Top 5 storylines for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season

Final Season With Engine Regulations

2022 was supposed to be the first year that the series moved to hybrid engine regulations. But, due to a pandemic starting in 2020, everything was pushed back a year. That means the upcoming season now will be the last under this current form. In 2023, we move to a new hybrid technology with more horsepower.

How much of a role does this play into this upcoming season? How much does this coming up change the outlook on 2022 when you know a new engine is coming out in 2023?

In most cases of big changes coming a year later, the season prior to those look very similar to the season before it. Why develop and spent a lot of money for a throw away season. All that time and resources gets thrown away once the checkered flag falls on the season finale.

At some point this season, a lot of focus will shift towards 2023 because a new engine formula changes everything. Eventually, you have to keep an eye on the future as well as in the present because you don’t want to come out in 2023 playing catch up.

So, I don’t expect 2022 to look much different in terms of contenders or pretenders than 2021 did.

The thing is, it’s already sparking a push for changes before its even officially hit the track. The drivers bring up a good point, the car has never truly been a finished product. Since the DW12 was adopted for the 2012 season, there’s been several adjustments and tweaks to it. We’ve not had a new chassis in this span but in turn, we’ve seen a bunch of safety enhancements.

Granted, you need these safety devices on the car, but when you factor in an Aeroscreen and now hybrid power, you keep adding more and more weight. The drivers are saying, enough is enough as they could stand to lose some weight on this car for 2023.

Jay Frye said that when we get to the 2023 season, the new 2.4-liter engine will produce 100 more horsepower than we already have now. When the hybrid kicks in, that’s an additional 100 horsepower on top of that too.

The new engine formula will push 900 horsepower as is. But, he doesn’t think the addition of 200 additional horsepower from 2022 to 2023 is smart.

“It’s pushing 900. So even in the hybrid system, it has potential to have 100 more right out of the box. That doesn’t mean that we’ll do that,” Frye said. “We might do that over a period of time. The new 2.4-liter will have 100 right out of the box. Probably going into 2023 with 200 more is a little bit too much. So you just look at the hybrid system to look at how to limit that and then in a period of time, we’ll increase the power for the hybrid.”

That has the drivers wondering that we keep adjusting and adding as the years go on but it’s never a finished product. They’re urging now that INDYCAR gets them to a finish product.

The drawback to this is, if you throw in a bunch of cost over the years for new chassis, you’re likely not going to gain teams but rather lose them. INDYCAR is one of the few racing series’ in the world that has a vastly growing car count by the year.

We’re going to be pushing 30 entries at some races this season. That’s a stark contrast to 20-22 a few years ago. If you get to a final product and do so multiple times over the course of a decade, you don’t get increasing car counts in this day and age of racing. You lose cars.

Getting to a final product means spending more money upfront. By doing the way INDYCAR has done, they’re easing these teams into these upgrades and enhancements without breaking the bank all at once.

Adding horsepower costs money. Adding safety devices also costs money. As you learn what works to keep these drivers safe, why would you not add these devices to the car? But, as you add these devices to a car that was never made or intended to have them, it adds weight to cars which in turn makes them harder to drive.

So, which is the best route?

That’s why this is a huge storyline heading into 2022.

Future Solidified

To keep with the theme from above, the series’ future is very much in good hands.

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 last May, the two sides reached a new multi year agreement for a sponsor that genuinely cares about this series. That news comes after the one in October 2020 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 this season outside of Indianapolis.

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 last summer 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 14 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.

Helio Castroneves won his 4th Indy 500 this past May – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

5th Indy 500 For Helio Castroneves? 1st Season Title For Helio? Dixon 7th Championship? Power Pole Record?

The big storyline entering this season has to be Helio Castroneves’ pursuit of a fifth Indianapolis 500 crown. That’s something that has never been done in the past 105 years of this race. AJ Foyt was the first to accomplish the feat of the four win club in 1977. He made 15 attempts after to score his fifth win. He’d never do so with only scoring two top fives after including a runner-up finish in 1979.

Al Unser was the next to join the four win club in 1987. He’d try five more times to earn a fifth ‘500 triumph with finishes of 3rd, 24th, 13th, 3rd and 12th respectively.

Rick Mears joined in 1991. A 26th place finish in 1992’s race was his final shot.

Now, Castroneves is in the club. Can he get his fifth crown in May? That’s going to be a huge storyline that month. So will be his pursuit of a first season championship too now that he’s back to full-time again.

