The Verizon IndyCar Series is gearing up for the 2014 season and parity seems to be the name of the game once again this year.
Last season saw 10 different drivers win races with four of them earning victories for the first time in their careers. The field remains just as competitive this year with only 1.3 seconds separating first from last during pre-season testing at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.
Before the green flag drops at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, here are 10 drivers to keep an eye on during the 2014 season.
Programming alert: Coverage of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins with a preview show at 2:30 p.m. ET / 11:30 a.m. PT on City, with encore broadcasts at 8 p.m. local on Sportsnet East, Ontario, West and Pacific. | Full TV schedule
Juan Pablo Montoya
One of the biggest stories during the off-season was the announcement of Montoya’s return to open-wheel racing. Montoya was a 23-year-old phenom when he made his major league debut in the now-defunct CART series in 1999, winning seven races en route to the championship. The following year saw him dominate the Indianapolis 500 leading 167 of 200 laps to victory.
After six years in Formula One and seven in NASCAR, Montoya -- now 38 years old -- is back in Indy cars with Team Penske. A fine-tuning period should be expected as Montoya readjusts from handling a bulky stock car to a turbo-powered Indy car (ala A.J. Allmendinger, who struggled in his cameo appearances last season). Montoya logged the second-most laps at the Barber pre-season testing session and was ninth overall, suggesting he may be back in synch quicker than expected.
Dixon emerged from the wild and unpredictable 2013 season as the series champion. The Kiwi driver vaulted to the top thanks to an impressive stretch in July where he was victorious at Pocono and swept the top of the podium at the Toronto double-header races.
Dixon will contend again. He’s finished within the top five in points in the past eight seasons, as he also continues his assault on the record books. He ranks seventh on the all-time wins list with 33 race victories and only names likes Foyt, Andretti and Unser are ahead of him. One more win will tie him with Al Unser Jr. for sixth place and he could catch fifth-place Bobby Unser (35 wins) as the season progresses.
Power was on fire late last year, winning three of the last five races. Most impressive was his victory at Fontana to cap the season as oval courses had historically been his Achilles’ heel. Although Power was already out of title contention, he surged up the standings to finish fourth overall. That momentum appears to have carried over to this year, sweeping the pre-season testing sessions at Barber. Power finished runner-up for the championship three consecutive seasons (2010-12) but a stretch like he showed at the end of the year (when he wasn’t running into trouble with Scott Dixon) will finally get Power to the top.
Kanaan is IndyCar’s “ironman” holding the all-time series record with 215 consecutive starts (he’s also an ironman off the track, training for triathlons in his spare time). Kanaan’s three-year tenure with middle-of-the-pack team KV Racing Technology came to an end after finishing a disappointing 11th overall last season, but the silver lining was winning the Indy 500 for the first time in his career. He now finds himself taking over for the retired Dario Franchitti at powerhouse Chip Ganassi Racing and the upgraded ride should have Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion, back in contention.
Hinchcliffe will look for a more consistent effort this season after an up-and-down 2013 campaign. The Oakville, Ont., native started off strong last year, winning the season opener in St. Petersburg (his first career race victory) but sustaining a pair of DNFs before returning to the winner’s circle in Sao Paulo. His season continued to zigzag with a spectacular performance at Iowa, followed by moments like Pocono (crashed on the first lap) and the second Toronto race (his car stalled on the grid) that kept him out of contention. A new Honda engine this year could be the key to helping him stay in the picture.
The 2012 series champion dipped back to seventh overall last year (the same spot he finished in 2010 and 2011) after a frustrating second-half of the season sandbagged his hopes of defending the title. Hunter-Reay won from pole position at Alabama and earned another victory in Milwaukee but mechanical and electrical problems plagued his ride late in the year. Hunter-Reay, like Andretti Autosport teammate Hinchcliffe, should be pleased the team switched to Honda engines as a new supplier, and better luck, could do him good.
Don’t call it a comeback, Briscoe has been here for years. He spent five seasons with Team Penske (never finishing lower than sixth overall in the final standings) but was dropped from the team after 2012 due to lack of sponsorship. He drove part-time in the series last year including an appearance at the Indy 500 with Chip Ganassi Racing, the team he scored a full-time ride with this season. Briscoe made his IndyCar debut with Ganassi in 2005 and should work his way back into the title chase now that he has a consistent ride and teams up with defending champion Scott Dixon once again.
A series championship continues to elude the veteran Castroneves. He was at the top of the standings for most of last season, thanks to 15 top-10 finishes through the first 16 races, until a disastrous weekend at the Houston double-header saw his grasp on the championship lead slip away. This is Castroneves’ 17th season in open-wheel racing -- his 15th with Team Penske -- and there’s no reason the three-time Indy 500 winner shouldn’t remain in title contention.
Pagenaud continues to make giant strides in the IndyCar Series. His rookie campaign in 2012 saw him land fifth in the points and he followed that up in 2013 earning his first career victory at Detroit and capturing another checkered flag in Baltimore during a surprising season that saw him finish third overall. Considering Pagenaud’s team isn’t Andretti, Ganassi or Penske, it’s remarkable he’s not only a race winner but a title contender with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Andretti’s off-season training in Europe last year improving his skills on road and street courses paid off as he finished a career-best fifth overall in the standings. Although Andretti didn’t win any races, he’s cleared one giant hurdle and with the confidence he’s gained, the third-generation IndyCar driver should be ready to step into the title picture this season.