2008 campaign offered the best of times, the worst of times

Scott Dixon won six races in 2008, including the 92nd running of the Indianapolis 500. AP Photo/AJ Mast

How do you quantify what counts as a high or a low for an IndyCar Series season during which Milka Duno led more laps than Danica Patrick?

Or one in which Helio Castroneves nearly snuck away with the season championship despite winning only two races to Scott Dixon's six? In which Dan Wheldon won two races and finished fourth in the standings, yet lost his job with Target Chip Ganassi Racing?

There is no denying that the IndyCar Series sometimes functioned in a bizarro world in 2008. Yet the overall health of open-wheel racing in America is substantially better than it was one year ago at this time. That's because the year started with the long-awaited "unification" of the sport, the result of the Champ Car World Series' finally being laid to rest after 12 years of not-so-friendly competition with the Indy Racing League.

Ever since the IRL's February announcement that "We are unified," the news has generally been good for the IndyCar Series. Mind you, little things such as attendance, sponsorship and television ratings aren't anywhere close to where they were in the mid-1990s before "The Split," but Indy-style racing's comeback has begun. The challenge now is to maintain the momentum (not to mention the expanded 26-car
grids) that the IndyCar Series enjoyed in 2008.

With that in mind, here's a look back at the highs and lows of the
2008 season:

High: The image of Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George and former Champ Car World Series owner Kevin Kalkhoven as they smiled and shook hands at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Feb. 28, surrounded by a full field of drivers to confirm the merger that ended the American open-wheel war.

Low: The struggle that many of the transition teams from the Champ Car World Series experienced in obtaining parts from suppliers such as Dallara and Xtrac in the early part of the season. Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, the highest-profile team of the new teams, missed a preseason test and entered only one car in the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway after driver Graham Rahal crashed earlier in the week.

High: Rahal bounced back from that setback to score a tactical victory in the rain on the St. Petersburg street course. The 19-year-old son of three-time Indy car champion Bobby Rahal displaced rival Marco Andretti to become the youngest race winner in almost a century of Indy-style racing.

Low: The Japan Indy 300 at Twin Ring Motegi was delayed 24 hours by rain, much to the dismay of teams that lost a day of preparation (and
recuperation) time for the following weekend's event at Kansas Speedway.

High: An aggressive fuel-saving strategy by Andretti Green Racing allowed Danica Patrick to lead the last three laps at Motegi to claim her historic first IndyCar Series victory.

Low: Patrick led only one more lap all year, and her best additional results were a pair of fifths.

High: The relatively new Indianapolis 500 qualifying rules worked like a charm, with an entertaining fight for pole position and some meaningful bumping on the final day.

Low: The two previous Indy 500 (and overall series) champions were missing from the classic race's lineup, having left to pursue stock car careers.

High: The Indy 500 had a worthy new winner, as Scott Dixon dominated the month of May.

High: Vitor Meira made a breathtaking pass for the lead of the Indy 500.

High: Ryan Briscoe overcame a slow start to his initial IndyCar campaign with Team Penske to score a superb first victory at the Milwaukee Mile. The Australian backed it up with another win on the Mid-Ohio road course and will enter 2009 with increased confidence and higher expectations.

High: Marco Andretti's form on his bogey tracks -- 1.5-mile superspeedways -- was vastly improved in 2008. He had three top-5 finishes on those tracks.

Low: It's been more than two years since Andretti won a race, and his dad's team (Andretti Green Racing) seems to be losing ground to Penske and Ganassi.

High: With his mainstream popularity at an all-time high, Helio Castroneves gives the IndyCar Series a boost by committing to a multiyear contract to stay in open-wheelers with Team Penske.

Low: After winning "Dancing With the Stars," Castroneves turned into a perennial bridesmaid on the track, enduring a winless streak that started in April 2007, the longest of his career.

High: Tony Kanaan temporarily ended Andretti Green's struggles with a victory at Richmond International Raceway. Tensions had been strained between Kanaan and Marco Andretti after TK crashed out of the Indianapolis 500.

