Can Andretti close the gap back up to the “Big 2?”

The NTT INDYCAR Series has seen a lot of parity lately, so much so we started questioning last season if this the “Big 3” was becoming a “Big 4” or dare I even say a “Big 5.” Well, after how this season has started and with how things have transpired, I almost seem to think it’s really a “Big 2” that’s separated themselves from the field with the next 2-3 teams grouped together that way.

That’s honestly more of an inditement to the Andretti Autosport program than anything else. See, they were a part of that “Big 3” with Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. It was them and then everyone else.

However, 2 of the 3 have distanced themselves while the other has slipped back into the clutches of everyone else.

No one has won as many Indy Car championships since 2003 than this trio. In fact, no one has won a title outside of them since 2002 (Panther Racing). The thing is, Andretti pulled their weight until 2013. From a nine year span between 2004 and 2012, they had won four titles.

In the 10 years since?

None.

Penske and Ganassi have combined to win nine straight including 13 of the last 14 in general.

Since the start of the 2019 season, Penske has won 21 times. Ganassi is behind them at 13. Andretti is still third, but they have just six trips to victory lane in that span. Ganassi has more than doubled Andretti which is a large gap now between second and third.

Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing is fourth with three victories, so half of Andretti’s total which honestly may have Andretti in third all by themselves. But, if you go in the Aeroscreen era (2020-present) Andretti has four wins with Arrow McLaren SP with two. Penske has 12 and Ganassi 11.

Rossi and Newgarden in practice on Saturday – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Where’s the gap from Penske and Ganassi to Andretti? Well, constantly chasing their cars is for starters. Then, when they have contending cars, bad luck typically strikes more times than not. That’s the difference.

Take just how this season has started for an example. Colton Herta has had problems on pit road in each race. Both took him out of contention for podiums. Each were self inflicted.

From not getting his car filled on his first stop of the season in St. Pete to having a slow stop on his final stop in Texas, it’s hampered him. He’s finished fourth and 12th respectively but could easily have been on the podium in each.

For Herta, he says that while the struggles on pit lane are frustrating for sure, he’s not losing any sleep over it.

“You just have to understand it,” he said. “I make mistakes on the track. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s just kind of one of those things that happen unfortunately. I know the guys are back in the shop working on pit stop to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

His goals of being a champion rest on turning top fives into podiums. So far, he’s 0-for-2 in 2022.

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.

For Alexander Rossi, he just has bad luck. From a bad pit road call in St. Pete to bad luck in Texas, he sits marred deep down in the standings right now in 27th. There’s been 29 drivers to score points. His finishes this year? 20th and 27th respectively.

He hasn’t won a race since Road America in 2019. He led 54 of 55 laps that day. In fact, that was the 10th race of that season. At that point, he had led in 7 of the 10 races to account for 182 laps led.

But, over the last 39 races during this winless streak, he’s led a total of 95 laps. He led 83 laps in 2020, two last year and 10 in St. Pete. That’s it.

Also during this 39 race drought, he has finished 17th or worse in 7 of his last 19 starts. He had 6 finishes of 17th or worse in his previous 47 races.

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 39 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.

“We’ve moved on from Texas. It didn’t really matter,” Rossi said. “When it’s a mechanical issues for a driver, you don’t really care. It’s out of your control. There’s nothing you can do. Obviously if it’s a self inflicted mistake you kind of want to get back on the horse but it is what it is.

“Last thing you want to do is overcompensate and make up for lost ground.”

Rookie Devlin DeFrancesco got into two incidents in Texas and finished 24th. He sits 28th in points. Romain Grosjean, like Rossi, had a mechanical failure and was 26th. That’s 3 Andretti cars in the bottom four of the finishing order just one race ago.

With how things are going, they’re reeling. The thing is, this weekend in Long Beach is the key moment that they can turn things around. If they don’t, well that’s a sign of hitting the panic button.

See, just look at what’s ahead. Long Beach, Barber, Indy road course, Indy 500, Belle Isle and Road America. Over this six race stretch, only Long Beach and the Indy 500 are the only places to where they’ve had some recent success.

They’re 2-for-11 in Barber with both wins coming by Ryan Hunter-Reay in back-to-back years (2013, 2014). They’ve not won since (0-for-6). They’ve never won on the Indy road course (0-for-11), 1 for the last 11 in Belle Isle (Hunter-Reay in 2018) and 1 for the last 7 in Road America (Rossi 2019).

That’s not a great stretch.

Hell, even the Indy 500 they’re not been as good as of late. They went through a stretch to where they won 3 out of 4 but are 0-for-4 since.

Long Beach though, this is the spot. They’ve dominated the last three years there. Rossi led 71 of 85 laps in his 2018 win. He backed that up with leading 80 of 85 more laps in 2019. We didn’t go there in 2020 due to the pandemic but when we came back in 2021, Herta led 43 of 85 laps in giving AA their third straight win.

However, Herta notes that you can never get too complacent in this series that even if you are good one year, it doesn’t mean you’ll be good the next.

Rossi noted that not much has changed from Long Beach via 2019 to 2021 but last year it seemed like the bumps did. Then they looked at the data and noticed they truly didn’t. It was just that there was an Aeroscreen now compared to then that was more sensitive to vertical movement.

Plus, Firestone has brought a new tire to street courses for both primary and alternates which kind of threw the Andretti guys for a loop in St. Pete.

“The tires were very different,” Herta said. “Both the compounds are different this year compared to last year.”

He says that probably allowed Penske to close that gap. But, they have a smoking gun in their camp with MSR driver Simon Pagenaud. MSR is an alliance team to Andretti and Pagenaud is also a former Penske driver, just as recent as last year to be exact and he has some ideas too which Herta says is interesting.

He says that plus some tweaks from what they’ve learned in St. Pete should put them in the window.

Now, what can happen on Sunday? Their season is riding on it.

6 comments

  1. Well done Eric. It’s so competitive that a couple of poor results put lots of pressure on Teams & personnel this early in the Season. Let’s see what happens this weekend..? Thanks again for the exellent work.

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    • Thanks as always, Jim! Agree fully. That’s what makes INDYCAR so compelling is because you don’t get many mulligans

      Like

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