Top 5 takeaways overall from 2 day INDYCAR media availabilities

INDIANAPOLIS — The NTT IndyCar Series season is a little more than a month away from kicking off. With that said, the annual media day looked a little bit differently than in years past. Instead of being at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, or a hotel conference room during preseason testing down in Austin, Texas, this year’s was done all virtual.

The virtual event spanned two days which saw 29 drivers ushered in and out. Paul Kelly and Curt Cavin did an excellent job of handling the duties and allowed all of us on the calls to get questions in for some much needed content to get this season off the ground.

Here are the top five takeaways/storylines to come out of the sessions.

Free Agents

This may be the toughest field ever in terms of competition in the NTT IndyCar Series. More on that in a bit. But, this field also has some big named free agents in it too. We know Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay land on this list. James Hinchcliffe may too. He has an option to return to Andretti Autosport next season, but does he hold it or the team? Simon Pagenaud is also rumored on this list. He didn’t confirm nor deny that during his time on Friday.

What about some others? While we don’t know the exact terms on everybody’s contract status, it’s safe to say a lot of them are racing for their jobs this season and by a lot, that number could be more than half of the field.

How do some of the bigger named drivers approach a season where their futures aren’t secured?

“At the moment I don’t see why there would be a need to talk about it. The season hasn’t even started,” said Pagenaud. “My personal opinion is just go out there and do the best you can, race hard and be in the moment. The contracts will take care of themselves when they do.

“It’s too early to tell anyway. But yeah, I always race as hard as I can. My motto is having no regrets ever, so I work hard, and I want to have no regrets. So if I have no regrets, there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.”

His current teammate in Power agrees.

No, it doesn’t,” Power said on being in a contract year and if that changes his approach. “It really — same effort that I put in because I had put so much effort in every time. I so badly want to win. Yep, same fire, internal fire burning. Just do as I do, do obviously my best.”

Hunter-Reay says that a one-year deal is nothing new for him though.

“My whole career has been that way,” said the Andretti driver. “It’s been, Hey, here is your opportunity. Get in the car, we’ll let you know if you’re going to be in the car the next race. That’s how it always has been for me. That’s why I’ve always had that grab-it-by-the-neck mentality. Even when I had a three-year deal, if I had a bad weekend, it was the end of the year. I have to make sure I’m performing next weekend, otherwise somebody with a big smile is getting ready to jump into my seat. It’s just part of my mentality, part of my makeup. No, that’s how I’ve been operating for 20 years, man. Right at home for me.”

Toughest Year In Competition?

We say this every year, but each year it’s true. The upcoming NTT IndyCar Series season is going to be the biggest and best one yet. The field is so talented, it may be the toughest from top to bottom ever.

Well, this year, that may very well be the case yet again. You have a rookie class of a seven-time Cup Series champion (Jimmie Johnson), a super cars champion (Scott McLaughlin) and a very experienced Formula One driver (Romain Grosjean).

You also have almost everyone back from last year’s field too.

“It just seems like it gets better every year,” Josef Newgarden told me. “It’s hard to diminish what happened the last couple years. I think our depth of talent has been incredibly high since I’ve been in the series. It’s just been incredibly high. It’s only gotten better from 2012, whether that’s teams, personnel or the drivers themselves.

“Yeah, I think if you look at the championship, who is in there now this year, certainly the additions with people like Jimmie Johnson or Romain Grosjean, there’s a lot of talented people in the mix. It’s going to be really tough to stay at the front of the pack.

Both Newgarden and Scott Dixon agree that it’s not only the drivers that are getting better, it’s the teams too.

“The field count is going up,” Newgarden continued. “It’s not just the depth of talent is increasing, it’s the depth is increasing but the size is increasing and you’re keeping that depth with increased size. Yeah, it’s going to be a tough task. INDYCAR is so tight nowadays. This is the closest form of racing that I see on the planet at the moment, the most parity out there. To try to find an edge on this competition, it takes a tremendous amount of work.”

Dixon, a six-time champion, echoes that.

“I think that talent is across not just drivers but teams, as well,” said the defending series champion. “I think that’s what’s really changed from the CART days, whether it’s the manufacturer of the chassis was slightly better for a period of races and updates were coming quickly to three of the four engine manufacturers. There was always kind of a prime combination that would kind of dominate a season, as such. Then even in the earlier days of INDYCAR you had that with engine manufacturers and things like that.

