Indycar Season Preview Part 1: It’s Crowded at the Top

Photo: Can Alex Palou repeat?

One week from today the gates open for the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. The NTT Indycar Series enters 2022 with momentum from a great 2021 season and off season growth in numbers and in its television position. The full time grid has expanded to 26 cars, with some races expecting up to 28. Fourteen of the 17 scheduled races will be on NBC. The youth movement will continue to grow with five full time rookies.

Alex Palou seeks to win back to back championships, a feat last achieved by Dario Franchitti in 2011 and 2012. Last year Palou had to battle Pato O’Ward and Josef Newgarden on his way to the Astor Cup. I think in 2022 the battle gets more challenging. I see five drivers representing four different teams who could possibly win the title.

Main Contenders

Alex Palou- Chip Ganassi Racing

Palou’s rise to the front surprised many people, but he was consistent and did what he needed to do nearly very time out. Palou is as close to a Scott Dixon clone as you can get, and that steadiness helped him secure the title. Look for more of the same from the defending champion, but getting three wins may be difficult.

Josef Newgarden- Team Penske

A first lap accident at Barber put Newgarden in catch up mode for the entire season. He didn’t win a pole until Road America, and Newgarden’s first win came at Mid Ohio in July. The two time series champion lost in the closing laps at Detroit, and a mechanical issue late in the race at Road America cost him another sure victory. Newgarden will be in the mix again. A better start to the year will help his chances.

Pato O’Ward

Pato O’Ward- Arrow McLaren SP

O’Ward held the points lead with three races to go, but a 14th place finish at Portland and a DNF in the finale at Long Beach saw him slide back to third the standings. If the hard charging driver can show a little more patience, he will be in the hunt again. He should at least equal his two wins from 2021. I think the title fight down the stretch could come down to O’Ward and another young veteran.

Colton Herta

Colton Herta- Andretti Autosport

Herta’s sixth place finish in last season’s standings was not representative of his year. Three wins, tied With Palou for most in the series, and three poles, second most behind Newgarden, put Herta in great position to challenge for the championship. Several opportunities slipped through his hands as his car seemed to fade late in races during mid season. Like new garden Herta was a victim oft he first lap chaos at Barber. I think the 2022 title will be a season long tussle between Herta and O’Ward.

Scott Dixon- Chip Ganassi Racing

Dixon had what was for him an off year- one victory and a fourth place in the championship. His car seemed slightly off pace at times. His season wasn’t helped with his disastrous 17th place finish in the Indianapolis 500. Dixon can never be counted out, but I still think youth will be served this year. Another top five finish is in the cards because, well, it’s Scott Dixon.

Dark Horses

This group of drivers could work their way into contention.

Alexander Rossi- Andretti Autosport

Rossi should improve after two winless seasons punctuated by a lot of bad luck and sometimes questionable strategy. He may also be driving for a 2023 ride. Rossi’s last win came in 2019 at Road America. His ninth and 10th place finishes the last two years were the worst of his career. I’m not sure if he will win a race this season, but he should have more finishes in the top five.

Simon Pagenaud- Meyer Shank Racing

Pagenaud seems rejuvenated by the move from Team Penske and the long shadows of Newgarden and Will Power. He seemed to be lost in the shuffle last season. Pagenaud led day two of this week’s test at Sebring. The 2019 Indy 5600 champion looks ready for a solid run at the title on a team that has grown into one that can challenge for wins and podiums.

Graham Rahal-Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

Rahal hasn’t had bad years. He has had quiet years. His seventh place in 2021 came about as quietly as a top ten finish could be. No wins in the last five years has to be frustrating, but could 2022 be the year Rahal returns to the top step of the podium? The team is stronger with the addition of Jack Harvey and rookie Christian Lundgaard.

Rinus VeeKay- Ed Carpenter Racing

Which VeeKay shows up this year? The one who was fifth in the standings and took his first victory in May, or the one who faded to 12th place after returning to the cockpit following a bicycler accident. I hope it’s the former, completely healed and ready to contend all season. While he may not win the championship, VeeKay could be a spoiler in 2022.

Marcus Ericsson- Chip Ganassi Racing

Ericsson’s first two career victories in 2021surprised most people, and he came home sixth in the standings. Ericsson chased Newgarden to the flag at Mid Ohio and may have caught him had the race been a bit longer. Don’t go to sleep on him this year. The wins seemed to energize him and give him a confidence I was wondering about.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the rookie class and talk some about the rest of the field. Sunday my terribly incorrect season predicts come out. Then it’s Race Week!