Top 5 takeaways from the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season

2021 Season Lived Up To Its Billing

Heading into this season, everything was lining up for the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season to being among the most pivotal in a long time. You had a TV contract up at seasons end. You have as much talent now as you’ve ever had before. Almost everyone from 2020 would return. Then, you get additions of Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin and oh yeah, that Jimmie Johnson guy. That on paper was making 2021 as difficult to win in INDYCAR as it honestly ever has.

“It just seems like it gets better every year,” Josef Newgarden told me before the year began. “It’s hard to diminish what happened the last couple years. I think our depth of talent has been incredibly high since I’ve been in the series. It’s just been incredibly high. It’s only gotten better from 2012, whether that’s teams, personnel or the drivers themselves.

“Yeah, I think if you look at the championship, who is in there now this year, certainly the additions with people like Jimmie Johnson or Romain Grosjean, there’s a lot of talented people in the mix. It’s going to be really tough to stay at the front of the pack.

“The field count is going up. It’s not just the depth of talent is increasing, it’s the depth is increasing but the size is increasing and you’re keeping that depth with increased size. Yeah, it’s going to be a tough task. INDYCAR is so tight nowadays. This is the closest form of racing that I see on the planet at the moment, the most parity out there. To try to find an edge on this competition, it takes a tremendous amount of work.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon stroll on pit road at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Graham Rahal agreed this past spring saying that this season has come a long way since his first one 14 years ago.

“It’s come a long way, man. I remember my first year in ’07 in Champ Car. I told this story last year, but if you were outside the top 5 in a Newman/Haas car you were probably pretty ticked off,” said Rahal.

“You look at where it is today and just how deep the field is, and it’s impressive. I mean, this is a — maybe everybody wants to say the golden era of INDYCAR racing was in the early ’90s or in Champ Car, may have been the late ’90s, early 2000s.

“But I’ve got to be honest. From a talent pool perspective, the golden era is right now. We’re living the golden era. It’s never been better, and I’m not sure it will get better. It is deep across the board, and it’s definitely cool because you’re also gauging yourself against the rest.

“For sure there’s going to be times that guys go out there and they’re going to perform great and we’re going to be like, Oh, yeah, they’re awesome, and then next weekend like us in Gateway, you may just completely suck, and it shouldn’t be a surprise because you cannot miss a step.

“The depth, every single driver in the series can win. That’s factual. That couldn’t have been said 20 years ago, let alone five years ago.

“I think it’s just a very pure form of motorsports right now. My opinion is it’s a very pure form, and what I mean by that, no driver aids. The physicality of it is at the prime. Jimmie grew up, he hasn’t been shy of saying it, his dream was to be an INDYCAR driver, and now he’s got the opportunity to be able to fulfill that dream.

“For Scott, he’s done all he could do. He could go win 20 V-8 super car championships, but at the end of the day he’s ready for the next challenge. For Grosjean what else is he going to do in F1? Unless he’s in a Mercedes he’s not going to win, so where doing go? What are you going to do?

“Might as well look across the pond where here he can compete. Here he is going to have the opportunity to win no matter what team he’s with. So these guys, I think the purity of INDYCAR racing is what’s attracting so many people to the sport right now.

“I think that’s only going to get better. There’s some great races on the calendar this year. You look at Nashville. Nashville is — if there’s ever an opportunity for a street race to be a home run, that’s it. I think even to see Dale get involved in the ownership role, Justin Timberlake, guys like that, they can make Nashville explode even more and put it on more of an international viewing platform. I think there’s great opportunity ahead.

“The positive I can say in the position I’m in today is the future, the next five years looks a lot brighter to me than maybe even the past five, and that’s a great thing.”

With that said, NASCAR was promoting their 2021 season as the “best season ever.” But, one had to think was it going to be that way for INDYCAR too. With how important this season is, would the drivers feel it in and out of the cockpit?

“Yeah, you definitely have a sense of what’s moving, what needs to move, what’s taking play around you definitely,” Newgarden continued. “There’s a lot to do. Like I said, the best I do feel is still to come. But there’s a lot of moving pieces. There’s just a tremendous amount of effort that’s going in, much more than I could fathom. Thank goodness I only really have to work on figuring out how to make cars go fast and keep it out of the wall and in Victory Lane. That’s my job, which is much easier than what they are tasked with at the moment.

“Yeah, there’s a lot on the horizon. I think the pandemic, navigating that, has been first on the list, trying to understand how do we just get to the racetrack, how do we serve our customers the best, how do we give our race fans the best experience possible. That’s still number one for all of us. Then how do we take the series as a whole, keep moving that forward every year, whether that’s TV contracts, engine manufacturers. There’s a lot at play there.

“We have a sense of that. Thankfully that’s up to better people than me. I think we do have the best of the best looking after it.”

Power said that he feels it too.

