- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Driver rankings always are fun and controversial. No two top-10 lists are the same, and winning the championship doesn't always garner a driver the No. 1 ranking.
This year, for example, several observers (including ESPN.com contributor Dan Knutson) rated Robert Kubica as the top Formula One driver. The Pole won only one race and finished a distant third in the standings behind Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa.
That's because statistics aren't all that matter when it comes to assessing a driver's performance. How did he (or she) stack up against his (or her) teammate(s)? Did the driver make the most of the package he was provided? How did his team compare with others in terms of resources? Did he interact well with his team, the fans, the sponsors and the media?
Here are the drivers who did those things best in 2008:
1. Scott Dixon
No driver was faster than Dixon in 2008. He won the most races, earned the most poles and led the most laps. On ovals, the New Zealander was mighty, and he should have won at least two more races. Surprisingly, road racing was Dixon's Achilles' heel in 2008; he won only once (somewhat luckily in Edmonton), and his worst four finishes came at road-racing venues. Most embarrassing was Dixon's gaffe at Watkins Glen, when he crashed into Ryan Briscoe while warming his tires. But Dixon's reaction to that incident showed why he is a two-time series
champion: He admitted his mistake, poked fun at himself and filed it away for future reference.
Crediting his wife, Dixon also emerged as a much more outgoing character in 2008, showing the world his positive spirit and sharp sense of humor.
2. Helio Castroneves
Castroneves' achievements in 2008 were all the more remarkable when you add in that he knew he was being investigated by the federal government for tax evasion in an indictment that ultimately was handed down in late September. Under that threatening cloud, Castroneves put together a remarkably consistent season, with eight second-place finishes and a pair of masterful late-season wins, taking the championship battle with Dixon to the final lap of the season.
However, a darker side of Castroneves emerged on the track as well, as he was penalized for blocking at Detroit and shortcutting the course during qualifying at Chicagoland.
3. Ryan Briscoe
Briscoe's first year with Penske's IndyCar team got off to a rough start, with accidents in three of the first five races, including a pit-lane incident with Danica Patrick in the Indianapolis 500.
Briscoe's reaction to that furore demonstrated how he subsequently pulled together his season: He sat calmly in his car while Patrick raged down the pit lane and had to be restrained by security. A week later, RB produced arguably the best drive of the season, beating Dixon in a straight fight at the Milwaukee Mile for his first win.
In the second half of the season, Briscoe made few mistakes and was unlucky not to win at Watkins Glen.
The nonchampionship victory at Surfers Paradise in his home race was the exclamation point on the Australian's season, and he will enter 2009 as a serious championship threat.
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
No disrespect to Bobby Rahal, Scott Roembke and Rahal-Letterman Racing, but Hunter-Reay did more with less than any other driver in the IndyCar Series. RLR didn't have the budget of the IRL's big three teams, and Hunter-Reay did not have a teammate to work and share information with.
Still, he did everything asked of him: He was quick and consistent; he finished races, culminating in a popular victory at Watkins Glen; and he couldn't really be blamed for his only major crash of the season (with Marco Andretti while fighting for a podium finish at Texas). But thanks to the economy, although Hunter-Reay won races in both IRL and Champ Car, he entered another offseason as a free agent.
5. Tony Kanaan
The departure of Dario Franchitti left Kanaan in the position of undisputed team leader at Andretti Green Racing. He had his hands full in that respect in 2008. TK fought on the track with Marco Andretti at Indianapolis and Texas, and the AGR drivers were fighting with one another after a disastrous team effort in Edmonton.
With rare exception, Kanaan was Andretti Green's only legitimate contender for race wins and the championship, but he managed only one victory and had too many DNFs. After so much tumult, many were surprised when Kanaan inked a long-term contract extension with AGR. Can the team rebound in 2009 after a bad year as it did in '07? The answer rests mainly on Kanaan's shoulders.
6. Oriol Servia
Servia was the top-ranked transition driver from the Champ Car World Series, finishing seventh in the IndyCar standings. He also was the perfect representative of the late, lamented series, bringing a dose of international flair to match his spirited on-track performances.
The Spaniard did not win a race, but he was by far the best former CCWS driver on ovals and turned in particularly notable performances at Milwaukee and Richmond. He also was among the best road racers in the series, claiming top-5 finishes in three of the last four street and road course events. At 34, Servia's best days may still be in front of him.
7. Dan Wheldon
Wheldon's season got off to a bad start when he implausibly crashed during qualifying for the season opener at Homestead. In some ways, things never really improved, although the 2005 IndyCar Series champion scored wins at Kansas and Iowa and took fourth place in the championship. Wheldon loves the Indianapolis 500, but an underwhelming month of May seemed to take the stuffing out of his championship campaign.
Although Wheldon still isn't a regular top-5 runner on road courses, he remains one of the IndyCar Series' top drivers, and it will be interesting to see whether the warmer atmosphere at Panther Racing suits the Englishman.
8. Justin Wilson
Favored to win the Champ Car championship had the series continued, Wilson had to adjust his expectations as he and Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing moved to the IndyCar Series. Wilson and young teammate Graham Rahal brought little oval racing experience to the new endeavor, and it showed at times.
NHLR was extremely competitive at road-racing venues, but Wilson's luck was poor for most of the season until he finally made the podium at Edmonton and won at Detroit. A lack of sponsorship threatens to cut Newman/Haas/Lanigan to a one-car effort, and Wilson is among a half-dozen top drivers looking for work in 2009.
9. Marco Andretti
Andretti's performances on ovals improved dramatically in 2008, and he finished in the top three on four occasions. He had a few crashes, not all of which were his fault. But what was most surprising was Andretti's regression at road and street courses. He made the Firestone Fast Six qualifiers only once and scored only one top-5 finish.
AGR has scheduled a heavier road-racing workload for Andretti in the offseason, in American Le Mans Series sports cars and A1 Grand Prix single-seaters, as he prepares for a crucial season in his career progression.
10. Hideki Mutoh
Mutoh was kind of an innocent bystander while Andretti Green Racing's established drivers fought among themselves during the summer. He quietly put together a campaign good enough for rookie of the year honors, with seven top-10 finishes topped by a second-place finish at Iowa.
As he gains more confidence and experience, especially on ovals, Mutoh could help with AGR's revival.
Graham Rahal won his first IndyCar race in changing conditions at St.
Petersburg but was too inconsistent to make the top 10. Despite limited oval experience, he was magnificent at Milwaukee before crashing out. Danica Patrick finished a career-best sixth in the standings and scored that elusive first race win. But she led fewer laps during the course of the season than Milka Duno and needs to control her emotions better. Will Power clearly is one of the world's quickest drivers over the course of one lap. A better finishing record is the quiet Aussie's next goal. Darren Manning scored A.J. Foyt Racing's best finish (second) in six years but still got dropped in favor of Vitor Meira. Ed Carpenter delivered some nice performances on ovals and is improving as a road racer.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.