Indycar Season Review- Newgarden Reclaims Title and Rookies Shine

Photo: Josef Newgarden on his way to clinching the championship at Weather Tech Raceway Laguna Seca. Photo by Kyle McInnes

In some ways 2019 was an unusual season for the NTT Indycar Series. In other ways, it was a typical season.

Some unusual items:

All three of the championship contenders heading to the final race had at least one finish of 15th or worse.

The seven race winners each won multiple times. I can’t recall that ever happening before. Seven winners seems like the lowest total in a few years as well.

None of the three contenders won a race after July 20.

Alexander Rossi did not lead a lap after his dominating win at Road America on June 23.

Typically, Team Penske drivers led more than 900 laps and won nine races. The team also enjoyed a 1-2 finish in the final standings.

Josef Newgarden combined  consistency and some great pit strategy by Tim Cindric to jump to an early points lead which he held most of the season. Rossi climbed to within 16 points after Mid Ohio, but the lead expanded in the following race after Rossi’s involvement in the first lap incident at Pocono. Simon Pagenaud saved his job with his two brilliant victories in May. He had a 4.8 finishing average over the last six races and came up just 25 points short of his second title.

Rossi was dominating at Long Beach and Road America. He finished second in the Indianapolis 500. The rest of the time he was good, but not great. I thought Rossi was more consistent in 2018. Since his Road America win, Rossi had an average finish of 7.7

Dixon’s Title Defense Stalls

Scott Dixon’s season was typical of his title defense years. He never got going. 2019 was just the second time he has finished outside the top three in the standings.

Dixon finished second three times and third once in the first five races. A 17th place in the Indianapolis 500 followed by a crash and 22nd place in the first Belle Isle race put Dixon  in a hole he could not climb out of. He did bounce back to win the second race at Belle Isle and also won at Mid Ohio. Dixon now has 46 career wins, just six short of Mario Andretti for second place all time.

Rookies Have Outstanding Year

The four rookies- Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, and Santino Ferrucci- collectively had a season that any rookie group would be thrilled with. The class earned  2 wins, 4 poles, and 6 podiums. Ferrucci had an average finish on ovals of 6.2. Rosenqvist’s street/road course average was a respectable 7.1. Herta took most of the headlines with his three poles and two victories, but mechanical issues and accidents suppressed his averages and kept him behind in the points standings.

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Felix Rosenqvist edged Colton Herta for Rookie of the Year. Photo: Kyle McInnes

Rosenqvist won the Rookie of the Year title with a fierce drive at Laguna Seca from 14th to fifth to edge Herta by five points. He served notice at St. Petersburg that the rookies meant business when he passed Will Power on a restart. With Rosenqvist staying at Ganassi and Herta moving to the main Andretti team, I see a future rivalry between these two in a couple years.

Surprises and Disappointments

The biggest surprise of the year was Takuma Sato winning two races and earning two pole positions. Sato had a big slump beginning at Texas and was blamed for the early accident at Pocono. It would be nice to see him put a full season together.

Jack Harvey and Meyer Shank racing deserve consideration for driver and team of the year. Harvey earned the team’s first podium at the Indycar Grand Prix. In just 10 races, Harvey had four top ten finishes, got into the Fast Six twice, and finished on the lead lap in seven races. They seemed to struggle after their long break following Road America. If their plan to be full time in 2020 works out, they should be even better.

Zach Veach was probably the most disappointing driver. After finishing 2018 strongly, I thought he would have a great year. He lingered in the back half of the field most weekends and finished 18th in points, ahead of only Matheus Leist and Ed Jones among the drivers who drove all 17 races.

The Best and Not So Best

Not every race can be great, and like most years a few races stood out.

For me, the best races were the Indycar Grand Prix, Mid Ohio, Iowa, and Gateway.

The worst races in my opinion were Pocono, Detroit 1, Toronto, and Portland.

 

 

 

 

The Podium of Redemption- Quick Thoughts on the Bommarito Automotive Group 500

Three drivers who needed a good result got the best results possible. Takuma Sato, maligned as the cause of the first lap crash at Pocono; Ed Carpenter, in his final race of the year and some questioning whether he should step out of the car; and Tony Kanaan, whose best finish to date was a quiet eighth, stood proudly on the podium after The Bommarito Automotive Group 500.

Each of these drivers needed a good finish and they couldn’t have asked for more.

Josef Newgarden placed more distance between himself and his closest rivals.

Santino Ferrucci had the drive of the day. He led the most laps and made some incredible passes. It’s a shame the pit stops and yellows fell the way they did.

