More parity so far in 2011?

Ganassi-Penske rivalry continues, but other teams are also making a mark

Tony Kanaan’s strong start has him third in the IndyCar points standings. Photo credit: Richard Dowdy/IZOD IndyCar Series.

Even though Mike Conway managed to pull one over on Target Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske last Sunday at Long Beach, it will likely just be a temporary stop to the “red cars” rule over the IZOD IndyCar Series.

TCGR and Penske, as they have been for several years, are simply head and shoulders above everybody else. Next season may change that with the debut of the new cars and engines, but for now, they are the elite.

But while Ganassi’s Dario Franchitti and Penske’s Will Power continue their rivalry from last year at the top of the points standings, a unique mix of teams is right behind them in the championship. In all, the first six positions are represented by six different squads (and the top 10 positions feature eight).

Third place currently belongs to Tony Kanaan (KV Racing Technology-Lotus), who claimed a podium finish in his first run with his new team at St. Petersburg and has followed those up with two top-10s at Barber (sixth; started 24th) and the Beach (eighth). So far, the partnership between Kanaan and team owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser has paid some nice — and from the team’s standpoint, perhaps much-needed – dividends.

But there’s always room to improve and wouldn’t it be just epic to see him win in his homeland of Brazil next Sunday? Outside of winning the Indy 500, it’d be the best reward for all the hard work he had to do in the offseason just to get a ride.

Another resurgent team has been Newman-Haas Racing, whose driving stable of rookie James Hinchcliffe and Oriol Servia have been gradually making their way towards the front of the pack. Servia currently sits fourth in the standings thanks to consistent finishes — a ninth at St. Pete, a fifth at Barber and a sixth at Long Beach. Those steady results had been missing at N-H for some time. As for Hinchcliffe, he’s currently 17th after missing the season opener but has quickly changed what appeared to be a two-driver battle for Rookie of the Year. J.R. Hildebrand and Charlie Kimball, you’ve got company now.

Then there’s Conway sitting at P5, certainly no longer considered the “tagalong” fourth driver at Andretti Autosport after his rampage last Sunday. Conway has been quick this season, but we had yet to see him put it together before Long Beach. Now that he’s been able to do that, will we see the British driver contend more often for wins and podiums on the road/street courses? IndyCar can always use somebody to be a thorn in TCGR and Penske’s side, after all.

Rounding out the top six is Alex Tagliani and Sam Schmidt Motorsports, who haven’t necessarily gotten a lot of press for their efforts so far. After suffering a 15th-place finish at Barber, Tag and SSM came back strong with a fifth-place effort last Sunday thanks to some sharp pit strategy that vaulted them into the top five early on. So far, SSM’s return to full-time IndyCar action has been a solid, if unspectacular, one. Considering how well Tag was doing last season at Brazil before his run-in with Dan Wheldon, there could be another strong points day in the cards next week when they go back there.

Going back into the top 10, you’ll also find Simona de Silvestro in ninth position (buoyed by her fourth-place run at St. Pete) and Vitor Meira in 10th position after quietly putting up two top-10 runs in the first three contests.

So, all in all, while there’s been plenty to dislike about the first three events of 2011, there’s also a lot to be excited about. The Ganassi-Penske conflict will roll on all the way to Las Vegas, but perhaps we will have a new “best of the rest” team at the end of it all, too.