“I think with the current formula, the equality between the small team and big team, there is no small team anymore the way the rules play. There’s not much that a big team can out-spend anybody on. It’s just not that factor. So it really comes down to now the people, the people that you get to work with in the process of what you do, and then sometimes a bit of luck.

“Yeah, I’d say the competition, I’ve never seen it so strong. I think when you look at it from a driver standpoint to a team standpoint and the options that you have, it’s pretty packed, man.”

Graham Rahal agreed with Dixon in saying that this season has come a long way since his first one 14 years ago.

“It’s come a long way, man. I remember my first year in ’07 in Champ Car. I told this story last year, but if you were outside the top 5 in a Newman/Haas car you were probably pretty ticked off,” said Rahal.

“You look at where it is today and just how deep the field is, and it’s impressive. I mean, this is a — maybe everybody wants to say the golden era of INDYCAR racing was in the early ’90s or in Champ Car, may have been the late ’90s, early 2000s.

“But I’ve got to be honest. From a talent pool perspective, the golden era is right now. We’re living the golden era. It’s never been better, and I’m not sure it will get better. It is deep across the board, and it’s definitely cool because you’re also gauging yourself against the rest.

“For sure there’s going to be times that guys go out there and they’re going to perform great and we’re going to be like, Oh, yeah, they’re awesome, and then next weekend like us in Gateway, you may just completely suck, and it shouldn’t be a surprise because you cannot miss a step.

“The depth, every single driver in the series can win. That’s factual. That couldn’t have been said 20 years ago, let alone five years ago.

“I think it’s just a very pure form of motorsports right now. My opinion is it’s a very pure form, and what I mean by that, no driver aids. The physicality of it is at the prime. Jimmie grew up, he hasn’t been shy of saying it, his dream was to be an INDYCAR driver, and now he’s got the opportunity to be able to fulfill that dream.

“For Scott, he’s done all he could do. He could go win 20 V-8 super car championships, but at the end of the day he’s ready for the next challenge. For Grosjean what else is he going to do in F1? Unless he’s in a Mercedes he’s not going to win, so where doing go? What are you going to do?

“Might as well look across the pond where here he can compete. Here he is going to have the opportunity to win no matter what team he’s with. So these guys, I think the purity of INDYCAR racing is what’s attracting so many people to the sport right now.”

Simon Pagenaud notes that everyone is so good and everyone is so close, it makes the margin from top to bottom nonexistent.

“It’s very competitive right now, and I think every team has a good handle on the race car, as well, which makes it even tougher because the cars are so similar,” said the 2016 series champion. “There’s no margin for error.

“Even though we have paddle shift, even your upshift points is very important in qualifying. You miss it by five-hundredths of a second, you might miss the Fast Six and find yourself starting in 12th position, which is crazy. Changes your whole weekend.

“If you look at Rinus, if you look at Pato, if you look at Colton Herta, if you look at Scott McLaughlin now, he’s going to be stellar. You look at Romain Grosjean coming in. Obviously all these guys are expert in what they do, and it’s going to be a very interesting season.

“The field is stacked. It’s incredible.”

James Hinchcliffe says that this field is incredible.

“I think every year for the last five years we’ve done interviews at the start of the season and said things like, Man, this is the deepest talent pool we’ve ever had in INDYCAR. And it’s started to sound like a line, but it’s true,” he said. “We just keep adding talent the whole way through the field.

“When you look at the fact that those three guys in particular that you mentioned all come from different disciplines, all have been successful in those disciplines and whether it was the goal to come here always or whether it was the next opportunity or whatever, INDYCAR is where they wanted to be next. For whatever reason they left their old sport, this is where they wanted to be, and I think that speaks volumes for what we’re doing as a series, for the product we have on track, the quality of the racing.

“I think it’s kind of become a real drivers’ championship in the sense that people from all different kinds of backgrounds are like, No, this is fun, this is competitive, these are awesome cars to drive, I want to go race INDYCAR.

“I think it’s the biggest endorsement we can get having guys like that come over here.”

With such a diverse and talented field, do we need to start looking at stats differently? Do wins become even more special? Do podiums not feel like wins and a top five like a podium?

“I think to a certain extent, yeah,” Hinchcliffe said. “A win is always going to be a win. It’s only ever going to be good enough, a win. But yeah, I think being on the podium is going to be a greater reward and a better feeling than it probably was five years ago.

“Top 5s, these are going to be very difficult to do week in and week out with the series as competitive as it is.

