Scott Dixon celebrates his race win and championship title at Sonoma (credit: IndyCar)

Open Wheel Wednesday: The “Surprise” Champion, Stellar Seasons & More

Huston Ladner  : So where does anyone want to begin?

Matt Stallknecht : Man…where to even start

Toni Montgomery : Am I the only one who made the mistake of pretty much forgetting all about Scott Dixon?

Matt: I completely forgot about him

Toni: And then wondering where the hell he came from.

Huston: I doubt it.

Matt: I figured he was way too far back

Huston: Right.  It seemed like it would have to be a perfect day for him to win…and then it turned out that way

Toni: There’s a lot here though–we honestly ended up with a surprise champion. But then it opened the door about whether or not it was because of a gimmick.

Matt: Here’s the thing though, I’m not sure we should even be shocked. Dixon has built a career out of doing what he did on Sunday.

Toni: And yet if you were on social media, people were riveted in the closing laps.

Huston: The gimmick question is one aspect of the whole deal.  That being noted, everyone knew the rules going into the final race.  But I understand any skepticism

Toni: Actually I think that’s more why I am shocked. I know full well to never underestimate Dixon and yet I totally did.

Matt: There was *absolutely* nothing wrong with the double points thing. Although I’m sure we’ll get to that later. It is worth noting that Dixon still would have won the championship even if Indianapolis and Sonoma were normal points races.

Toni: Well as was pointed out, Juan Pablo Montoya had no problem with the Indy 500 double points that gave him a big fat points lead earlier in the year.And yes, everyone knew what was at stake going in. It wasn’t a surprise. 

Juan Pablo Montoya on track at Sonoma (credit: IndyCar)
Juan Pablo Montoya was left to rue what could have been his title (credit: IndyCar)

Matt: Exactly. I’m not sure why it is “so wrong” to dole out more points for bigger races. It is designed to reward drivers who step up when the stakes are highest.

Toni: And yes, also a good point Matt. He didn’t actually win it because of the double points. He’d have won it anyway. He’s the 2015 champion no Matter how you look at it.

Huston: The question about the points and big races is: Does Sonoma qualify?

Toni: It does from the standpoint of being the finale.

Matt: Whether it is a Chase format, double points, or some other playoff-y element, I’m frankly tired of the motorsports community’s stubborn refusal to accept these kinds of playoff-style elements.

Toni: And honestly I like the fact that it’s a road course. Two double points events. One oval, one road course. So no one can say it favors one style of racer over another.

Matt: Would have to agree there Toni.

Toni: But for any other reason, no, I would not say Sonoma is special, other than being the last race.

Huston: That’s kind of my problem with it – even though I like Sonoma.

Matt: I think the last race of any series always has some added importance, and is a “major” strictly in the sense that you crown your champion in that race.

Huston: So how was the racing for a finale?

Matt: All told, I love double points and I love how it gives the drivers more to race for in races where double points are present. It makes the race feel “bigger”. Huston, I thought by Sonoma standards, the racing was pretty awesome. Aero is always a factor at Sonoma, but it didn’t stop the drivers from putting on a great show.

Toni: I thought the racing was excellent.

Matt: The current Sonoma layout isn’t necessarily the best track for this series, but they absolutely made the most of it in my opinion.And of course, the points drama helped too.

Huston: Yeah, for what it was, good show.  Gotta like that they could force the issue more there than at Mid-Ohio.

Toni: I completely agree. Although how much of that perception is affected by the excitement of the championship, I’m not sure.Does it Matter? End result was I was glued to the race and felt like I’d seen something really exciting when it was over.Isn’t that what we want at the end of the day?

Huston: I’m all for something that’s fascinating.

Matt: The championship certainly helped, but even putting that aside, we saw some really excellent racing on Sunday. In particular I was on the edge of my seat every time Tony Kanaan made a pass. The guy was just pulling off incredible passes all race long.

Huston: Yeah, he finally found something.

Matt: Of course, I’m not convinced that TK will have that ride next year. I have a feeling Mr. Josef Newgarden will be replacing him next season.