Low: The disharmony among AGR's drivers continued to dominate the headlines throughout the summer, culminating at Edmonton when Andretti and Patrick refused to allow Kanaan to pass during the race.
Andretti eventually crashed Patrick out, and the day ended with team owner Michael Andretti delivering a loud and not-so-subtle message about teamwork to his drivers.

High: Paul Tracy drove a third Vision Racing car prepared by Walker Racing to a fourth-place finish at Edmonton.

Low: It was PT's only start of the season.

Low: Runaway championship leader Dixon spun under caution at Watkins Glen and took out Briscoe, who had dominated the race from the start.

High: After the gaffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay took a deserved victory, the first in three years for Rahal Letterman Racing.

Low: The bizarre conclusion to Kanaan's contract renewal with AGR, which appears to have been sped up by a premature report that said Chip Ganassi was courting the Brazilian. Kanaan reupped for five years with Andretti Green.

High: The spectacular finish at Kentucky Speedway. Castroneves tried to play the fuel game and came up about two corners short. The No. 3 car was passed by a charging Dixon between Turn 4 and the checkered flag.

Low: On the way to Infineon Raceway, Team Penske's main transporter burned to the ground on a Wyoming interstate, destroying two race cars and a truckload of pit equipment.

High: Castroneves ended his winless streak at 29 races by winning the Infineon race in dominant style, cutting Dixon's points lead in half.

Low: Castroneves lost a near-certain win a week later when he was penalized for blocking during the Detroit Grand Prix. There is little debate that IRL president Brian Barnhart's call was correct: Castroneves weaved from one side of the track to the other and back again.

High: Justin Wilson was fast at the Detroit race all weekend and won at a time when it seemed Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing was at low ebb.

Low: Milka Duno assumed the lead of the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway under caution and stayed there for five laps. That was one more lap in the lead than Danica Patrick managed in 2008, but never -- well, almost never -- has a statistic been so misleading. Credit where credit is due: With Dreyer & Reinbold Racing this year, Duno raised her game. But she still is not competitive enough to belong in the unified IndyCar Series field.

Low: Marty Roth caused four red flags during one practice session at Detroit before crashing on his out lap for the next session. Yet somehow he managed to qualify in the top 11 three times on 1.5-mile speedways.

Low: Castroneves again fell afoul of the rules when his fourth-place qualifying run at Chicagoland was disallowed because he repeatedly crossed a course boundary line.

High: Castroneves' mesmerizing drive in the race at Chicagoland. From the back of
the grid, he moved quickly through the field, led the most laps and beat championship rival Dixon to the line in a photo finish. The only thing Castroneves failed to do was beat Dixon for the championship.

High: Dixon's overall excellence throughout the season. Though the New Zealander had two of his worst outings down the championship stretch, he won six races and led a series-record 899 laps in 2008.

High: The news that 2007 IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti will return to open-wheelers in 2008 as Dixon's teammate at Ganassi Racing.

Low: Dropped by Ganassi, Dan Wheldon signed a multiyear deal to drive for Panther Racing. Panther informed its current driver, Vitor Meira, via e-mail that his contract would not be renewed.

Low: Paul Newman, who co-founded Newman/Haas Racing in 1983 and was a longtime supporter of open-wheel racing, died of cancer at age 83 last month. The team earned eight CART and Champ Car-sanctioned championships and 107 race wins. Among them was Justin Wilson's IndyCar Series victory at Detroit in August that allowed Newman to bow out of his racing activities on a high.

Low: In early October, Castroneves was indicted for tax evasion and conspiracy to commit fraud against the U.S. government. Castroneves traded his usual toothy smile for a tearful frown as he appeared in court in handcuffs and leg chains before he was released on $10 million bond. Travel restrictions likely will prevent Helio from competing in the nonchampionship IndyCar Series season finale in Australia.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.