5 Burning questions for 2022 INDYCAR season

Who Has More Pressure – Herta, Rossi Or Andretti In General?

Colton Herta told me entering the 2021 season that he wanted to turn those top fives into more podiums. That was the difference he felt. He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.

Last season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda in 16 races run. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races last season than in 32 starts prior.

Still, he needs to do so on a more consistent basis. Alex Palou had eight podiums. Josef Newgarden had six. They were 1-2 in the championship. Sine 2016, all but one champion had a podium finish in 50% or more of their starts throughout a season. Josef Newgarden had a 41% podium rate in 2019. Other than that, everyone else has been around the 50% mark.

That’s what Herta is missing is turning those solid days into podiums.

The Indy 500 he qualified second but faded to 16th. Belle Isle 1 he was in the top five and going for a podium before a caution flipped the field. He finished 14th. In Belle Isle 2, he was running second but faded to fourth in the closing laps. Mid-Ohio saw him go from a podium to 13th. Nashville saw a dominating weekend end in a crash and 19th. World Wide Technology Raceway saw a top two finish and maybe even a win end in a broken drive shaft and a 18th place result. He was eighth in Portland.

The difference in making him a champion is turning those races into podiums because he was already there before those problems occurred.

The next logical goal from that would be turning podiums into more wins too. Three of his four podiums were victories including two straight to close out the year. He equaled his number of wins this season compared to his career wins entering.

That has to make Herta the one to watch this year and also has to make him wonder “what might have been.”

On top of that, he had a front row starting spot in exactly half the races run last season. That gives him high hopes for 2022. Is he now the championship favorite after winning the final two races of 2021?

While this is all great, his teammate or maybe even the organization in general may be the ones with the most pressure.

See, Alexander Rossi is frustrated. The prime of his INDYCAR career is being wasted and he’s not anywhere near to where he expected to be in his career path in terms of success yet.

The Andretti Autosport driver seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. But, over the last 37 races, he’s yet to win, has just 8 podiums and only 11 top fives.

He was second in the championship in 2018 and third in 2019. But, this dip started during the middle of that ’19 season which is why he didn’t hoist the Astor Cup championship trophy that season and why he’s hasn’t yet overall. He was 10th in the final standings last year.

That’s why with him being in the final year of his contract, he’s not just running to the negotiating table with Andretti Autosport to reup. He feels like the results could be better for both sides.

“I’ve said many times before, I think the team’s done a great job from last year to this year in terms of how we go about the race weekends, pit stops, understanding the offset from the aeroscreen, all those things we’re in a much better position than last year. It just hasn’t really meant a whole lot quite yet,” Rossi told me heading to Gateway last year.

“I mean, I think it’s all down to some circumstances ultimately. The pace has been great; it hasn’t really resulted in much. Obviously with the field now, every small mistake and issue and mis-step in setup decisions from session to session has a bigger effect than it used to. It requires everyone to really be perfect throughout the weekend.”

Does he ever doubt himself because of these misfortunes? Does he feel like he’s wasting prime years the last two seasons? I mean the potential has always been there but the results aren’t showing for it like they used to.

“Yeah, it’s a good question,” he told me.

“I think there’s certainly days where you feel like that. Again, at the end of the day you lose way more than you win in this sport. You have to be motivated by failures and losses. If you’re only motivated by winning, it’s going to be a tough road.

“I think we all as professional racing drivers learn that early in our careers, in go-karting at 13, 14 years old where you can only win a couple races a year on a great year.

“It is what it is. We’re focused forward and just executing the best we can every single opportunity that we go.”

See, he’s not getting any younger. He’s 31 now. He has to see the rise and speed of these younger drivers and knows that if he wants to achieve greatness in this sport, time is of the essence.

“I think we’re close,” Rossi continued. “I think if you look at the raw pace of the cars, I think it’s there.”

Rossi said heading into the final stretch of races last year that they were 85-90% of the way there. How does he see it entering this season?