“Like I said, you’ll only ever truly be happy if you won the race. But at the same time I think results and the sort of like fourth to seventh range are going to be looked at as this is a good points days.”

Big Season For Series

Everything is lining up for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season to being among the most pivotal in a long time. You have a TV contract up at seasons end. You have as much talent now as you’ve ever had before. You have all this new renowned attention to the sport, that it’s time for them to capitalize on this. This season could be the start of what pushes INDYCAR racing forward for years to come.

“I think that’s only going to get better,” said Graham Rahal. There’s some great races on the calendar this year. You look at Nashville. Nashville is — if there’s ever an opportunity for a street race to be a home run, that’s it. I think even to see Dale get involved in the ownership role, Justin Timberlake, guys like that, they can make Nashville explode even more and put it on more of an international viewing platform. I think there’s great opportunity ahead.

“The positive I can say in the position I’m in today is the future, the next five years looks a lot brighter to me than maybe even the past five, and that’s a great thing.”

With that said, NASCAR is promoting their 2021 season as the “best season ever.” But, one has to think it’s that way for INDYCAR too. With how important this season is, would the drivers feel it in and out of the cockpit?

“Yeah, you definitely have a sense of what’s moving, what needs to move, what’s taking play around you definitely,” Newgarden continued. “There’s a lot to do. Like I said, the best I do feel is still to come. But there’s a lot of moving pieces. There’s just a tremendous amount of effort that’s going in, much more than I could fathom. Thank goodness I only really have to work on figuring out how to make cars go fast and keep it out of the wall and in Victory Lane. That’s my job, which is much easier than what they are tasked with at the moment.

“Yeah, there’s a lot on the horizon. I think the pandemic, navigating that, has been first on the list, trying to understand how do we just get to the racetrack, how do we serve our customers the best, how do we give our race fans the best experience possible. That’s still number one for all of us. Then how do we take the series as a whole, keep moving that forward every year, whether that’s TV contracts, engine manufacturers. There’s a lot at play there.

“We have a sense of that. Thankfully that’s up to better people than me. I think we do have the best of the best looking after it.”

Power said that he feels it too.

“I do actually. I think it’s a very important season, and it is sort of concerning at times to think that — we must have fans this year. We really must. It becomes very tough on these promoters when they’re not getting the income from the ticket sales. Really praying that things open up, and in particular the 500, with everything that Roger has put into that place and all the effort that’s gone on since the purchase, I really hope that we can have close to full capacity there. That’s obviously dependent on a lot of other things at the moment.

“Yeah, really hoping we can get another manufacturer. I think that would be great for the series. I’m sure that the series is working very hard on trying to make that happen. It needs to obviously happen with enough time for a manufacturer to be able to kind of catch up in a way to Honda and Chevy.”

Last year’s Indy 500 champion, Takuma Sato, said that he feels it too and that this year’s season will be a difficult on track as ever before.

“Yeah, I think it’s extremely challenging, I would say,” the two-time Indy 500 champion told me. “I think anybody who participating in INDYCAR will realize and recognize how hard this series is.

“But one side is very good. I think that’s the name of the sport really. It’s very competitive field, very competitive cars and drivers and teams. Very attractive, how we say, environment we have. I think it’s all good thing.

“Once again, to be competitive all the season, every single weekend is extremely tough, but you have to be there. Somebody will win the championship. I think it’s nothing is impossible. All we need to do is try to focus on season, but focus on every weekend to be the best of our potential.”

James Hinchcliffe echoes what Power says too.

“Yeah, I think so. I think there is very much an air of improvement, of advancing the sport,” said the popular Canadian driver. “I think that’s what we all really have wanted for a long time is to kind of help push the message and really get the INDYCAR product out there a little more.

“With all the things that you mentioned, we’ve got a lot of cool things happening. A bunch of great new drivers coming in that are going to bring extra eyeballs. If we get that extra manufacturer, that’s going to be awesome. The new engine formula is coming. There’s so much kind of momentum behind it.

“I know we’ve said that in the past, but these are some big-ticket items. This isn’t just small things. We added a cool new race. Like cool. But these are some really big things that I think are going to have some really positive long-term effects for the series. And I think everybody in the paddock is feeling it. There’s definitely a bit of a buzz right now.”

