IndyCar championship more rewarding now than ever, especially during a pandemic, what the top drivers told me about it

INDIANAPOLIS — The NTT IndyCar Series will get back to action this weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There’s only three races left in the 2020 season and two of them will take place on the IMS road course.

But, with this season also losing three races from the originally planned schedule, some may say that the 2020 championship would have an * next to it. Yes, we only race on one street race (St. Pete) and yes we avoided going further west than Texas. Yes, 12 of the 14 races run took place in the Midwest with four of them at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

I get the notion that this is a rare year and we shouldn’t put this year’s winner of the Astor Cup on a pedestal like others before him. But, I also scoff at that assessment too and think that maybe this year’s champion could be as worthy of one this year than ever before.

This year’s champion is a true champion in every facet. Nothing about 2020 has been predicable. I asked every Indy Car champion in this series since 2013 their thoughts on winning this year’s title in comparison to the past.

“I think it would probably be the strangest just I think how the season’s gone, the schedule change, the ups and downs,” said Scott Dixon who currently leads Josef Newgarden by 72 points heading into the final three race stretch on if he won this  year’s championship. “Honestly, I’m so thankful that the NTT INDYCAR Series and everybody involved were able to get the ball rolling. A huge thanks to NASCAR for paving the way, letting us kind of use their handbook a little bit with the COVID situation, get back to it.

“All of them are very unique. They’re all very different, at least from my memory. But I think each one becomes that much more meaningful. This one for me would definitely mean the most.”

Dixon has won 4 times this season, can he get a championship to go along with it?

Think about it. We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Nothing about this season resembles the past. We barely get any practice. We have a new Aeroscreen that weighs almost 50 pounds and alters every setup from before. The pages upon pages built in these notebooks are all trashed. This is completely new. The race weekend’s are greatly shortened meaning you have to hit a setup right early.

Then, you have to take in the aspect of the heat built up in the cockpit from the Aeroscreen and also add to the fact that a majority of the season was raced in a doubleheader format and you get a pressure packed 2020 season without much room for error.

I mean just look at how the final 12 races of this year panned out. Doubleheaders at Road America and Iowa in back-to-back weeks. The doubleheader at Mid-Ohio moved from the start of August to the middle of September, then a doubleheader at Gateway to end the month of August still. The Indy 500 is sandwiched between that featured double points.

Then, it’s to October for another doubleheader format on the IMS road course followed by double points in the season finale at St. Pete.

That’s all either doubleheaders or double points. That means the weekend’s are even more important and these guys are going into these weekend’s without much knowledge and not much on track time before qualifying and racing.

“Yeah, I would agree with Scott (Dixon),” Newgarden said. “It would be the strangest. I don’t know how you’re going to forget this year. It’s always going to be kind of marked in the book as an odd year, not just from a racing standpoint, but from everything else.

“I think because the year has been so strange even personally for everybody, it’s going to mark this racing year as certainly a highlight. Every year is different, so individualized. Scott’s season is going to be different than ours, everyone else in the championship. Everyone has a different story to tell with how their year has unfolded.

“For us it would be a very gratifying championship if we were able to somehow get everything conjured together at the end. It’s been a tough year on our car specifically with the yellows, certainly some of the races have fallen.

“But you got to take the good with the bad, the bad with the good. They’re all so different, sometimes things fall for you, sometimes they don’t.

“Yeah, probably a little more gratifying for our car.”

Simon Pagenaud, the last non driver named Dixon or Newgarden to win a championship (2016) agrees with their notion. It’s the lack of preparation for what to expect is the toughest to adjust to in 2020.

“Yeah, I found it just challenging in the ways you didn’t know really, like Mid-Ohio, what was going to happen when it got canceled,” Pagenaud said. “For any athletes, I think you prepare yourself mentally, even though it’s just subconscious sometimes. You prepare physically and mentally for an event. When the event gets canceled, it’s on to the next one. All of a sudden you have to reshuffle your ideas.

“There’s a whole preparation with the race team also, communication with your engineer on preparation going into the weekend, what is going to be the practice like, what is the race going to be like, what you need.

“All that has been really kind of shaky this year. ‘Adjustments’ has been the king word of the year, I would say. Challenging for sure. Different, absolutely. Yeah, just have to deal with it, I guess.”

Will Power also agrees, but says that he’s embracing the shorter weekend’s though too.

“Yeah, I think what was challenging about it was not knowing exactly what races were coming, when they would be to prepare for them, the lack of testing,” said the former champion.

“But I actually don’t mind the short weekends. We only have an hour to get it right. I feel like I can get on top of it pretty quickly. I’ve kind of enjoyed the short weekends, kind of wonder if INDYCAR will look at that and think, Well, maybe we don’t need these three-day weekends, get it done in two anyway, have a lot less practice, just get on with the weekend next year with a normal schedule.”

Colton Herta sits fourth in points and agreed with Power on that some weekend’s can stand to be shorter, but echoes what everyone else is saying about the season being unique.

“It’s definitely been really challenging,” the second year driver said. “I think, like they alluded to, you always kind of physically and mentally are preparing yourself, whether that be in the gym or on the sim, doing prep work with your engineers. So it’s tough when you kind of have these races and go weekends where you don’t really know if they’re going to happen, you don’t know the next race on the schedule.

“But I also do like the weekends being a little bit shorter. Like Will, I think it’s a good thing. I think if you’re a professional racing driver, you have to be able to get on top of it. An hour session should be plenty of time to get up to speed in a race car.

“Yeah, I do like that. I particularly like it more for the short ovals. Maybe there’s a chance we can do more doubleheaders, one-day or two-day events on the shorter ovals.

“Me personally, I really like the full weekends on the road courses.”

So, to say that this years champion should have an * is almost offensive. With how competitive this field is from top to bottom this year, I almost look at it as the opposite.

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