By Tony DiZinno
An NTT INDYCAR SERIES season the likes of which we haven’t seen in ages is nearing its final act.
The word age has been one of the defining words of this 2021 season. A pair of drivers in their second full seasons, both under 25 years old, stand ready to capture their maiden championship. To get there, either will need to dethrone the last two drivers who won an IndyCar crown under age 30 and who combined have locked out the last four titles. And if all four of these falter, a fifth driver in his third year who few would have forecast as a championship contender preseason could swoop in.
The fab five, as you were, are points leader Pato O’Ward, most-of-season points leader Alex Palou, two-time champion Josef Newgarden, six-time champ Scott Dixon and stealthy Marcus Ericsson.
Add in the variable that O’Ward, Palou and Ericsson have a combined zero IndyCar starts at Portland, one at Monterey and two at Long Beach – the final three West Coast races – and the degree of unpredictability continues to increase.
It all adds up to a fascinating finish that will test the mature beyond their years, but still youthful, trio of title contending newcomers against the tried-and-true Newgarden and Dixon, who will look to capture the crown once more.
The enthusiastic and energetic O’Ward, just 22, has the potential to be the first driver outside of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport to win a title since the last full Champ Car season in 2007 (Sebastien Bourdais, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing). If you want to go back even further, he’d be the first to do so outside those three in the series known as IndyCar since 2002, when Sam Hornish Jr. doubled up for Panther Racing.
Arrow McLaren SP, under the direction of team president and O’Ward’s strategist Taylor Kiel, is as close as any team to breaking into the proverbial “big three” stranglehold based primarily on O’Ward’s recent finishing consistency to match his unbridled pace. He had a pair of 15th or worse finishes in the first five races, but has finished worse than ninth just once in the last eight. When he hasn’t had the qualifying pace, he’s maximized his finishes, and what those string of fourth-to-ninth place results lack in glamour they make up for in points gold.
That consistency word, though, is the potential poison pill I fear could rear its ugly head in these last three races. Three sub 16th-place starts this year have left O’Ward a bit of work to do. He’s pulled out some rabbits in coordination with the rapid No. 5 Chevrolet pit crew and his own on-track passing prowess, turning those poor starts into first, eighth and 15th place finishes. He’s had his mulligans and simply can’t afford those in the last three races, but he’s had a pair of strong tests at both Portland and Monterey. His odds are good for the title if he can just keep doing what he’s doing.
Palou’s effervescent attitude has been tested by two brutal races in a row at the worst time, through no fault of his own. Each year one drivers bears the brunt of unreliability and Palou’s luck with powerplants this year has been ill-timed. Setting aside the results issues, he’s also had grid penalties to deal with, and that remains a looming concern in the back end if any further gremlins arise in the final trio of events.
You could argue though that he’s not nearly in as bad a position as back-to-back 27th and 20th place results would indicate. Despite losing a 40-plus points advantage, he’s still only 10 back of O’Ward. That’s easily achievable to overcome with a win or just putting O’Ward a few spots down. He generally always seemed happy in the lead. Now, chasing, he actually has less to lose because he’s already been through a rough patch. Yes, his margin for error is gone but combined with the No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing crew, he has nowhere to go but up as he heads to three tracks he’s never raced on before. How fast he learns and rolls off the trailer will be key to his success and whether he can recapture the points lead.
Newgarden has spent the year digging out of a near last place hole in the points standings after his rare, unforced error in the Barber season opener. Where Newgarden, now 30, may have held back to score points earlier in the year – I think he could have potentially gone for the win versus Colton Herta at St. Petersburg, for instance – he’s now in the position of playing with house money and that beautiful late-season word: momentum.
After the loss of two surefire wins at Detroit 2 and Road America, Newgarden sat 88 points behind then-leader Palou with nine races complete and at the time, eight races to go. Then that become seven when Toronto fell off the calendar. Now, he’s just 12 points behind Palou and 22 behind O’Ward. It’s been a remarkable turnaround for the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet, usually adorned in Hitachi colors, and the crew featuring master strategist Tim Cindric and ace engineer Gavin Ward. The championship-tested ringer he’s gone through the last four years will play to his benefit. If there’s one weird outlier, it’s that the driver who now has 20 career wins hasn’t yet won at any of the final three West Coast venues. One or more wins to erase that stat could go a long way towards securing a third, and perhaps most unexpected, title.
Dixon, who famously rallied from more than 40 points down in the last race of 2015 at Sonoma to win his fourth crown won’t have the benefit of a double points finale to do so likewise this year. And bizarre as this might be to say, on pure recent form of the five title contenders, Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda has not been as competitive as any of his four rivals.
Dixon has had just one podium finish (second at Nashville) in the last 10 races. That contrasts to Palou’s five, O’Ward’s four, Newgarden’s four and Ericsson’s three in the same period. Sure, there have been three fourth places in that time frame (Texas 2, Road America, Mid-Ohio) but even so those have featured some combination of those other four that have finished ahead of him, and key points lost.
It adds up to a highly unusual position for Dixon, now 41, to be in. He’s not out of it, but at 43 points back, he has to jump three cars rather than one or two. But this is Dixon and the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing team we’re talking about. The moment you underestimate them, or write them off at your own peril, they go full “Wolfpack” on you and win another title.