This also puts the pressure on Andretti to give Rossi cars to succeed. No one will deny the fact that Rossi is as talented as they come. If luck goes his way, he’s a multi-time Indy 500 champion by now and arguably the next one in line who could be in that four-win club.

It’s not just Indy with bad luck. It’s nearly everywhere.

Rossi, started off last year with a first lap crash in the season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. A week later, he endured an incident in St. Pete with Graham Rahal. Then came a crash on the first lap in the second Texas race, only to be plagued with bad luck from the first caution in back-to-back weeks in Indy and Belle Isle 1, a broken wing in Belle Isle 2 and a bad caution flipping strategy in Nashville.

The 2020 season saw a crash while having a race winning car in the season finale on the streets of St. Pete. In Gateway was another first lap crash. For the Indy 500, came a questionable penalty on pit road while having a car that ran in the top three most of the afternoon. For Road America 1 came an early problem. Same for the Indy road course on July 4 last year with a mechanical issue. His ECU failed him at the start of the season opener in Texas.

But, when things go right, it really goes right.

That’s why Andretti really can’t afford to let someone of his caliber get away because even though Rossi’s riding a near three year long winless drought that dates back to June of 2019, you know Penske and Ganassi are watching and waiting.

Penske could go back to four full time cars for 2023 and Rossi be in that car. Ganassi could find a way to fit him with Scott Dixon, Alex Palou and Jimmie Johnson.

Andretti, has Romain Grosjean, Colton Herta and a rookie right now. What if they do find a path to F1 and take Herta with them? What if Kyle Kirkwood doesn’t come back to them and finds another team for 2023? What if Oliver Askew lands somewhere else?

They essentially could lose out on Pato O’Ward, Askew, Kirkwood and then fully lose Rossi to rivals all in the last few seasons.

That’s why pressure is on both Rossi and Andretti because Rossi wants to show he can still drive one of these things and Andretti to not lose him.

More Pressure On Grosjean, Johnson or McLaughlin?

The yellow rookie stickers are off Romain Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin’s cars. Now, who has the most pressure going into the 2022 season?

They each had a built in excuse last year. They’ve never seen most of these tracks before. Now, they have. Plus, all three are with the top teams.

Grosjean is with Andretti. Johnson is back with Ganassi and McLaughlin Penske. While Johnson has a little more of a leash since this is really only his second season in these types of cars, McLaughlin and Grosjean need to perform.

So, who has the most pressure among them?

Grosjean has his engineer from Coyne with him. They had a solid 2021 season and if they can replicate what they did a year ago with a smaller budget team, this is going to be a title contender.

McLaughlin is part of a Penske team that has to find more speed and balance in catching Ganassi. With all their resources, I tend to believe this will happen which means McLaughlin who just won Rookie of the Year needs to be more consistent on a week in and week out basis.

2022 will be far more pressure for these three than 2021 was. But, they’re all great at what they do and the greats rise when the pressure gets turned up.

Can Penske and Andretti Rebound To Catch Ganassi?

It’s no secret, since the Aeroscreen debuted for the 2020 season, Chip Ganassi Racing has been more consistent than everyone else. We’ve had 30 races in this era and Ganassi has combined to win 11 of them including six last year. They’ve also won each of the last two series championships as well.

Now, can Team Penske and Andretti Autosport close that gap back to Ganassi again? I mean, this trio of teams have combined to win every championship since 2003.

In 2020, 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).

But, as we sit here today entering the 2022 season, can we really call this a “Big 3” anymore? Isn’t it Ganassi, then everyone else?

Last year, Penske and Andretti each won has won three times. RLL was been shutout while Arrow McLaren SP had won two races themselves and was the only team not of Penske and Ganassi vying for a championship in Long Beach.

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, I don’t think we can call it that anymore.

3 of the top young drivers in the sport at Road America back in June – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

RLL was closing that gap but they’ve won three times since the start of the 2018 season, all by Takuma Sato. He’s now gone from this team with 2 of their 3 drivers never having won a race before in INDYCAR and the other not having won since June of 2017.

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, yes Ganassi has won 11 times, but Penske has won 10 times too. Andretti has four wins with Arrow McLaren SP two. Meanwhile RLL, Ed Carpenter Racing and Meyer Shank Racing each have one win apiece.

It’s really can the Penske’s and Andretti’s separate themselves from everyone else again and if they can do so, how do they close the gap to Ganassi?

Last year wasn’t very Penske like. Three trips to victory lane isn’t considered a success for them. Plus, the struggles at Indy with this Aeroscreen is head scratching.

An Indy 500 win and a championship. That’s the top two goals for any NTT IndyCar Series race team. But for Team Penske, those aren’t lofty goals. Those are realistic. When they don’t win either, as was the case for the last two years, it means they take it personally.

See, Penske is synonymous with Indy success. Heading into 2020, Roger Penske had just purchased the place. He figuratively and now literally owned victory lane. But, Penske’s cars struggled on track in August of that year. They finished P4-11-14-22. They were rarely found up front on any speed chart all month.

Same can be said for May. None of them qualified well (20-21-24-32) and none were up front either (3-12-20-30).

That’s not going to cut it in 2022. Changes and improvement need to be made and even with a new engine formula coming in 2023, it’s been all hands on deck for Penske this past offseason to get this ship steered in the right direction again.

The thing is, can they do so?

Just look at what they said last year.

“I think you can have these bigger magnitudes of shift at a place like a street course or a road course compared to Indianapolis,” Josef Newgarden said. “Indianapolis really takes a ton of time, ton of resources to make those little incremental improvements forward. That’s why we emphasize trying to get that right. For us, it was skewed last year in that Indy was probably one of our worst tracks. There’s no doubt. We didn’t perform like we wanted to at the 500 from a qualifying standpoint and race standpoint. I think that’s why we’ve heavily leaned to get that right in the off-season.

“Last year our qualifying form was not strong. We were all disappointed with our speed. That was first and foremost. How do we fix the speed of the cars from last season? There’s been a tremendous amount of work that’s been put in. We have the best of the best in my opinion when it comes to talent and personnel. There’s been no shortage of effort and time to make these Penske racecars as fast as possible. That was first and foremost.

“Then I think the race condition of the car, how does it really work across 30 laps on a set of tires in multiple-car drafts? That’s probably the most important ingredient nowadays is just figuring out if you get buried 10 or 15 cars back, how is your car reacting in that much dirty air. That was something we needed to be stronger at.

“Just outright speed and the car’s potential in a big wake. That’s all different this year, too. We tried to learn where we were deficient last year, but now we also need to figure out where we need to be better in the future with the new aero parts. Quite a bit of difference with not only the front wing but the underside build of the car aerodynamically. There’s going to be some new elements. The car is going to drive different. We need to be better all around.”

“We haven’t left anything else behind. We’re still pushing forward on all the other fronts because we need to be strong across the season.

Will Power, Newgarden’s teammate, agreed.

“I feel pretty good about definitely being better than where we were last year at Indianapolis,” said Power. “I think that’s probably the most disappointing we’ve been since I’ve been at Penske. It was a surprise to us. Certainly worked very hard on that.”

The goal then was clear – Indy improvement. The next goal – a championship.

“Then the championship as well, yeah, we’re looking for another one,” Newgarden continued. “Obviously I was hoping we were going to win our third championship last year and we could be working on the fourth. We’re going to have to go back to square one and try to knock the third off this season.”

No Indy success and another year without a championship. Can they turn it around with another offseason effort?

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 last 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 last season was considered a success from them or not. Indy is the only place where they were off. Everywhere else, they were right in the hunt

Same for Andretti. They struggled mainly for most of last season. Colton Herta was the only driver to win for them. The rest were mostly found outside of the top 10 everywhere else.

That’s not very Andretti like. So, in came Romain Grosjean and Devlin DeFrancesco to replace Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe. Alexander Rossi is in a contract year. Can Andretti get it right?

They’ve not had it in each of the last two years and need to quickly get it back.

Will Dixon Ever Win A 7th Title?