Also, can Scott Dixon earn his seventh series championship next year too? That’s another big one. He, Castroneves and Power are generational drivers. I think we’ll look back on this era and one could argue that this was the Foyt vs. Andretti vs. Unser rivalries of the 21st century.

When looking at the top of all the major statistical categories for the series, Dixon, Castroneves and Power’s names are found near the top of them all. How much closer to the top can each get in them in 2022?

Dixon has six championships. Only AJ Foyt has more at seven. Can Dixon tie him for that mark next year?

Dixon, has 51 wins to go along with those six titles. That’s one shy of Mario Andretti’s 52 for second most all-time. AJ Foyt’s 67 wins may be out of reach, but he can at the very least get to second. Out of the last 19 seasons, Dixon has had at the very least two victories in 16 of them including 14 of the last 16 years. Safe to say he at least ties Andretti in 2022 for second most wins ever.

He’s also scored 49 runner-up finishes over the course of his career. Only Andretti (56) has more. Dixon has had nine runner-up finishes the last three years combined. So, he has a great shot of getting passed Andretti very soon.

Combine those, Dixon has 100 top two finishes in INDYCAR history. Andretti has 108 but it took him 407 starts to do so. Sunday, was Dixon’s 351st career start. Foyt, has 97 career top two finishes but has done so in 369 starts.

As you can see, Dixon has a better percentage of all starts landing him a top two finish. Unser, has a 27-percent mark with Foyt holding a 26-percent rate. The next best is Bobby Unser (25%) with 65 top two finishes. The next most top two finishes overall? Michael Andretti with 76.

Dixon, is 24 clear of that and still has more years left in him.

Dixon also has 127 podiums, second most. Andretti has 144. Dixon has had 30 podiums in the last three years, so that’s attainable too. In terms of top fives, Dixon has 183. Andretti has 194.

Top three in literally every major statistical category. Championships (2nd), wins (3rd), second place finishes (2nd), podiums (2nd) and top five’s (2nd).

You can’t discredit Dixon as a generational talent.

He can tie Foyt for championships and move past Andretti for wins in 2022.

Power, can rise too. He has 40 wins, which is fifth most ever. Power, has had at least one win for 15 straight years now. Can he get at least two wins next season and tie or move past Michael Andretti for fourth? Since 2010, he’s won at least two races in every year minus two. He won two races both in 2019 and 2020 but had won three times in 2017 and 2018 too. I think he can threaten Andretti’s fourth place ranking in career wins next year.

Can he get to Mario Andretti’s pole mark? He’s four shy right now. He won five poles in 2020, three in 2019 and four more in 2017. He won six poles in 2016. Power, may not get to the top spot in pole rankings next year but he can make it close.

Castroneves has 31 wins now which is tied for 10th most. His 50 poles is fourth most, three shy of Foyt. His 41 runner-up’s rank third best. His 94 podiums are four shy of  Unser for fifth most.  His 142 top fives are fourth most with seven shy of Foyt for third.

By the end of next season, Castroneves could be alone in with five Indy 500 wins, Dixon could tie Foyt for most championship and Power could be the pole king.

For wins, they rank 2-4-10 right now. For runner-ups, it’s 2-3-12. For podiums, it’s 2-6-10. For top fives, it’s 2-4-12.

These three are wildly underrated for this era.

Focus Already On 2023 Driver Lineup – Will O’Ward/Herta Be Here For 2023?

It’s odd to talk about driver lineups for 2023 when we haven’t even dropped the green flag yet on the 2022 season, but while the series’ future is set up nicely for years to come, some of the drivers racing the cars in this sport and their futures so far aren’t.

I mean, Alexander Rossi leads a talented list of free agents at seasons end. Does he return to Andretti or depart for somewhere new? Some rumors are floating around that he’ll stay with Honda but leave Andretti for another Honda team in Chip Ganassi Racing. Follow the dominos there.

CGR has Scott Dixon, Alex Palou, Marcus Ericsson, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Kanaan all under contract for 2022. Johnson and Kanaan don’t have contracts for 2023 yet either. Both would like to keep going, but if CGR adds Rossi, someone is likely to be left out as I can’t see them running six cars, five of which being full-time.

If Dixon wants to come back, you don’t part ways with him. Neither do you with Palou who just won last year’s championship. That leaves two seats and if one of them truly does go to Rossi, who among Ericsson and Johnson gets that fourth leaving Kanaan looking elsewhere for at least an Indy only option.

