the new aero-kit.

Hawksworth’s best finish in 2015 was seventh place. Why, you may ask, should we expect a turnaround from a team that has historically been on the outer fringe?

There are a couple of reasons why we should keep an eye on the young British driver. He possesses a pure, natural talent that requires some direction. He may find that direction in the off-season personnel shuffle at A.J. Foyt Racing.

Dan Hobbs, formerly of Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports has joined the Foyt team as Hawksworth’s primary engineer. Dan Halliday, with a racing resume that dates back to 1970’s F-1, will be promoted to technical director, overseeing both cars. George Klotz was hired away from Andretti AutoSport as the Team Manager.

General Manager, Larry Foyt , is bullish on their 2016 chances to improve, and he believes that Hawksworth is ready to make huge forward gains.

Will it be enough to to get him to victory lane? I’ll be watching.

The Verizon IndyCar Series gets underway with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 13.

images courtesy IndyCar

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