The Checkered Flag‘s countdown of the best drivers of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series continues today with part two; counting down our final six. Be sure to check out part one before reading on!
With some impressive drivers already filling out positions twelve to seven, who will beat out the rest of the competition to take the number one spot?
Beginning our run-down of our top six is a driver who made a comeback as a front-running driver after snapping a multi-year winless streak during 2018.
6. Ryan Hunter-Reay – Andretti Autosport
The 2018 season saw a marked improvement for Ryan Hunter-Reay. After having not finished in the top five of the standings since winning the title in 2012, Hunter-Reay put in enough consistent finishes over the course of the year to take a superb fourth place in the championship.
A reasonable start to the season was backed up by a fantastic finish with a flourish. After going winless for almost three years, Hunter-Reay would snap his unfortunate streak by winning the second race of the Duel in Detroit; gaining the lead from team-mate Alexander Rossi after Ryan pressured him into a mistake in the closing laps.
Hunter-Reay was briefly in contention for the title after his victory in Detroit, but race retirements at Iowa, Pocono and Gateway would leave the leaders out of reach. Ryan would soldier on regardless, capping off the year with second place at Portland followed by arguably one of the best performances of his career at the season-finale at Sonoma Raceway; where he would dominate the race from pole position en route to a second victory of the season. The victory would enable Ryan to steal fourth place in the championship right at the last moment; just pipping Josef Newgarden.
Ryan’s end to the season was a spectacular one and if he and the #28 Andretti Autosport crew can carry on the momentum into 2019, we may just see “Captain America” back in contention at the sharp end of the order.
5. Josef Newgarden – Team Penske
Entering 2018 as the defending champion, Josef Newgarden was looking to become the first driver since Dario Franchitti to successfully defend an IndyCar championship. In the early stages of the season, the Team Penske driver looked on course to do just that.
Josef was the first driver in 2018 to secure more than one victory. He took his first win of the season at the second round at ISM Raceway and followed that up with an incredible display in the torrential rain at Barber Motorsports Park to once again stand on the top of the podium in Alabama.
Newgarden would go on to secure a third win later in the season at Road America and would finish inside the top ten in all but three races of the seventeen-race calendar. Because of this, Newgarden was still in mathematical contention for the title at the season finale, albeit a very low chance due to those ahead of him having enjoyed much higher and more consistent results earlier in the year.
In the end, Josef would secure fifth place in the standings, but it was still a positive season despite not being able to retain the championship. The partnership between Josef and Penske is still in its infancy, having only lasted for two seasons as of yet. There is still the potential for a long and successful future for the two parties. Expect Josef to remain at the sharp end in 2019.
4. Robert Wickens – Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Nobody really could have guessed exactly how well Robert Wickens would get on in his debut season of IndyCar Series racing. Needless to say, his performances were simply stunning and more than demonstrated that his inexperience would not hold him back.
Wickens almost completed the perfect start to his IndyCar career at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The Canadian rookie scored the pole position in a tricky qualifying session and went on to lead the most laps of the race. Sadly his race would fall apart in the final laps after he was involved in an altercation with Alexander Rossi on a late-race restart which left him in the wall and out of the race. Despite the disappointing finish, Wickens had certainly announced his arrival.
Perhaps more impressive than his performance in St. Petersburg was his performance at ISM Raceway; his first-ever oval race. Wickens unbelievably found himself well in contention for the victory in Arizona, only losing the lead in the final laps when the eventual race winner, reigning champion Josef Newgarden, got by with the aid of much fresher tyres. Nevertheless, he would claim his maiden podium finish by finishing in second place.
Wickens would go on to showcase his abilities at every type of race-track throughout the season, picking up further podium finishes at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, on the streets of Toronto and at the road course at Mid-Ohio. He also continued to show his speed on the ovals too, earning top ten finishes at the Indianapolis 500 as well as at Iowa Speedway.
Sadly for Wickens, he would be unable to see out the entirety of what would have been a simply stunning rookie campaign. Robert would be involved in a heavy crash at the start of the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, an accident which left him paralysed and with a long road to recovery ahead of him.
Despite being forced to miss the rest of the races in the season, Robert would secure the rookie of the year honours; a fitting accolade for a driver who took the world of IndyCar by storm. If and when he returns to the cockpit, he will surely be one to keep an eye on.
Everybody here at The Checkered Flag continues to wish Robert all the best in his recovery.
3. Alexander Rossi – Andretti Autosport
Alexander Rossi’s continuous growth in the Verizon IndyCar Series carried on into 2018. Building off of the momentum of a strong end to the 2017 season, Rossi kicked off the year with a podium at St. Pete, which could have been a victory had both he and Robert Wickens emerged from their late-race battle unscathed.
Another podium followed for Rossi at Phoenix, but it was at the Grand Prix of Long Beach where Rossi truly underlined himself as a championship contender, dominating the race from pole position to take the victory and the early championship lead.
A tough mid-season saw Rossi finish outside of the top ten on three occasions, with one of those being a tough pill to swallow. Alexander had been leading the second race at the Duel in Detroit when he made a mistake whilst being pressured from behind by his team-mate Ryan Hunter-Reay. Had he sacrificed the race win and settled for second, he could have picked up a vital handful of points that could have made all the difference toward the end of the season.
