Top 5 things to watch for the final 6 races of the NTT IndyCar Series season

Following a month off, the NTT IndyCar Series is back in action this weekend in the highly anticipated race on the streets of Nashville. The Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) is the start of the final six race stretch to the finish including three straight weeks now with Nashville, the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix on the Indy road course (Aug. 14) and the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (Aug. 21) taking place over three straight weekends. Then, you get a couple more weeks off before the three week west coast swing to wrap things up in Portland (Sept. 12), Laguna Seca (Sept. 19) and Long Beach (Sept. 26).

With that said, these are the top five things to watch out for during the final six races.


Honda vs. Chevy

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 triumphs for Honda.

But, once the new car came out in 2018, it’s been all Honda ever since. They’ve now won all three manufacturers championships since 2018 including a rout of Chevrolet last season and currently leading them 863-790 in the standings this year. They also went 1-2-3-4 in the Indy 500 in 2020 and placed eight cars in the Fast Nine for qualifying for that race too. They went 1-2 at Indy this year and had nine of the top 11 starting spots again.

Really, from 2018 through now, Honda has not only evened the playing field, they’ve since taken the advantage. 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 but now 6-4 so far in 2021. With the same car this time around, it’s Honda 31, Chevrolet 26. In the three year span of the Aerokits from 2015 through 2017, it was Chevy 34, Honda 15.



Championship Race, Ganassi vs. Everyone Else

Chip Ganassi Racing has three drivers in the top five of the championship. Is this their title to lose?

Right now, Alex Palou holds a 39 point advantage over Pato O’Ward in the championship standings after 10 races. Scott Dixon (-56) and Josef Newgarden (-69) are right behind with six races remaining. No one else is within 100 points with this likely being a four horse race for the Astor Cup.

Can Palou and O’Ward hold Dixon and Newgarden off? Between them, Newgarden and Dixon have won four straight INDYCAR titles and five in the last six years.

Also, since 2017, the year this dominance began, no one has won as many races as Newgarden (16). He’s won almost 22-percent of the time. Dixon, has won 11 times himself, second most. Other than Will Power (10) no one else has more than seven. Between this trio, they’ve won 48-percent of the races over the last three years.

So, will we get a fifth straight year of one of these drivers winning the title?

Well, if Palou or O’Ward can win, it would be historic. O’Ward would become the youngest series champion ever breaking Sam Hornish Jr’s record of 22 years, 3 months, 4 days in 2001. He is the second youngest at 23 years, 2 months and 13 days a year later in 2002.

O’Ward just turned 21 this past spring.

Palou is only 24. He turned that on April 1. If he could win the title, he’d be the seventh youngest ever.

Nevertheless, only six times has someone under the age of 27 won this title. They’re the only two drivers to have won multiple times this year.

Palou, has five podiums in his last six races on the season and seven top fives in 10 races run this year. That’s going to be a hard guy to catch if he keeps that up but four of the final six tracks he’s never raced on either.

Same deal for O’Ward but he’s also sliding backwards. He may be second in points but has not finished on the podium in four of his last six starts. He was ninth in Road America and eight in Mid-Ohio. Natural road courses aren’t their strength right now and three of the next five races are on them.

Dixon, has two podiums all year but also six top fives to his credit too. He won on the Indy road course a year ago and also won in Gateway as well so he too can have a big month ahead.

Newgarden may be the biggest threat to Palou though. He’s gotten hot again. The Team Penske driver finally put the storied organization in victory lane last month in the last race run for the NTT IndyCar Series at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Now though, can Newgarden mount a hell of an end of season comeback and win his third Astor Cup championship trophy in the last five years?

Right now, Newgarden trails championship points leader Alex Palou by 69. He has led the most laps in each of the last three races to go along with three straight poles. He led the first 67 laps in Belle Isle 2 but was on the wrong end of tire strategy and passed with three laps-to-go. He led 32 of 55 laps in Road America but his car had a mechanical malfunction while leading on the final restart with two laps left. In Mid-Ohio, he put it all together for his first win of 2021 after leading 73 of 80 laps that day.

He’s led 172 of the last 205 laps (84%) on the season and could stage a fight for the title come September. It continues on his home race in an inaugural street event on the streets of Nashville. Out of the last nine street races, only Newgarden has won on them multiple times (3).

He goes from there to the Indy road course next week in a track that he won at last year. Then, it’s to World Wide Technology Raceway to where he’s the only driver to win multiple times on that 1.25-mile track including last year too.

If there’s a time for a comeback, it’s this month. He made up 117 points in six races last year including five top four finishes — four of those in the top two in that span.