Huston: Ha.  Similar thought

Josef Newgarden on track at the Milwaukee Mile (credit: IndyCar)
Will Josef Newgarden be moving to Ganassi Racing next year? (credit: IndyCar)

Toni: Ah I love offseason if for no other reason than seeing who ends up where.But I think it’s a tad predictable in IndyCar.Every time someone has a breakout year, they end up at either Penske or Ganassi.

Matt: Well, in Newgarden’s case, I think it would be a slam dunk for both parties.

Huston: Aww, c’mon, there’s some drama there every so often (shaking head, not really).

Toni: Yeah. Not really.

Matt: Josef has literally unlimited potential and doesn’t seem to have many weaknesses this early in his career. He’s an immediate title-threat in my view if he goes to Ganassi.

Huston: Wow.  Not holding back there, eh, Matt?

Toni: Crap. Then I’ll never be able to tell Newgarden and Karam apart if they stand next to each other.

Matt: I’m definitely high on Newgarden. By the end of the season he was pretty much running deep in the top 5 every week. And he was doing that in CFH Racing equipment…

Huston: Indeed.

Matt: I personally think we saw the emergence of a future star of this sport this season. The kid just needs a well-funded ride.

Toni: There were a few emergences this season.

Huston: Not ruling it out, I’m just cautious about the new ‘hotness’ all the time

Toni: Graham Rahal finally showed some of what we’ve been waiting to see for years.

Matt: Certainly. Rahal finally put together a full season. I’ve never seen him as focused as he was this year.

Huston: Funny how we hadn’t even mentioned him, yet he had a great year. Those last two races were killers though

Toni: Oh I wasn’t going to leave him out. There’s something else about him I found interesting.

Huston: Do tell

Toni: The complaint for so many years has been about the lack of successful American drivers and yet there was Ryan Hunter-Reay who won a championship in there. But it wasn’t until Rahal contended this year that fans got energized. He was hugely popular.I find that interesting.

Huston: Well, he IS a brand name

Toni: So it was less that there wasn’t a successful American driver and more that there wasn’t a successful American driver that we like.

Matt: As much as I respect RHR, and as much as I like the guy, he doesn’t have the appeal that Rahal does. Graham has that edgy, youthful millenial air to his personality that resonates well with a wide audience.

Toni: Well for IndyCar’s sake, I hope Rahal keeps contending. The sport needs him.

Matt: He has just enough “Hollywood” to be appealing without it being a turn off.

Huston: Yeah, I’d just say Rahal is more engaging.

Matt: Ditto for Marco if he ever picked up the pace. In fact, between Marco, Rahal, Karam, and Newgarden, IndyCar has the most marketable crop of young drivers of any series on the planet right now.

Huston: Seems like a rather fair assessment, really

Toni: American drivers. That’s a key point for IndyCar.

Matt: All four of those guys are EXACTLY the kind of dudes that have the power to resonate with the oh-so-desired millennial audience. Especially Sage Karam.

Huston: Yeah, Karam has some nuttiness about him

Matt: And let me be clear here, if this sport has any hope of growing into the future, capturing millennials is an absolute must. We need crossover stars, and I personally think Karam and Newgarden could both be guys that fit that billing.

Toni: In all seriousness though I do hope they get Karam’s head straight and he stops blaming himself for what happened to Justin Wilson.

Matt: Good lord, I hope so too.

Toni: I’d had to see it derail such a promising young career.

Matt: I can’t even imagine what he is going through mentally.

Toni: It was an accident. A freak accident. And it certainly wasn’t his fault. He wasn’t the only guy to wreck that day–long time veterans did too.

Matt: I can tell you that he is currently receiving treatment from a sports psychologist and has a full offseason to clear his head.

Huston: Yeah, it’s a real rough one there.  Just a total accident.  A full, lllooonnnggg, offseason

Toni: He says he keeps thinking what if he hadn’t spun. Then Justin would still be alive.

Matt: Just a horrible thing for anyone, let alone a 20-year-old, to have to go through.