That could also mean Andretti has at least one ride open and maybe even two at that. There’s a scenario floating around that they could lose both of their top two drivers by 2024 if Rossi leaves and Andretti finds a way back into F1 or even Colton Herta finds an F1 seat without Andretti.

He was linked to Andretti Autosport buying out Alfa Romero and being one of their two drivers. The deal fell through. But, Herta also didn’t hold back in saying that in the next few years, he’d like to try F1 too. Andretti now is trying to buy into the series for 2024.

Those are some big seats that could be open or changing hands.

Another free agent is Rinus VeeKay. He showed a lot of promise the last two years and could be just what an Andretti or even dare I say Penske is looking for. Plenty of speed, daring and far young enough to build a future around.

That leaves a seat at ECR open.

Kyle Kirkwood is operating on a one-year deal with Foyt and could factor into any of these rides open. What about Meyer Shank Racing and Helio Castroneves? I would assume Simon Pagenaud is back in ’23 but is Helio?

You also can’t discredit Pato O’Ward’s desire to be an F1 driver either. Does INDYCAR lose out on both he and Herta?

I wondered that towards the end of last year even. I wrote about it heading into the season finale at Long Beach. Would O’Ward and Herta have a future in this series and if so, for how long? We all knew O’Ward was already flirting with an F1 seat and he got his chance to test a McLaren car after the F1 season ended.

That only put accelerant on his fire to race in F1. He hasn’t minced words on that he’d like to eventually still end up overseas.

Which now bodes the question, how much longer do we get to have a weekly front row seat to their talents?

For much of last 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. They’re not hiding the fact that they’re interested and I suspect if both have the years that they are capable of in 2022, they’d have enough points to gain a superlicense.

Does McLaren give O’Ward a shot when Daniel Ricciardo’s contract ends? Does Andretti come calling him back home for 2024?

Both O’Ward and Herta know that their window of being an F1 driver is limited. You have to be of a young age to get a shot and both say that once you hit 27, if you’re not already in F1, then it’s over.

While Herta says that F1 would be just for fun for a few years as he’d like to eventually end up back in INDYCAR, the main question is, do we lose him for a few years before that?

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?

Also, does AMSP cut ties with Felix Rosenqvist at seasons end? There’s a potential for two open seats there too. You could have two at AMSP, two at Andretti and one at MSR open in 2023 if every chip falls to one side of the scenario conundrum.

What about Rossi, Johnson, VeeKay, Kanaan, Kirkwood and others in silly season?

Buckle up because the driver movement conversation is already starting before the season even begins.

Is Youth Movement Here To Stay? Youth vs. Veterans

The long awaited youth movement has come and by the looks of things, I think it’s here to stay. We had a 21 year old and 24 year old going for this last year’s title. We also had a 30 year old in that 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 last 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 a then 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 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 last season.

In just 2 seasons, Palou is already a champion – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Imagine what the next 10 years are going to look like. Just look at the points last year. 24 year old Palou won the title. 21 year old O’Ward was third with 30 year old Newgarden in second. 40 year Scott Dixon led 21 year old Colton Herta in fifth. 31 year old Marcus Ericsson was sixth with 32 year old Graham Rahal in seventh. 21 year old Rinus VeeKay was in a tie for 12th.

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.”

Rookie of the Year Scott McLaughlin agreed.

“I think it’s exciting for the category,” he said of the youth movement in the series. “You look at Alex, who just won the championship. Big congrats to him. A second-year guy just made it all happen and the most of his opportunity at Ganassi. Pato and Rinus. Both won this year. Pato nearly won the championship. It’s exciting. Colton obviously winning today.

“INDYCAR is in such a good set right now, it’s getting ready to go. I’m excited for these young guys to come through. I certainly believe that someone like Pato or Colton, they’re good enough for Formula 1. They’re good enough to take it to the very top. I’m not saying this isn’t it, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find them wanting to leave.

“INDYCAR is so good right now, it’s such a good category. I can’t see it getting any smaller. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger. The fan base as well. I think that’s exciting.”

We know that this season isn’t going to be easy to win either. O’Ward now has had a top four finish in the final standings in each of the last two years (4th, 3rd). Newgarden has finished in the top five for six straight years, five of which in the top four and four of the last five in the top two. Dixon has a top four finish in 15 of the last 16 years.

Go ahead and pencil them into the top four again.

What about 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 this upcoming season. 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 this season should be just as good if not tougher to win in than this one.

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