Single Car Team vs. Multi Car Team, Positives And Negatives For Each

Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport have been the “Big 3″ for a while now. That’s why it wasn’t all that odd to see them dominate in 2020. We knew with the uncertain times of racing during a pandemic mixed with the Aeroscreen’s debut, it was assumed 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.”

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.

Out of those four teams though, half are expanding. Penske adds Scott McLaughlin. Ganassi adds a fourth car for Tony Kanaan and Jimmie Johnson to share.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Josef Newgarden said on the addition of a fourth car. “It’s good timing for us. We operate well as a three-car team. When I initially came to Team Penske, it was a four-car operation. I’ve seen both sides of it.

“I think at this time and place, I think a four-car team will give us more strengths than weaknesses at the moment. Like Jack had asked the question about limited time on race weekends, trying to show up as prepared as possible, which is so critical now. I think having an extra car, extra hand, extra set of data, extra engineer full-time, it’s all going to benefit what we’re doing. We’re already seeing that. We’re already seeing the benefit of it.

“Scott is a really smart, accomplished driver. He’s really good at what he does. He’s still learning INDYCAR. He’s not fully up to speed, I would say. He’s not going to struggle. He drives his car to a very high level. His engineer, Jonathan Diuguid, is a strong addition to our operation. I think it’s going to be a big benefit to us, to have a four-car operation. I’m excited from that standpoint.”

Will Power agrees in saying that it’s just more information and more quality people on the INDYCAR side for them.

“Obviously the sports car program went away and we took a lot of good people from that program,” said Power. “So yeah, just more engineering power and more information as far as drivers, setup info and all that sort of stuff.”

On the flip side of the coin, Andretti Autosport is going the other way. They’re downsizing. They’ll go from five cars to four cars in 2021. Was five cars too many in 2020? Colton Herta doesn’t thinks so.

“I think that’s always kind of like a concern, is when you start to get a lot of cars, are we spread too thin, which I don’t think was the case,” said the third year driver now. “I think there’s actually more than enough capable engineers and mechanics at Andretti to make it work. So I don’t feel any different about it.

“Yeah, I guess the meetings will be a little bit shorter, and that will be nice. We won’t have (indiscernible) for the drivers. But, yeah, I think excited for everybody that’s coming. I’m excited for James to be back and joining us. We have a great recipe here. We have four really strong drivers. Again, very competitive cars at the moment.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay notes that he’s just happy the debriefs will be shorter now.

“Yeah, I mean, we’ll still have 14 cars at Indy. But, yes, I’m very happy with the fact we’re coming down and we’re focusing,” Hunter-Reay said “I mean, I’m going to miss Marco. I am. I’ve been his teammate since 2010. Great friend of mine. It feels the same still. I mean, we haven’t done a race without him. It still feels like the same large team, so to speak. (James Hinchcliffe) Hinch coming back is awesome. It’s like he’s coming home. He’s one of my good friends, one of my great teammates, great working relationship and all that stuff. Him coming back is a natural fit. It’s going to be awkward not to have Marco there.

“The team feels somewhat similar.”

Rossi says that he’s not so sure whether the five cars a year ago helped or hurt.

“I don’t think that — did it help anything last year? Maybe not,” said Rossi. “I think the biggest thing that hurt us at the beginning of last year was really the reduced track time going into the actual qualifying/races. I think if you look back at 2018-2019, we were never great on Fridays, and we would kind of do a lot of work Friday night and come back Saturday for final practice and be there and qualify up front and the rest was kind of history.

“When you have that many cars and it’s such a condensed one-hour practice with a two-hour break, into qualifying, you can’t use the advantage of all those cars. Like it’s not possible. You don’t have enough people and enough time to go through that amount of information and make educated decisions. I think once we got our kind of off-line correlation and our deltas right with the aeroscreen and the effect that it had on the car, I think once we kind of got that in line with the on-track reality — the other thing is when COVID happens, all the wind tunnel, the shaker rig, the simulator time, it all disappeared.

“We didn’t have any tools available to us to kind of figure out what our problems were, address them and solve them. We had to do it all on track. I think that’s a lot of what you saw the first half, the first 70 percent, 60 percent of last year.”

For RLL, they’re staying put. They’re not adding a car nor diminishing one either. In a series where it’s hard to compete for wins in, have they maxed out what they can do and need a teammate to help? I mean Ganassi, Penske and Andretti each have four cars in their arsenal. RLL has have that fleet.