There was a great four way battle for the lead in the middle of the race with Ferrucci, Sebastien Bourdais, Newgarden, and Rossi.

In spite of all the yellows, some of which were a bit too long, this was a great race. The race had lots of passing, on track lead changes, pit strategy, and a close finish.

Sato has had a strange season- strong early, then a terrible middle, then he rebounds with another win.  He has two wins and a pole in this weird season.

Conor Daly grabs another top ten. I hope Carlin puts him in the car full time next year. He again shows that he can get the most out of a car.

Carpenter finishes his oval season with two straight top tens and three overall.

I can’t remember a race in which Will Power finished last and Scott Dixon finished 20th.  Dixon’s chance of winning the title may have suffered a fatal blow tonight.

Ferrucci now leads the rookie standings by two points over Felix Rosenqvist.

Five drivers in the top ten started 17th or worse.

I will update this post later.

Thanks for following along the last two days.

 

 

 

 

Indycar at Mid Season Part 1- Surprises

The mid point of the NTT Indycar Series always seems to arrive too quickly. Wasn’t St. Pete just two weeks ago?   The crews and teams have a welcome break, which became even better for them as Wednesday’s scheduled test at Road America has already been cancelled for now due to weather. I don’t know why the test wasn’t scheduled for the Wednesday of race week.

As with every season, 2019 has had  some surprises and disappointments along with the predictability of the Big Three winning most of the time.. The top four in points are separated by just 89 points. All four have won at least one race.  Josef Newgarden leads Alexander Rossi by 25 points. I don’t think this fight is over by any means. Today I’ll talk about the surprises of the first half of 2019. Tomorrow I’ll discuss the first half disappointments.

Surprises- Rookies, Missing Names from Win Column

Will Power-

The biggest surprise of the season is that Power has not won a race yet. He has two third place finishes, one at St. Pete and last week at the second Detroit race, three other top ten finishes and is sixth in points.  Last place at COTA and an 18th place finish at Detroit in race one have hurt his standing. I expect him to win a race or two the second half of the season.

Keeping it Close-

Each of the top four drivers- Newgarden, Rossi, Simon Pagenaud, and Scott Dixon-have at least one finish below 15th place.  Last season  in Dixon’s march to the title he had a worst finish of twelfth. Newgarden’s three victories are allowing him to keep the lead.  Team Penske drivers generally have a tendency to fade the second half of the year. Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015 let a comfortable lead slip away and lost the championship to Dixon. Helio Castroneves lost a couple titles late in the season. Newgarden in 2017  and Pagenaud in 2016, however, won their titles with consistent runs and were strong throughout their title years.

Santino Ferrucci-

Where did this guy come from? He was nearly invisible at the beginning of the year, but has shown consistency of late with four top tens in the last five races. he has five top tens this year, including a career best fourth at Texas Saturday night. The Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year now leads the rookie standings by 12 points over Felix Rosenqvist.  Ferrucci has driven extremely well on the two ovals. There are three ovals in the second half of the season.

The Other Rookies-

Felix Rosenqvist

Rosenqvist got off to a great start at St. Pete where he led laps and finished fourth. He then won the pole for the Indycar GP at IMS. Rosenqvist has five top tens and two top fives. His two DNFs and 23rd place finish at COTA have put him behind Ferrucci.

Colton Herta

If Herta finished every race Rookie of the Year would not even be close. Four straight DNFs followed his win at COTA. The issues were mechanical. Saturday at Texas he was in a position for at least a podium when he and Dixon collided with less than 20 laps to go.  If Herta drives like he did for most of the race at Texas in the second half of 2019, he could win again or see the podium a couple of times.

Marcus Ericsson

Ericsson’s second at Detroit has been the highlight of a season filled with lots of frustration.  He has just three top tens,but two have come in the last two races. Ericsson has had some good days ruined by mistakes. He still could have a decent season.

Other Surprises

Alexander Rossi

The surprise is that Rossi has won just once this year. His car just doesn’t seem to have enough to get to first.  Rossi showed frustration after Texas, his third runner-up finish of the year. He is having a great year, but I expected just a bit more. I still think his consistency will get him to the top. Rossi  also has two race/season saving moves this season. He was able to keep his car going in Detroit last Sunday after the collision between Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe. Saturday night he narrowly avoided the spinning car of Herta on the apron.

Takuma Sato

I saved the biggest surprise for last. Sato is driving better than he ever has this season. Two poles and a victory have Sato in fifth place in the standings. He has been on the podium three times, including at the Indianapolis 500 where he cam from way back. Sato’s only mistake this season came Saturday at Texas when he came into the pits too fast and hit a crewman. His stop and go penalty left him three laps down and in fifteenth place.  Sato will be a factor in the title fight all season.

