INDIANAPOLIS — Scott Dixon won the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series champion this past Sunday in St. Pete. He won the season opening race at the Texas Motor Speedway on June 6. From Texas to St. Pete, we had a thrilling season.
From ups and downs to highs and lows, INDYCAR was able to bob and weave their way through an uncertain time in the middle of a pandemic to accomplish their ultimate goal – crown a champion.
Here’s my five main takeaways from the 2020 season.
5. Honda The New Preferred Engine
Prior to 2012, Honda can easily be regarded as the engine that saved INDYCAR. When no one else wanted to jump in, it was Honda who provided engines to literally every team. They were the sole engine provider of INDYCAR. That takes a lot of time, money and commitment in doing so for as long as they did.
In 2012, they got relief. Chevrolet would be coming back. A new car was coming out as well. While they welcomed the competition, the bow ties just flat out dominated.
In the manufacturers championship, Chevrolet would win every year from 2012 through 2017. Every. Single. Year. Chevy won 67 times in that span compared to just 33 for Honda.
But, since the new car came out in 2018, it’s been all Honda since. They’ve now won all three manufacturers championships since 2018 including a rout of Chevrolet this season. They also went 1-2-3-4 in the Indy 500 and placed eight cars in the Fast Nine for qualifying for that race too.
From 2018 through now, Honda has evened the playing field. For the first time since Chevy came in for 2012 and beyond, Honda eclipsed Chevy for most wins in a season in 2018 (11-6). They’ve been even the last two years with Chevy winning 9-8 in 2019 and Honda having a 7-7 split in 2020. With the same car this time around, it’s Honda 25, Chevrolet 22. In the three year span of the Aerokits from 2015 through 2017, it was Chevy 34, Honda 15.
With 2021’s engine formula and car remaining the same, there’s no reason to believe that Honda can’t make this four straight next season.
4. “Big 3” Still Dominating But Becoming “Big 4” As Andretti Slips and RLL Improves
We knew with the uncertain times of racing during a pandemic mixed with the Aeroscreen’s debut that the bigger teams would dominate in 2020. Boy did they ever. 14 races were run, 13 of them were won by the “Big 3” which includes Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.
The only race that they didn’t win was the Indianapolis 500 which was won by Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing. In fact, RLL put two cars on the podium that day. One could say that RLL is making this a “Big 4” anyways so it’s not shocking that these are the only four teams to have won in 2020.
Since the new car came out in 2018, the “Big 3” have won 40 of the 48 races run (82-percent). Penske has won 22 times with Ganassi (10) and Andretti (8). But, RLL is next best with four victories while no one else has more than three. Throw in RLL and you get 44 of 48 races won by these teams.
If you go back to 2016 though, that number stays the same. The “Big 3” have won 66 of 84 races run in that time frame. Throw in RLL and you get 73 of 84.
RLL’s ascension has seen them slowly catching Andretti Autosport. AA’s season could be summed up by this last Sunday’s season finale.
Sunday in St. Pete was a fitting day for the Andretti Autosport camp. After a tough start to the season, they started looking back to their old dominating days as of late.
It’s no secret, the first nine races of the 2020 season were dismal for Andretti Autosport overall. Combined, they had just six top five finishes and one podium between them. Four of the six top fives belonged to Colton Herta. Alexander Rossi’s third place effort in Road America 2 was their lone podium through Aug. 30.
But, once we got to Mid-Ohio though in September, everything has since changed. Herta scored a win in the second race of the weekend and was ninth in the other. Rossi, had dual podiums with Hunter-Reay being fifth and third respectively himself to give AA a 1-2-3 effort in Race 2.
At Indy, it was more strength. Herta was fourth and second respectively and Rossi second and third himself.
One podium in nine races followed by seven in four races after.
Now, it was to St. Pete to where they were looking strong again. Half of the Fast Six went to AA cars. Throw in Jack Harvey and you get four of the six with their alliance. They’ll start 2-3-4-5 in fact. They also went 1-2 in the lone practice session of the weekend too on Saturday as well.