“I think obviously the consistency is the key,” Takuma Sato said. “To consistently be competitive in this series, extremely hard. Because, of course, we have short ovals, superspeedway, street course and road course, as you know. The field is so tight, like anyone can win the race basically. That’s a great part of the INDYCAR.

“To be able to become I think the champion, as a team, as a driver, I think you needs to be on top of the game all the time. Well, let’s say top five most of the race you need to be. If you have any opportunity to get on the podium, I think it’s just a scoring point and consistency is a key. That’s something we missed on the last few season. Also we achieved the single wins, which is extremely important, too.

“This year we will all try to be as competitive as possible for entire season.

“I think it’s beneficial to have multiple the teammates. I’ve been going through the experience with Andretti Autosport as you may know. Until then, the Foyt days was great, really like tight family feeling with A.J. and Larry. I loved that A.J. Foyt Racing team while I was there. But of course the teammates is always helping each other because we dividing the program for back-to-back. If you have two cars, if you have three cars, if you have five cars, with one session, you basically double the information.

“It is definitely valuable. But equally the quality control, the build spec, and I think to manage all the data and the engineers, all the things, is also become more comprehensive, too. As long as you have enough environment and resource to help solve this matter of the huge data, I’d love to have more teammates. But that’s something that the team make a decision. At the moment Graham and I working extremely close together to building the relationship and the consistency through the platform at Rahal become stronger and stronger.

“Hopefully we can do the continue of this good job. But to be better, I think we need to expand for sure.”

Graham Rahal said that adding a third car would be beneficial, but only if it adds to their program and not takes away from it.

“Yeah, I mean, it is if it’s beneficial,” Rahal said. “What I mean by that is it only works if all the guys are performing at their max level and you are getting a lot of data out of it.

“It does not work or it does not help, and it just becomes a distraction, if that third car is not giving back as much as it takes. That’s the hardest part of that thing.

“Even at Indy 500s before we’ve had where it’s been highly beneficial, we’ve had Indy 500s where it’s been nothing but a distraction, I think, for everybody.

“Honestly I’m not — I’ll say this: My focus this year is just so much on my car, just on the 15 car solely, that I’m really not concerned too much about if they want to run a third car. If the owners decide that’s what they want to do, fine, but it’s not really up to me.”

What about a single car team? Max Chilton is back for a fourth season with them but another where they likely will operate with a single car operation.

Chilton, notes that they’re up against teams like Ganassi, Penske and Andretti who’ve been doing this for the last several decades and have a large difference in budgets in comparison to Carlin. It’s tough to close that gap with a smaller budget and without a team car. In turn, they’re behind from where he thought that they’d be heading into their fourth year.

“It’s really exciting to be back with Carlin,” Chilton said on Friday morning. “This is our fourth year. I know I say it every year, but I do think we’ve learnt a lot last year. Last year was a huge challenge, probably more challenging than our first year if I’m honest because it was our first year of just running as a single-car entry.

“Also the way the world was, we got very little testing and everything logistically and organizational wise was a challenge. I think we’ve done a great job considering and we’ve done more of a development program over this winter than any of the other previous.”

In saying that, Chilton also says on the flipside of the coin that being a single car team has its advantages too. It’s not all a negative as much as it sounds it could be.

“There are plenty of benefits by having a single-car team that some people aren’t aware of,” he said. “You can very much — the benefits of multiple-car teams or multiple cars is obviously you can file through some issues and go, Yep, that’s the direction, let’s go down there, and you’ve also got driver data overlays. So they’re the benefits.

“The downside is every time you add a car to a team they become less efficient. People’s minds are split between two, three, four, five. When it starts just getting dangerous is where you can’t focus on what needs to be done.

“So with a single-car team, the setup is purely focused on what I want. And at the end of the day the best setup, even if it’s the worst setup, is what I want. If I’m happy with it, that’s when the driver will be the quickest. Everything is focused around myself, which is a benefit. Everything is super efficient.

“Yes, you have to have technically more people employed than you would need to for two because you can’t just split everything. That bit isn’t perfect. But whenever there’s a problem, it gets resolved I think really, really quick.

“There’s also other ways between engine manufacturers that you can look at data. So I’ve got data. It’s not like I’m not looking at anyone else’s data, so that helps. I’ve been a single car before, and it kind of works for me.

“I know there’s people on the grid that think it has its downsides, and for sure I know it has its downsides. But does it mean you can’t do well? I disagree. I think you can definitely get some good results being a single-car team, especially with a team like Carlin that have great engineering behind it and they know how to extract the most out of the driver.”

