IndyCar Roundtable: 2018 Season Predictions

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After six months of waiting, speculating, dreaming, and scheming, the dreadful Verizon IndyCar Series off-season has finally concluded.  Tomorrow, each rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder series hits the track for practice in the streets of St. Petersburg, and INDYCAR will practice twice during the day as well.

It was one of the most exciting and unpredictable off-seasons in recent open-wheel memory.  Danica Patrick announced in November that she would complete her driving career at the 102nd Indianapolis 500, confirming her ride with Ed Carpenter Racing at Daytona 500 media day in a comedic slip of the tongue.

Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing set the world on fire with seemingly endless sponsorship announcements, rolling out press release after press release showing the health of their organization.  They validated that strength by consistently topping the leaderboards in February’s “Prix View” at ISM Raceway, asserting themselves as early favorites in the Honda camp.

There were some ups and downs, too.  Former Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi and INDYCAR veteran Conor Daly represented the series well on CBS’s The Amazing Race, although the series’ fan base knew all though the airings of the show that Daly had been unceremoniously severed from the A.J. Foyt Racing organization.

Everything came full circle this week when Daly announced that he would attempt to qualify for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 in May with Thom Burns Racing in a joint effort with Dale Coyne Racing.

On top of all of that, there is an absolutely dazzling class of rookies competing full- and part-time in INDYCAR this season.  From an established driver like Robert Wickens joining an already strong Schmidt Peterson Motorsports organization, to the likable Pietro Fittipaldi running part-time for Dale Coyne Racing, there is a lot to like about the pilots in this rookie class.

At Open-Wheels.com we are keen on roundtable discussions, and today we are going to offer up some of our season predictions as part of our INDYCAR season preview.  Staff contributors Emerson Lehmann, Phil Mathew, Spencer Neff and Justin Reschke will offer their thoughts on some key talking points ahead of this weekend’s season-opener.

The off-season was long enough – let’s not wait any longer!  Check out our Open-Wheels season predictions, starting with the 2018 series champion.

2018 Verizon IndyCar Series Champion

Emerson Lehmann
This was a tough one for me, and that’s a good thing!  There are so many capable drivers who can fight for the championship.  With that being said, my pick to be the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series champion is Alexander Rossi.  He continues to be fast, consistent and competitive. Now with two full seasons under his belt, I think there’s a great chance that he can piece it all together to contend at the end.

Justin Reschke
The 2018 IndyCar championship will stay with Team Penske and Chevrolet, except it will belong to Will Power and the #12 team. I think 2018 is the year where Will’s run of bad luck and poor results ends and the Australian returns to his championship form.

Will Power

Will Power is a popular pick for the 2018 series championship.

Phil Mathew
Will Power will win the 2018 championship.  Why?  When Will is determined and focused on a plan, he usually executes.  He knows he has left titles out there and wants another one considering his teammates have been the last two series champs.

Spencer Neff
Josef Newgarden went on a tear to finish 2017 and earn the championship in his first season with Team Penske. Look for him to continue that streak and become the first driver since Dario Franchitti from 2009-2011 to repeat as IndyCar Champion.

Tanner Watkins
I think this is going to be a popular pick in 2018, but I am going with Scott Dixon as series champion this season.  The best driver of his era, Dixon should relish the opportunity to let his skill set do the talking while manufacturer aero kits are eliminated.  Drivers Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay round out my top-five.

Winner of the 102nd Indianapolis 500

Emerson
It will be an exciting year at the Speedway with the new aero kits.  It’s tough to predict who will be quick until we see the cars on track, as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is so different in comparison to the other tracks the cars have been testing.  Marco Andretti has been so close before and is hungry for results. With Bryan Herta on the box, I think it’s MA’s year at the 500.

Helio Castroneves

Is this the year Helio Castroneves wins his 4th Indy 500?

Justin
A Honda powered machine takes the crown once again this year with another strong oval performance for the marque as Ryan Hunter-Reay picks up his second Indy 500 victory for Andretti Autosport. After a strong showing from Andretti last year, with multiple cars leading the race including eventual winner Takuma Sato, the team has made it clear that nobody comes to the Brickyard better prepared than Andretti.

A dark horse pick would be Graham Rahal for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, however the small team factor may hamper RLL’s ability to collect as much data in the month of May as the boys at Andretti Autosport undoubtedly will. Of course, anything can happen.

