5 early things I’m watching for the 2023 NTT INDYCAR Series season

Final Year For Engine Regulations…

This has been said the last few years in the NTT INDYCAR Series but is 2023 really it? The new model is supposed to come out 2022 but COVID pushed that back a year. Now it’s back to 2024. Will it happen?

A major component to this was a move to hybrid in enticing a new manufacturer to come into the series. Since 2012, it’s only been Chevrolet and Honda. However, while talks have occurred and gotten down the line without car makes around this world, a deal hasn’t been struck. Will one be struck soon to ensure the 3rd OEM isn’t playing from behind in 2025 or beyond?

Does INDYCAR push this back another year to 2025 to help further their search?

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, Jay Frye also told me in the past that he doesn’t think the addition of 200 additional horsepower in Year 1 is smart because the more horsepower you gain, the more money that gets spent.

“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 (he said this last year) 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.”

Still, a new engine will already cost teams more money and with so much growth, if you don’t get a new OEM, is it wise to force these teams and engine manufacturers to spend more money than they need to for a new engine that’s not bringing in a new engine make?

Maybe repurpose the money spent towards a new updated chassis that can withstand all these safety initiatives. The drivers and teams are almost saying mercy with the amount of weight being added to these cars. This is the same DW12 chassis but with enhancements over the last decade. Each piece adds more weight than this original tub was designed to have. With more weight and more power means more strain on a heavier car.

If teams are going to spend money, maybe a new chassis over a new engine would make more sense. OR maybe it’s all for not and a new OEM comes on board. Still, there’s been limited testing and you’d have to think Ford, Toyota, or whatever other manufacturer that’s interested ends up coming in, they need proper testing time which you’d think they’d want to jump in when it’s new for every manufacturer and not them.

Which leads to me wonder if 2023 is truly the final year of these current engine regulations.

Scott Dixon celebrates his Nashville win earlier this month. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Anyone Stop Penske and Ganassi?

Since 2013, only Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have won championships. Ganassi has titles from Scott Dixon (2013, 2015, 2018, 2020) and Alex Palou (2021) while Penske has titles from Will Power (2014), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Josef Newgarden (2017, 2019).

That’s 10 straight years with each having won 5 titles.

If you go back to 2008, they’ve won 14 of the last 15 years at that.

With this Aeroscreen, they’ve won 72% of the races (33-for-46) and 100% of the championships.

Does anyone buck this trend next season?

Andretti Autosport makes the most sense but are they ready? They’re they only other manufacturer to win a championship since 2003. Between them, Penske and Ganassi, that’s 20 straight years of dominance.

They’ve combined to have won 38 of the last 46 races now (78%).

In 2020, Penske, Ganassi and Andretti won 13 of the 14 races. A year prior it was 13-for-17. The only 4 that they didn’t win was 2 by Harding Steinbrenner Racing and Colton Herta but they were aligned with Andretti, so it very well could fall under the Andretti umbrella and 2 by Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan and Takuma Sato.

In 2018, they won 5 of the final six races with the exception being RLL and Sato again. If you go back to the second race of the season in 2018, they won 14 of the last 16 races of 2018 factoring in SPM’s Iowa win with James Hinchcliffe.

14-for-16 in 2018, 13-for-17 in 2019, 13-for-14 in 2020. 12-for-16 in 2021. They just went 15-for-17 this season too.

So breaking down the barrier to these three teams is difficult.

However, AMSP seems to be the one having the most success. They’ve showed more consistent pace than Andretti over the past 2 seasons. They’re tied 2-2 each (through Nashville) this past year. It was 3-2 in favor of Andretti in 2021.

Now, can AMSP seriously threaten the “Big 2” or does Andretti steal that thunder back? Maybe it’s someone else?

RLL made a strong end of season push as well. Graham Rahal now has 5 top 10 starts in his last 9 starts to the season in comparison to 3 in first 7. The Ohio native also has scored 4 top 10’s in the last 7 at that. In terms of finishes, he has 5 top 10’s in the last 7 races. His teammate Christian Lundgaard has 6 top 11 finishes over the last 9 races on the year. He had just 3 in the first 7. He was runner-up in the July 30 Gallagher Grand Prix and 8th in Nashville. Also if not for a couple of bad pit stops and a run-in at the end of the same race with Rossi at Portland, he would have had at the very least a top 5 there too.

