Top 5 moments of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season

Marcus Ericsson’s Nashville Comeback

Danny Sullivan has the “spin and win.” Marcus Ericsson now has the “air and win.” Mr. “Airicsson” ran over Sebastien Bourdais on an early restart and would win the race a few hours later.

“I’m trying to figure out how I won the race after being up in the sky, thinking my race was over. Yeah, I can’t believe it,” Ericsson said after scoring Ganassi’s 118th career win.

“INDYCAR, anything can happen. It’s been like that over the years. Once again today it shows that you can never give up, you have to keep pushing all the time, keep believing. If you have a strong team like I have, anything’s possible.”

Ericsson’s journey to victory lane was as crazy as the race itself. It was almost fitting. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver ran literally over Sebastien Bourdais’ car on the Lap 4 restart and went airborne in the process. Somehow, he was able to keep continuing on but with severe front end damage.

Under the caution flag, Ericsson’s crew changed the front wing assembly and made some minor repairs. He was set to resume action but would be in the back. He’d not only pit on Lap 6, but have to do so on Lap 9 for fuel only. He did it again on Lap 11 to serve a stop and go penalty.

Remarkably, the Swede would be the one celebrating his second career NTT IndyCar Series victory. How he got there was nothing short of amazing.

“I thought my race over there,” Ericsson continued. “Then we had to repair the car. I got a stop-and-go. We were dead last. It was all about trying to recover. I think the car got some damage, as well, from that flight. There was definitely some damage on the car.

“I thought I would try and recover as many positions as possible and have a solid, what, top 15 was sort of my game plan after that incident. Then, yeah, the team did a great job with the strategy. Pit stops were great. There were so many incidents. For sure there was a little luck there, as well, no doubt about that.”

Ericsson, ran in the back but due to the carnage and some good timed cautions for him, he found himself back up front. It all happened on Lap 33 when Colton Herta gave up the race lead for the first time of the day and Ericsson’s No. 8 Honda was scored as the leader.

Prior to that, several cars pit on the Lap 17 caution for when Scott McLaughlin was spun then by Ed Jones. Ericsson, didn’t have to pit due to having already done so on Lap 11. Then, following a lengthy red flag period after Will Power got into his Team Penske teammate of Simon Pagenaud on a crazy restart which blocked the final corner for 11 cars, Jack Harvey and a couple of other cars hit pit road.

The main leaders had still not pit and Ericsson was now running behind them. When Rinus VeeKay crashed out in Turn 1 on Lap 31, it was time for the guys up front to have to finally hit pit road. When they did, the beneficiary was Ericsson.

He held onto the lead before pitting on Lap 45. He lucked out because Power got into his other teammate McLaughlin and spun him in Turn 9. Dalton Kellett ran into McLaughlin which brought out the sixth yellow of the day.

Ericsson and several other drivers hit pit lane then due to being able to make it until the end from that point forward. Herta, Jack Harvey, Josef Newgarden, Romain Grosjean and Pagenaud stayed out. If this race would go caution free from this point forward, it was likely still Herta’s to lose.

It didn’t.

We’d quickly go back to yellow on the restart for Alexander Rossi and Pato O’Ward having contact with each other in Turn 4 which mean that those that didn’t pit, well they needed to. This wasn’t going to go caution free and they would eventually be sitting ducks.

So, all but Grosjean pit. Then, we’d get another caution not long after going green for Cody Ware and Grosjean elected to just pit.

That handed the lead to Ericsson and now he could get to the end on fuel. This was his race to lose but in order to reach victory lane, he had to hold off a hard charging Colton Herta and his six time series champion teammate of Scott Dixon.

Herta, restarted ninth two restarts ago and was fifth on this one. He quickly moved up to second and was there battling Ericsson for the race win in the closing stages. But, Herta locked up his tires and brakes with 12 to go and created a gap of over two seconds as a result. He then had to hustle his way back to Ericsson’s bumper. That put him in peril as he was pushing too hard and found the Turn 9 wall as a result.

Following a red flag, Ericsson just had to hold off Dixon for two laps and the win was his.

Flight at win for Ericsson on Sunday in Nashville – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Ericsson, got a great restart and defeated Dixon by 1.5596-seconds for his third top two finish in the last five races. In fact, since we got to June, no one has scored as many points as Ericsson as he’s had a top nine in all five races and a top six in four of them. That’s propelled him up to fifth in points with him going from -104 to -79 heading to the Indianapolis road course next weekend.