Phil
Why will Josef Newgarden win Indianapolis?  Team Penske hasn’t won the Indy 500 since 2009 with Helio.  His addition during May will push all the regular guys and “JNew” has been close (along with all of the Penske guys since then).  Newgarden wants this win and so does The Captain.

Spencer
This was a tough one to pick, given that only a handful of teams have done superspeedway testing with the new aero kit.  After close runner-up finishes in 2014 and 2017, Helio Castroneves returns to the 500 as a part-time driver. I think the speedway will see an even more determined Castroneves, who becomes the fourth driver to win four Indianapolis 500s.

Tanner
As difficult to predict as ever, I think things get wild at Indy this year and Helio Castroneves wins his 4th 500 Mile Race.  This break from full-time INDYCAR competition (with sports cars thrown in) will be a nice change of pace for the seasoned veteran, and he will arrive at Indianapolis to find a car that suits his style a bit.

Rookie of the Year

Emerson
Robert Wickens comes to IndyCar with a vast resume of sports car and open wheel knowledge. He has a strong team in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports behind him, and having fellow Canadian and friend James Hinchcliffe as a teammate can only help his cause.  I see Wickens as this year’s rookie of the year.

Justin
The battle for IndyCar Rookie of the Year should be a fun one to watch with American Zach Veach, Brazilian Matheus Leist, and Canadian Robert Wickens all competing in the series full time in 2018. Each driver comes from a bit of a different background with Veach earning his stripes in the Mazda Road to Indy, Leist competing in British F3 and GP3 in Europe, and Wickens coming from the ranks of the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters.

Ultimately, my prediction is that Zach Veach’s vast experience and success in Indy Lights and experience behind the wheel of an IndyCar propels him to a 2018 Rookie of the Year title with Andretti Autosport.

Phil
Robert Wickens. Why? Being with his BFF James Hinchcliffe on the same team, his experience in multiple formulas of racing and the support he has with Sam Schmidt’s team should be enough to push him past Zach Veach.

Spencer
Veach has by far the most experience in the Road to Indy of anyone in the 2018 rookie class. Having competed in all but one of those six seasons with Andretti Autosport, Veach will have an easier time adjusting to the series and will be the top rookie.

Tanner
While there are many drivers to “like” in the 2018 rookie of the year chase, there is only one that I “love.”  Robert Wickens, while he has some ground to make up on ovals, should be fairly competitive on the road and street circuits in 2018.  I am really looking forward to seeing what kind of results they can extract from his rookie year in a cutthroat Verizon IndyCar Series.

Biggest Surprise

Emerson
I don’t know if I’d label this as a surprise, but I think that Danica will have a very strong final showing at this year’s Indianapolis 500.  She’s always been strong at the Speedway, and with a team like Ed Carpenter Racing, I think she will have a very good opportunity to succeed.

Justin
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is earmarked, for me, to be the biggest surprise of 2018. With a veteran driver lineup of Graham Rahal and 2017 Indy 500 Winner Takuma Sato, RLL is poised to be in the hunt for podiums and wins consistently. Both Rahal and Sato have proven their mettle on ovals and will hopefully be able to use the unknown that is the new aero kit to their advantage early in the season before the bigger teams find an advantage.

Phil
Gabby Chaves.  Why?  I think I’m taking license by saying the former ROTY would be a surprise in 2018.  However, it’s a first-year team competing full-time along with a driver with only a full year and change of experience.  Chaves has always had the speed and talent.  Doing it with the Harding Group in their first year would be great for the series.

Spencer
Pietro Fittipaldi has been impressive in preseason testing at Sebring and ISM Raceway. Dale Coyne Racing has proven to have a stellar engineering staff, as well as Sebastien Bourdais as Fittipaldi’s teammate. Despite competing in only seven races in a shared ride with Zachary Claman De Melo, I think he will impress enough people to become a full-time IndyCar Series driver in 2019

Tanner
A.J. Foyt Racing will win a race in 2018.  While they were absolutely dreadful last season, I think the change to a universal aero kit will do as much as their driver switch this past offseason.  Tony Kanaan is still a crazy man and I see him stealing an oval win during this calendar year.