“I do actually. I think it’s a very important season. Yeah, really hoping we can get another manufacturer. I think that would be great for the series. I’m sure that the series is working very hard on trying to make that happen. It needs to obviously happen with enough time for a manufacturer to be able to kind of catch up in a way to Honda and Chevy.”

Last year’s Indy 500 champion, Takuma Sato, said that he feels it too and that this year’s season will be a difficult on track as ever before.

“Yeah, I think it’s extremely challenging, I would say,” the two-time Indy 500 champion told me. “I think anybody who participating in INDYCAR will realize and recognize how hard this series is.

“But one side is very good. I think that’s the name of the sport really. It’s very competitive field, very competitive cars and drivers and teams. Very attractive, how we say, environment we have. I think it’s all good thing.

“Once again, to be competitive all the season, every single weekend is extremely tough, but you have to be there. Somebody will win the championship. I think it’s nothing is impossible. All we need to do is try to focus on season, but focus on every weekend to be the best of our potential.”

We ended up having seven different winners in the first eight races run from five different teams hailing from seven different countries. For the 16 races overall, we saw nine different winners from six different teams. Among them was four first time winners, a four time Indy 500 champion and a youth movement riding a big wave forward.

A 21 year old was fighting a 24 year old for this year’s title with 30 year old Josef Newgarden going for his 3rd title in 5 years.

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 June, 30 year old Marcus Ericsson won the first race in Belle Isle a day prior to O’Ward’s second career win. A month prior to that, 20 year old Rinus VeeKay won the GMR Grand Prix.

Imagine what the next 10 years are going to look like. Then, factor in VeeKay and you get a bright future.

5th-11th in points is 31 year old Ericsson, 21 year old Herta, 32 year old Graham Rahal, 21 year old VeeKay and soon to be 30 year old Alexander Rossi.

“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.”

Future Solidified

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, “the future of the NTT IndyCar Series is bright.” We seem to say that every year, but every year the series delivers on the expectations and the optimism only grows larger and larger each offseason.

Well, if you dig deeper, I’m not only ready to say the future of INDYCAR is as bright as ever, I feel like we’re about to transition into that future for 2022 as the start with glory years still ahead too. I feel like INDYCAR has come a long way since 1996 and while they’re exponentially grown the right direction, with the new deals in place, I feel like the best is still yet to come and that’s a testament for everyone involved.

See, for years INDYCAR has lacked stability. From the end of the CART years with prompted the infamous split in 1996, until this new regime started around a decade ago, INDYCAR lacked the leadership and the vision that it took to be a part of the relevant sports world.

For every step they’d take forward, they’d take a number of steps back again. Then came this current regime in which INDYCAR has not only taken a turn back towards the right path but they’ve also shown that they’re here and here to stay for a long time again forward. For every decision, there’s not one going the other way again.

It’s just good decision after good decision after good decision. There’s not the counter of good decision and “What the hell were they thinking” coming after.

That’s a direct reflection of Mark Miles, Jay Frye and their teams around them.

The stability factor and the people running the show are why INDYCAR has taken a massive step in the right direction. The TV deal is just another example. The pendulum started swinging this way when Miles come on board. Then it took a bigger turn when Jay Frye was added to the series a few years later. The two of them have done wonders.

For the first time in decades, Miles and Frye were able to get the fans and paddock on the same side. Everyone lined up and bought into what Miles and Frye were selling them.

Between them, we’ve seen a better TV contract, a new entitlement sponsor for the series, a new car as well as the addition of the Aeroscreen. INDYCAR was already on the up even before Roger Penske’s purchase of the series as well as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the end of 2019.

Roger Penske congratulates Simon Pagenaud after his 2019 Indy 500 triumph – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Now, you get Penske, Miles and Frye leading the charge and it’s paying off. Look at how much good Miles and Frye did before someone like Penske came around. Now between the three of them, well I don’t think the series has ever been in better hands.

“It is make the most impactful announcement we’ve been able to make in my view during my tenure here at INDYCAR,” Mark Miles said on the TV deal. ‘Our key to our ability to reach fans and this announcement today is very, very important and in my view ensures the next few years of our continued growth and audience.

He’s not wrong. This just solidifies the future of this series moving forward. I mean think about it. In 2019, the series replaced Verizon with NTT Data. When’s the last time you didn’t really have to worry about the revolving door that was title sponsors in INDYCAR racing? You don’t have to anymore.

Just this past May, they two sides reached a new multi year agreement for a sponsor that genuinely cares about this series. That news comes after the one last October when INDYCAR announced that Chevrolet and Honda are in as engine manufacturers for the series “well into the end of the decade.” Also, for 2023, will be the introduction of a new 2.4-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 with hybrid technology. The engine would add an additional 100 horsepower to more than 900.

“Faster and louder,” says Frye. That’s what fans want and INDYCAR is giving it to them in a big way.

