Who Will Be The Surprise Of IndyCar 2018?

This is Race Week. It’s normal at this time of year for everyone to come up with predictions for the season championship. But let’s face it – that’s not too difficult to do. There is a strong chance that one of the three Team Penske drivers will compete with Scott Dixon from Chip Ganassi Racing along with Andretti Autosport drivers Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi for the Verizon IndyCar title.

The only one of those mentioned without an IndyCar title is Rossi. You have to go back to 2011 to find someone other than the others mentioned that won the title – and that was Dixon’s teammate, Dario Franchitti.

Here’s a bit of trivia for you. Name the last time a driver won the IndyCar championship (non-Champ car) that did not come from the big three teams of Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. Give up? It was Sam Hornish for Panther Racing in 2002, when Team Penske had just made the move from Champ Car, Andretti Autosport was still racing as Team Green in Champ Car and Chip Ganassi Racing only had Jeff Ward running the IRL while their main focus was Champ Car. Since those three teams came over exclusively to IndyCar – they have had a monopoly on the championship.

How about a little more trivia? How many of the “transition teams” from the 2008 unification are still around? The answer would be one; Dale Coyne Racing. Then again, other than those big three – just how many teams are left from 2008? Coyne, Foyt and Rahal are pretty much it. What is now Ed Carpenter Racing was an offshoot of Vision Racing and later Sarah Fisher Racing; but ECR did not exist in its current form in 2008.

I cover all of that minutia to prove a point. You’re not really going out on a limb to say that the champion will come from one of those three teams – it has for the past fifteen years. Most likely, it will again this season.

I’m not going to try and predict which of those six drivers will win; but I will guarantee that your champion will be Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud or the defending champion – Josef Newgarden. Anyone else will be a complete and total surprise.

That’s the real topic of this post – who will be the surprise of 2018?

By surprise, I don’t necessarily mean a breakout year or even a good surprise. Last year, Scott Dixon was a surprise because he won only one race last season – just past the midway point of the season at Road America. Although Dixon finished third in the championship – you never really had the sense he was a threat to win it. Another disappointing surprise from last year was how poorly JR Hildebrand performed at ECR.

The good surprises from last season was that Josef Newgarden was able to put together a championship season in his first at Team Penske. I don’t think anyone was surprised he was competitive; but I think most people, myself included, thought it would take some time for Newgarden to get acclimated before the results came.

So who will be the surprises for 2018 – both good and bad?

I’m not even sure if this would be considered a surprise; but I’m thinking that Alexander Rossi has a breakthrough season this year. It’s hard to think that an Indianapolis 500 winner is due for a breakthrough, but I think most would agree that Rossi’s 2016 Indianapolis 500 victory as a rookie was a little unexpected, if not fluky. He was a late signee with Andretti Autosport and had only three more Top-Ten finishes for the season after his win and finished a forgettable eleventh in the standings.

Last year produced better finishes and more consistency with Rossi. He had eight Top-Ten finishes and three podiums – including an impressive win at Watkins Glen – en route to seventh in the final standings. Without the inferior aero package that Honda was saddled with the last few years – I’m thinking Alexander Rossi might have the most dramatic jump in results than anyone else in the paddock.

As far as teams go, I think Tony Kanaan is going to bring a much improved season to AJ Foyt Enterprises. Last year, Carlos Muñoz had a very disappointing season, finishing sixteenth in points in the No.14 car; as the team came to grips with the Chevy aero kit. Kanaan is in the car now, coming off of his own disappointing season in his final year at Ganassi. Kanaan finished tenth in points last season and seemed to be in a bad mood at Ganassi. With the change of scenery – Kanaan seems very happy and content with his surroundings at Foyt. I think this will be a good marriage for both parties. I don’t know if he’ll win a race, but Kanaan will make the No.14 car competitive again.

Of course, with pleasant surprises come disappointments. I don’t think much is to be expected of any of the new teams; but if I had to pick one that might disappoint, it would be Carlin. Their success in other series raises expectations that I’m not sure will be met this year. They have two experienced drivers, but let’s be honest – Max Chilton nor Charlie Kimball have been setting the world on fire lately.

It’s hard to believe, but Charlie Kimball is entering his eighth season in IndyCar. His best finish in the points is ninth; which he did in 2013, when he had his only win, and again in 2016. He is coming off of a seventeenth place season in points last season. Chilton finished nineteenth in his rookie year of 2016 and improved to eleventh last season. If I were starting a team from scratch, I’m not sure those are the two resumes I would want to build around. Carlin has a strong history, so it’ll be interesting to see how things progress with them.