“We delivered when we had to,” he said. “In the end I think when Colton was behind me and I had to do a really big fuel number to get us to the finish line and still keep him behind, that was one of the toughest challenges of my career. I’m very proud that I could keep him behind and keep the pace up. That won me the race.

“He was pushing really hard, as we could see. He’s been the fastest guy all weekend.

“Then obviously as the race was, with all the incidents, it was going to be another red flag, so it was not going to be an easy finish. But, yeah, I was really happy to finish it off there and have another win. So much things going on today. I’m still trying to figure out how I ended here.

“I think the bottom line was that we were really fast. We were fast. When we got some free air, we were fast. We were fast getting by people, doing the fuel numbers needed. Got the tires to stay underneath us.

“We’ve been fast all weekend. I think I’ve been top six every session. Unfortunately in qualifying yesterday I touched the wall in Q1, broke the suspension. That’s why we started further back. I think we should have been in the Fast 6.”

Long Beach Drama

You know how the song goes, “with so much drama in the LBC…” That’s exactly what we saw this weekend. It started with Pato O’Ward being pissed at Race Control on Saturday to Helio Castroneves vs. Alexander Rossi in Sunday’s warmup to Ed Jones punting O’Ward in the final corner of the opening lap made a couple of days of instant drama.

In qualifying, Will Power stalled on course towards the end of the second round. O’Ward was sixth at the time. Ed Jones, Felix Rosenqvist and James Hinchcliffe all sped through a yellow corner and improved their times.

After a lengthy review by INDYCAR, they determined only Jones would get penalized meaning despite evidence that their own car in Rosenqvist went through the yellow at speed, O’Ward would only move back up one spot.

“Yeah, our car has been good. I mean, we didn’t roll off the best, but I think we made some really good changes, just kept improving,” said O’Ward. “We had enough for the Fast 6. Yeah, we should have been in the Fast 6, so…

“Yeah, I mean, really, really happy for Felix, that he went into the Fast 6. I mean, we’re in the same team and we have literal data that shows that at least two of the cars that didn’t get penalized kept going quickly in the yellow flag. I don’t know. Maybe rules don’t apply the last race of the season when everything’s at stake.

“It just sucks. Sucks that we’re stuck there because we should have transferred. We had the car to fight it. I don’t know if for pole, but we definitely had a car to be in the Fast 6 and start within the first two rows.

“Kind of sucks to get hosed by a very odd call. I’m still seeking for answers. But, yeah.”

Jones, punted O’Ward and ended his championship hopes at the start of Sunday’s race too to spark a wild moment of the day.

Prior to that, Alexander Rossi exited the pits during warmup ahead of Helio Castroneves. That move and the one that Rossi didn’t allow Castroneves who was on a flier by created an even bigger stir including one of the more iconic interviews of the season.

This has deeper implications in the sense that both were IMSA teammates with Wayne Taylor Racing as well as Meyer Shank Racing having a technical alliance with Rossi’s team, Andretti Autosport.

We had 4 1st time winners this season. How many do we see in 2022? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

The 1st Time Winners

It’s hard to separate four races, so we can include all of them here. We had four first time winners this past season, all coming in the first seven races at that. The pure elation these drivers showed in doing so was nothing short of fun to witness.

From Alex Palou’s season opening victory at the Barber Motorsports Park, to Pato O’Ward’s maiden win at Texas, to Rinus VeeKay’s on the Indy road course to Marcus Ericsson’s in Belle Isle, it was great to witness some fresh faces celebrating in victory lane this season.

Grosjean’s pole at Indy was an emotional as they come – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Romain Grosjean’s Indy Pole

Romain Grosjean felt alive again. His words not mine. That’s what he said back in mid-May when he was asked to describe winning his first career NTT IndyCar Series pole from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Grosjean said those impactful words, “it’s like being alive again.”

He’s lucky is he right now. He survived a horrific crash in Bahrain last year in the third to last race on the Formula One schedule. His car spilt in half as it went literally through the wall and abruptly caught on fire. Somehow, Grosjean walked away.

That would be his last F1 start. Would it be his last race ever?

He wouldn’t allow it. He knew 2020 would be his last season in F1 anyways, but Grosjean already was looking to America and to revive his career in INDYCAR. That crash would stop him from wanting to run the ovals, but the 13 road/street courses?

Why not.

Grosjean signed with Dale Coyne Racing in a joint effort with Rick Ware Racing. He knew how hard this new endeavor would be. INDYCAR is bar none the most competitive series in the world. This isn’t F1 where a moral victory is far more likely for most of the drivers than an actual win itself.

