Photo: Chris Owens/INDYCAR

2021 INDYCAR Season Preview: Driver Progress

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

This upcoming season for the NTT IndyCar Series will have a plethora of stories to be unraveled. Some are looking to make a name for themselves in their new destinations while others are simply determined of making progress.

Over the next three weeks, Motorsports Tribune will preview six different group of drivers. The drivers who finished in the top-10 last season will be split into two previews. We’ll also preview this year’s rookie class, drivers with new rides, racing specialists and competitors who look to improve.

In this first installment of our previews, we’ll highlight six drivers from four different teams — Jack Harvey, Marcus Ericsson, Rinus VeeKay, Conor Daly, Sebastien Bourdais and Dalton Kellett.

Jack Harvey – No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda

Age: 27

Years in IndyCar: 4

Career Podiums: 1

2020 Standings: 15th

The driver/team combo will enter its second full campaign, looking to be contenders for wins and podiums. Despite scoring top-10s for nearly half of the abbreviated season a year ago, there was still some growing pains.

Harvey would have amazing qualifying efforts, including two front row efforts in the Indy GP and first Road America race. In those races, strategy and an off course incident plummeted him down to his worst results.

Those proved costly in Harvey’s aspirations of fighting against the sport’s elite entities like Penske, Ganassi and Andretti. With those hurdles out of the way, time will tell how Harvey will fare this season.

Expectations are certainly high after MSR hired Helio Castroneves this off-season. It didn’t stop there as the team have a brand new factory and Liberty Media joining forces.

Perhaps hiring a three-time Indianapolis 500 champion may be a key ingredient that’ll help the No. 60 Honda stay in the fight on race day.

“It’s massive, mate,” said Harvey. “How often do you get to be teammates with a guy who’s won the Indy 500 three times?

“I got asked it earlier and the question was what are you most excited about, and I said the thing I’m most excited about is trying to ask him how did you win the Indy 500. What exactly little bits went your way, what didn’t go your way on the years you didn’t win it. I just want to be a sponge. I just want to learn as much as I can from him.”

Marcus Ericsson – No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Age: 30

Years in IndyCar: 2

Career Podiums: 1

2020 Standings: 12th

The ex-Formula One driver improved last season in his second year with Ganassi. Despite not scoring a podium, his average finish of 12.1 was much encouraging compared to his 14.8 from 2019.

What will be key for Ericsson this season is can he prove to the team that he can fight against Scott Dixon, which is easier said than done.

Not just the six-time champion, but also raw talent Alex Palou?

It’ll be key for the Swedish racer to have consistent starting spots. With 13 races being on road/street courses, clawing his way from the back can only go so far. Ericsson must polish his qualifying performances to really shine on race day.

We’ve seen he can move up the running order, but imagine what he can do if he has a strong starting spot. The buck doesn’t end on Ericsson however, the entire organization struggled.

“That’s been a big focus for the whole team, but also myself. I’ve been looking at myself to see what I can do to improve it, to try and understand the tires more,” said Ericsson. “I think that was one of the things to try and switch on the tires better for qualifying. I think that was one of the big areas that we as a team and me as a driver were struggling a bit with.

“It’s been the biggest area of focus in the off-season, and I do believe we’ve made some progress there,” Ericsson added. “We don’t get the red tires often in testing but we’ve still done a lot of work on the primary tires in testing, and it feels like we’ve made some progress there.”

Rinus VeeKay – No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

Age: 20

Years in IndyCar: 1

Career Podiums: 1

2020 Standings: 14th

Among the six drivers featured, VeeKay has a great shot of being the next first-time winner. Something that many folks wouldn’t bought after his infamous debut at Texas last June.

The Dutchman certainly overcame that awful episode by being blistering quick throughout 2020. It was highlighted by a pole in the first Harvest GP race that was capped off with a third-place finish.

Before shining bright in early October, VeeKay did have a couple top-fives, so the results have been there.

However, other races were left a lot to be desired. You’ll have that from a rookie driver competing with a team that doesn’t really fall in any tier. Some days, Ed Carpenter Racing are genuine contenders. Other times they’re there or at the back of the grid.

Now that VeeKay has a season under his belt, the biggest mystery will be continuity. Not just on ovals, but the entire 17-race calendar because all things considered, the No. 21 team is the flagship car.

That Chevy powered entry has a single driver compared to the No. 20 car shared by Carpenter himself and Conor Daly. That in mind, commitment is the word VeeKay brought up that’ll be vital for his sophomore campaign.

