All eyes on the streets of St. Pete this past weekend was on the NTT IndyCar Series championship fight between Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon. The duo have combined to win the last three series championships and knew that one of them would extend that streak to four. But, once underrated storyline that got overshadowed by a championship bout between two titans of the sport was the Rookie of the Year Honors.
The distinction goes to Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing. The Dutch driver clinched the honor and becomes the first Chevy driver since 1992 to win this award.
Last year, Felix Rosenqvist narrowly beat Colton Herta for these honors. Robert Wickens won the year prior.
All VeeKay had to do this weekend was just start the race. He held a 54 point lead over the other rookies and once he took the green flag, the award went his way. He would finish 15th in the race outright and 14th in the final standings.
While it’s not a top 10 finish overall in points, it’s not like that’s too bad. Four of the previous five winners of this award all finished outside of the top 10 in the final standings too. In fact, just three times in the last 12 years has a rookie driver even finished in the top 10 of the final standings in their first season in INDYCAR.
Where this year was different was that these rookies had a higher hill to climb. They competed for their season in a pandemic. We had no testing allowed in 2020. Most race weekend’s had just one short practice session. You’d practice, qualify, then race.
Five of the nine race weekend’s were doubleheaders. Everything was stacked against the rookie drivers this year. Plus, none of them had any INDYCAR experience prior to 2020 too, so this was all brand new.
For VeeKay, he found out the hard way. The first race was moved to the Texas Motor Speedway in early June. By that point of the year, we’d be reaching the halfway point. This year, it was Round 1.
Just one practice session was available and VeeKay crashed in it. He crashed early in the race itself as well and finished 22nd. Not a great start to his INDYCAR campaign and one that left team owner Ed Carpenter none too thrilled with how his rookie tore up two cars.
But, one race later he shined. He finished fifth for the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course. The Road America and Iowa doubleheaders were less than desired with finishes of 13th, 14th, 20th and 17th respectively. That’s five finishes of 13th or worse in his first six INDYCAR races.
Meanwhile, he had to watch a talented full time rookie class that consisted of Oliver Askew and Alex Palou shine early. Askew finished ninth in his debut at Texas and third and sixth respectively a month later in Iowa.
Palou, was third and seventh respectively in Road America.
That’s a ninth (Askew), sixth (VeeKay), podium (Palou), seventh (Palou), podium (Askew) and sixth (Askew) in the first six races for this class. VeeKay, only contributed to one of them.
But, that’s when everything turned around for him.
VeeKay, became the fastest teenager ever in Indy 500 history. He qualified fourth as the lone Chevy representative in the Fast Nine. He did finish 20th in the race for six finishes of 13th or worse in seven tries. A week later at World Wide Technology Raceway, VeeKay found his groove. He’d finish sixth and fourth respectively. The next race weekend at Mid-Ohio, he was eighth and 11th respectively. That’s now four straight finishes of 11th or better.
A pole and podium on the first race of the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend all but sealed his fate.
So, to further that stat about the rookies above, it ended up being – ninth (Askew), sixth (VeeKay), podium (Palou), seventh (Palou), podium (Askew) and sixth (Askew), Fast Nine at Indy (VeeKay), sixth (VeeKay), fourth (VeeKay), eighth (VeeKay), 11th (VeeKay), third (VeeKay), ninth (Palou) and 13th (Palou).
That’s a rookie with a finish of 11th or better in all but two races (Indy 500/St. Pete) this season.