Ericsson, at 60 points back, has the longest odds of the five still in within remaining shouting distance. The sneaky, stealthy Swede has been incredibly consistent all season. He’s only finished worse than 12th once, and he’s riding a hot streak of seven straight top-10 finishes. Together with strategist Mike O’Gara and engineer Brad Goldberg, two key assets to Ganassi’s former Ford GT IMSA program, Ericsson and the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda have been a persistent thorn in the side of many throughout the year.
Similar to Palou, Ericsson can enter these last three races without much reservation. O’Gara and Goldberg’s roles on the pit box are massively instrumental from a results-gaining standpoint. Portland has thrown up two rather wacky races since its return to the calendar in 2018, and may afford an off-sequence gamble to pay dividends. Ericsson’s never raced there, and only has a recent test to go off of for his weekend experience. Portland alone should make or break his title hopes, but if he can gain in the 15 to 20-point ballpark on some if not all of his rivals, he’s still in with a great shot to keep a shock championship challenge alive.
Who blinks first?
What fascinates me about the five title combatants is that it features three drivers in with their first real shot at trying to win a title in IndyCar, against two who know how to do it. Making the leap from contender to champ doesn’t come without pitfalls.
Sometimes you have to lose a title first before you can win one. Most famously, Will Power lost three straight from 2010-‘12 before finally breaking through in 2014. Americans Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal have come close yet remain without one in their careers. Ryan Briscoe’s pit lane faux pas at Motegi, Japan undid a year where he looked poised to secure a title and he never got close again. And then Helio Castroneves was in contention so many times but the cards never fell his way.
Dixon and Newgarden realistically won their first title shots, and that cements them as the two standard-bearers in the series. Dixon did so in the all-oval 2003 IRL season, emerging on top of a five-horse race that also featured Castroneves, Hornish, Gil de Ferran, and Tony Kanaan at the top. Newgarden was mathematically but not realistically alive for the 2015 finale. So his first real shot to win the title came in the last race of his first Penske season, 2017, and he brought it home.
O’Ward, Palou and Ericsson are the first three of a generation of future IndyCar stars who may become annual championship contenders. Others will follow, most notably Colton Herta and Rinus VeeKay as soon as they can string full seasons together given their already race-winning prowess.
Boiling it all down
Of the three, I like O’Ward’s moxie the most. He knows these three circuits better than Palou and Ericsson and he knows how to win an open-wheel championship in North America, having had two very different cracks at titles during his Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires career.
He was admittedly raw at just 17 years old when battling Team Pelfrey teammate Aaron Telitz for the 2016 Pro Mazda title in Monterey. A scuffling weekend included contact with Telitz and an ultimate defeat that’s looked greater on the Birchwood, Wis. native’s resume over time.
Where O’Ward grew from a confidence standpoint was a year later, during his first of two “career wilderness” years in 2017. Out of Indy Lights after just a handful of races, O’Ward took up an IMSA LMPC prototype seat with Brent O’Neill’s Performance Tech operation, where he flourished in the Florida-based, family atmosphere team. O’Ward’s race craft improved to match his pace and he won all the races but one that season en route to the title.
It made a remarkable difference in his stature when he went back to Indy Lights in 2018. Beating Herta straight-up as teammates at Andretti Autosport grew from those two previous years. The moves he made when he needed to – including an epic battle at Portland that propelled him to the crown – were the sign of a driver who’d developed even faster than anticipated.
Those learnings and surviving his hardship, roller coaster 2019 racing IndyCar, Super Formula and F2 all while having a sip of a Red Bull Junior contract continued to help mold and embolden the young Mexican for 2020, a highly unusual first full-time season in IndyCar with Arrow McLaren SP.
There’s a funny subplot to O’Ward versus Newgarden and the Ganassi trio battle. His teammate Felix Rosenqvist may yet play a bit role as a supporting act. What better motivation for him to help his current team than to deny his old one, Ganassi, yet another title?
So O’Ward is the driver I like among the trio of first-time title contenders. Of Newgarden and Dixon, I’ll take Newgarden as my other title rival down to the wire. For Newgarden to gain more than 30 points on the championship lead in one race is highly unusual at this stage in the season, so at only 22 back with three to play means he’s in a great position.
The other factor I think plays to both O’Ward and Newgarden’s benefits? They can have the full resources of their teams dedicated to just their championship battles.
Ganassi has been the best team in IndyCar this season. But paradoxically, because the team has three title contenders, perhaps Palou, Dixon and Ericsson take points off each other in the final three races.
Picking a champion? That’s tougher still.
The preseason testing talk centered around O’Ward as a strong contender to win this year’s championship. If he does, at 22, he’ll be younger than a driver who scored his first title at 23 and the youngest driver to do so since that time.
That guy? Dixon in 2003. O’Ward was 4 at the time.
A big, big part of me thinks Newgarden will ride the momentum wave to steal the crown away.
But it feels like the right capper to this changing of the guard year would be a changing of the guard driver and team to win the title.
O’Ward and Arrow McLaren SP’s title-winning moment has arrived. Now, they have to seize it.