INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: Top 5 burning questions at the midway point of the 2021 season

Can O’Ward/Palou Or Anyone Else Hold Off Dixon/Newgarden For The Title?

One of the main storylines heading into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season was can anyone top Scott Dixon or Josef Newgarden for this year’s championship. Between them, Newgarden and 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). That’s 21% of the time he’s winning. Dixon, is second with 11. Other than Will Power’s 10, no one else has more than seven. Between this trio they’ve won 49% of the races over the last three years with Dixon and Power winning 15-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. Both sit third (Dixon) and fourth (Newgarden) in the standings at the midway point. The only drivers in front of them are Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou. Dixon, is 32 points behind Palou and 33 behind O’Ward. Newgarden, is 50 behind Palou and 51 behind O’Ward.

Can the two young drivers hold off Dixon and Newgarden? Does anyone else join the party?

O’Ward told me last week that he learned a lot from being in the championship fight last year and one of which involved Dixon.

“Yeah, what I learned was that you have to beat the master of consistency at his own game in order to win the championship,” O’Ward told me last Wednesday afternoon. “I think that’s the best way to put it. We just need to outscore him as much as we can every weekend. I think that’s the best thing we can do in order to have a shot at the championship at Long Beach.”

O’Ward says that it’s not all about Dixon for this year either. It may be tougher to win the championship in 2021 than it was in 2020.

“Man, it’s so tight this year that I feel like the field is stacked,” he continued. “It’s full of many very talented drivers. I don’t think it’s ever been harder. I don’t think it’s ever been this competitive from a driver’s standpoint. This is a true driver’s championship. I don’t think there’s anything harder in the world.

“Whoever is most consistent and most consistently in the podiums and in the top 5s is going to take it at the end of the year.”

O’Ward proved his point in Belle Isle. He finished third on Saturday and won in dramatic fashion on Sunday. Dixon meanwhile, had a Dixon type weekend where he was quiet and scored a pair of top 10’s. O’Ward just did a few spots better each day and look at where he is in the standings now.


Can he sustain that? Can he keep the consistency up when you know Dixon will? The stats may say he’s in his third year but really this is his second as his first season was an abbreviated one. Can the inexperience hold off the experienced?

Same for Palou. This is truly his second season and first with Ganassi. Is it a disadvantage to be in a fight against your teammate for the title?

“No, that’s the opposite because I know he’s going to compete with the same car as me, so I know he’s going to compete with a really good car, and it’s going to be up to us,” Palou said of competing against Dixon, a teammate, for the title this year. “I would prefer him to be on another team so I could know that I have the best team around me.”

On the flip side though, he said that it’s also an advantage to know what Dixon is doing too and have that inside input as well.

“It’s super good to be able to do what he’s doing, to know the strategies they are doing, to know how he’s approaching the weekends,” he continued. “It’s been really helpful for me so far, and it’s going to still be really helpful.

“Yeah, we just keep on trying to do really good results during the race weekends, and we’ll be able to fight for the championship.”

For O’Ward, he may also have a secret weapon at his disposal too.

His new teammate, Felix Rosenqvist, drove for Ganassi last year. He was teammates to Dixon. He also drove that 10 car that Palou is leading the championship in. Can he gain anything from that?

“I feel like every year is a little bit different,” he told me on that subject. “Obviously we can’t plan a championship, but I mean, I feel like Felix and I both know that to win a championship in INDYCAR is just consistency. I don’t think it’s something that’s mysterious or hidden. I don’t know if Felix has any input to it, but I think it’s just about maximizing what you have and trying to maximize points every single weekend and not having crappy weekends. We’ve already had two.

“The Ganassi camp has been strong at every single racetrack. They’re bound to have at least one bad weekend, so we need to make sure we capitalize on that.”

Rosenqvist agrees, but goes into the mind of Ganassi a bit.

“Well, I felt with Scott the thing is pretty much what Pato said. There’s nothing magic,” he said. “He’s just very good everywhere, and he has a lot of weekends where he finished like seventh or eighth and there’s not really a lot of talk about it. But he will have a problem in the beginning of the race, maybe it’ll be like a lap down or something, and then he’ll end up finishing top 10. I think that’s his strength.

“When you have weekends when you win, that’s easy. But those weekends are the important ones for the championship.

“I think also he’s good at making a car for himself that is very consistent, and maybe not the fastest car, like he’s not so often on the pole, but he will always have a car that kind of works everywhere. He has a good way of just making it good enough to be up there every weekend.

“I think that’s one of his big strengths, as well.”

That’s just the three against each other but we’re not talking about Newgarden who has three runner-ups this season and has consistently won multiple times each year since joining Team Penske in 2017.

“I’m sure it’ll happen at some point,” Newgarden said on Sunday about a potential win. “It just hasn’t aligned. Sometimes you get that. You just don’t get everything to line up perfectly. I think we’ve got a lot of the ingredients right. I don’t think we really need to change much, just keep doing our thing.

