Who can break Ganassi/Penske grip?
Since 2004, the IndyCar Series has been dominated by the so-called big three -- Andretti Green Racing (now Andretti Autosport), Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske Racing. In that six-year period, those three organizations won 86 of 98 races and generally made life very difficult for every other team competing in the series.
But over the past two years, the big three have diminished into a dominant duo. The Andretti team leads all competitors with 32 race wins since 2004, but only two have come since the start of 2008. Looking exclusively at the past two years, Ganassi and to a lesser extent Penske have crushed the field, claiming 28 of 34 races, and Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti have won the past two driver's championships.
Back in 2004 and '05, Ganassi and Penske were handicapped by their uncompetitive Toyota engines. Once the field was theoretically leveled by the introduction of a spec Honda engine in 2006, those two teams have constantly demonstrated an advantage.
The Andretti team won only two races in the first year of the Honda spec formula, and while it bounced back with nine wins and a championship for Franchitti a year later, Andretti's successful 2007 season looks more and more like an anomaly when taken in the context of the team's poor performance in the two ensuing campaigns. Its last win came at Richmond International Raceway in June 2008.
Given its history, Andretti Autosport still ranks as the team most likely to break up the Ganassi/Penske domination of the IndyCar Series. But times are changing, and the transition teams that joined the IndyCar Series from the defunct Champ Car World Series are rapidly getting up to speed. Indeed, the last two non-Penske or Ganassi wins were achieved by the same driver for different transition teams -- Justin Wilson for Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing at Detroit in 2008 and for Dale Coyne Racing at Watkins Glen in 2009.
Minor rule changes introduced in mid-2009 intended to create more competitive oval racing seemed to help those teams that haven't tasted victory in a while; Ed Carpenter nearly won at Kentucky Speedway for Vision Racing, while Dan Wheldon was very competitive in Panther Racing's car at Twin Ring Motegi. But once again, victory fell to a Penske or Ganassi driver.
Which team is most likely to be the next to beat the IndyCar Series' dominant duo? Let's handicap the field.
Andretti Autosport, 2-to-1: With an all-star four-driver lineup (2004 series champion Tony Kanaan, Danica Patrick, Marco Andretti and probably Ryan Hunter-Reay), the team now solely under the management of Michael Andretti should reach Victory Lane sooner rather than later. But it continues to suffer from the departure of Franchitti, who drove for the organization from 1998 (when it was known as Team Green and competed in the CART-sanctioned Indy car series) through 2007. Franchitti was not only the team leader in terms of setting up the cars, but he was the galvanizing force who kept fiery personalities like Patrick and Marco Andretti focused on teamwork rather than individual success. The departure of former Andretti partners Kim Green and Kevin Savoree, replaced by experienced team manager Tom Anderson (ex-Ganassi and Fernandez Racing), should benefit AA.
Kanaan, the unacknowledged team leader, was distracted by personal issues in 2009 and endured his least competitive campaign since joining the IndyCar Series in 2003. For the first time in his ICS career, Kanaan went winless, a scenario that is unlikely to be repeated in 2010. The upcoming season will be a major test of Kanaan's leadership skills, especially with Hideki Mutoh being supplanted by Hunter-Reay, a former race winner in the IndyCar Series. Marco Andretti, whose lone IndyCar win came back in 2006, has the most potential to break through and become a regular winner for the team; questions abound about Patrick's focus and dedication to her "day job" in the IndyCar Series, given the increasing amount of effort and attention she will be devoting to her intended future career in NASCAR.
Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, 3-to-1: Back in the CART days, NHLR was viewed on equal terms with Penske, Ganassi and Green. Those teams defected to the IndyCar Series several years before NHLR, which remained faithful to CART/Champ Car to the bitter end, putting Carl Haas' team at a competitive disadvantage, especially on the 1.5-mile ovals that were completely new to the team and its drivers. But NHLR showed its excellence by immediately running on the pace at road-racing venues, and in 2009, with a year of oval experience, showed increasing pace on the superspeedways.
NHLR's ace in the hole is 20-year-old Graham Rahal, a star of the future who already is a winner in IndyCar Series competition. Rahal didn't win a race in 2009, but he was consistently more competitive in his second year in the series, and with the benefit of another offseason of development, he and the team are likely to step it up a notch in 2010. NHLR made great strides in 2009 when it ran veteran Oriol Servia in its second car, and former Indy Lights champion Alex Lloyd (the leading candidate for the team's second car in 2010) was a match for Rahal in his only start for the team.
KV Racing Technology, 4-to-1: Although it didn't win a race, KVRT was the most consistently competitive transition team in the first year of the unified IndyCar Series, thanks to a strong driver pairing of Servia and Will Power. Beset by budget woes, the team owned by Jimmy Vasser and Kevin Kalkhoven cut back to one car in '09 for lightly regarded Mario Moraes, but by the end of the season, the young Brazilian was a regular top-5 runner.
Vasser says he ideally would like to expand to three cars for 2010, and if he can pair the rapidly maturing Moraes with an experienced veteran or two like Servia and/or Paul Tracy, KVRT could spring a major surprise.
Dale Coyne Racing, 6-to-1: Wilson's victory for DCR was the feel-good story of the 2009 IndyCar season, but it was anything but a fluke. The talented Englishman was a factor at almost every road-racing venue, and by the end of the season, the perennial underdog team was making strides on its oval setups as well. With Wilson and engineer Bill Pappas set to return in 2010, more wins are definitely possible for Coyne and his small but dedicated team.
Panther Racing, 10-to-1: Prior to the invasion of the ex-CART teams, Panther and driver Sam Hornish Jr. dominated the IndyCar Series, winning 14 races and two championships between 1999 and 2003. But recent years have been lean for the John Barnes-managed team, which last tasted victory back in 2005 with Tomas Scheckter driving. Former series champion Wheldon is convinced that Panther can return to its winning ways, but team and driver need to significantly up their game at road-racing venues, which now account for half of the IndyCar Series schedule.
AJ Foyt Racing, 20-to-1: Another team that was an IndyCar front-runner prior to the CART invasion, Foyt's last win came back in 2002. Progress in 2009 was blunted when driver Vitor Meira suffered a broken back during the Indianapolis 500. Meira, the best driver in the field who hasn't won an IndyCar race, is again healthy, but the odds of him winning with Foyt's single-car effort are slim.
Vision Racing, 25-to-1: Carpenter came within 0.016 second of a morale-boosting victory for Tony George's team, only to lose out to Penske's Ryan Briscoe on the dash to the line. Carpenter has developed into a solid oval-track IndyCar driver, but he and the team have remained uncompetitive in road racing trim. George is struggling to assemble a budget for 2010, and Vision might cut back to running only the oval tracks.
The rest, 100-to-1: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Luczo Dragon Racing, HVM Racing, Sarah Fisher Racing, Team 3G and Fazzt Racing all expect to compete in the IndyCar Series in 2010, but with the possible exception of Luczo Dragon and rising star Raphael Matos, none has a realistic shot at winning a race.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.