Race Craft Changes Among Drivers

With so strong of a field this season is, drivers are having to adapt how they race. Race craft was another term we heard a lot of during these calls. Everyone is improving – even defending series champion Scott Dixon. He too knows that things can improve based off of last year and he won the championship.

“I think we’ve found some better understanding of maybe the process of — it was kind of weird, I think ’19 we maybe had the best average of the field for qualifying position, and then ’20 was a pretty rough year, especially for road course I think for our team as a whole,” said Dixon. “Street course was okay, ovals were pretty good, with the exception I think of Iowa where we had a problem.

“We have some ideas. I think the problem that we’ve faced I think in recent years is when you do this testing, especially in winter months, the tracks are very cold and the conditions are extremely different to what you get to. And what at least we’ve found is that the tires are quite sensitive even just to ambient conditions or UV on the track.

“You think you have a process, but we probably won’t understand it until we get into a few races and see if we can rectify it. Personally I think there’s definitely some things I needed to change and apply differently, which I’m pretty cognizant of that and have tried to apply that I think to some of our testing thus far, even though we’ve only had two or three days.

“It’ll be a season-long process, I think, trying to get to that point and knowing if we can fix it.”

Another season champion noted that he’s spent a lot of time this past offseason improving too. 2020 wasn’t a good season for Simon Pagenaud. He’ll tell you that. Just one trip to victory lane and an eighth place finish in the final standings. While last year can sort of be classified as a throw away year in terms of changes made to the car, COVID being around and not much on track time, Pagenaud knows that he can’t afford to have another season in this one last the last.

“I’ve been grinding, let me tell you,” said the Frenchman. “It’s been a very interesting winter. I’ve worked on more details than I’ve ever worked before, which is great. And with more and more data, technology, you can really dig deep and just perfect your craft even better than in the past.

“Obviously Team Penske has been able to provide me all the information I needed to get ready for the season, so personally I feel like I’ve really worked really well.

“A lot of the time was going through every single practice and qualifying and race and trying to understand how to gain time in every single thing that you do as a driver. There’s a lot of people around me, of course, that takes care of the race car, the pit stops and so on and so forth, but there are a lot of things that you do as a driver that you can’t just let it aside. I can’t say the details because I don’t want to give any hint to the other drivers. I will write a book after racing.

“But I did go in very fine details, more than I ever have. I believe it will give me the edge on some things, and I believe it will allow my performance to go up in general.

“2020 was interesting. Honestly it’s a combination of things that didn’t work out the way I wanted. Obviously the car change made a big difference. The lack of testing made a big impact on my season. Yeah, we ended up where we did. Not happy about it, so it gave me even more desire to do well for 2021.

“I feel very ready for the season and very excited. Like I said, I’m a grinder. I’ve been working hard, and I’m ready for the challenge.”

Think about what he just said. He is essentially taking an inventory of his entire race craft and making adjustments. This is a former series champion. A driver that has won the Indy 500. His place in INDYCAR history is secured. Pagenaud is one of the best we’ve seen. Even he is altering is race craft now.

That’s just how difficult it is to compete for wins and championships in this series. It’s just so damn tough. That’s a good thing for us, but causes restless nights and constant preparation for the drivers on and off the track. A driver of Pagenaud’s caliber isn’t spared.

They know the youth is coming. Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and Alex Palou are here. They’re ready to win. All of them are hoping to improve between 2020 and 2021 too.

Colton Herta is another one to watch. This is his third season in the sport and one that he feels like he can win a championship in.

“I believe I can,” said the California native. “I think we showed it last year of what could have been. If I didn’t have that slipup at Iowa, mess that up for us, we could have been really good in the championship hunt going into the last round.

“The biggest setback is that we need to win more races. Can’t be winning one or two races a year and winning a championship. You need to be winning three or four races. That’s kind of my goal is to try to get to that number. That’s been the trend the last few years for guys that have won the championship, is they’re winning four race as year. When they’re not winning, they’re finishing on the podium.

“I have full faith in myself and in the team that we can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort from everybody.”

He’s improved from his rookie year to 2020. Can he do so from 2020 to 2021?

“I like to see progress every year in myself, more so on the championship side of things,” Herta said on Thursday. “I’d like to make a true championship run down to the wire, have the ability to truly win it. That’s my goal. That’s the team’s goal.

