INDYCAR's top 10 stories of 2017: Part 1 features farewells, sweeps, bumpy rides

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INDYCAR witnessed another year of memorable storylines in 2017 – both on and off the track – as the Verizon IndyCar Series continued its upward trend in worldwide exposure, fan growth and exciting, intense racing.

Selecting the top 10 stories of the year was a difficult exercise, to say the least. But those of us at IndyCar.com – including regular writers Joey Barnes, Jeff Olson, Phillip B. Wilson and a few others on staff – have compiled our subjective consensus of that list. Beginning today, in the first of three parts, we’ll roll out our top 10 stories in reverse order from 10th biggest story of the year to the most important.

Read on and enjoy.

Danica Patrick

No. 10 – Patrick announces finish to her racing career in 2018 Indianapolis 500

By Jeff Olson

Before the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season finale in November, Danica Patrick fought back tears as she announced that 2017 was her last full-time season in professional racing.

While a difficult choice, the decision contained a silver lining for Patrick and fans of the Indianapolis 500 – she intends to end her career at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May.

Patrick, who competed in eight Indy 500s before moving to NASCAR in 2012, said her agent, Alan Zucker, asked if she wanted her last race to be NASCAR’s Daytona 500 in February. That’s when Indy became the logical conclusion.

“He said, 'What about finishing up at Daytona?'” Patrick said of her discussion with Zucker. “I don’t know where it came from, but out of my mouth came, 'What about Indy?' I don’t even know why I said it necessarily, but it was really the first idea that got me really excited."

Patrick burst onto the racing scene by battling among the leaders and eventually finishing fourth in the 2005 Indy 500. In 2009, she recorded her best finish (third) at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The historic race will be a fitting end to a groundbreaking career.

"I never say never, but that is my plan. After Indy, that’s the end," she said.

In all, Patrick has competed in 115 Verizon IndyCar Series races. She made history by winning at Twin Ring Motegi in 2008, the first victory by a woman in major open-wheel racing history.

“I don’t want to be remembered for the things that didn’t go as well,” she told The Associated Press. “I want to be remembered for the things that went well.”

Chip Ganassi

No. 9 – Chip Ganassi Racing weathers up-and-down season

By Joey Barnes

No other team endured a roller-coaster season quite like Chip Ganassi Racing – literally.

The team’s leading man, Scott Dixon, came out of the gate strong with three podiums through the first five races and was just 10 points out of the top spot. Dixon then won the pole position for the Indianapolis 500.

Things came off the rails on Lap 53 of the great race when contact with Jay Howard at the exit of Turn 1 sent Dixon’s car airborne, hitting a combo of the inside SAFER Barrier and catch fence. Thankfully, the four-time series champion limped away with a lower leg injury that didn’t sideline him for any races. Dixon rebounded with a runner-up finish a week after the spectacular accident in Race 1 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear and collected his only win of the season in late June at the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America.

Dixon, however, was outnumbered by the quartet of Team Penske drivers heading down the stretch and finished third in the championship – with two Penske drivers ahead of him and two behind.

“He’s just continued to smash the numbers handily – the wins, the four championships,” retired four-time champion Dario Franchitti said of Dixon, his former teammate. “The fact that he’s been in contention for so many more, he’s a special driver, there’s no doubt about it. The fact he manages, after doing it for so long, to continue to be so motivated, that’s what makes him special.”

When the checkered flag fell on the season, Chip Ganassi Racing announced it was cutting back from four to two full-time cars for 2018 to focus “on our core business of running two championship-caliber teams,” according to a CGR statement. Soon after, the team signed Ed Jones – the series rookie of the year in 2016 and third-place finisher in the 2017 Indy 500 – to team with Dixon in the upcoming season.

Graham Rahal

No. 8 – Rahal sweeps Detroit doubleheader

By Phillip B. Wilson

A “Graham Slam” sweep in the Motor City was not just one of 2017’s highlights in the Verizon IndyCar Series, it was an accomplishment that will be remembered for years to come.

Graham Rahal enjoyed a near-perfect weekend in winning both races of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear the week following the Indy 500. He claimed Race 1 from the pole and triumphed after starting third in the second race to push his career victory total to six.

It was the first time a driver won back-to-back weekend races since Scott Dixon prevailed twice at Toronto in 2013.

“Buckeyes like to win up in this state,” said Rahal, a proud Ohio native and avid Ohio State University sports fan in a reference to OSU’s rivalry with the University of Michigan. “It’s a special day for us. We’re the first one to win the double (in Detroit), it means a lot. It feels great, trust me.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver led 96 of 140 laps on the Raceway at Belle Isle Park’s temporary street course.

“He basically dictated the races because he was able to go further, faster and longer on old tires than anybody else,” said Bobby Rahal, Graham’s father and RLL co-owner. “He really forced people’s hands to change their strategies. He’s really good at knowing how hard he can drive a car.”

Graham’s No. 15 SoldierStrong / TurnsForTroops.com Honda won by 6.1474 seconds over Dixon in the first race, then finished 1.1772 seconds ahead of Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden in the nightcap.

“I still hear and I still see people who are surprised at our performances, but I don’t think they should be surprised anymore,” Graham said. “We’re not an underdog anymore. We deserve to be there. We’ve proven that.”

Helio Castroneves

No. 7 – Castroneves ends victory drought, announces full-time shift to sports cars in 2018

By Jeff Olson

In July, Helio Castroneves won a race for the first time in three years. Three months after that triumphant day at Iowa Speedway, he announced the end of his full-time Indy car career.

“We’ll go to the next chapter of my life,” Castroneves said in October as he revealed his move to Team Penske’s new sports car program. “I’m really excited. It’s the same racing, but a little bit different. I enjoy challenges and this is going to be a good one.”

A three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Castroneves will continue to compete in the famous race, but his full-time ride will be an Acura ARX-05 Daytona Prototype International (DPi) next year in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where he’ll team in a two-car effort with two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya, among others.

“For me, it’s a new era,” Castroneves said. “You just had Josef Newgarden, a young American, win the (Verizon IndyCar Series) championship. He’s already a star. People come up. It’s the natural way things happen. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. But certainly I enjoyed the time. I took advantage of every opportunity I had.”

In 17 Indy 500s, Castroneves has finished on the podium seven times, including victories in 2001, 2002 and 2009. Three drivers – Rick Mears, Al Unser and A.J. Foyt – share the career record with four Indy 500 victories each.

In his 20 seasons in Indy car racing, Castroneves, 42, has competed in 344 races, with 30 victories, 51 pole positions and 93 podium finishes – but no season championships. While it wasn’t easy to step away from full-time work in the series, he’s enthused about his next chapter.

“My career has been building to this,” he said. “I’m excited.”

Part 2 of this three-part series recapping the top 10 INDYCAR stories of 2017 will appear on Dec. 28.

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