Things To Watch Heading Into 2020 NTT IndyCar Series Season

Youth Movement On Full Display

There’s a recent trend in the racing world and that’s the drivers are getting younger and younger. The youth wave is starting to come to a head. Look no further than the NTT IndyCar Series as the prime example. There’s four full-time rookies that will race in 2020 and another competing in a limited campaign with AJ Foyt Racing — four of those rookies are 23 years of age or younger. The eldest among that group is Dalton Kellett who’s running 9 of the 17 races with Foyt. He’s 27.

Last year’s rookie class has four drivers that are soon to be sophomores this year. Half of them are 21 years of age or younger and the other two are 29 (Marcus Ericsson) and 27 (Felix Rosenqvist)respectively. Those two are actually on the older end of the spectrum for the series as a whole anyways.

Zach Veach is still left from the 2018 rookie class and he’s only 25. Jack Harvey hasn’t ran a full season yet but he’s back in 2020 and is just 26. Conor Daly is running all road/street courses as well as the Indy 500 with ECR and he’s only 28.

You also can throw in Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi who are 29 and 28 years of age respectively and you get 14 drivers that are 29 years of age or younger.

The elder statesmen are now, Tony Kanaan (45), Takuma Sato (43), Sebastien Bourdais (40), Scott Dixon (39), Ryan Hunter-Reay (39), Ed Carpenter (38), Will Power (38), Simon Pagenaud (35) Charlie Kimball (34), Marco Andretti (32) and Graham Rahal (31).

That’s only eight full time drivers for 2020 over the age of 30 as a couple of them are part-timers.

Four of the top seven of the final drivers in the standings last year were under the age of 28 at the time. The future is looking brighter and brighter.

After Close Finishes In 2019, Will 2020 Be Even Closer?

The NTT IndyCar Series certainly had close racing in the recently completed 17-race season last year, and the proof is in the finishes.

On six occasions in 2019, the race winner’s margin was less than one second, the most for a season over the past five years. Thirteen of the 15 races that finished under green – or 86.6 percent of the time – the winning margin was less than three seconds, again the most over a five-year span. Two tracks – Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway – also established Indy car records for closest margin of victory this season. Scott Dixon nipped Chip Ganassi Racing rookie teammate Felix Rosenqvist by 0.0934 of a second at Mid-Ohio while Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato edged  Ed Carpenter of Ed Carpenter Racing by 0.0399 of a second at WWT Raceway.

By comparison, in 2018, there was only one finish of less than a second: Sato’s 0.6084-second victory over Ryan Hunter-Reay at Portland International Raceway. Also, there were only six finishes where the winning margin was less than three seconds.

Races that end under caution do not have an established margin of victory. That means this year’s races at Toronto and Pocono were not factored in.

Margin of victory less than 1 second:

2019: 6

2018: 1

2017: 5

2016: 4

2015: 3

Margin of victory less than 3 seconds:

2019: 13

2018: 6

2017: 10

2016: 8

2015: 9

With similar tracks in 2020 (Richmond over Pocono only change) and a third year with this car, will the AeroScreen change the racing much or will we be treated to another thrilling finish for all 17 races run?

Can Anyone Catch The Penske Trio?

Roger Penske made the biggest impact during the NTT IndyCar Series offseason. Penske, coming off of this third series championship in four years last September, bought the rights to not just the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and all of its assets, but the series as a whole too.

Now, can Penske, the new owner of IndyCar, win a fourth championship since 2016?

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Josef Newgarden celebrates after winning the 2019 IndyCar season championship, his 2nd in the last 3 years

All signs point to yes. The same three drivers return for another go around. Simon Pagenaud finished second to his teammate Josef Newgarden for the championship last year as the Frenchman swept the Month of May with an INDYCAR Grand Prix win, an Indy 500 pole as well as an Indy 500 triumph. Pagenaud, ended 2019 with nine straight top 10 finishes including 14 of the last 15 races. He arguably had more momentum at the end of the season than champion Newgarden.

Newgarden, had eight top 10’s over his last nine starts to his championship winning 2019 campaign, but had just one win over the final eight races. Pagenaud, finished ahead of Newgarden in four of the last five races to the season.

That should make those two the favorites for 2020.

But, don’t count out their other teammate Will Power. The 2018 Indy 500 champion closed 2019 better than both Newgarden and Pagenaud. Power, had two wins over the final four races and three top two finishes in that same time frame. From Mid-Ohio in late July through the end of the season, Power finished worse than fourth just once. If he can get luck on his side for a full season, then watch out.

On top of all of this, no one has scored as many wins than Penske since 2015. They’ve reached victory lane an astounding 38 times. The next best is Andretti Autosport in second with 13. Chip Ganassi Racing is the only other team in double digits in the win column over the last four season with 13 too.