“I wouldn’t change a thing. Look, you can’t predict these races. You can look like a hero or a zero pretty easily in this sport, so yeah, I would ask anyone to change anything. I think they’re doing all the right stuff, it’s just not worked out.”

With that said, does anyone else sneak in there and challenge them? Simon Pagenaud and Rinus VeeKay are each tied for fifth, 56 points back. VeeKay has won, Pagenaud hasn’t. But, like the other two kids in front of him, VeeKay is just in his second year. Does he have enough to make this a championship race with him invovled?

VeeKay and Pagenaud have been consistently in the top 10. Each have six top 10s’ in eight tries this year. The only problem is, both have just two top fives each between them too. They need to turn those top 10’s into top fives before they can seriously contend for a title.

Same for Colton Herta. He’s ninth, 97 points arrears. Is he too far out? His main goal for 2021 was to turn top fives into podiums. He’s had one podium all year, a win at St. Pete. In order to win a title, he said that you need to win multiple times in a year, like 3-4 at least. Can he go on a little run here in the second half or even if he does, is he too far out?

Same can be said for Graham Rahal. He’s had a great start to 2021. Other than a mid race run in on the streets of St. Pete with Alexander Rossi and his left rear tire literally falling off while exiting pit lane and onto the warmup lane in the Indy 500, he’s had a top seven car at the finish of every race. He has five top five finishes in his last six starts, but only one of those were on the podium.

Marcus Ericsson (-88) finally won but he’s led 15 laps in his INDYCAR career. He’s had five top 10’s this year but the win last Saturday is his only top five.

VeeKay, Pagenaud and Ericsson need to turn their top 10’s into top fives.

Rahal and Herta need to turn their top fives into podiums.

The rest of the drivers are really too far out to realistically challenge for a title this year.

Also, 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.



Who Are The “Big 3” Or Has It Become The “Big 5?”

Heading into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, one could make a strong case that the “Big 3” very much remained in tact. Penske, Ganassi and Andretti were really separating themselves from the rest of the field. We made a case that Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing could have been closing the gap to those three if not making it a “Big 4.”

RLL won the Indy 500 last August and put two cars in the top three that day. But, as we sit here entering this weekend at Road America, who are the “Big 3” anymore? Is it a “Big 5?”

Last year, Ganassi, Penske and Andretti won 13 of the 14 races. RLL won the other. If you go back to 2019, the same three teams won 15 of the 17 events. The only two they didn’t win was by Harding Steinbrenner Racing and Colton Herta but they were aligned with Andretti, so it very well could fall under the Andretti umbrella.

In 2018, they won the final six races. If you go back to the second race of the season in 2018, they won 15 of the last 16 races of 2018. Combined that with 15 of the 17 in 2019 and all 14 in 2020 and that’s 44 of the last 47 races won by the “Big 3” teams entering the 2021 season. The only three races they didn’t win were Iowa (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2018) and COTA/Laguna Seca (HSR in 2019).

That’s it.

But, as we sit here today at the midway mark of the 2021 season, Penske has been shutout and Andretti has just one victory in eight races run. We’ve seen five different teams win the first eight races from seven different drivers.

Can we still call them the “Big 3?”

RLL was closing that gap but they’ve won three times since the start of the 2018 season, all by Takuma Sato. Andretti has won nine times. Ganassi and Penske trump both. So I can see the case of the “Big 3” and everyone else.

But, if you look at the Aeroscreen era, one can make a case that it’s more open. Since the start of last season, Ganassi has won eight times, tops in the series. Penske has won seven with all coming last year. Arrow McLaren SP and Andretti each have two wins while RLL, Ed Carpenter Racing and Meyer Shank Racing have one win each.

It’s really a “Big 2” now but can we really classify that if one of the two teams is 0-for-8 this season? Has Arrow McLaren SP close the gap to the “Big 3” and in fact passed both RLL and Andretti? One could say, yes.

Pato O’Ward is the only multi time winner this season and currently leads the points standings heading into the weekend. That should hold some merit.

So, who is the “Big 3” or is it a “Big 2?” Is it a “Big 5?” Does it have to be anything?



How Many Winners Will We End Up Seeing?

We’ve had eight races with seven different winners from five different teams in 2021. How many more do we get in the final half of the year? Right now, Team Penske is 0-for-8. I can’t see the paddock holding them down for too much longer. Andretti Autosport has just one win via Colton Herta. Is that the only driver that’s going to win for them?

Newgarden, has won at least three races in four straight years now and at least one race in six straight seasons. His teammate Simon Pagenaud has won at least one race in four of the last five years. Then you have Will Power. He’s won at least one race in 14 straight years now too.

I would say all three get at least one win in 2021 as they’ve had five runner-up between them in eight races run and could have swept last weekend in Belle Isle.

That bumps us up to 10 drivers.

