By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Season was like a party tray. It gave us a little bit of everything – drama, excitement, surprise. It was hard to narrow down the top five moments from the season, but here you are:
5.) Firestone 600
When IndyCar arrived at the Texas Motor Speedway for their annual June trip, Murphy’s Law was in full effect.
Rain hampered the entire weekend and a rough track surface made it difficult to dry. A scary crash between Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly marred the Sunday running before the rains returned.
IndyCar and track officials agreed to restart the race on August 27. James Hinchcliffe dominated from the restart but a yellow flag with 16 laps to go made his domination all for naught. Graham Rahal, Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud rose to the fore and put on a dazzling display that was reminiscent of the Texas that we came to know in the early 2000’s.
A near four wide move was saved when Pagenaud lifted out, leaving Kanaan, Hinchcliffe, and Rahal to battle it out. Rahal timed the pass perfect on the last lap and dove to the Canadian’s side and cleared him. Hinchcliffe gave it one last shot on the high side coming to the line but came up .008 of a second short.
4.) Kohler Grand Prix
IndyCar’s return to Road America was the definition of success.
Even though Will Power dominated the 40 lap event, but the action behind him was second to none with over 130 passes for position around the 4-mile road course.
Some notable nuggets were Josef Newgarden’s come from behind drive with a broken hand, as well as his Ed Carpenter Racing teammate Spencer Pigot slicing his way through the field. Rookie Conor Daly was also impressive as he qualified near the front and had a top five finish in the bag until he crashed after his suspension failed with just ten laps to go.
The bigger story was the impact of IndyCar being there and the fans that came out to support the race. A race day crowd of 60,000 people turned up – not bad after being gone for nine years. Everything about the weekend was so grand that Road America president George Bruggenthies confirmed that IndyCar would definitely be back in 2017.
3.) Josef Newgarden’s comeback
Josef Newgarden’s season and career literally turned upside down during the June Texas Race.
Conor Daly spun into the path of Newgarden in turn four which sent Newgarden upside down before hitting the front stretch wall with brutal force.
The 26-year-old emerged from the battered No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet clearly in pain before being taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas where he was diagnosed with a broken hand and clavicle. Sitting out a race would mean a severe drop in the points for the American, who was fourth in the standings at the time.
JR Hildebrand was on standby, but Newgarden didn’t need him as he practiced and was cleared to drive. A qualifying misstep knocked him down to 20th, but he passed more cars than anybody as he blasted his way through the field. He wound up eighth, but that was just the beginning of what was next.
At the next race two weeks later at the Iowa Speedway, Newgarden didn’t just win, he flat out dominated. Starting second, he made his way around pole sitter Simon Pagenaud at the green flag and led an IndyCar race record 282 laps on his way to victory.
The win kept him in championship contention, but poor finishes at Toronto and the return to Texas took him out of the championship. A second place finish at Watkins Glen and a fourth at Sonoma lifted him back up to a career-best fourth place finish.
His hard work finally paid off as he will join the powerhouse Team Penske operation for the 2017 season.
2.) Alexander Rossi’s Shock Indy 500 Win
The Californian, ex-Formula One hopeful entered his rookie season in IndyCar knowing very little about Open wheel racing this side of the Atlantic, but etched himself into racing history by winning the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
Having never driven on a superspeedway before, Rossi looked like a veteran when practice opened and was fast along with the entire Andretti Autosport contingent. He qualified 11th and ran solidly inside the top 10 for much of the day.
After stretching his fuel 37 laps early in the race, the No. 98 Napa Auto Parts team rolled the dice as the laps clicked off. With coaching from his team co-owner, Rossi stretched his fuel 36 laps and crossed the line with teammate Carlos Munoz in a distant second place.
To top it all off, he set the fastest lap of the race.
1.) Simon Pagenaud Coming Full Circle
Simon Pagenaud’s dominant series championship easily takes the cake.
Pagenaud took Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to new heights in his three-year stint from 2012-14 and expectations were high when he joined Team Penske in 2015. The year proved to be tougher than thought as the Frenchman and his team adapted to the Penske culture and finished a disappointing 11th in the standings.
He entered 2016 with a new attitude and it instantly paid off. He took the points lead after the second round of the season at Phoenix and immediately ran with it.
Three straight wins at Long Beach, Barber and the Grand Prix of Indianapolis propelled him to a massive point lead heading into the Indianapolis 500. Which Pagenaud maintained the lead throughout the summer with a consistent string of strong finishes.
Pocono was not what he was looking for as he crashed out while Team Penske teammate Will Power reeled him in with a win. Power’s hopes were largely dashed after Watkins Glen when he crashed out of the race.
The 32-year-old Frenchman made Sonoma look easy as he claimed the pole and won the race as Power’s last hopes passed him by when he suffered an electrical problem midway through the race.
With a championship now under his belt, Pagenaud has completed himself as a driver and is easily among the sport’s elite. The only thing missing from his trophy shelf is a win on an oval.