Biggest Bust

Emerson
I really hope I’m wrong with this one, but if I had to choose a biggest bust for the season, it would have to be Zach Veach.  I wasn’t impressed with his performances last year, and with a strong team like Andretti Autosport behind him, there shouldn’t be any excuses. I hope Zach proves me wrong and has a great season.

Danica Patrick at the 2018 Daytona 500

How will Danica Patrick fare in her send-off at Indianapolis?

Justin
Although I want to believe otherwise, Danica Patrick returning to the Indy 500 will be the biggest bust this season. Her Daytona 500 appearance, short as it was, seemed uninspired and in the days and weeks leading up to the event, it seemed as if fans had moved from truly caring about Patrick’s return to simply giving the topic lip service when pried.

There were some headlines about her return and the result, but the media seemed to be more concerned with whom she was dating than her actual return to NASCAR. I hope that IndyCar gets more mileage out of her return, but I am not hopeful of a sudden bump in coverage, ratings, or a top result from Danica.

Phil
A.J. Foyt Racing. Why?  The drivers change yearly, the team seems to change yearly but they usually are consistent on where they land on a regular basis during race weekends.  I want to be wrong but I don’t see where that team is suddenly going to become a factor with Kannan and Leist.

Spencer
This was another tough one to decide. James Hinchcliffe and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports are talented and they’ll figure things out, but I think there will be a lot of growing pains the team will have to fight through first in 2018 and doing so may take some time.

Tanner
For my biggest bust, it won’t be an on-track prediction.  I get this sinking suspicion that the television contract negotiations have been dragging their feet for quite some time now, and I fear that the status quo will remain with ESPN being involved in the next television deal.

Many fans are clamoring for INDYCAR and NBC to move forward in an exclusive deal, ESPN and ABC will fight tooth and nail for that Indianapolis 500 telecast and most people try not to get into a bidding war with the powers that be at Disney.  We will see.

Bold Topic of Choice

Emerson
I see Dale Coyne’s Sebastian Bourdais picking right up where he left off before his injury last year, fighting for wins and ultimately the championship. I do think it will hurt him not having a consistent teammate like he did last year in Ed Jones.  This is why he isn’t my championship favorite.

Also, I think Spencer Pigot will have a breakout season in his first full-time ride and pick up at least one win.

Justin
Conor Daly will win a race in 2018. While IndyCar now has several capable and exciting American drivers, I do believe that Conor Daly has long been deserving of a full time ride. His performances in Detroit (2nd and 6th) and Watkins Glen (4th) in 2016 as well as a 5th place finish at Gateway in 2017 prove that he is a capable driver regardless of the circuit.

Nobody will hustle harder than Daly when it comes to finding a drive, even if it is a one off. Here’s to hoping he can catch lightning in a bottle and claim a victory that nobody saw coming in 2018.

Josef Newgarden

Has the series done enough to promote new champion Josef Newgarden?

Phil
When will the series start doing more promotion with their drivers?  They have an American champion and some of the most interesting people in all of sports.  The series has probably the best PR group in the business but until recently, haven’t seen anything about JNew, Dixon, Hinch or a few others.  The Amazing Race was an opportunity lost especially with Alex and Conor going as deep as they did.  The cars are amazing, the series is growing…we need to know the characters.

Spencer
At least five drivers not participating full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series finish in the top 10 in the Indianapolis 500: Indianapolis usually lends itself to at least one or two drivers who are not full-time participants in the series running up front and finishing well in the race.

This year, with the introduction of the new aero kit in superspeedway trim and a number of quality drivers running part-time or only the 500 (Castroneves, Carlos Munoz, Ed Carpenter, Sage Karam are a few that come to mind) I think you’ll see even more of the same.

Look for several part-time or Indy-only drivers to run up front and contend with the regular cast of full-time drivers for the race victory in the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Tanner
No one team has impressed me more over the last 12 months than the Indianapolis-based Harding Racing.  Methodically assembling quite the well-respected staff of veterans, the upstart outfit will finish in the top-12 in points this season with a couple top-five finishes sprinkled in.

Gabby Chaves is still a fine young prospect, and while there will be some growing pains running at the road and street courses they didn’t compete at in 2017, the expertise added by Brian Barnhart, Larry Curry and two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr. will certainly help.

Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.

Open-Wheels Staff

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