Toni: I know. I hope the treatment helps and he can come to terms over the offseason. I surely hope we see him out there next season contending like we did this season.

Huston: That’s the big hope.  He shouldn’t be carrying that burden

Matt: Shifting gears a bit, for all of the turmoil and craziness of the 2015 season, I thought that this was a major turnaround season for the sport. For the first time in almost a decade, I feel like the series has actually turned a corner.

Toni: I thought so too. I definitely saw some positive energy and momentum come into the sport–again some of that due to Rahal’s charge for the front.

Matt: I think Fontana had a whole lot to do with it.

Toni: TV was a positive–a big positive. The big fat gains in the ratings and it seemed like there was more buzz around IndyCar. More people talking about it.

Crowd shot at Sonoma Raceway for the IndyCar finale in 2015 (credit: IndyCar)
Sonoma had a decent crowd for the finale, will the trend continue? (Credit: IndyCar)

Matt: That race was a stark reminder to the whole world as to why so many people have worked so hard to keep this series afloat. That race was a testament to what American open wheel racing is all about.

Huston: Funny that Fontana had a lot to do with it but won’t be on the schedule next year

Toni: I find that disappointing. That track is so good for IndyCars. Not a great place for stock cars but great for open-wheelers.

Matt: I can personally say, and this is anecdotal, but I personally think this season helped bring IndyCar interest levels to a height not seen since the mid-2000s at the least. IndyCar officials nailed an oval package that is quite possibly one of the most exciting to ever hit an oval track. Indy 500, Fontana, and Pocono all featured utterly incredible racing, the likes of which I’ve never seen replicated in any year in any series.

Huston: I get the good vibes and that interest may be up, but I’ll still be curious to see how attendance goes

Toni: So let’s sum this up: Some fantastic racing this season–Fontana and a few other places. Some breakout new stars, some reaching long suspected potential–and a good solid competitive crop of American drivers. And yet another exciting championship battle. There were a lot of positives for IndyCar this year. That’s the elephant in the room Huston.That’s the one thing that was not stellar still.

Huston: Oh, sorry.  Ruined everything

Matt: When you put all of that together, you have a sport that truly appears to be ready to explode again. And I mean that in a good way of course!

Toni: No Huston, I named out the positives but we have to be honest and cal out the negatives too.

Matt: The key going forward is to maintain the momentum. Series officials can’t let uIt’s like I said at the end of 2014, IndyCar has something very special on their hands. They can’t let off the proverbial gas pedal.The sad thing of course, is that with the absence of Fontana from the ’16 schedule, they have already undone some of that good.

Toni: I’d be a little concerned that Walker is leaving. However I have been impressed with Miles and he’s staying. And I honestly think he’s been more the driving force of where the series is trying to go.

Huston: The constant turnover in leadership continues to be a problem.  Maybe things are sorted for the best for a bit now

Toni: I do hate that the off-season is so long though, for the purposes of momentum.

Matt: They really just need to keep the status quo. And for the love of god, they need to stay proactive in the safety department. Wilson’s tragedy proved that.

Toni: I agree Matt.

Huston: Heck, you could say that Hinchcliffe’s accident showed there’s work to do regarding safety

Toni: On the safety thing. Yes you could–we almost lost two drivers, not one.But the more pressing thing is the fact that drivers heads are too exposed.Whether it be getting airborne and hitting their heads on fences or walls or getting hit by debris.

Matt: It’s time for closed cockpits, enough said.

Toni: At the very least, if they don’t want them fully enclosed, something like a Top Fuel dragster configuration would be better.

Huston: Right. Anything else anyone would like to touch upon?

Matt: I can’t think of anything

Toni: I think we hit everything I brought

Huston: Good deal.

Toni: Good chat

Matt: Indeed. Fun season

Toni: It was

Huston: Indeed.

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About Ava Huston Ladner

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As an editor, Ava works through some of the site’s biggest columns while writing one of her own on F1 each week. “Stranded” on the islands of Oahu in Hawaii, the aspiring college professor also helps anchor other coverage while coordinating Pace Laps, our multi-series news update.

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