“Obviously alongside with that, winning the Indy 500 and putting a lot of resources and time towards that at the same time. But kind of cutting out the mistakes, changing kind of those top fives, fourth and fifth places that we had last year, we had a bunch of them, into podiums, and some of those podiums we had into wins. We need to win a little bit more and we need a little bit more podiums, a tiny bit more consistency to really make a true championship run.”

As to what areas that he can close that gap from top fives to get onto the podium, Herta said there’s a few that stand out.

“I think there was a few places that some guys — really just (Alexander) Rossi that I was comparing to, there were two rounds in particular that he was able to get a little bit better fuel mileage without being too much slower than I was,” he said. “He was able to go a lap longer at some of the places. That’s kind of like the key for me this year.

“Obviously I think everybody understands how important pit stop cycles are in INDYCAR, and strategy, it makes or breaks the race. Being able to save that little bit more fuel, still be in touch with the leaders, can open a whole new array of strategy options for you during the race.”

His former teammate in O’Ward finished fourth in last year’s standings. He too has spent a lot of time dissection how to get to victory lane and be in the hunt for a championship come Long Beach.

“We want to win races,” O’Ward said. “We want to be consistently fighting for podiums, and we want to be there. We want to be contenders every single race weekend.

“I think in doing so, that’ll put us in a position at the end of the year to fight for the championship. That is the goal. I want to get to Long Beach having a possibility to win the championship. That’s why we do this, man. We do this to win races, win championships. The team has been working really, really hard to just make everything that we had last year better.

“Me as a driver, I’m just trying to do everything I can to be better physically, mentally, preparation-wise, honestly anything I can do that will make my life and the team’s life easier at the race weekend, I’m all for it.”

As to how he’s going to improve between 2020 and 2021, O’Ward said that he spent a lot of time rewatching how he lost races a year ago. Ask any successful racer, it’s the losses that are remembered more than the wins. In doing so, a few things stood out. Mix that with areas to where they can improve themselves and you get what should be a race win on the horizon for the No. 5 Chevrolet.

“I rewatched every race where we were in contention, both Iowa races, both Gateway races, Road America. Just from things that I learned last year, you qualify up front, you make your life so much easier,” he said.

“Another thing is that pit stops are huge in INDYCAR racing. I lost a lot of my race wins because we didn’t execute in the pits, and that’s huge. I feel like our pace was very, very strong. I think we were very strong in many places that we went to all year.

“But where we need to push this year, and we may need to make sure if we have a mistake it has to be minimized, is in the pits, and me as a driver just do my job. I know that if we can accomplish that, we will get race wins because if the pace is there, just like last year but maybe even a little bit better, qualifying further up front should make it easier on us, every single pit stop, execute, execute, execute. I think that’s what’s going to make us be in contention by the end of the year.

“Last year getting to St. Pete, I think second was the best we could have done. But we want to get to Long Beach knowing that there is a possibility of being able to win the championship. That is the goal.”

In the case for VeeKay and Palou, VeeKay is back with ECR while Palou shifts to Ganassi.

“Yeah, the target is to win some races, to fight for the championship,” Palou said. “We know we have the resources. We know that we have all the engineers, all the mechanics, the crew chief. We know we have the car. We know we have the sponsors. And we know we have everything to win. Now it’s all up to us.

“I think this year there’s, like, 12 drivers that are in the same position, with really good cars, some experience and with the hunger to win. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll try to make it.

“I think having a rookie year, that’s going to help a lot personally, mainly because I don’t have to worry like the basic things about how is the weekend schedule, like what do we have to do during a weekend, what’s the new tracks I have to be. I’m still going to have some new tracks to learn, but there’s going to be less than in 2020 for sure.

“I just think I’m a bit more prepared for sure. I have a better car. I have better data because now I have three teammates. Last year I had only one, so I have more information. One of them is a six-time INDYCAR champion, the other is a seven-time NASCAR champion, and then there’s Marcus and Tony, as well, depending on the race.

“Yeah, I think I have everything ready and set to have a good year.”

For VeeKay, his season is all about continuity. He has the same car, the same teammates, the same boss. His second year in INDYCAR is about improving from his first.

“I’m a whole different driver now,” said the Dutch driver. “Of course I only had Road to Indy experience before my rookie season started, but now I have I think it’s 14 INDYCAR races under my belt.

“Yeah, it’s something I’m very happy with and I can really — I could already see last season that throughout the season I made so much progress. Yeah, I think we had a very steep learning curve last year, and my job is to make sure that steep learning curve keeps staying as steep as it is now throughout the season.”