Put Grosjean in a Mercedes car, he’d do just as good as the second driver. Lewis Hamilton is the arguably the best driver in the world, but these guys here in INDYCAR rival the rest of those in F1. Grosjean just never got a fair shot to show what he could do.

He came to America to showcase his talents. Just three races in, he’s was a pole winner. This was his first pole in over a decade — hence the comment about feeling alive again. He did so with a team that had just two career poles, the last coming in 2018 at Phoenix and the other in 2013 at Belle Isle.

That’s how remarkable this pole was back in May.

“A lot of people are asking how I felt watching the first race, the Formula 1 race of the season, and I wasn’t there. I said, Guys, the chapter is closed for me. I’ve had a good time, now I want something else. That’s what I came looking for,” he said.

“I love the atmosphere between the drivers, I love the tracks. The cars are fun to drive. We can go for some good stuff. I’m really happy. Family-wise a bit of a tough year because I’m away from them quite a bit. We knew what was going to happen this year before deciding for the future. I’m happier, I’ve said it for a few times, I’m happier than I’ve been for a very long time.”

Grosjean said that he feet super good going into the race that weekend and that for his maiden pole to come here is just icing on the cake.

“I’ve been on some of the most famous tracks around the world. When I came to Indianapolis for the first time, I realized the atmosphere around, the grandstands, everything that’s happening here, the history of the place,” he continued.

“Going onto the weekend, we obviously did a lot of work to be good and also just learning about it. Our first segment of qualifying wasn’t so good. Second one felt much better. Going into the Fast Six I never ran scrub red tires, so I didn’t know what to expect from the car. It behaved really well.

“The first lap I had a mistake. It was a fast lap, but I had a mistake. I knew I had more pace in the second lap. It went really, really good. I thought that could be it. That was it.”

We finally got a new member of the exclusive 4-win club at Indy – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Helio Castroneves’ 4th Indy 500 Triumph

How can you forget the roar from the 135k in attendance for the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Any time when Helio Castroneves would vie for the lead, or even take the lead, in the May 30 race, the place would leap for joy and wave anything they could grab in pure elation at the prospects of seeing a new driver join the exclusive four-win club.

See, the previous three drivers to win the Greatest Spectacle in Racing four times, they did so in a span of 15 years. AJ Foyt was the first to do so in 1977. Al Unser was next in 1987. Rick Mears was the last in 1991. By time 1994 hit, all three were retired and the search was off for the first five-time winner but were now wondering who the next four time winner would be.

We’d go 60 years without one before Foyt opened the doors of the club in 1977. We’d go 10 more years before a second member flipped the lights on to join Foyt in the room Only four years would pass before we had a third seat pulled up to the table.

Who would be next? At the time of the trio all being retired, no one else as an active driver had more than two wins. Emmo had two and Little Al just scored his second in a three year span. Would any of these two join Indy’s lore?

Well, neither made the 1995 Indy 500 and by 1996, the split had occurred. The thought of another driver joining the four win club could go another 60 years again. To win four Indy 500’s in ones career was such a rare feat, we were starting to wonder if it would ever happen again.

As the racing evolved to the way it is today, the parity was so high, winning four times now would basically be as difficult as it would be to top Richard Petty’s 200 wins in NASCAR’s highest level.

The wait though was 20 years exactly. 1991 was Mears’ fourth. 2021 was Castroneves’. That’s why the fans were so elated to witness the potential makings on that fateful Sunday in Central Indiana. Castroneves, won his first two races in back-to-back fashion. He’d wait seven years before getting his third. Dario Franchitti meanwhile joined him in that club in 2012. Could Franchitti or Helio get a fourth? They were two of 10 total drivers in the history of this planet to win this race three or more times. Only three would get over the hump to get to four.

Franchitti though had a career ending injury on the streets of Houston a year later. It was all up to Castroneves now.

He nearly did it multiple times though between 2010 and this past year. He was a close runner-up twice. But, since 2018, he was now a part-time driver. The last time a part-time driver won this race was 2011. Prior to that, you’d have to go way back to find a driver to win the Indy 500 in what was his first start of the season. Plus, he no longer was a Team Penske driver anymore for 2021 either. He was with Meyer Shank Racing in driving for a team without any past INDYCAR victories.

The odds weren’t high for a win, which is why this victory was all that more special. Castroneves, passed Alex Palou for the lead on Lap 198 and would lead the final 5 miles en route to an iconic moment, the top one of the season.

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