If you go back to just 2018, the start of this new cars’ era, Penske has won more than double than the rest of the field. They’ve won 15 times in two years. Andretti is next best with seven. Ganassi has five and Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing three trips to victory lane.

Can Ganassi Catch Penske/Andretti Again?

Team Penske has been the top dog in the NTT IndyCar Series as of late. No one has touched them in terms of the top accolades. Since the new car was unveiled for the start of the 2018 season, no one outside of the Penske walls have won anything at Indy. Will Power won the pole for the IndyCar Grand Prix in 2018 and went on to win the race too. He’d win the Indy 500 two weeks later. Last year, Simon Pagenaud won the IndyCar Grand Prix, the Indy 500 pole and the Indy 500 itself.

Then, factor in Josef Newgarden’s 2019 title and you get a Penske domination.

Penske, has won 15 of the 34 races run since 2018. They’ve also won 38 of the 82 times since 2015. The problem is, Chip Ganassi Racing used to be their main rivals. Now, it appears that Andretti Autosport has supplanted themselves over Ganassi.

There’s no doubt about it, the “Big 3” of the NTT IndyCar Series is still Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. Combined, the trio has won 27 of the last 34 (79%) races run in Indy Car competition. Furthermore, if you go back to 2015, they’ve won 64 times in 84 tries (76%).

But, Penske has pulled away and distanced themselves from Andretti and Ganassi. They’ve won three of the last four series championships to go along with the last two Indy 500’s.

Andretti, is now distancing themselves from Ganassi too. Andretti has won seven times over the last two seasons, two more than Ganassi’s five. Andretti and Ganassi have each won 13 times since 2015 too.

Ganassi, hasn’t won an Indy 500 since Dario Franchitti’s 2012 triumph. Where they have Andretti though is out of the last six years, Penske has four titles and Ganassi the other two.

Where Ganassi has slipped was, they expanded to a four car team in 2011. That didn’t work like they had hoped. Scott Dixon remained consistent but it took away from the 10 car. Franchitti’s stats started slipping then he was severely injured in a 2013 crash which forced him to retire. Tony Kanaan stepped in for 2014 and he struggled. Kanaan, had one win in four seasons as Dixon’s teammate. In 2018, Ed Jones was hired as Kanaan’s replacement. Jones, in just one season in that car, had just two top five finishes and only eight top 10’s.

From 2014 through 2018, the 10 car had one win, 17 top five finishes and 49 top 10’s. Dixon meanwhile, had 11 wins, 46 top five finishes and 66 top 10’s.

Last year, rookie Felix Rosenqvist was hired to replace Jones. It would mark the third straight year that Dixon had a new teammate in that 10 car. Rosenqvist, was the breath of fresh air that CGR has needed. They need someone challenging Dixon for wins and pushing him harder.

The last time a CGR driver not named Scott Dixon had won an Indy Car race was the 2014 season finale. Dixon needed some help. He needed setup help from a second car. He needed another car to challenge the Penske’s and Andretti’s up front. It was Dixon vs. 3-4 Penske’s and 3-4 Andretti’s for wins.

He was a one man show.

Now, they are expanding to a three car team in hopes for more data. Will it work? Marcus Ericsson, another Swede like Rosenqvist, is brought in to help get three times the data.

RLL Inching Closer To Making It The “Big 4”

There’s no doubt about it, the “Big 3” of the NTT IndyCar Series is still Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. Combined, the trio has won 27 of the last 34 (79%) races run in Indy Car competition. Furthermore, if you go back to 2015, they’ve won 64 times in 84 tries (76%).

But, they’re starting to get some company up top. While Penske is no doubt pulling away from even the other two in the “Big 3” Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing is starting to inch up closer to third.

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Takuma Sato chats in pit lane during the Laguna Seca race weekend in 2019 – INDYCAR Media Site

Penske, has won 15 times since 2018 (the year the new car debuted). That’s more than double than the rest of the field. Andretti Autosport is next best with seven trips to victory lane. Chip Ganassi Racing is tied for third best with five victories.

Since 2015, Penske has won 38 of those 64 times between the “Big 3” while Andretti (13) and Ganassi (13) make up the remaining 26.

But, look who’s lurking right there behind them – RLL.

RLL is tied with Ganassi with three wins since 2018. They’re fourth since 2015 with eight wins, five shy of Ganassi and Andretti. While it’s clear that Penske has separated themselves from everyone else, Andretti is starting to pull clear of Ganassi while RLL is closing up to Ganassi.

