INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions championship edition for Long Beach

Is This A Successful Season For The Ganassi Camp Even If They Don’t Win The Championship?

Chip Ganassi Racing has been the team to beat for a majority of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. For much of the year, they’ve had two of the top three drivers in points including featuring three of their four cars being in the top five of points for much of the entire second half of the campaign.

CGR won 2 of the 1st 3 races as well as 6 of the 15 run this season. Heading into the west coast swing the wrap up the year, they had three of the five drivers left to win the title. In saying that, would 2021 be a lost season if they don’t win the title too?

Alex Palou has had eight podiums, nine top five finishes and 11 top 10’s this season. Among that was a runner-up in May 30th’s Indy 500.

Scott Dixon has had four podiums, eight top fives and 11 top 10’s. He also won the pole for the Indianapolis 500.

Marcus Ericsson has scored his first two wins of his career as well as three podiums, three top fives and 12 top 10’s.

Jimmie Johnson and Tony Kanaan have kept the 48 car in the leaders circle money too.

In having said all of that, wouldn’t this season be considered a disappointment if neither of them are hoisting the Astor Cup championship trophy when it’s all said and done on Sunday? But will it?

The title is Palou’s to lose which would make this hard to swallow if I were in their shoes.

Ganassi, has four titles in the last eight years but hasn’t won a championship other than Scott Dixon in this span. That last Ganassi title by someone not named Scott Dixon came a decade ago in 2011 by Dario Franchitti. While this has been a great season for them across the board, I don’t think it’s necessarily a great success if they don’t have some end of season hardware to go along with it.

Was It The 2nd Half Of The Season Or Qualifying Lately To Hinder

Team Penske closed the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season with three consecutive wins to go along with 5 in the last 6 races overall. Many thought they’d pick up where they left off at the start of the 2021 campaign. Instead, it was anything but.

Penske, started the year off 0-for-9. They watched Ganassi dominate victories as well as seeing teams like Meyer Shank Racing, Ed Carpenter Racing and Arrow McLaren SP also reach victory lane. But in the six races since, they’ve now gotten back hot again.

Josef Newgarden gave Penske their first win of the season on July 4 at Mid-Ohio. They’d win 3 of the next 4 after. But, over the west coast swing the qualifying woes have crept back in making us wonder if it was the slow start or qualifying to what would hinder the Captain’s 4th championship in the last 6 years?

Newgarden had nine top 10 qualifying spots in the first 10 races run including three straight poles entering the summer break. He’s come back after that with four of his last five qualifying 12th or worse.

What happened?

Newgarden wishes he knows as you combine the first half start and the second half qualifying woes and you get what you see with Newgarden being 48 points out.

“Yeah, I think there was definitely a lot of hullabaloo about our performance in the beginning of the season, just Team Penske in general, what were we doing, what were we,” he said. “I felt like we had good performance throughout, but when you look at the last couple week, we definitely got ourselves in a kerfuffle with the qualifying sessions.

“We’ve got to figure out how to be stronger this weekend; I think in qualifying it’s going to start. But happy to be here. It’s been a real pleasure driving with these guys. They’re incredibly talented, and I love to see that coming into the INDYCAR Series.

“There’s a great deal of pride amongst all of us that we have such amazing talent in this championship. It makes it more meaningful I think when you do a good job, so these guys should be really proud of what they’ve done, and to be here at the finale and still have somehow an opportunity, I think it’s almost an impossible opportunity, but to be in the fight is really cool.”

It would be a remarkable feat this weekend for him. At one point, Newgarden was 88 points out. To be in this point now is nothing short of amazing as he made up 117 points in nearly won the title a year ago too. While needing to be absolutely perfect for Newgarden in Long Beach, he will most likely come up just short.

So, what’s behind these slow starts to the season? What happens near the midway mark to get this thing into gear?

For this season in general, it was more of them being right in the thick of things, they just couldn’t get it done. Then, once bad luck finally stepped aside too, it was on from there.

Think of it like this. I mean in the first four races of the year, a Penske driver came home runner-up in each. Will Power (Barber), Josef Newgarden (St. Pete), Scott McLaughlin (Texas 1) and Newgarden (Texas 2) again were second place from three different drivers. They were close.

For both Indy races, they just didn’t have enough. In Belle Isle though, they should have swept the weekend with Power leading prior to the late red flag but his car wouldn’t refire after. That took him out of a win. A day later, Newgarden led the first 67 laps but an ill timed caution early ruined his pit strategy and despite leading all but the final three laps, he was on the wrong tire. A week after that, Newgarden earned the pole, led 32 of 55 laps in Road America but his No. 2 Chevrolet had a mechanical failure while he was leading on the final restart with 3 to go.

Their top finisher at that point of the year came home – 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 4th, 3rd, 10th, 2nd and 3rd. As you can see, they were right there.

