IRL: A step behind, but Americans stepping up

St. Louis may be the gateway to the west, but Kansas Speedway is the gateway to the Indianapolis 500. It might also have been the first step toward a legitimate resurgence among American open wheel drivers.

Two weeks ago, Scott Dixon finally got off the schneid, Helio Castroneves showed he’s in midseason form, and Tony Kanaan proved once again he is as reliable as ever. But perhaps the most notable thing to emerge from the heavy skies outside Kansas City in the IndyCar Series Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 is what took place behind them.

Danica Patrick, 27, Marco Andretti, 22, and Graham Rahal, 20 — three Americans — finished 5-6-7 in the running order. That’s about as good as can be expected as they catch up to the aforementioned, as well as Dario Franchitti. That Franchitti was the only sure thing to not finish the race, it turned out to be a banner day for the red, white and blue.

That’s right, Americans.

It is supposed to be a sorry state of affairs for American open wheel drivers, and though we can lament Alex Gurney, Rocky Moran Jr., and Joey Hand — and lordy, let’s throw in Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Casey Mears, too– the Americans finished in three of the top seven positions.

Perhaps even better news at Kansas in a backhanded way is that the best American driver in the series, Ryan Hunter-Reay, 28, wasn’t among them.

We won’t feel completely patriotically fulfilled until an American is running consistently with Castroneves, Kanaan and Dixon, but for now we’ll take our moral victories where we can get them.

For two of the three top finishers at Kansas, 2009 is as important as any year in their careers

It’s high time Patrick starts matching her hype. If she wants to mention herself publicly as “a brand,” which is significantly more annoying than referring to one’s self in the third person, then she needs to begin matching Ryan Briscoe race for race.

Given what Kanaan is capable of doing in an Andretti Green entry, Patrick needs to step up in her fifth season. Yes, she has won a race in 67 starts. But can she win again? She is a lightning rod, tempestous and outspoken, but if you’re going to act like the second coming of AJ Foyt or even Paul Tracy, then there needs to be production like AJ Foyt or Paul Tracy. A second victory isn’t enough, not even if it’s at Indianapolis. We’re talking multiple victories and at least one championship. She must contend for the title. In 2008, when she finished a career-best sixth, she was closer to 15th place in the standings than she was fifth.

Likewise, Marco Andretti. Like Patrick, the son of Michael Andretti will likely have all the time in the world to “get it,” but he needs to get it right now. He has flashed brilliance, but failed to show the kind of growth that one would expect of a superstar.

This is his fourth season and with 51 starts in the books, Andretti has 16 top 10 finishes: seven of those, almost half, occurred in his rookie season of 2006, including his only victory and that stunning runner-up finish to Sam Hornish at Indy.

Is there anyone who didn’t think he would have established himself as the clear No. 2 driver at AGR by this time?

For sheer optimism, it’s Rahal who is most easy to get excited about. He has one victory, last season in his IndyCar debut at St. Petersburg, which is as many victories as Patrick and Rahal. Yet he has only 18 starts in the series. He has two poles, both this season (and one of them on an oval), which is one more than Andretti and one fewer than Patrick (who had at least one pole based on practice rather than actual qualifying).

Unlike Patrick and Andretti, Rahal has delivered with a team that came from Champ Car, so he is easily at a competitive disadvantage mechanically in the IndyCars. It also came in a unified series, which is more difficult than the early results compiled by Patrick and Andretti.

When Newman Haas Lanigan Racing gets up to speed, Rahal is the likeliest American to run with the leaders.

Ryan Hunter-Reay benefited from a last minute deal to drive for Vision Racing, a second-tier team at best but not the same caliber of team as Rahal’s. It was among Tony George’s best decisions. Hunter-Reay is right now the best of the bunch. He not only has an IRL victory, but also won twice in the Champ Car World Series, at Surfer’s Paradise in 2003 and at Milwaukee in 2004. A top 10 performance at Kansas would have been the coup de grace for the American contingent. It would be fascinating to see RHR in a car owned by AGR or NHLR, and the suspicion here is that if he were even at KV Racing he would be the highest-scoring of the lot.

With five consecutive ovals on tap, including Indy, it’s likely Patrick or Andretti will be the first of the group to win, but until one of these Americans score a couple of victories in a season, American pride probably won’t swell too much.

No doubt, the series would benefit from the inclusion of Bryan Herta, Buddy Rice, Alex Barron and Townsend Bell. Their names might not be as glamorous as Patrick, Andretti and Rahal, but in comparable equipment they could be well worth the investment. And let’s face it, Herta is the best available American for any team that really, truly, wants to win.

There is still a ways to go before North American open wheel racing can boast about its American racing talent. Right now, it’s all glitz or potential. But just maybe the event at Kansas was the first step toward restoring American pride.


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