That takes care of the series sponsor, the manufacturers and the engines. The Aeroscreen has proven its worth and now you look at the rising car counts which are as high outside of the Indy 500 in decades. There’s a legitimate chance to see the number pushing to 30 cars at some races in 2022 outside of Indianapolis.

The rookie class in 2021 for example was Scott McLaughlin, Romain Grosjean and Jimmie Johnson. Think about that.

Strong teams, deep fields with the talent pool the best its ever been, locked in series sponsor, locked in engines as well as engine packages and a phenomenal car.

The only other big hurdle left to accomplish other than a new OEM was announced in July with the TV package.

Gone are the days of split TV networks and wondering where you’re going to find an INDYCAR race. Starting in 2019, you got exclusive rights to NBC sports. Starting in 2022, a second contract with them will take effect with an astounding 13 races on network TV.

“I think you’ve got some of the brightest young races and most competitive racing out there,” said NBC Sports’ President Jon Miller on why INDYCAR makes sense on network TV. “Week-in, week-out, we see great rating wherever we have an INDYCAR race on with recognizable names who are becoming bigger and bigger stars out there.

“We find that it fits into a very good, tight two-and-a-half hour, three-hour window which we think is important.”

Not only do we have all these new deals, they’re with folks who care about the long term growth of the series too. The series has always had these things in place but it was more for show than actually caring. ESPN/ABC didn’t really care about INDYCAR, they just wanted the Indy 500. No entitlement sponsor gave the kind of care to the series that NTT does. The teams are better. The drivers are better. The cars are better. The people in charge are better.

Everything is better in INDYCAR and it’s showing.

Parity High, Usual Suspects Still Rank Up Top, How Podiums Are Like Race Wins Now

We had four first time winners, a four time Indy 500 champion and seven straight races with a different race winner to start 2021 off with. But, when it was all said and done, the same cast of drivers were up front battling for the championship.

Pato O’Ward now has had a top four finish in the final standings in each of the last two years (4th, 3rd). Josef Newgarden has finished in the top five for six straight years, five of which in the top four, four of the last five in the top two. Scott Dixon has a top four finish in 15 of the last 16 years.

Go ahead and pencil them into the top four again next year. They took 3 of the top 4 spots last year too.

What about Alex Palou? I don’t see him dropping off much. That’s four drivers already. What about a fifth and how do you break into those four?

This was Will Power’s first season he didn’t have a top five points finish in the last 13 years. He won the 2014 championship. Was runner-up in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. He was third twice (2015 and 2018) and fourth once in 2013. He’s been fifth in 3 of the last 4 seasons (2017, 2019, 2020).

Colton Herta was seventh, third and fifth respectively himself. I don’t see his stats declining either.

Graham Rahal has seven straight top 10 points finishes. Marcus Ericsson went from 17th to 12th to 6th in his three seasons.

There’s eight drivers that all are pretty much a top 10 lock in points for 2022. I didn’t even mention Alexander Rossi who has to come out of his slump sometime. What about Rinus VeeKay? There’s 10 drivers already.

That’s why next season should be just as good if not tougher to win in than this one. In turn, that makes podiums as important as race wins now. That was the difference in this year’s championship.

No one won more than three races all season. O’Ward and Newgarden each won twice. Dixon won once. In terms of top fives, Palou had 10. O’Ward and Dixon each had nine and Newgarden had eight. For top 10’s, it was 13 for Newgarden, 12 for Palou, Dixon and Ericsson and 11 for O’Ward.

All pretty even.

But, look at the podiums.

Newgarden has six. O’Ward and Dixon had five. Ericsson had three. Palou had eight.

See the difference? That’s what separated these five. What about what separated these five from the rest?

It was turning top 10’s into top fives and top fives into podiums.

Graham Rahal by comparison had six top fives but only one podium. Colton Herta had seven top fives but just five podiums. Simon Pagenaud had nine top 10’s but only three of those were in the top five and just two of those were podiums at that. Will Power had four podiums, but only seven top 10’s in general.

See the path. You need to score as many top fives as you can, but most of those top fives need to be in the podiums. Then, with the competition being so tough to top these guys, it makes the field even tougher to win in.

Honda Tops Again

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 four manufacturers championships since 2018 including a rout of Chevrolet last season and close battle this. 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 prior to this one with Chevy winning 9-8 in 2019 and Honda having a 7-7 split in 2020. This year, was 9-6.

With the same car this time around, it’s Honda 35, Chevrolet 28. In the three year span of the Aerokits from 2015 through 2017, it was Chevy 34, Honda 15.

Penske May Have Had The Best Cars All Season

For the second straight year, Penske didn’t win the INDYCAR championship. But, also for the second straight year, when you take a deep breath and look at the season as a whole, Penske may have had the best cars.

They 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. Then in the first two races of the west coast swing, they’ve been competitive still.

At one point, Newgarden was 88 points out. To be in this point he was in at Long Beach is nothing short of amazing as he made up 117 points in nearly won the title a year ago too.

So, what’s then 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.

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