As to that progress? What changes did he notice that he had to make between seasons?

“Well, I found out that finishing a race is quite important, so I will always race as hard as I can, as fair as I can,” said VeeKay. “But definitely don’t take any risk, any unnecessary risk.

“Beginning of the season I was just really aggressive. Came away with it a few times, but also in Texas it was just too much. I definitely learned a lot from those races, and yeah, it made me a complete driver.

“I think now, yeah, I’ll have to make sure I keep it all going, and yeah, finish as well as possible every race.”

VeeKay, says that another aspect that he could be better is just his commitment levels. You don’t know what you don’t know as a rookie. Now that he’s experienced it, he says that he can give more to this season.

“Well, I think of course full commitment. It’s not just something that you’re driving INDYCAR. You just really have to give it everything, in your personal life, but in any way possible.

“Coming into the race weekends, it’s not just another race weekend. We’ve got to make sure I’m fully prepared. I know everything that the engineers know from past years, even though I’ve maybe done no races on that track. But there’s data from before.”

He says that his advisor, Arie Luyendyk Sr., noticed that the aggression level could be tempered down too.

“Well, being a little too aggressive on an oval,” VeeKay said on what Luyendyk has told him. “It’s basically always that because he’s the king at that. And yeah, just little things that — little tricks that save you a lot of time on ovals, like with setting up the car and feeling what’s the car going to do, because you don’t have a lot of time when you’re coming to the race. And obviously setup is so important. If you can really maximize that time, yeah, it’s super valuable.”

His owner Ed Carpenter, said that VeeKay has grown a lot since that aggression got the best of him in Texas.

“You never know fully what to expect,” Carpenter said of getting a rookie driver. “Based on what we had seen with his talent and ability prior to Texas, I was fairly confident in where his potential was.

“That’s what was so frustrating about Texas for a lot of reasons. We had talked about a lot of things, and that definitely didn’t go to plan. The best part about that was I had my public reaction, which was actually better than my private reaction to Rinus. But his ability to respond, to realize his mistakes, have ownership of his mistakes and move forward, I think you saw him get stronger and stronger as the season went on.

“He’s still 20. He’s got a lot to learn. He knows that. But he works extremely hard on the track, off the track, and I have no doubt we’re going to continue to see his ability to show his talents on a more consistent basis. Hopefully we’ll be winning races together soon.

“I think coming in last year as a rookie, as prepared as you are, it’s still always a giant jump from Lights to INDYCAR. He had been to a lot of the tracks, hadn’t been to a lot of the tracks, getting to know the team. The cars are more complicated. There’s a lot more things that we can do to these cars than anything he’s ever driven. A lot of that first year is just learning to communicate and for him to speak our language within the team.

“All of that he’s comfortable with now. He’s been involved in knowing what we’re developing and what we’re trying to accomplish with areas of improvement as a team and for him personally, having had a season to evaluate all those things for him.

“I think that’s natural as you develop as a driver, to have some more command. That comes with being comfortable in your own environment and just understanding the flow of the season and what we’re trying to do.

“He’s definitely showing growth. That’s great. There’s still a long ways to go. Hopefully we’ll have a successful year.”

VeeKay hopes that he can be a frontrunner regularly in 2021 too. He hopes that he can be one of the favorites every race. The goal is a consistent top five contender.

“Once you’re in that position, I think there will — in those 17 races, there will be an opportunity where you can go for that race win where everything goes your way,” continued VeeKay. “We just have to make sure we have the pace. I know we’ve got the strategies, and just me being the driver I am that got a podium in Indy, and yeah, well, the driver I was last year.

“I think if I just keep doing what I’m doing and have the team keep putting in the work that they did in the off-season, I think we can really run at the front, and yeah, hopefully go for podiums.

“Hopefully that first win, that’s something I really want to go for. We’ll see how that goes. But yeah, I’m fully committed for the season.”

James Hinchcliffe said that “as the years have gone on and the cars progress and develop a certain way, and then like we’ve talked about the talent pool in the series is getting deeper and deeper, you do have to make some adjustments because things are more challenging, areas you need to focus on more, because you have to maximize every single area of your job as a team, as a unit, to be victorious on a Sunday.

“Yeah, you’ve had to put in a little extra effort as the series gets more and more competitive, and that’s awesome. I love that.”

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