Commentary

A banner year for the other series

Updated: December 26, 2010, 3:16 PM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Open-wheel racing in its many forms is showing signs of life again.

While NASCAR encountered a few bumps in the road in 2010 -- quite literally in the Daytona 500 -- the open-wheel world demonstrated that there is more to racing in America than left turns in the so-called Car of Tomorrow.

[+] EnlargeSebastian Vettel
Lionel Cironneau/AFP/Getty ImagesSebastian Vettel, 23, became the youngest champion in Formula One history.

Reinvigorated by new leader Randy Bernard, the Izod IndyCar Series once again produced a spellbinding championship battle without any form of contrived playoff system, and when the season ended, the good news kept flowing out of Indianapolis at a rate not seen in more than a decade.

Bryan Clauson claimed USAC's inaugural National Driving Championship and has the chance to show that grassroots open-wheel competition can lead a driver somewhere other than NASCAR. Clauson's prize was a $300,000 scholarship to use in IndyCar's Indy Lights feeder series in 2011.

Meanwhile, in the NHRA, 61-year-old John Force earned comeback driver of the year honors by returning to the winner's circle early in the season and maintaining the momentum all the way to his record 15th Funny Car crown.

And on the world stage, Formula One produced a tremendous championship battle, with four drivers in title contention down to the wire for the first time ever. At 23, Sebastian Vettel became the youngest world champion in F1's rich history.

Here are some individual moments and achievements that made 2010 memorable:

• Dario Franchitti dominated the Indianapolis 500 and the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to come from behind to best Will Power for the IndyCar Series championship. Franchitti's second Indianapolis victory and third series crown (in his past three attempts) put him in the pantheon of all-time Indy racing greats.

Franchitti also had a dream come true when he slipped behind the wheel of his hero Jim Clark's 1965 Indianapolis-winning car for a few laps on the Speedway in September.

• Just a part-timer in 2009, Power showed amazing mastery of road- and street-course racing and marked himself as a future series champion.

[+] EnlargeHelio Castroneves
AP PhotoHelio Castroneves went toe-to-to with a race official after being penalized for blocking at Edmonton.

• Danica Patrick fizzled in her first year of stock car competition, but she put together the two best Indy car performances of her career on the way to second-place finishes at Texas and Homestead. She also sold more T-shirts and trinkets than any driver not named Dale Earnhardt Jr.

• Bernard took the reins of IndyCar on March 1, and by the end of the year, the series had finally revealed plans for an innovative 2012 chassis platform and attracted two engine manufacturers (Lotus and Chevrolet) back to open-wheel competition.

• Helio Castroneves had a sure victory in the Grand Prix of Edmonton taken away from him when he was penalized for blocking. He then created a spectacle worthy of "America's Funniest Home Videos" when he angrily confronted IndyCar Series security chief Charles Burns in the pits.

• Milka Duno continued to embarrass herself and the IndyCar Series by pretending to be a race car driver.

• IMS assembled 33 Indy 500-winning cars (well, actually 32 and a replica of Mario Andretti's 1969 champion) for a once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot that will be used to promote the 100th running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

• Red Bull Racing proved that a superior Adrian Newey-designed car overcomes just about anything -- including a near-disastrous "Boys, have at it" philosophy of driver management -- to win F1's driver and constructor championships.

[+] EnlargeLarry Dixon
Rusty Jarrett/Getty ImagesLarry Dixon put a halt to Tony Schumacher's six-year reign as Top Fuel kingpin.

• Ferrari proved that whether it's legal or not, it can get away with dictating team orders between its drivers. But a controversial win in the German Grand Prix still wasn't enough for Fernando Alonso to win the world championship for the Scuderia. Alonso's race-long inability to pass lightly regarded Vitaly Petrov in the season finale didn't help his cause.

• Vettel's teammate Mark Webber had the one-liner of the year when he deadpanned "Not bad for a No. 2 driver" over the team radio after winning the British Grand Prix.

• Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson became the punch line of jokes after their ambitious plan to form an American F1 team failed to get off the ground.

• F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone was beaten and robbed in London, then allowed images of his battered and bruised face to be used to sell wrist watches. That came on the heels of an attempted carjacking in which 2009 World Champion Jenson Button was a passenger in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

• John Force rebounded from a winless 2009 to compile one of his finest seasons, riding a hot start and overcoming a late-season slump to post yet another NHRA Funny Car crown.

• Meanwhile, his daughter Ashley Force Hood did something her accomplished father has never managed -- won her second consecutive U.S. Nationals title.

• Larry Dixon had one of the most dominant Top Fuel campaigns in history and in the process finally ended Tony Schumacher's amazing six-year run as category champion.

• Finally, after being on the brink of quitting due to financial difficulties, 20-year-old LE Tonglet gained a late-season sponsor and rallied to win the NHRA's Pro Stock Motorcycle championship. Tonglet was just the third rookie champion in the 59-year history of the NHRA.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.

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