Scott Dixon celebrates his win at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Toronto. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

5th Indy 500 For Helio Castroneves? Dixon 7th Championship?

The big storyline entering next season has to be Helio Castroneves’ pursuit of a fifth Indianapolis 500 crown. That’s something that has never been done in the past 106 years of this race and he’ll try again to win No. 5. 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 again as he scored a top 10 this past May.

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 53 wins to go along with those six titles. Only AJ Foyt’s 67 wins is ahead. Out of the last 20 seasons, Dixon has had at the very least two victories in 17 of them including 15 of the last 17 years.

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 four years combined. So, he has a great shot of getting passed Andretti very soon.

Combine those, Dixon has 103 top two finishes in INDYCAR history. Andretti has 108 but it took him 407 starts to do so. Sunday, was Dixon’s 368th 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 26 clear of that and still has more years left in him.

Dixon also has 131 podiums, second most. Andretti has 144. Dixon has had 34 podiums in the last four years, so that’s attainable too. In terms of top fives, Dixon has 192. Andretti has 194.

Top 2 now in literally every major statistical category. Championships (2nd), wins (2nd), 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 top 5’s in 2023.

Power, can rise too. He has 41 wins, which is fifth most ever. Power, has had at least one win for 16 straight years now. Can he get at least two wins next season and move past Michael Andretti for fourth? Since 2010, he’s won at least two races in every year minus three. 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.

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 2-5-10 right now. For runner-ups, it’s 2-3-12. For podiums, it’s 2-6-7. For top fives, it’s 2-4-9.

These three are wildly underrated for this era.

The start of the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Does INDYCAR Go Outside Of Comfort Zone?

The NTT INDYCAR Series is in a precarious predicament. They’ve done exactly what they’ve needed to do over the last several years to grow this series back to relevancy. It’s almost staggering to look at the numbers now compared to where they were a decade ago.

When Mark Miles came onboard, things began to change for the better. When Jay Frye came into the series, it strengthened the paddock in ways we’ve not seen in decades, if ever. Miles and Frye had INDYCAR going in the right direction. Then came Roger Penske taking over the series and leaving Miles and Frye in place. Between these three gentlemen and Doug Boles at IMS, open wheel racing in North America was on the rise even more.

Now though, it may be time to take some risks. INDYCAR has done a great job of staying in the box to make this thing grow. However, as NASCAR has taken a ton of risks over the last few years, they’ve started their ascension back up again. Also, Formula One’s rise here in America too, it’s starting to overshadow everything that INDYCAR has done.

INDYCAR’s ratings are up, but not growing as fast as they once were. Part of that is because of how long those numbers were when Miles took over. Another part is, they’re soon to hit their ceiling. The new path to make a quicker rise in those numbers may very well be some outside of the box risks.

Before now, I don’t think INDYCAR had built up enough yet to be able to be in a position to take any wild risks. They had to tread carefully. Now, the capital is there to be able to do so. The problem lies, this fan base is very traditionalist minded. They don’t like if you mess with tradition. However, in order to keep growing and risk not being passed over by F1 and a gap to grow larger to NASCAR, you may need to visit taking them.

NASCAR raced in a football stadium that had a built in halftime show. They’ve added stages, playoffs, turned an existing track into a dirt race, turned an oval into a ROVAL, raced on Easter, will run a street race in 2023, etc. All were hits. That’s helped grow the sport.

INDYCAR almost needs to take a page out of that playbook and do something similar. What’s their wild risk?

NASCAR has seen 8 new teams join the sport in 2 years, 7 of which in Cup, NASCAR’s premiere series. Names like Emmitt Smith, Floyd Mayweather, Michael Jordan and Pitbull joined. INDYCAR has 10 total teams in the paddock with just 3 new teams still around that’s joined in the last decade.