Penske and Ganassi have combined to win the last eight series titles. They have five of the top six right now in points. Throw in Andretti and you get the last 18 straight series titles going to the “Big 3.” The last team not of Penske, Ganassi or Andretti to win an INDYCAR title was Panther Racing via Sam Hornish Jr. in 2002.



Can Power Keep Win Streak Going?

Will Power has been close to victory a couple of times this year. Most notably in Belle Isle. Close doesn’t cut it though. That has him winless this year after 10 races. Can he reach victory lane over the final six races and extend his streak to 15 straight years with at least one win?

He’s usually very good at the end of seasons with three podiums in the last five races in 2017, four podiums in the final five in 2018, three top twos in the final four races of 2019 and two wins in the final five races last year. It’s Will Power time.


How Many Winners Will We End Up With?

We’ve had 10 races run this season with eight different winners from six different teams. How many more do we get in the final six races of the year? Team Penske is just 1-foor-9. Andretti Autosport has just one win via Colton Herta. Is that the only driver that’s going to win for them?

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 both can still get at least one win in 2021 as they plus Josef Newgarden have had five runner-up finishes between them in 10 races run.

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 31 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 41 races while Hinchcliffe’s streak is a 39 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 seven top seven finishes in 10 tries this season. He’s not won in the last 67 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 races. That’s astounding unless someone that’s already won gets hot which is entirely possible too.

But I feel like Newgarden and his momentum he’s riding heading to his home race in Nashville feels too perfect. I then feel like Power wins the Indy road course followed by Newgarden again in Gateway.

Out west, I can see Rossi winning one of the three, Rahal another and Palou the other one left.


Silly Season

Now that the TV deal is solidified with the entitlement sponsor signed as well, the other big domino left for the future is Silly Season. It was rather quiet for much of the year with the only big announcement being Will Power remaining at Team Penske. Then recently, Meyer Shank Racing announced that Helio Castroneves will drive one of their two cars as the team will officially expand to a two-car outfit for the 2022 season. The caveat is that Jack Harvey won’t be back with the team. While some may think it was Castroneves pushing Harvey out of his ride, reality is it was Harvey who elected to leave instead.

Castroneves will pilot the current part time ride (No. 06 Honda) which will become full time next year. The No. 60 Honda that Harvey’s held the keys to since 2018 will be turned over to someone else. That ride was going to be Harvey’s again, but the Brit has since found something else for next year which will be announced soon.

So, now that a major domino has fallen, what’s left? Well, buckle up because the INDYCAR silly season will rival NASCAR’s in the drama department.

Several big named rides will become available with some big notable free agents after them. Lets go with what we know is secured for in 2022.


Andretti Autosport has eyes on four full time cars again and would only expand back to a fifth if the money is right. Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta are under contract for next year and aren’t going anywhere. MSR has Castroneves. Chip Ganassi Racing will have Scott Dixon back and there’s no way Alex Palou is going anywhere. Jimmie Johnson is back in whatever capacity he wants while Tony Kanaan is also under contract. I also don’t see Ganassi allowing Marcus Ericsson to get away since he keeps improving and also brings money. More on this team in a bit.

Graham Rahal is obviously back with RLL. Josef Newgarden, Scott McLaughlin and Power are returning to Team Penske. Pato O’Ward will be coming back to Arrow McLaren SP. Rinus VeeKay is back full time with Ed Carpenter Racing while Ed Carpenter himself should return for all ovals.

That’s the confirmed list.

The open rides is to where this gets interesting.

There’s 11 existing rides open. There’s potential for three teams expanding that don’t have drivers tied to them. There’s also 27 drivers mentioned vying for those seats. As you can tell, despite every big outlet reporting “insert driver here* is close to a ride, don’t necessarily put much stock in that. They’re being used by drivers and their agents around them to keep their names in the mix for seats but there’s not enough seats for every driver named to stay in the series. You have to dig deeper to figure out who’s really in the mix or who’s not.

You have veterans like Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Sebastien Bourdais, Takuma Sato, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball without rides for next year. You have young drivers like Conor Daly, Jack Harvey, Santino Ferrucci, Felix Rosenqvist, Ed Jones, Oliver Askew, Spencer Pigot, Sage Karam and Dalton Kellett trying to secure rides. Then you have drivers with overseas experience like Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg, Alex Albon, Kevin Magnussen, Tatiana Calderón, Juan-Manuel Correa and Antonio Felix da Costa in the mix. Finally, Indy Lights drivers in Kyle Kirkwood, Devlin De Francesco, David Malukas and Linus Lundqvist are all throwing their names into the hat.

That’s a strong field just in the free agent market, but there’s not 27 seats for the taking for them. So, who ends up still standing when the music stops?

Andretti Autosport has two rides to fill. Do either Ryan Hunter-Reay or James Hinchcliffe come back? Hunter-Reay has been tied to DHL with Hinchcliffe in Genesys. Even if both have those sponsors for 2022, are they welcomed? Sounds like both are on their ways out.

The talent level is there for both though and they should land on their feet somewhere else. Their talent isn’t being questioned. The bad luck has plagued them which has led to dismal seasons for both. It seems as if AA is wanting a partial reset for their organization as a result. Where do they go from here? Is it Oliver Askew? What about Sage Karam (Andretti ties), Kevin Magnussen or Romain Grosjean? All are viable options and have been linked to AA at some point. So could Kyle Kirkwood should he win the Indy Lights championship this year. If not here, he could very well end up in the second Shank car too.

Alex Albon has also emerged as a front runner to grab one of the season as well as Devlin De Francesco. Translation? The two open seats are likely going to come down to ex F1 drivers in Grosjean and Albon or Indy Lights drivers Kirkwood or De Francesco or a combo of half of them.

This is likely the top domino standing right now.

Same for Penske because Simon Pagenaud is a hell of a racer, a champion for both the series and the Indy 500 at that. Can he and Penske work out a deal? If not, Pagenaud should certainly be on everyone’s list to fill a ride at any team and open a largely wanted ride which makes this domino No. 2.

Arrow McLaren SP’s second car makes the most sense for Pagenaud if he doesn’t return to Penske but how do you turn Penske down? The future past 2022 and whether he’s in sports cars for them or INDYCAR’s is likely what’s being negotiated as you know he’d much rather stay here on a long term deal but just how long is Penske willing to offer and what’s Penske’s view on Pagenaud past next season? If he doesn’t return, does Penske just go back to three cars, which they’d honestly prefer to run, or fill Pagenaud’s ride? Rossi and VeeKay would be potential drivers for them and both would be free agents past next season. I sense if Pagenaud doesn’t return, the team may go back to three cars before making a run at either Rossi or VeeKay at this time next year. This ride is likely Pagenaud’s or no one’se for 2022.


That then would lead to AMSP and what they do. They’d like to have Felix Rosenqvist back but you could also get a Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay, Harvey, Grosjean, Sato, Ferrucci or Kevin Magnussen on the open market too. They don’t want to have a turnstile of drivers come though this ride as if the 7 car is anyone but Rosenqvist next year, it would be the third full time driver in as many years. Also, there’s a great possibility of them expanding to a third full time car too. That’s why this is a team everyone is interested in since its a paid ride and they’ve shown to have the speed to contend for a championship on the 5 car. Why not the 7?

Speaking of Magnussen, Ganassi would obviously love to keep him inside his walls. But, how? This is where it gets intriguing there with likely all the full time seats staying status quo. The question is, what does Jimmie Johnson do? If he runs ovals, the 48 car is his full time. Does that push Kanaan to a fifth Indy 500 only ride? Or, does Ganassi just expand to a fifth full time team and have then Kanaan and Magnussen split the ride as Kanaan and Johnson have done this year? Do they run six cars, five full time and a sixth for ovals only for Kanaan? The sell of the NASCAR team gives them monetary options to grow in INDYCAR as a result of that if they want to.

For RLL, I don’t see Takuma Sato leaving them at all but rumors are starting to surface saying otherwise. If he leaves, I doubt he’d be a full time driver since Andretti’s open rides don’t appear to have Sato’s name attached to them. He won’t be racing for Chevy or their teams so his opportunities are limited and why take a step back? RLL seems like the best fit but it doesn’t sound anymore like he’s a potential to remain which is arguably one of the more shocking deals of this silly season.

For the third seat, Santino Ferrucci makes the most sense. He’s raced in that car every race its run thus far and in all those races, while he’s tore up some equipment in practices or qualifying, he’s still finished in the top 10 too. Harvey’s name is being mentioned as an RLL candidate too.

Right now, it sounds as if it’s Rahal and Harvey in two of the seats with Ferrucci, Askew or a few other option available for that third car.

MSR has their second ride to fill while the final Honda team is Dale Coyne Racing. They’re interesting in that I think Grosjean gets scooped up elsewhere leaving both cars open. Does Vasser-Sullivan return for the 18 car? That’s a rumor being floated around the paddock that they may leave and join another partnership with someone else or even go off on their own. Right now, the 18 and 51 are open for next season and I think you’ll see two new drivers in each should these current partnerships remains. Zach Veach is the lead candidate to land in the 18, what about the 51?