Then, the turn around happened in Mid-Ohio which is why I say that this team was already there before they won. Mid-Ohio should have been their fourth consecutive win on the season instead of their first.

That’s why one could wonder if this season is considered a success from them or not. Indy is the only place where they were off. Everywhere else, they were right in the hunt.

Do We Have A New “Big 3” Or Is It Now 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 even 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 the final weekend of the season at Long Beach, 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.

Pato O’Ward leads a Penske car at Indianapolis – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

But, as we sit here today almost about the put a bow on the 2021 season, Penske has won 3 times, Ganassi 6 and Andretti just twice. RLL has been shutout while Arrow McLaren SP has won two races themselves and is the only team not of Penske and Ganassi vying for a championship on Sunday.

Can we still call this a “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 10 times. Ganassi and Penske trump both. So I can see the case of the “Big 3” and everyone else but are we really there anymore?

The “Big 3” have combined to win every championship in the series since 2003 but what happens if Pato O’Ward and AMSP take home the title on Sunday? Does that put them in the third spot over Andretti and RLL or do they just add themselves to the conversation?

I mean if you look at the Aeroscreen era, one can make a case that it’s more open now. Since the start of last season, Ganassi has won 11 times now with and Penske 10. Andretti has now won three times with Arrow McLaren SP twice. All the while, RLL, Ed Carpenter Racing and Meyer Shank Racing each have one win a piece.

It’s really a “Big 2” now but can we really classify that if one someone else wins the title? Has Arrow McLaren SP truly closed the gap to the “Big 3” and in fact passed both RLL and Andretti? One could say, yes.

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

Is This Youth Movement Here To Stay?

The long awaited youth movement has come and by the looks of things, I think it’s here to stay. We have a 21 year old and 24 year old going for this year’s title. We also have a 30 year old in the mix too. That doesn’t even count the likes of Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and others.

It’s safe to say, the future is still very bright for this series.

In fact, the youth showed up early and often this season. 24 year old Alex Palou earned his first career win in the season opener in Barber. A week later, 21 year old Colton Herta led 97 of 100 laps on the streets of St. Pete. A week after that, a then 20 year old Pato O’Ward won the second race of the doubleheader weekend in Texas. He’d win again in June at Belle Isle, a day after 30 year old Marcus Ericsson scored his first career Indy Car win there as well in the first race of the doubleheader weekend. That came almost a month after 20 year old sophomore sensation Rinus VeeKay won the GMR Grand Prix.

For Palou, O’Ward, Ericsson and VeeKay, each were their maiden INDYCAR wins. Then, throw in 40 year old Scott Dixon winning a race at Texas and Helio Castroneves joining the four win club for the Indy 500 and you get a season to what has lived up to its billing as the best one yet.

Barber was thrilling. St. Pete saw Herta dominate but Newgarden made it a fun battle in the end. The first Texas race left more to be desired but the second one was nothing short of amazing during the second half of the race. The GMR Grand Prix was another fun show while the Indy 500 and both races in Belle Isle far exceeded expectations and were arguably the top three races of the season so far.

Imagine what the next 10 years are going to look like.

Just look at the points now. 24 year old Palou leads 21 year old O’Ward who leads 30 year old Newgarden. 40 year old Dixon is in fourth while 31 year old Ericsson is fifth. 21 year old Herta is behind him in sixth. 32 year old Graham Rahal is seventh while 21 year old VeeKay is 11th but that’s only due to him missing a race due to an injury this summer.

Is the future now?

“I think over the years in INDYCAR we saw some really young drivers that are really good one or two years and then the veterans are always there, so we’ve got to keep the consistency up,” Palou told me. “That’s how you can run up front in the championships. I’m trying to learn as much as possible from the man Scott. Hopefully I can make it happen, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy.”

Can INDYCAR Keep O’Ward/Herta?

While both Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta will be back in the series for 2022, the main question now lies in, how much longer do we get to have a weekly front row seat to their talents? For much of this season, it’s almost like everyone was already pushing them out the door to Formula One. It was almost a slap in the face to the NTT IndyCar Series in the sense that people were treating it like a feeder series for F1 when in fact, this has been a place where F1 drivers who’ve grown sick of running midpack have decided to come over and try so they could actually race and have fun again.

But, the debate is only getting louder and louder now on if one or even both of these young stars end up overseas on a full time basis.

O’Ward is in the fight for this year’s title. He’s only 21. He’d become the youngest INDYCAR champion ever if he could do so. His team also is an F1 team. The case can be made that O’Ward is eventually going to end up with McLaren’s F1 team.

Then you have 21 year old Herta who’s a budding star and one that if luck went his way, he too would be competing for a title this season. He’s earned eight front row starting spots this year and has won again. But, with Andretti flirting with buying an F1 team, wouldn’t he want to take his prized pupil with him? The next great American in F1 could belong to Herta.

That’s why the more these two vie for wins and championships, the more their names are going to be mentioned on moving onto F1. How long can INDYCAR keep these two here?

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