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Helio, Danica make it big in 2009

While better action on the speedways spiced up the second half of the 2009 season, it did nothing to stop the inevitable Penske-Ganassi slugfest. The series got better TV coverage from Versus, who then got kicked off DirecTV and forced fans with the service to find other means of watching the last two races. Tony George got ousted by his family from the CEO post at Indianapolis -- and then responded by leaving his CEO job at the IRL as well. And then there's Danica Patrick's decision to work double duty with the IRL and stock cars.

Again, a mixed bag. But at least it gives me plenty of material to work with on figuring out what were the best and worst moments of 2009.

BEST RACE: Peak Indy 300, Chicagoland Speedway.

Kentucky may have been where side-by-side oval racing returned for the league, but the race later that month at Chicagoland brought back the peculiar mix of excitement, nervousness and borderline insanity that marked so many of the IRL's past events on 1.5-mile ovals. As Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon fought for the win (which Briscoe grabbed by .0077 of a second), a giant pack that saw drivers go two and three-wide in the high banks lurked behind them. You can argue that the action was too intense. You can't argue that this race wasn't memorable.

Honorable mention(s): Kentucky, Toronto

WORST RACE: SunTrust Indy Challenge, Richmond International Raceway

Over eight seasons, the IndyCar Series had carved out a good niche for themselves in Richmond, a racing city that's decidedly more NASCAR in its leanings. But one night this past June tore it all down as the IRL put on one of the worst open-wheel races to date. This "event," won by Scott Dixon, forced the league to roll out a new aerodynamics package that consisted of optional tools such as tire ramps and side pod extensions. The package worked well upon its debut at Kentucky in August, but not before the IRL and RIR decided to part ways. What a waste.

Not-so-honorable mention(s): Edmonton, Texas

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER: Graham Rahal

Rahal was unable to pick up a win in 2009, but he and his Newman/Haas/Lanigan team clearly stepped it up in their second IRL season. All of the American driver's five top-5 finishes were on ovals, both big (Kentucky, Chicagoland, Motegi) and small (Milwaukee, Richmond). That's a pretty good accomplishment when you think about what he and the team went through in 2008. More improvement over this offseason could put them closer to the front in 2010. But will it be enough to ensure that the No. 02 will be fighting the "Big Two" for the win on a regular basis?

Honorable mention: Mario Moraes

BEST MOMENT: Helio Castroneves wins third Indy 500

Almost a month and a half after his racing career was on the line in a Miami courtroom, Helio Castroneves wrote another triumphant chapter in his legacy with a victory from the pole at Indianapolis. Buoyed by his four F's-- family, friends, faith and fans -- the popular Brazilian took another giant step towards the realm of Indy legends. But it turns out that the storybook ending to his emotional year didn't come at the Brickyard. At Homestead, Castroneves revealed that he and his girlfriend are expecting a baby girl to arrive in January.

Honorable mention(s): Justin Wilson gets Dale Coyne's first win at Watkins Glen; Ed Carpenter nearly shocks the Penske juggernaut in Kentucky.

WORST MOMENT: Meira-Matos crash at the Indy 500

In the closing stages of this year's 500, Vitor Meira and rookie Raphael Matos were battling for position in Turn 1 when the two touched wheels. The meeting sent both cars hard into the SAFER Barrier, but Meira got the worst of it as his No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing entry slid on its side along the barrier before coming to rest on the inside of Turn 2. The incident ended Meira's season as he broke two vertebrae in his back. However, he recently returned to the cockpit in a September test at Indianapolis -- a great development after his vicious crash.

Not-so-honorable mentions: Will Power crashes into Nelson Philippe at Sonoma; Tony Kanaan takes a double-hit at Indianapolis.

BEST RIVALRY: Helio Castroneves vs. Paul Tracy

As much as you wanted to feel for Castroneves after he and Toronto native Paul Tracy tangled together and crashed in PT's hometown, you couldn't help but also feel some exhilaration at the Canadian crowd raining down boos on the Brazilian. It was proof that the IRL needs a spicier rivalry to dovetail with the gentlemanly duel between the Penske and Ganassi squads. Considering the history that these two drivers have, this fits the bill. Now if only Tracy could find enough sponsorship to go full time.

Honorable mention: Ganassi vs. Penske -- It's all business.

WORST RIVALRY: Tony George vs. The Board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The controversial and memorable Tony George era at the Brickyard came to a close when the IMS board, which includes Tony's mother and his three sisters, voted him out of power as CEO of the Speedway. But then Tony answered back by stepping down as CEO of the IRL, which was the job that the board wanted for him. Now George has simply become a team owner with Vision Racing. The whole thing was bad PR for the series and with Vision having been reported not to have funding for 2010 yet, George's long fall from the top may not be over.

HARD LUCK AWARD: Vitor Meira and Tony Kanaan (tie)

We already know what happened to Meira, so let's see what Kanaan had to deal with this year. Three broken ribs from hitting the wall twice at Indianapolis? Check. Two pit fires at Milwaukee and Edmonton? Check. Another down year for his Andretti Green Racing team? Check again. The Brazilian hasn't lost his talent in all of this but you have to wonder: What will it take for him and AGR to be able to return to their past championship form?

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