AJ Foyt Racing has been here since 1966. AJ is 87 years old. Team Penske’s existence started in 1968. Roger is 85. Dale Coyne Racing joined in 1984. Dale is 68. Chip Ganassi was formed in 1990. Chip is 64.

You get the point.

What’s next?

Meyer Shank came around in 2017 as a part-time role. They’re here now full-time. Juncos also was here in 2017 but came back full time just this season. Rick Ware Racing and HMD are new the last two years but are co-entrants with Coyne. Paretta is trying but are teamed so far with ECR.

What’s next? Why isn’t the star power coming to INDYCAR too? After all, it’s wildly cheaper to join as an INDYCAR entrant as to a NASCAR one.

The NASCAR garage is in a shift to a younger demographic. Smith, Mayweather, Jordan and Pitbull help but so does the fact that you get Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Justin Marks, BJ McLeod, Matt Tifft, Matt Kaulig and GMS coming in too.

Foyt has Larry Foyt up to run the team next. He’s 45. Tim Cindric is the likely heir to Penske as far as running the show. He’s 54. Zak Brown is only 50 with Arrow McLaren SP. Ed Carpenter is only 41. Michael Andretti is 59. Ricardo Juncos is 47. Mike Shank is 57.

They’re lacking attracting younger owners outside of the Steinbrenner family and when they do get some new teams in, how can they get them out on their own too?

Is it a new engine manufacturer?

Either way, NASCAR has the new A-listers wanting in as owners. INDYCAR needs some younger owners as well as some risk being taken to help grow this sport even further.

They have the cool cars, the technology based entitlement sponsor, a great TV partner, the speeds, the young drivers, everything in place to succeed. They just need that moment to fully stamp their name into mainstream America and it has to take place outside of Indianapolis.

Scott McLaughlin celebrates his Honda Indy 200 win at Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

McLaughlin The Championship Favorite?

The hottest driver to end the 2022 season wasn’t the champion. It was Scott McLaughlin. It makes you wonder if he’s the favorite to take home the 2023 Astor cup.

McLaughlin is as hot as anyone right now and to be doing so in just 34 career starts, what happens when he sees these tracks a 3rd time around?

McLaughlin won the pole and the race in the season opener in St. Pete. He led 186 laps in a runner-up effort in Race 2 at Texas. He was 6th at Barber on May 1 for 3 top 6 finishes in the first 4 races of the year. That had him 2nd in points heading to Indy.

Unfortunately, that’s where his season took a dip. McLaughlin was 20th in the GMR Grand Prix, 29th in the Indy 500 and 19th a week later in Belle Isle. That dropped him to 10th in points on June 5.

Then came the turning point the other way – Road America. McLaughlin just needed a mistake free weekend. He got one. McLaughlin started 9th and finished 7th that June day. While those results seem ho-hum, they weren’t to the New Zealand native. It was exactly what he needed.

It got his season turned back in the right direction. He’d qualify on the front row the next time out in Mid-Ohio and a day after, he won. That began a stretch of 6 top 4 finishes over the last 9 races including 5 consecutively.

It’s allowed him to storm back from 10th in points to 4th with a shot at a championship last weekend in Monterey.

“I definitely expect it,” Scott Dixon said of McLaughlin’s success. “If you look at his track record, the guy is damn fast, and he has one of the best teams in the business. I think they’ve been very strong this year. They’ve been a step above the whole field.

“All three of them have been super quick and have had the chance to win every race that we’ve gone to this year. It’s great do see another Kiwi coming through.

“I know there’s a lot of talent down there. He came through kind of a strange path as well, but just shows you that it’s possible and hopefully there will be some more talent from Down Under to come.”

Prior to this season, he made 17 starts with 0 wins, 1 podium, 2 top 5 finishes, 5 top 10’s, 1 race led for 5 laps and 16 times he was running at the finish.

This season: 17 races, 3 wins, 7 podiums, 8 top 5 finishes, 12 top 10’s, 8 races led for 433 laps and 16 races he was running at the finish.

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