Tomorrow- Disappointments

 

Quick Thoughts- Texas Qualifying

Photo; Takuma Sato at Indianapolis last month

Note: The  comments above the break were written in real time during qualifying.

Tony Kanaan’s miserable year continues. He brushed the wall on his qualifying lap.

Great first lap by Marco then he looked like he was back on slicks at Detroit last Saturday.

After Spencer Pigot’s run I thought Ed Carpenter would do better.

Takuma Sato with another great qualifying run.

Disappointing run fir Alexander Rossi.

That is the worst Team Penske qualifying effort I’ve seen in a while.

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Anyone who says they knew before the season started that Sato would have two poles is lying. I have said he will be in this title fight all season. Sato is third in bonus points with 7, behind Rossi and Newgarden.

Sato now has 9 career poles.  Ryan Hunter-Reay and  Josef Newgarden each  have 7.

The race will he interesting with Rossi and Will Power starting mid pack.  Keep your on starting spots 8-15 the first stint tomorrow.

I wonder if the Penske cars have better race cars than qualifying cars.

The tire question will be huge tomorrow night, especially late in the race.

Marco can’t catch a break, even with a really good car.

The unofficial results:

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Back tomorrow with Quick Thoughts after the race and a full report Sunday on Wildfire Sports.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quick Thoughts- Detroit Race 1

It is frustrating race to watch a race that runs 50%  of the time under yellow. 29 green laps isn’t much of a race.

There were some good battles early, but the race got processional once everyone went to slicks.

Tim Cindric once again made the right strategy call. If the race stayed green it might not have worked out.

Rossi has two straight second place finishes and Sato two straight third places. I said a couple of weeks ago that Sato will be in this fight all season.

I’m sure television influenced the length of the time limit, but 85-90 minutes would have made a better show and guaranteed a second pit stop.

Ryan Hunter-Reay did a great job recovering from missing turn 7 early.

Looking at the tire choices set for today before the rain, it looks like most of the field was planning to start on reds and be done with them for the rest of the race. We might see the same plan tomorrow.

I have had my fill of rainy races this year.

Tomorrow the weather looks good for a dry full length race.  It should be a better show.

It’s hard to believe that we are seven races into the season and Will Power hasn’t won a race. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

Watch for my full race report on Wildfire Sports tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

Quick Thoughts- Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

I love watching a track come alive on race morning. It’s fun seeing the energy build among the fans and teams.

Age and experience beat youth everytime.

Takuma Sato was unstoppable this weekend. He has won two of the last five races going back to Portland in 2018.

There were terrific battles throughout the day.

Josef Newgarden is doing the things needed to be champion. He fought hard from his 17th starting position to finish fourth. Herta’s issues allowed him to increase his point lead to 27 over Scott Dixon. I wouldn’t count Dixon out just yet.

Both Swedish rookies finished in the top 10.  Marcus Ericsson was 7th and Felix Rosenqvist was 10th. It was a good recovery for Rosenqvist who had some off track excurions earlier in the weekend.

Even though Power has won twice here, he seems to have some sort of problem during the race.  It’s odd to see a driver who has had a lot of success at a track run into so much difficulty the last few years.

Jack Harvey had another good run but it looked like pit strategy kept him from a third straight top 10, Still MSR is doing well this young season.

The crowd was still a good size, but seemed a little down from the last two years.

Baby Steps

Dragonspeed and  driver Ben Hanley have shown a gain in speed since St. Pete. After today they have just three races remaining in their short first season. It looks like they are on a good path to a decent pace.

They were not the last car running today.

Look for my full race report tomorrow on Wildfire Sports. Thanks for following along this weekend.

Photo: Sato’s crew celebrates after the checkered flag.

 

 

Quick Thoughts on Barber Qualifying

That was a refreshing qualifying session on many levels. It was green all the way. No Penske cars in the Fast Six for the first time since 2014. Five teams represented in the Fast Six. One team locked out the front row, and it wasn’t one of the Big Three.

Chevys are scattered through the field in groups of twos and threes.

Tomorrow’s race became very interesting as soon as the checkered flag waved on qualifying.

The crowd today looked more like a typical Barber Saturday.  The lack of rain likely helped with that.

Does any driver exhibit the pure joy of success better than Takuma Sato? I mean besides Will Power at Indianapolis last May.

Graham Rahal had his best race in a long time at COTA two weeks ago. Can he improve on that tomorrow?

Conor Daly won the Lamborghini Super Trofeo race today