Hinchcliffe would be a good option for that car leaving Ed Jones out of a ride now.

For the Chevy teams that we’ve not talked about yet, Foyt likely brings back Sebastien Bourdais but that second ride is open for the taking.

ECR likes Conor Daly and I do think if Air Force is willing to come back and I don’t see why they wouldn’t, they remain status quo again. Carpenter told me that their improvement this season from last is the continuity. Imagine if they run it back for a third straight year? The only thing here is, can Ed find enough funding to run two full time cars (VeeKay/Daly) and just a third car for him on ovals only?

Nico Hulkenberg has emerged as a potential for ECR too.

The other team is Carlin. I think Max Chilton ends up back with them but do they finally bring that second car back out?

This is just existing teams. Does Paretta and Top Gun come back on a larger scale? They’re eyeing that. Does Dreyer & Reinbold finally race outside Indy 500? Does Carlin and ECR expand additional cars? Does Ganassi? Does Vasser Sullivan go out on their own?

Juncos has a chassis again and could be making a return as soon as this season. What’s their status for 2022?

There’s a potential that the full time entry list can be north of 28 cars with seeing some races push 30+ including part time rides.

My early predictions would be Andretti getting Grosjean and Albon. Kirkwood goes to MSR. Pagenaud stays put at Penske. ECR stats status quo. So does Carlin. DCR keeps Vasser’s support but goes with Zach Veach and Hinchcliffe replaces the departing Grosjean. RLL gets Harvey for the 2nd seat and Ferrucci in the third. Foyt retains Bourdais but grabs Malukas or Lundqvist as their second driver.

Sato and Hunter-Reay are Indy only seats.


Current Open Rides (11)

AJ Foyt Racing (2) – No. 4, No. 14

Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing (2) – No. 30, No. 45

Andretti Autosport (2) – No. 28, No. 29

Meyer Shank Racing (1) – No. 60

Team Penske (1) – No. 22

Arrow McLaren SP (1) – No. 7

Ed Carpenter Racing (1) – No. 20 (part time ride)

Carlin (1) – No. 59 (part time ride)


Free Agents

Simon Pagenaud

Romain Grosjean

Takuma Sato

Ryan Hunter-Reay

James Hinchcliffe

Santino Ferrucci

Conor Daly

Felix Rosenqvist

Jack Harvey

Ed Jones

Sage Karam

Oliver Askew

Spencer Pigot

Charlie Kimball

Max Chilton

Dalton Kellett

Nico Hulkenberg

Alex Albon

Kyle Kirkwood

Devlin De Franceso

David Malukas

Linus Lundqvist


Expansion?

3rd car at Arrow McLaren SP

2nd car at Carlin

2nd full time car at Ed Carpenter Racing

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

Paretta Autosport

Top Gun

Juncos


Odds And Ins

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 Nashville, 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, Penske and Andretti each have one victory in 10 races run. We’ve seen six different teams win the first 10 races from eight 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 nine times, tops in the series. Penske has won eight. 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 1-for-10 this season? Has Arrow McLaren SP closed the gap to the “Big 3” and in fact passed both RLL and Andretti? One could say, yes.

Pato O’Ward is one of only two multi time winners this season and currently lands second in points 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?


Honorable Mention

  • Starting Position Matters – The front row won half of the races (7-for-14) last year 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 in 2020. All but two races were won from a top 10 starting spot all season long. For 2021, we’ve had just two front row starters (2-for-10), both coming from the pole, but five of the 10 came from the top 2 Rows and eight of the 10 from the top 10.
  • We had 4 drivers win from the pole in 2020, five in 2019 and six in 2018. The number is getting smaller and smaller by the year as we have two this year so far.
  • We’ve not had a single instance in 2021 where a single organization has finished 1-2. We had three last year, two by Penske and the other a 1-2-3 effort by Andretti in Mid-Ohio.
  • Josef Newgarden is now the all-time winningest active American driver with 19 wins.
  • Will Power is the all-time winningest driver in Team Penske INDYCAR history at 36. Next win moves him out of a tie with Al Unser for fifth most ever and will be his 40th of his career.
  • Scott Dixon is 1 win shy of tying Mario Andretti for second most on the all-time wins list. The last time he finished the year off with just one win was in 2017. 14 of the last 15 years entering 2021, he’s had at least 2 wins each season.
  • Dixon is 1 championship shy of tying AJ Foyt for most all-time.
  • Combined, Power, Newgarden and Dixon have just two wins in 10 starts this season.

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