By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The general state of motorsports thrive on progress, especially in the NTT IndyCar Series. With more entries competing on a regular basis, driver progression is critical.
Some competitors are entering their second full year in the series while others are hoping to build their reputation with either the team or competition. All across the grid, six competitors look to build upon their momentum or even build the team up for greatness.
In this preview installment, we’ll be looking at Dalton Kellett, Conor Daly, Helio Castroneves, Scott McLaughlin, Jimmie Johnson and Marcus Ericsson.
Dalton Kellett – No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet
Years in IndyCar: 2
Career Best Finish: 12th (2021 Gateway)
2021 Standings: 23rd
Canadian’s Dalton Kellett completed his first full season with AJ Foyt Racing with a single top-15 result at Gateway.
In spite of being at the bottom of the grid throughout the year, Kellett’s growth has been noted including his oval performances.
Now entering this season, he’ll have new teammates who so happen to enter their first year in the sport. Those being standout Kyle Kirkwood and international racer Tatiana Calderon.
The biggest thing for Kellett is improve his qualifying efforts and stride for more top-15s on a consistent basis.
“You want to focus on breaking the top 15, do that consistently, then kind of go from there,” said Kellett.
“For the first quarter of the year, definitely the main goals are improving in qualifying and consistently finishing ahead of where we were last year. If we can be getting towards that 15 to 12 mark where we finished up at Gateway for our best finish last year, if we can best that at this point this year and be a little more consistent around that range, that would be a very strong step up for the team and myself.”
Conor Daly – No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
Years in IndyCar: 8
Career Poles: 1 (2020 Iowa Race No. 1)
Career Podiums: 1 (2016 Belle Isle Race No. 1)
2021 Standings: 18th
For the first time since 2017, