INDIANAPOLIS -- The right bloke won the Verizon IndyCar Series championship. But Will Power made it a lot more difficult than it needed to be.
Power won a series-high-tying three races and claimed the title by a seemingly comfortable 62-point margin over Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves. Yet it looked like a championship that nobody wanted to win; Power finished ninth or worse in seven of the last 10 races, and still nobody could step up to provide a serious challenge down the stretch when the Australian was looking vulnerable.
Power claimed pole position four times and led more laps than anyone (623 versus next-best Tony Kanaan's 407), but he also made more mistakes. Those mental errors -- pit-lane speeding and blocking violations, a spin at Sonoma Raceway -- made it look like the man from Toowoomba was going to throw away another shot at the title that had eluded him on a yearly basis since 2010.
Still, nobody could beat him. Castroneves had a typically uneven season, matching brilliance and banality, but making a Power-like error with a pit-lane entry violation late in the season finale put Helio's hopes of a first IndyCar championship on ice for another year.
Juan Pablo Montoya won a race in his return to Indy car racing for Penske, but season-long struggles in qualifying on street courses put the Colombian too far back to contend for the overall crown. A strong second half to the season lifted Montoya to fourth place in the final standings and indicated that he may be a championship contender in 2015.
Scott Dixon ultimately rose to third place in the points, lamenting the dismal first half of the year that put him out of the title hunt by July. Dixon and his Target Ganassi Racing teammate Kanaan ended the campaign strongly, winning three of the last four races, but it was too little, too late.
The Ganassi team was affected by the preseason switch from Honda to Chevrolet engines and the enforced and unexpected driver change required when Dario Franchitti's career came to a premature end. Kanaan and fourth driver Ryan Briscoe really didn't start to perform well until midseason, and Charlie Kimball never threatened to add another race win to the one he earned at Mid-Ohio in 2013.
Andretti Autosport also swapped engine manufacturers, offsetting Ganassi's move to Chevrolet by switching to Honda. 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay had an uneven campaign, looking strong early with wins at Barber Motorsport Park and the Indianapolis 500. But a couple of unforced errors (notably at Long Beach, where he crashed out himself and Josef Newgarden) and a series of mechanical problems (14th in laps completed) put an end to Hunter-Reay's championship challenge. He faded to sixth in the final standings.
Hunter-Reay was the only Andretti driver to win a race in 2014 (also winning at Iowa) as James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz fought over minor placings. Munoz ended up the second-highest Andretti driver in the standings, winning rookie of the year honors and taking eighth place overall. Marco was ninth and Hinchcliffe 12th.
Finishing in the top five of the standings for the third consecutive year was Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman matched his 2013 tally of two race wins, but he was disappointed that he and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports were not able to up their game and contend for the championship. Pagenaud's teammate Mikhail Aleshin had some promising runs, but the rookie Russian was also occasionally deemed reckless. His aggressive approach and inexperience on ovals culminated in a huge wreck in practice for the season finale at Auto Club Speedway that left him hospitalized with broken bones.
The No. 20 car from Ed Carpenter Racing won three races and basically finished eighth in the standings if the points earned by drivers Mike Conway (who drove the road and street races) and Ed Carpenter (who handled the ovals) were combined. Sebastien Bourdais won his first race since returning to Indy car racing, but KVSH Racing remained stuck a level below the IndyCar Series' big three teams.
The only other winner was Carlos Huertas, who crossed the line first in the rain-blighted first race at Houston. His teammate at Dale Coyne Racing, Justin Wilson, had an unhappy season and finished 15th in the standings.
In fact, the most consistent interloper at the front among the established giants was Newgarden in Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's single entry. The young American was adversely affected by some bad luck and the occasional demonstration of small-team blues (a bad pit stop took him out of contention at Mid-Ohio), but Newgarden has established himself as one of Indy car racing's rising stars. The merger between SFHR and Carpenter's team should provide the ingredients necessary to get his first win.
Meanwhile, the six-year wait for Graham Rahal's second Indy car race win continues. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing got a huge (albeit one-year) influx of National Guard sponsorship cash and revamped its engineering department, yet Rahal had just one podium finish on the season and his stock continues to fall.
INDYCAR scored a coup by landing Verizon Wireless as the series' title sponsor, but the benefits of that relationship have yet to be fully demonstrated. Attendance was fairly flat, with some events showing gains and others drop-offs. Double-digit increases in television ratings made for optimistic press releases, but they failed to mention that the actual viewing numbers are still minuscule.
"When we improve our television, we will improve everything with respect to this sport," said Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles. "We have to be hard-nosed about that."
One bright spot for the series (and for Hulman & Co.) was the success of the revamped month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The addition of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS road course and a country music concert featuring Jason Aldean brought an estimated 80,000 more people through the gates at 16th Street and Georgetown Road throughout the month.
The 2015 IndyCar Series schedule, when revealed, is expected to look similar to this year's slate. Houston, which featured strong local corporate support but a lukewarm reception from fans and competitors, has been axed and replaced by an April event at New Orleans Motorsports Park.
The popular street race through the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto is likely to be shifted to the road course formerly known as Mosport (now Canadian Tire Motorsport Park) due to a date conflict with the Pan-Am Games.
The big news is the addition of preseason international races, likely to be staged in February, and talks have been held with promoters in Brazil and Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The international element is controversial with fans and participants, but team owner (and Milwaukee race promoter) Michael Andretti believes that the right package could benefit the IndyCar Series in many ways.
"If they can get big money to do that, that helps offset a lot of things they're looking at doing over here," Andretti said. "I think it would give some relief to the promoters over here if they were to get big numbers overseas, and it could help the teams. So I think that's a good thing, plus I like that we can start the season earlier so we'll have a longer season.
"I can't say I'm in full agreement with stopping in September, but if we do start racing in February, that's sort of the same as going to October."
Chevrolet won the 2014 IndyCar Series manufacturer championship with 12 race wins to Honda's six. The engine manufacturers will play an even more critical role in the series next year as they introduce dedicated aero kits that will feature unique wings, sidepods and other components.
The new aero kits are expected to improve the performance of the basic Dallara chassis and provide visual differentiation between Chevrolet- and Honda-powered cars.