Top 5 storylines for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season

5. Youth Movement

The stars of the series are coming along nicely. The INDYCAR Series has a great mix of phenomenal veterans and a young crop of drivers that are already showing promise despite not much experience at open wheel’s top level. 

The future of the NTT IndyCar Series is as bright as ever. Josef Newgarden just turned 30 and nearly won his third championship in four years last year. Rossi 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 is only 20 too. 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 last season. VeeKay, closed out 2020 with five top 11 finishes in his last seven races run.

Colton Herta just turned 21 last month and has 10 top five finishes in his career and finished third in points in 2020. Another 21 year old in Pato O’Ward was Rookie of the Year for the Indy 500 and finished fifth in points. He had 10 top 10 finishes in 14 races run in 2020 including four podiums and six top fives. 29 year old Felix Rosenqvist won in Road America and had five top 10’s.


The future is bright in INDYCAR. Plus, just look at this year’s Rookie Class overall.

Where last year was different was that those 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 in 2020. Now they have a full years experience to mix with Rossi, Newgarden, O’Ward, Herta and others. 


4. TV Contract

The series’ deal with NBC Sports is up at seasons end. With racing being shown that they can sustain a pandemic and race still even if something as crazy as a pandemic happens again, the value is high. INDYCAR’s numbers have been trending up for the last several years, so combine both factors and you can see why the series’ contract being up now is perfect timing. 

Translation?

They’re due for a raise. 

NBC Sports has been a great provider for the series, but they’re moving away from their sports network. Their Peacock service is behind a paywall. I don’t think INDYCAR is in a position to move races to that network right now. They need to be on regular TV and without SN past this year, what does that look like?

 If I’m INDYCAR, I’d negotiate the hell out of the contract for 2022. NBC has been a great partner and its been great to have every race on one network. But, for this sport, they can’t afford to have their live races be placed behind a paywall. That’s simple. It absolutely cannot happen. 

If they remain with NBC though for the next deal, it’s best that all races are either on NBC or USA. Period. If you want to keep practices and qualifying on Peacock, then so be it. But to have races behind a paywall isn’t going to end well unfortunately for this fan base. You will lose fans. The races on NBCSN are in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. Now, you’re taking people out of those hundreds of thousands who absolutely aren’t going to buy NBC Peacock. That’s going to be fact. You will lose more fans in this option from tuning in. 

That’s why they have to look outside of NBC in order to see what else is out there first. 

INDYCAR can be very valuable to a TV provider as they’d come cheaper than NASCAR and are a rising sport still. The thing for them is, will NBC offer more to INDYCAR and give them the streaming rights back than the others? Remember, ESPN/ABC didn’t pay as much as NBC and surely didn’t promote them like they should have. Do you really want to go back to the way it was with them? They only wanted the Indy 500 and wanting really nothing to do with INDYCAR past that. You also can’t go back to that happening again as all the races outside of Indy are valuable too.

Is it better to get paid more and the higher exposure even if some races are behind a paywall? Is it better to have your secondary races on USA? Is it better to be on another major sports only network but not get the attention from that said network either?

The key to this 2022 contract is where the secondary network comes in. If it’s NBC, is INDYCAR’s secondary network USA or Peacock? What’s the price tag for that option and how does that affect this fan base?

If it’s ABC/ESPN, you know all races would be on ABC, ESPN or ESPN 2. But, what’s the marketing side look like for this and how much are they willing to pay? The ratings could be higher on ESPN 2 than USA and it’s certainly better to be on that platform than potentially behind a paywall, but will ABC/ESPN pay what NBC would be willing to and which option helps grow the fan base, not further diminish it?

What about Fox Sports or CBS? They each have their own sports networks, much like NBCSN. What would they be willing to pay for INDYCAR. 

Racing has shown that they can be pandemic proof and if INDYCAR is going to survive another pandemic, they need to get a good TV deal. They’ve got a great playbook on how to still go on even under dire circumstances. Don’t think that won’t play into as a negotiation chip. With stick-and-ball sports still very susceptible to any future viruses, racing has shown that they can keep going and INDYCAR has the first contract up for grabs among them.

TV networks do notice that. In a day and age where TV rings king, to have a sport that can keep going and be live will play a pivotal role.

INDYCAR has to do the right thing with their contract up first. This decision for 2022 is going to pave their future even further. We know being behind a paywall isn’t ideal. But if NBC is willing to pay far more than anyone else, is being behind a paywall better than not being marketed well and losing fans because they don’t know when and where to watch your races?

This is arguably one of the biggest stories heading into the 2021 INDYCAR season. 



3. Newgarden vs. Dixon Again? Can Anyone Challenge Them?

I don’t see why we’re not going to go to the west coast swing in September and these two drivers not be mixing it up for the championship again. Between them, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon have now won four straight INDYCAR titles and five in the last six years. Why stop now?