Then you have the Andretti Autosport group. Does Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay or James Hinchcliffe find victory lane? Rossi, is riding a 29 race winless streak but other than a winless campaign in 2020, he’s won at least one race in every other season that he’s competed in here. Hunter-Reay hasn’t won in 39 races while Hinchcliffe’s streak is a 37 race drought himself.

I do think at least one of them win though, so lets push this up to 11.

Then you have RLL. Graham Rahal has six top seven finishes in eight tries this season. He’s not won in the last 65 races, but he’s inching closer and closer to ending that streak.

That’s 12 winners.

Then, do we get any more first time winners? We’ve had four already this season. What about Scott McLaughlin, Dalton Kellett, Felix Rosenqvist, Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Ed Jones, Jack Harvey, Romain Grosjean or Pietro Fittipaldi. Do any of these 9 drivers win in 2021?

I think you can make a case for McLaughlin, Rosenqvist, Harvey, Grosjean and Daly. I’d give us maybe 1-2 more first time winners.

That would push us to 13-14 winners in 16-17 races. That’s astounding unless someone that’s already won gets hot which is entirely possible too.


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. The problem, NBC Sports didn’t want to necessarily give them one so INDYCAR went shopping.

Also, 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?

Hence, INDYCAR negotiating 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.

I think both sides were playing a little bit of hard ball just waiting to get through the Indy 500.

This year’s race averaged 5.581 million viewers, the most since the 100th Running in 2016. That makes it the most watched Indy 500 in five years. The race peaked at 7.129 million viewers with Helio Castroneves winning his record tying fourth Indianapolis 500.

That’s huge for a number of factors, but quite possibly the biggest is for those TV contract negotiations.

Right now, the TV contract isn’t known. Mark Miles hopes that at some point this month that they can get a deal done. There were rumors that NBC Sports was out of the running and a new network would pick up the rights, but Roger Penske told us on Carb Day that NBC is absolutely still in play to reup their deal.

I get why some people wondered by INDYCAR was flirting with other TV networks, but they absolutely had to. It was smart business to shop around.

CBS Sports and Fox Sports jumped into the conversations as potential replacements for NBC Sports, but the fact is, nothing is done and this rating for the ‘500 further helps INDYCAR’s cause.

This is the biggest NBC sporting viewership in over a year. It’s the highest rated Indy 500 race since NBC took over the contract. Do they really want to let this go when the series is clearly still on the rise? Whatever their offer was before the Indy 500 weekend, they may want to reconsider upping it.

Same for the other networks. INDYCAR can now ask for more. They can leverage everyone against each other for the highest dollar amount. That’s why NBC Sports has reentered as the favorite to keep the coverage for themselves.

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.

So INDYCAR has done right in waiting but sooner or later a deal has to get done and it will get done. Who is the one with that deal in the end?

NBC Sports by all accounts has reemerged as the one to keep it.



Silly Season?

As we hit the midway mark of 2021, it’s not too early to turn our focus to silly season. This year has been another year of growth for the car counts. We’ve had 24-25 cars on most weekend and that may only rise again for 2022. But, who are some of the main drivers that don’t have deals past this season.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is one. Another is quite possibly Simon Pagenaud as he declined to comment on his contract status earlier this season but by all accounts his contract is up with Team Penske past 2021. Rinus VeeKay will surely get looks for next year but where does he go to better himself. I don’t see Penske adding a car and if they remain at four cars, Pagenaud would be in it. I don’t see Chip Ganassi Racing having any changes other than maybe a fifth part time car so long as Jimmie Johnson ends up being full time. Scott Dixon, Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson should all be back and we know Johnson and Tony Kanaan are part of a two year deal with 2022 being the last.

Does Andretti have any movement? We know Colton Herta is back for the foreseeable future and I don’t see Honda or AA letting Alexander Rossi go. What about Hunter-Reay’s ride? Is James Hinchcliffe back? Kyle Kirkwood is in the hunt for an Indy Lights title, if he does, does he get RHR’s ride or does Andretti use him in a fifth car (the No. 98 entry)? What about Oliver Askew? They have more questions than answers right now.

Arrow McLaren SP isn’t letting Pato O’Ward get away but recent speculation has begun that Felix Rosenqvist could be in hot water. That’s a ride to keep an eye out on.

Graham Rahal isn’t leaving RLL and if they still want him, which I don’t see why they wouldn’t, and Honda keeps the help coming, Takuma Sato should join him as a teammate for a fifth straight season. There’s talks that the third car could be moved to full time status in 2022. Is Santino Ferrucci the leading candidate or do they shop the free agent market around?

You always never know what you’re going to get with Dale Coyne Racing and ECR would love to remain in tact for a third straight year. Can they keep VeeKay and does US Air Force stay around with Conor Daly again to keep him in that organization?

The top of free agency begins with Penske and Pagenaud and the dominos fall from there. If somehow Pagneuad is let go, Arrow McLaren SP, Andretti, ECR and RLL all make sense but that’s only if Penske doesn’t retain him which he said over the weekend that he expected to.

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