RLL has made it clear, their resources and budgets don’t pale to what the “Big 3” has. They’re growing and doing so the right way. They’re hiring the best engineers they can find and keeping continuity between Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato.

Rahal, has been the most consistent of the two in all of these seasons but it’s Sato who’s won the three races. Rahal, hasn’t won since the doubleheader in Belle Isle in 2017. His area to improve has to be turning top 10’s into top fives.

He’s had 23 top 10 finishes over the last 34 races run but just seven of them were in the top five and only two of those seven were on the podium.

For Sato, he’s only had 15 top 10’s finishes in that same time frame, but out of those 15, eight of which were top five finishes and six of those eight were podiums including three trips to victory lane.

If Rahal can turn top 10’s into top fives and podiums and Sato can keep his top fives and podiums going and turn those finishes outside of the top 10 to just solid top 10 days, then RLL will certainly make this a “Big 4.”

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Oliver Askew testing his No. 7 Chevrolet during the COTA test last month – INDYCAR Media Site

Coyne/Foyt/Carlin/Schmidt Rebuilds

While you have top teams in the sport, the bottom teams are facing rebuilds again. Dale Coyne Racing is seeing a lot of change between this year and last. Gone are their two engineers from last year. They lost Craig Hampson (Arrow McLaren SP) and Michael Cannon (Chip Ganassi Racing) this offseason. Those were two big pieces for their engineering department.

Then, factor in losing a talented veteran like Sebastien Bourdais and you get a big loss at three of their top four positions for race weekends.

In turn, you get a second year driver and a rookie driver with two new engineers for the upcoming season. That’s a big reshuffle. How fall will they drop though?

DCR used to be a backmarker but Justin Wilson and Bourdais turned that around in the driving department. Then, getting guys like Hampson and Cannon to lead engineering teams, DCR quickly moved forward.

AJ Foyt Racing takes a new rebuild too. In comes some new engineering help to go along with a slew of new drivers. Gone is Matheus Leist and in is Charlie Kimball in the No. 4 Chevrolet. Also, Tony Kanaan is out as a full time driver as he will run five races in 2020. He will split the ride with Sebsatien Bourdais and rookie Dalton Kellett.

Carlin, will have Max Chilton back on all road/street course races as well as the Indy 500. They’ll need a driver for the other four ovals for that ride.

Finally, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports has a large rebuild too. They have merged with McLaren Racing and signed two rookies in Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew to replace James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson.

Pagenaud Enters 2020 Happiest He’s Ever Been

Simon Pagenaud didn’t win the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship last September. Instead, his Team Penske teammate of Josef Newgarden did. But, for Pagenaud, 2019 wasn’t classified as a bad year despite coming home second in the final standings.

While everyone wants to be a champion at the end of any given season, Pagenaud did get another distinction that every driver strives for too – “Indy 500 champion.”

Some drivers strive for that more than a title in fact.

The Frenchman led a race-high 116 of 200 laps from the pole in last May’s 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 en route to a clean sweep of the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also won the INDYCAR Grand Prix two weekends prior too.

That win on the IMS road course was what really started what Pagenaud would call the greatest year of his life though.

See, Pagenaud went through the entire 2018 season without a victory. He started 2019 off without a win in four tries. His last trip to victory lane in fact was the 2017 season finale in Sonoma, a span of 21 races.

While Pagenaud was a top 10 machine in 2018 and even at the start of 2019 (17 in 21 tries), the top fives (4) and race wins (0) were lacking. With Will Power sweeping the Month of May in 2018 and Newgarden yet again being a championship contender, Pagenaud came into 2019 on the hotseat.

Alexander Rossi was a free agent at years end and Roger Penske was rumored to want him to come over to his side. With Power and Newgarden under contract already for 2020, Pagenaud seemed to be the odd man out if things didn’t start to change soon.

Then, he went out and made the Fast Six in Long Beach. He turned that into a sixth place finish in the race. Over the next two races, he’d end up winning them both and each happened to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You just don’t know how far a race win will get you and the confidence it builds.

Pagenaud’s Indy sweep netted him a contract extension to remain in place at Team Penske. That turned into a championship caliber season over the second half of the year which saw him win again in Toronto and close out the year with six top six finishes over the final seven races.

That, combined with an Indy 500 win and all that goes with it as well as getting married this offseason, has Pagenaud as confident as ever heading into 2020.

“It’s the happiest I’ve been in my life in general,” Pagenaud said on Tuesday from downtown Indianapolis during his Indy 500 ticket unveil ceremony. “It’s also the least amount of pressure I’ve felt personally, not from teams or whatever, but I’ve heard about pressure from the team and I always put pressure on myself to do the job. I like pressure because it pushes me, but I feel like the weight is off my shoulders and I could really focus on the job.