The pole winner has won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete just once (2007). That’s great news for Andretti Autosport because none of their five cars here this weekend earned the pole for Sunday’s race.
Will Power earned his ninth St. Pete pole. He’s 0-for-8 in his previous eight starts from the pole here. The next four starting spots though, belong to Andretti cars or their alliance team.
Power had a shifting issue on Lap 5 and gave way to Rossi for the lead. Herta came by to second and Hinchcliffe in third. Harvey ran top five early too.
Then, by the midway mark or thereafter, Marco Andretti entered the fray and was up to seventh.
That’s when it all collapsed from there.
Rossi crashed in Turn 4 on Lap 69. He had led 61 laps up to that point. Andretti crashed with a flat right rear tire from contact by Takuma Sato on the Lap 75 restart. Hinchcliffe, spun by himself under that caution in the final turn while running second. He got his car going and hit Harvey while turning back onto the racing surface.
A few laps later, Herta went off course and lost out on a podium.
Crazy chain of events there — like their season.
Still, if you want to win races in INDYCAR, it’s best you find your way to Penske, Ganassi, Andretti or even RLL now.
3. Rossi/Power Bad Luck Keeps Them From Tightening Gap In Points Race
The championship race was Scott Dixon’s all year but Josef Newgarden made it close in the end. Despite that, if luck was on Alexander Rossi and Will Power’s side, then I think it could have been a four horse race instead.
Rossi, had a dismal season but rebounded for a top 10 finish in the final standings. It all started with an ECU failure before the engines even fired in the season opener at Texas. He had another electrical gremlin in the next race on the IMS road course. Rossi, finished 15th and 25th respectively those days. He was 19th in Road America 1. Then, throw in his pit penalty in the Indy 500 which put him in the back and forced him to push too much to get back up to the top three like he was prior and saw him crash trying (27th place finish) and a crash after leading 61 laps in the finale at St. Pete and you get a driver that couldn’t get luck to go his way.
But, when luck did go his way?
Rossi was third in Road America 2, sixth and eighth in Iowa, third and second in Mid-Ohio and second and third in the second doubleheader weekend at IMS on the road course. That’s five podiums in seven starts there with a worst finish of eighth. St. Louis wasn’t kind to him but he could afford a couple of mulligans. It’s just the bad luck in the other races that bogged him down.
Same for Power.
He didn’t have a car like his teammates had at Texas. He’d finish 13th. He started on the pole and had the race won before an ill timed caution in the middle of a pit sequence ruined his shot at winning in the GMR Grand Prix at Indy. He finished 20th. A wrong gearing ratio cost him a win in Road America 1. A tire not tightened cost him a top two in Iowa 1. He finished 21st. An ill timed caution in Gateway 1 placed him 17th. He had a downshift problem in St. Pete, then crashed on Lap 34 of the race.
Like Rossi, when luck went his way, he thrived. He was runner-up in Iowa 2, third in St. Louis 2, won Mid-Ohio 1 and Indy 3.
The speed has been there all year. The luck just wasn’t.
Rossi and Power ended the year strong and if they can keep that momentum and carry it over to 2021, then watch out.
2. Newgarden May Have Had The Fastest Car All Year, But It Was Dixon vs. Newgarden Again For Championship
It shouldn’t come to a shock that Josef Newgarden was battling Scott Dixon for the championship. They’ve combined to win the last four titles now including this year and five of the last six overall. So, it’s none to surprising to see it being Dixon vs. Newgarden in the final race for this year’s title.
But, I can make a case to where Newgarden actually had the better car all season. If luck was different, it could be him, not Dixon, hoisting the Astor Cup championship trophy in St. Pete.
Dixon, won each of the first three races run and had a top two result in four of the first five overall. In fact, once Dixon won the Aug. 29 race at the World Wide Technology Raceway, it was his sixth top two in the opening eight races of the season. With a race on that same track a day later and six overall races left, he appeared to be untouchable.
Newgarden, found himself over 100 points down, 117 back to be exact going into Race 2 of the St. Louis race weekend. How can you make up that many points on a driver of Dixon’s caliber?