On paper, Harding Racing looks to be the strongest of the new teams. With key personnel in place like Larry Curry, Al Unser, Jr. and Brian Barnhart along with capable driver Gabby Chaves; it looks like a winning combination. After an impressive maiden outing in last year’s Indianapolis 500 that saw them finish ninth, they raised even more eyebrows when they finished fifth at Texas just a couple of weeks later. But in their third start at Pocono later in the summer, they were way off the pace. Chaves held on to finish fifteenth with only seventeen cars running at the end.

In the Open Test at Phoenix, Chaves only produced the twentieth fastest time of twenty-three cars running. You can’t tell much by that without knowing what their goal was. They could have been trying multiple suspension setups or anything. Producing a fast time may have been the last thing on their mind. But if they were actually going for speed, then there may be cause for concern. Overall, I’m expecting Harding to be the best of the new teams and to have a solid overall season.

Unfortunately, it pains me to say who I think might be the biggest disappointment for the 2018 season – Ed Carpenter Racing. I like Ed Carpenter and I like how he has been able to get a lot out of a smaller budget. But I’m not sure how Spencer Pigot will perform as a fulltime driver on the ovals. The No.21 car took a giant step back last year after Josef Newgarden stepped out of it following the 2016 season. Was that JR Hildebrand’s fault or the team’s?

Carpenter himself has not been good on the ovals the past couple of seasons. Have we seen any signs of that turning around this year? Probably not. Then there is Jordan King, who was probably the surprise signing of the offseason. I know so little about him that I see him as a wild card. He could surprise everyone with his driving prowess, but most likely he will struggle mightily – at least in the first half of the season.

So without throwing a dart at the six most likely candidates to pick a champion; these are my predictions for those that will surprise us in 2018. Just for honorable mention, I also think that Sébastien Bourdais will pick up where he left off before his horrifying crash at Indianapolis last year. The pieces are in place for him to have a very strong season at Dale Coyne Racing. If that happens, it won’t be a surprise but it would be one if it didn’t. But I thought it was worth mentioning since he had such a strong season going before his crash.

It’ll be interesting to go back and read this in early July to see how right or wrong I was. It’ll probably be the latter. Longtime readers of this site know how bad I really am at guessing the future. Stay tuned and we’ll see.

George Phillips

8 Responses to “Who Will Be The Surprise Of IndyCar 2018?”

  1. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    George…I’m disappointed you didn’t mention SPM or Rahal, Lanigan Letterman in your blog. I’m not sure how SPM will do (I think they will be very interesting) but I think you are totally underestimating Graham Rahal. The team has looked very sharp in preseason testing and I don’t think it would surprise anyone if Graham won the championship. Your list of six definitely needs to be 7 and maybe 8 if Bourdais gets it going.

    • You answered your own concern when you said “…I don’t think it would surprise anyone if Graham won the championship”. That’s the thing. I’m talking about surprises. I think Graham Rahal will win multiple races this year and may compete for the championship. So, I agree…I wouldn’t be surprised. But until someone overturns sixteen seasons of history, I’m still going with this year’s champion coming from the Big Three. – GP

      • Paul Fitzgerald Says:

        I know what you are saying but I still disagree, I think Graham Rahal is one of the top favorites for the championship. I’m not discounting the Penske team but I think they may be a bit down on power this season and won’t have the Chevy aero kits to make them better than the Honda’s. It should be fun year.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The surprise of the year will be if we don’t hear two things every time Pietro Fittipaldi is on camera. One is that he is Emerson Fittpaldi’s grandson. The other is that he began his career racing late-model stock cars in North Carolina.

    The announcers are going to wear these facts out this season, even though Fittipaldi isn’t going to be at half the races and likely is not going to be near the sharp end of the field in most of the ones he is racing in.

  3. I hope Bourdais does better than just an honorable mention in your season wrap-up. Without that horrific accident at Indy Sebastien would have been a contender.

  4. Ron Ford Says:

    I’m liking Bourdais and Rahal.

  5. Dave Heinekamp Says:

    Kanaan, Chilton and Kimball all will exceed last year’s results because their teams now will pay attention to them.

  6. Sounds about right. I think Rossi is poised to become RHR 2012 at some point. Penske will probably win the championship. I don’t expect much difference from last year. Would like to see Bourdais have a good run, he can’t have many years left. Would be great to see him win a 500!

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