LONG BEACH, Calif. – The IndyCar Series has long been dominated by three powerhouse teams, leaving those outside Andretti, Ganassi and Penske fighting for scraps.
Rarely has there been even an opportunity for someone else to steal a surprise win or share a portion of the spotlight. Then came Sunday and a podium full of unfamiliar faces at the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Takuma Sato became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race, a victory that ended an 11-year losing streak for A.J. Foyt Racing and the first on a street or road course for the organization since 1978 when "Super Tex" himself was behind the wheel at Silverstone.
Second went to Graham Rahal, who left Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of last year for the shot to be a No. 1 driver for the first time in his career. His opportunity is at Rahal Letterman Lanigan, the team owned by his father that just returned to full-time IndyCar competition last year.
And it was Justin Wilson rounding out the podium in a car fielded by Dale Coyne Racing, a team that didn't bother to announce its driver lineup until after the first practice of last month's season-opening race at St. Pete. The team has had its share of sloppy mistakes since bringing Wilson on board last season, and Long Beach was no exception: Wilson never made a qualifying lap because the team failed to get an approved wing on his car in time for him to get on the track.
So it's fair to say nobody in their right mind would have picked that trifecta at the betting windows. After all, IndyCar said it had been 10 years since Andretti, Ganassi and Penske had all been shut out from a podium. The last time it happened was at Motegi in 2003, when Scott Sharp's win for Kelley Racing led an improbable Kelley, Rahal and Mo Nunn podium.
The podium proved what AJ Allmendinger has been shouting to the NASCAR world for months: IndyCar is extremely competitive all the way down the grid.
"There's no bad guys here anymore," said Rahal. "Look, I left Ganassi Racing and I left there for a reason: I felt like this team can be as good and competitive as any."
That was evident last year when the debut of a new Indy car leveled out the competition, which produced eight different winners and a first-time champion in Ryan Hunter-Reay.
This year opened with a first-time winner in James Hinchcliffe, a budding star who joined the Andretti camp last year as Danica Patrick's replacement. The St. Pete opener also saw a strong run from 24-year-old Simona di Silvestro, while French rookie Tristan Vautier also impressed.
Then came Barber, where it was Hunter-Reay in Victory Lane for another Andretti win. But the weekend was marked by American Charlie Kimball's first appearance in the Fast Six round of qualifying and a fourth-place finish. Vautier was fast again, too,
It's been enough to put the focus on the race track for the first time in a long time.
"Yeah, it's actually about the racing. What's that about?" joked team owner Michael Andretti after Hinchcliffe's win.
"This whole field is so full of talent, such great personalities. It's great we have the mix we have. That's what makes this series so great. The racing product is the best in the world."
Longtime fans have long argued that IndyCar is the purest form of motorsports, and that it's on-track product is far superior to any other series. But it can be acquired taste, particularly to the NASCAR-loving crowd accustomed to bumping and banging.
There's none of that in IndyCar, where the drivers instead use strategy and skill to maneuver picturesque street and road courses, and hold tight at speeds well over 200 mph on the ovals. Still, it can get old when the same drivers and the same teams win race after race, and every podium celebration looks the same.
It's why Sato's win Sunday was so enjoyable. It was a sight to see the 5-foot-4, 117 lb. driver leap into the arms of crew members he's been with only three races now. And then he spoke of how quickly he's adapted to a team owned by an ornery 78-year-old Texan.
Then Sato, who spent several seasons in Formula One, talked about how much he enjoys the IndyCar Series.
"This is a lot tighter ... the gap is much closer than what Formula One has," said Sato, who won in his 52nd career start. "I really like it. I really like this highest level of competition. From cockpit point of view, yes, Formula One is fast, because the amount of development and budget you can spend is different. But when you see actual head-to-head and side-by-side racing, you can't really compare any single series than what IndyCar produces."
There's no reason to believe the competition won't be this way the rest of the season. Up next is the May 5 race at Brazil, where Penske driver Will Power scored his last victory and has gone winless in the year since. Then it's the Indianapolis 500, a race Marco Andretti has circled on what he's hoping is a breakout season. After an offseason rededicating himself to his profession, Andretti is off to the best start of his career with three top-seven finishes that have him ranked fourth in the standings.
With different faces competing for wins, and different teams showing they are capable of running up front, it's shaping up to be an outstanding season for IndyCar.
"It's just so tense. There's so many drivers in this championship that are capable of winning races," Wilson said. "You can't afford to miss anything. You can't afford to have a bad result. The way this championship happens, when racers have had bad results, it opens it right up. I think it's going to be more intense and interesting as the season goes on."