Rossi would earn back some of those lost points by taking two further victories later in the season. In a style similar to that seen at Long Beach, Alexander would dominate at Mid-Ohio; only coming unstuck when he beached his #27 Andretti Autosport Honda whilst attempting to perform celebratory doughnuts. Rossi would then take the first back-to-back victory of his IndyCar career, outduelling Penske’s Will Power to win at Pocono Raceway. A third-straight podium would soon follow at Gateway, with Rossi narrowly avoiding a crash into the wall in what could well have been the save of the season.
Alexander’s late-season charge saw him rapidly close the gap between himself and championship rival Scott Dixon heading into the final two rounds. However, the championship took a turnaround when Dixon was able to miraculously survive a lap one pile-up, before going on to outscore Rossi despite having been right at the back of the pack early on.
Rossi’s hopes of securing his first title would finally fade away right at the start of the season finale, when the Californian ran into the back of his team-mate, Marco Andretti, on the run into turn one on lap one. Rossi broke his front wing in the collision and was forced to crawl back to the pits for repairs. He would manage to later charge through the field and into the top ten, but he would finish behind Dixon and would subsequently have to settle for second in the standings.
Despite the disappointment of missing out on the title, the pace shown at times by Rossi and Andretti Autosport was nothing short of ominous. With 2018 being only Rossi’s third season, there is still plenty of time for Alexander to take title number one. He will have learned a lot in 2018, 2019 could see him draw upon those experiences to take the crown for himself.
2. Will Power – Team Penske
Despite having accomplished one of, if not, the greatest achievement of his career, 2018 may well be a case of what might have been for Team Penske’s Will Power.
The obvious highlight of 2018 for Power will undoubtedly be the month of May. The month started with Will taking pole position and the race win in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course. Following that, Power earned himself a front-row starting position for the Indianapolis 500, which he went on to convert into an emotional victory; his first in the historic event.
Power’s stellar Month of May, coupled with podiums on the streets of Long Beach and Detroit, put Power up into the lead of the championship despite having had a difficult start to the season after failing to finish at ISM Raceway or Barber Motorsports Park.
Sadly for Will, his bad luck would soon return. Two further race retirements came at Texas Motor Speedway and at Road America. Further poor finishes at Toronto and Portland would see him only just in contention for the title at Sonoma Raceway, but, similarly to his team-mate Newgarden, he was way too far back to play an active role in the decider.
Power would ultimately secure third place in the standings, but if just one of his poor races had gone another way, he could have been a major factor at Sonoma. No other driver had so many missed opportunities.
Power was running in second-place at the start of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg when he spun and fell to the rear on lap one. At ISM Raceway, Power had led laps prior to hitting the wall mid-way through the race. He was similarly running toward the front at Barber Motorsports Park when he spun in the rain on a restart and was forced multiple laps down on the leaders.
Power again had the potential for a great race at Texas Motor Speedway, only to retire after an incident with Zachary Claman De Melo during the event. The next race was even worse for Will, with his Penske suffering engine issues which forced him to retire almost immediately after having qualified on the front row.
Things looked to be taking a turn for the better for Power as the season drew to a close. Podium finishes at Mid-Ohio, Pocono and Sonoma would be backed up by a third win of the season at Gateway, but any hopes of yet another comeback toward the top of the standings were dashed at the penultimate race of the year at Portland. The Australian put in a stunning performance to take pole position in qualifying, but gearbox issues followed by a trip into the barriers relegated Power to twenty-first place; seven laps down on the leaders.
With so many issues coming at moments where Power could have easily won races, Will could have easily been this year’s champion had the chips fallen a different way. However, motorsport has never been about what might have been, only what actually happened.
For Power, 2018 was still a great year, as he managed to take the Indy 500 crown. In fact, given how many issues he suffered during the season, third place in the championship is a fantastic result. However, in 2019, Power will be hoping that he has used up his allocation of bad luck so that he can challenge for the championship once again.
1. Scott Dixon – Chip Ganassi Racing
Who else could take the top spot but the champion himself? In a season defined by consistency, Scott Dixon was king. Dixon may have had a slower start to the year than his rivals – only taking his first of three eventual race victories at the seventh round of the season in Detroit – but Dixon’s incredible consistency would see him hit the top of the standings shortly after the mid-point of the championship. He would soon extend his advantage with two further wins, coming at Texas and Toronto.
Once Dixon took over the lead of the standings, the New Zealander would never relinquish it. Such was Dixon’s impressive run of podiums – a total of nine once the season concluded, backed up by top ten results in all but two of the seventeen races – Scott was able to withstand a late-season assault by Alexander Rossi to take his fifth championship.
Perhaps the championship-defining moment came at Portland, where Dixon somehow managed to emerge from a lap-one multi-car wreck as the sole survivor. He rejoined the race at the back of the pack and, somehow, came away with a top-five finish; ahead of his nearest championship rival. That race in itself was a testament to the steely nerve and the incredible ability of both Dixon and Ganassi.
Chip Ganassi Racing continue to complete a formidable partnership that will enter its eighteenth uninterrupted season in 2019. With both parties showing no sign of slowing down, there is every possibility that we could be seeing Scott top this list again in twelve months time.
Do you agree with our top twelve ranking? What would you change for your own list? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter @TheCheckerFlag.