Since 2017, the year this dominance began, no one has won as many races as Newgarden (15). He’s won 23-percent of the time. Dixon, is tied for second with Will Power at 10 a piece. No one else has more than seven. Between this trio, they’ve won 53-percent of the races over the last three yers with Dixon and Power winning 16-percent of the time each too. 

So, will we get a fifth straight year of one of these drivers winning the title? The odds are great for it. The championship runs through Dixon and/or Newgarden but I don’t see why Power, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud or Colton Herta can’t make this a fight with them. 

First off, if you factor in Pagenaud and Power, no one outside of them and Dixon/Newgarden have won a championship since Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012. That’s eight straight years of Dixon, Newgarden, Power and Pagenaud winning. 

Plus, if you take out the bad luck from Power and Rossi in 2020, then they’d have legitimate cases anyways. From electrical failures, tires falling off and badly timed cautions, both of them have had their fair share of bad luck. 

But, when luck was on their side, they’ve had podium potential. 

Herta, has been consistent in his improvement from Year 1 to Year 2. If he continues this trend up, he’s going to be fighting for a title in 2021.


Also, all three are hot right now. Power has two wins in the last five races. Rossi, has five podiums in his last six races while Herta had a top 10 in all but two race weekend (Iowa/St. Pete) to go along with three top four’s in his last four starts of 2020. 

Once Pagenaud went out of the championship hunt, they started focusing on 2021. Did what they learn pay off?

Rossi and Pagenaud have each won six times over the last three years, trailing only Newgarden, Dixon and Power. Herta, has won three times with Takuma Sato’s five trips to victory lane the only driver not mentioned yet. 

This could be a six driver race for the championship in 2021. If RLL can continue closing the gap, maybe that number jumps to eight. 



2. How Close Will Dixon/Power Rise Up Record Books?

Scott Dixon and Will Power are generational drivers. I think we’ll look back on this era and one could argue that this was the Foyt vs. Andretti rivalry of the 21st century. 

When looking at the top of all the major statistical categories for the series, Dixon and Power’s name is found near the top of them all. How much closer to the top can each get in them in 2021?

Dixon now has six championships. Only AJ Foyt has more at seven. Can Dixon tie him for that mark next year?

Dixon, has 50 wins to go along with those six titles. That’s two shy of Mario Andretti’s 52 for second most all-time. AJ Foyt’s 67 wins may be out of reach, but he can at the very least get to second. Out of the last 18 seasons, Dixon has had at the very least two victories in 16 of them including 14 of the last 15 years. Safe to say he at least ties Andretti in 2021 for second most wins ever.

He’s also scored 48 runner-up finishes over the course of his career. Only Andretti (56) has more. Dixon has had eight runner-up finishes the last two years combined. So, he has a great shot of getting passed Andretti very soon. 

Combine those, Dixon has 98 top two finishes in INDYCAR history. Andretti has 108 but it took him 407 starts to do so. Sunday, was Dixon’s 335th career start. Foyt, has 97 career top two finishes but has done so in 369 starts.

As you can see, Dixon has a better percentage at 29-percent of all starts landing him a top two finish. Unser, has a 27-percent mark with Foyt holding a 26-percent rate. The next best is Bobby Unser (25%) with 65 top two finishes. The next most top two finishes overall? Michael Andretti with 76.

Dixon, is 22 clear of that and still has more years left in him.

Dixon also has 123 podiums, second most. Andretti has 144. Dixon has had 26 podiums in the last three years, so that’s attainable too. In terms of top fives, Dixon has 174. Andretti has 194.

Top three in literally every major statistical category. Championships (2nd), wins (3rd), second place finishes (2nd), podiums (2nd) and top five’s (2nd).

You can’t discredit Dixon as a generational talent.

He can tie Foyt for championships and move past Andretti for wins in 2021. 

Power, can rise too. He has 39 wins, tied with Al Unser for fifth all-time. Power, has had at least one win for 14 straight years now. If that trend holds true, then he moves out of a tie with Unser in career wins. Can he get at least three and tie or move past Michael Andretti for fourth? Since 2010, he’s won at least two races in every year minus one. He won two races both in 2019 and 2020 but had won three times in 2017 and 2018 too. I think he can threaten Andretti’s fourth place ranking in career wins next year. 

Can he get to Mario Andretti’s pole mark? He’s five shy right now. He won five poles this year, three in 2019 and four more in 2017. He won six poles in 2016. Power, may not get to the top spot in pole rankings next year but he can make it close. 



1. Jimmie Johnson/Romain Grosjean/Scott McLaughlin’s Debut

Has their ever been a more talented rookie class in racing? Scott McLaughlin has won three Supercars championships and 56 races. Jimmie Johnson has 83 Cup wins and seven titles. The duo will race for the two top teams in the sport in Penske and Ganassi respectively in 2021.

Then, you get a former F1 driver in Romain Grosjean joining the mix with Dale Coyne Racing. 

A seven-time Cup champion, a multi time Super Car champion and a F1 veteran. This is the talk of the town heading to the season. 

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