“It’s not just something that you’re driving INDYCAR. You just really have to give it everything, in your personal life, but in any way possible,” said VeeKay.

“Coming into the race weekends, it’s not just another race weekend. We’ve got to make sure I’m fully prepared. I know everything that the engineers know from past years, even though I’ve maybe done no races on that track. But there’s data from before. It’s just all that working ahead towards the races that, yeah, I can improve this year more on.”

Conor Daly – No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

Age: 29

Years in IndyCar: 7

Career Podiums: 1

2020 Points: 17th

Not often you see a driver put a car that hasn’t had much success on pole. That’s what Daly did with Carlin in the first Iowa race. To this day, it remains one of the few feelgood moments of 2020.

Daly was able to bring the No. 59 Chevrolet home in eighth. In fact, his best outings were on the ovals, highlighted with a superb sixth in the season opener at Texas.

As of right now, Daly has 14 of 17 races lined up with Ed Carpenter Racing. Nothing yet from Carlin, the team he drove on the ovals outside the Indianapolis 500 where a crash led to a season worst 29th place.

Last year was the first time since 2017 Daly had an entire season to compete. Performances on the road and street courses were the low points with only two 12th at the Indy Road Course being the highs points.

Hoping to compete in the Texas doubleheader and Gateway, having another shot at a full-time gig is key for the second generation racer.

“Ed was always really honest with me as well. Ed is a straight-shooter. Really appreciate that guy,” said Daly. “I’m pumped to be with the same group. Continuity, it’s nice. We saw how that paid off last year with Carlin.

“I think it was super important to have that first year together, come back and take advantage of it. Want to do the same thing this year with ECR, first year, now we know what to do, take advantage of it in year two.”

Sebastien Bourdais – No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet

Age: 42

Years in IndyCar: 15

Championships: 4 (2004-07 Champ Car)

Career Wins: 37

Career Podiums: 57

The COVID-19 pandemic altered the four-time Indy car champion’s partial schedule. Most of the races that Bourdais was planning to run for Foyt were cancelled, leaving him just both Harvest GP races and the St. Pete finale to compete.

Before the world as we knew it changed, Bourdais had parted ways with Dale Coyne Racing w/ Vasser-Sullivan. When that news broke, he was also confirmed to run IMSA full-time.

Fast forward to 2021, Bourdais will be back on the IndyCar grid from start to finish. A fourth-place finish at St. Pete, a track Bourdais won twice in 2018-19, showcased he can still compete with the fiercest racers in the world.

It’s the confidence he and the entire race team needed as they look to get out of the back of the grid purgatory.

“I think the more outings we get like that, the more confidence in what we got going on and where we fit is giving us confidence that we should be players,” said Bourdais.

“I think there is a very good atmosphere. Everybody is enjoying that perspective. The fact that there is seemingly something to go to the track and fight for, it doesn’t take much to get a positive dynamic. It doesn’t take much to break it down either.

“Hopefully we can just keep that dynamic and get the results to back it up because obviously it doesn’t matter how promising the thing is,” Bourdais continued. “If you get to the races and you don’t perform, the enthusiasm inevitably goes down. I’m just happy to see everybody kind of, like, pulling together, putting a lot of hours.”

Dalton Kellett – No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet

Age: 27

Years in IndyCar: 1

Best Finish: 20th (both at Road America ’20)

2020 Standings: 26th

Things can only go up for the Canadian racer who’ll be running his first full year in the series. A year ago, he ran eight races with only two 20th place finishes at Road America being the only noteworthy performance.

Outside of the Indianapolis 500, Kellett finished every race, but not once on the lead lap. More often than not, he’s starting last on the grid. In fairness, limited practice and seating time didn’t do him many wonders either.

Like Harvey having Castroneves at MSR this season, Kellett sees the benefits of having Bourdais full-time.

“I’m very thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had with Foyt to be paired with not just Seb but other very experienced teammates in TK and Charlie last year. There’s a lot of experience at that team,” said Kellett.

“Having Seb this year is going to be a great learning opportunity for me. I think his experience and his talent is unquestioned. And as a young driver, it’s very beneficial to have someone that’s kind of a known quantity that you can benchmark yourself against.”

Last year’s teammates will have different roles with Tony Kanaan co-sharing the ride with Jimmie Johnson at Ganassi, and Charlie Kimball only running the Month of May.

The next installment of our 2021 IndyCar Series preview will highlight circuit specialists Max Chilton, Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Pietro Fittipaldi.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.