“I feel energized. I feel like anything is possible now. I’ve gained confidence in myself now to be better to know that I’m better and I think that is a big plus.”

That’s what’s going to make Pagenaud a tough driver to stop this season. I mean, just look at his results once he got going. It wasn’t like he was that far off during his winless drought, it was just he wasn’t winning. Now, he’s taking top 10’s and making them top fives. The top fives are turning into podiums and even wins. Confidence and happiness are tough to stop.

Pagenaud, has it all.

“Rise Above”

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden arrives as the defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and will be looking to become the first to repeat since Dario Franchitti won three in a row from 2009-11. Newgarden, a 29-year-old native of Nashville, Tenn., won his second title in three years to join three-time series champ Sam Hornish Jr. (2001, ‘02, ‘06) as the only Americans with multiple crowns since 1995. Newgarden is coming off a 2019 campaign where he led the series in wins (4), top-five finishes (12) and laps led (490). He grabbed the championship lead from the outset with a win at the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and only relinquished the points lead once – following the Indy 500 in May – during the entire 17-race season.

“TK Last Lap”

Ever-popular Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner and ’04 series champion, announced Jan. 30 that the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season will be his final campaign. Kanaan is scheduled to compete in the season’s five oval races –
the Indy 500 (May 24), Texas Motor Speedway (June 6), Richmond Raceway (June 27), Iowa Speedway (July 18) and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway (Aug. 22) – in the No. 14 Chevrolet entry for AJ Foyt Racing. Kanaan, a 45-year-old native of
Brazil, will be competing in his 23rd season in 2020 and the farewell tour will be known as “TK Last Lap.” He owns 17 wins and 15 poles as well as INDYCAR’s all-time “Ironman” streak, having competed in 317 consecutive races dating to the 2001 season.

“On The Move”

There were a flurry of driver moves heading into the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, including a full makeover at Arrow McLaren SP with the addition of the two most recent Indy Lights champions. Oliver Askew, the 2019 champ, and Pato O’Ward, the ’18 champ, replace James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson for the organization. Ericsson moves over to Chip Ganassi Racing to join Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist as the organization expands from two to three teams. Rinus VeeKay, the 2019 Indy Lights championship runner-up, landed a ride with Ed Carpenter Racing as did Conor Daly. Daly will share the No. 20 entry with team owner Ed Carpenter and is slated to compete in all the road/street course events as well as an additional entry in the Indy 500. Dale Coyne Racing bid farewell to Sebastien Bourdais and replaced the four-time Champ Car Series champion with Super Formula Rookie of the Year Alex Palou. Colton Herta moves from the Harding Steinbrenner Racing one-car team to the fifth full-time entry for Andretti Autosport, following a merged effort that will be known as Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport. Charlie Kimball, who ran a partial schedule for Carlin last season, will run a full season for AJ Foyt Racing. The other Foyt entry will be split among Kanaan, Bourdais and Canadian rookie Dalton Kellett.

“Game Changer”

The Aeroscreen, a safety innovation for enhanced driver cockpit protection, will be showcased by every team during the two-day test session and will make its competition debut March 13-15 at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The Aeroscreen consists of a ballistic, canopy-like windshield that is anchored by titanium framework that encompasses the cockpit. INDYCAR announced a partnership with Red Bull Advanced Technologies during the 2019 Indy 500 race weekend for the development and implementation of the Aeroscreen and had its first on-track test by October. That initial test was held at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Team Penske’s Will Power. Additional tests with other drivers followed at Barber Motorsports Park, Richmond Raceway and Sebring International Raceway over the course of a month. This will be the first full-field test with all teams having the Aeroscreen on their cars.

2020 Schedule

March 15 – Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

April 5 – Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (4 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

April 19 – Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (4 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

April 26 – Autonation IndyCar Challenge (3:30 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

May 9 – GMR Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET/NBC)

May 24 – 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET/NBC)

May 30 – Chevrolet Dual In Detroit Race 1 (3 p.m. ET/NBC)

May 31 – Chevrolet Dual In Detroit Race 2 (3 p.m. ET/NBC)

June 6 – Genesys 600 (8 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

June 21 – REV Group Grand Prix At Road America (12 p.m. ET/NBC)

June 27 – Indy Richmond 300 (8 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

July 12 – Honda Indy Toronto (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

July 18 – Iowa 300 (8:30 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

August 16 – Honda Indy 200 At Mid-Ohio (12:30 p.m. ET/NBC)

August 22 – Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (8 p.m. ET/NBCSN)

September 6 – Grand Prix of Portland (3 p.m. ET/NBC)

September 20 – Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC

 

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