It’s weird to ask that question about a driver who’s one championship shy of tying an INDYCAR record for most titles, but can Scott Dixon ever get that seventh crown or has the window drastically shut on his pursuit of it?

If he’s going to, he’s going to have to get back to the Scott Dixon of old.

Dixon, has reached victory lane just once in his last 22 starts. That’s the longest drought in nearly two decades between first and second wins for him.

What’s crazy is, from July 2019 through August 2020 (Gateway 1), Dixon had 11 podiums in a 15 race span. Among those 11 top three finishes were five wins and five runner-ups. Over the last 22 races, Dixon has had just one win (Texas 1), one runner-up (Nashville) and only six podiums.

Can he turn things around in 2022?

What’s wild is, among the first six races (5 different tracks), he’s winless in two of them, has just one win at three of them and really solid at the other.

We start off at St. Pete. He’s 0-for-17 there. Then we go to Texas where he did win the first race last year and the most laps in the second one. From there it’s to Long Beach to where he’s 1-for-14. Then it’s to Barber (0-for-11) before the Indy two step where he’s 1-for-11 on the road course and 1-for-19 on the oval.

It’s not like he’s been bad at any of those tracks, but as competitive as INDYCAR is these days, he’s likely going to have to have a win by the end of the stretch between St. Pete and Belle Isle. That’s the first seven races of the season.

Time is against him too. Just 10 times has someone won the title at 41 years of age or older. Three drivers were 42. One was 43 and four more were 44. No one was 45 while two drivers won at 46.

Among the drivers to be crowned a champion at 41 years old and up, only one came since 1990. With his stats declining last year and the trends not being on his side, this is a legitimate question.

Still, he’s hoping for another top four finish in points which would be his seventh straight and 17th in the last 18 years. Now, can he get that seventh crown?

Who’s The Next Breakout Star?

Parity was high during the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. We saw a whopping four new first time winners join the club with half of them winning multiple times at that. That comes after both 2019 and 2020 seasons featuring one first time winner each. 7 of the last 9 seasons had someone pick up their first career victory during it. So, who are the next first time winners for 2022 and who are poised for a breakout season?

I think we get three more first time winners next year to give us seven in a two year span. The following five are who I have my eyes out on for who can break their ways not only into the top 10 of points, but compete for a top five finish by seasons end too.

  1. Romain Grosjean – He’s going to be driving the No. 28 Honda for Andretti Autosport in 2022. This is a car that is more than capable of winning a race or two next season. While its not won since the 2018 season finale, Grosjean is poised for a breakout performance in an Andretti car. Just look what he did with the joint entry from Rick Ware/Dale Coyne. He won an Indy pole on the road course and had six top 10 finishes in 13 tries. Just think on what he can do with Andretti power.
  2. Scott McLaughlin – Another second year driver here but he’s in a Penske car and would be seeing these tracks for a second and even third time in some cases. McLaughlin, learned a lot in 2021 and I think he finds victory lane at some point next season.
  3. Jack Harvey – He’s now with RLL. He’s been on the cusp of a win multiple times over the last couple of years and I think this maneuver should help him be another first time winner in 2022.
  4. Felix Rosenqvist – A second season with AMSP should be just what Rosenqvist’s needs. He won with Ganassi and by the second half of this past season, looked like he did with them. We saw was Pato O’Ward can do. Now, it’s Rosenqvist’s turn to join the party and I think he does.
  5. Rinus VeeKay – He won this year with ECR and I almost sense 2022 could be a season like Josef Newgarden had with the organization. This would be his third with them and VeeKay had six top 10’s including a win and a runner-up in the first seven races of 2021. Then his injury happened and it was all downhill from there. With a fresh start this offseason now, if he improves from 2021 to 2022 like he did from 2020 to 2021, then the former rookie of the year is ready to shine.

Also, can Graham Rahal (73 races), Ryan Hunter-Reay (47 races), Alexander Rossi (37 races) and Simon Pagenaud (25 races) end a winless drought as well?

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