Dixon, doesn’t sit in the top three of every major statistical category in INDYCAR history for no reason. To make up 117 points in six races, including a race 24 hours later on the very track Dixon just won at mixed with the next race weekend being on a Mid-Ohio doubleheader to where Dixon had six career wins at including last year, followed by two more races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course to where Dixon had four straight top two finishes on including a win just this year back on July 4, well it appeared next to impossible.
But, here Newgarden was. He entered this past weekend 32 points back. He made up 85 points on Dixon in those six races. What’s one more race?
Newgarden, had to be flawless again with all Dixon needing to do is finish ninth or better. That’s exactly what happened. Dixon earned his sixth career championship with Newgarden coming home a close second. Newgarden won the race and Dixon finished third.
Still, it’s a season Newgarden can hang his hat on. Just look at how much ground he made up. In a six race span to end the season, Newgarden had five top four finishes — four of those in the top two. Dixon, only had one podium and two top fives.
But, it was that string of races to start the year to what was the deciding factor in this. If cautions fell differently, Newgarden may be the champion after all.
Newgarden can hang his hat on that he actually had what was likely a faster car than Dixon all year still. Yes, Dixon started out that hot, but Newgarden also threw away points early too with some bad luck.
Newgarden has long said that the cautions falling at unlucky times during the course of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season have cost him a potential season championship this year. It happened in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on July 4. He had a podium caliber kind of car but the caution for Oliver Askew’s crash in the middle of a pit sequence wasn’t needed. He’d finish seventh as a result. It happened again in Race 1 at Iowa. He finished fifth. It happened in Race 1 at World Wide Technology Raceway too. He’d finish 12th.
In those three races, Scott Dixon came home first, second, first respectively. The points difference between just those two in those three combined races?
Newgarden entered the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader with a 72 point gap.
He’s proven that the cautions have hurt him. Say Dixon and he both finish in the top five of those races, the gap would have been far less than 72. It’s more like 15 or less.
When cautions stayed out of Newgarden’s way, he was the better driver with the better car. That’s why he can hang his hat on a solid season but also can be frustrated on what might have been too.
1. Future Is Bright
The future of the NTT IndyCar Series is as bright as ever. Josef Newgarden is not yet 30 and nearly won his third championship in four years. Rossi just turned 29 on Sept. 25. He’s won seven times in five seasons including the Indianapolis 500. He also has 51 top 10 finishes already in his career too.
Rinus VeeKay just turned 20 himself on Sept. 11. He earned his first career pole in the Harvest Grand Prix, led his first career laps (15) on the Friday race and scored his first career podium as well. He was the fastest teenager ever in Indy 500 qualifying and won Rookie of the Year Honors this season. VeeKay, closed out 2020 with five top 11 finishes in his last seven races run.
Another 20 year old in Colton Herta has 10 top five finishes in his career and finished third in points. 21 year old Pato O’Ward was Rookie of the Year for the Indy 500 and finished fourth in points. He had 10 top 10 finishes in 14 races run in 2020 including four podiums and six top fives. 28 year old Felix Rosenqvist won in Road America and had five top 10’s.
Don’t count out Santino Ferrucci (22 years old) who looked fast again in 2020. The future is bright in INDYCAR.
Plus, just look at this year’s Rookie Class overall.
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. Now, the talented 20 year old heads to the offseason as a free agent. But, with this award in hand and several seats available, he’s definitely going to land somewhere quickly.
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 this season.
- Starting Position Mattered – The front row won half of the races (7-for-14) and five of the last six on the season. Furthermore, a top three starter won nine of the 14 races and eight of the last nine overall. All but two races were won from a top 10 starting spot all season long.
- Clean Races – Three of the last five races went caution free. We saw two or fewer yellows in six of the last seven races and nine of the last 11. The only outlier here is the Indy 500 which is the longest race run of the year and saw seven cautions flying on that Aug. 23 day. We had four or fewer cautions all year with the exception of the ‘500.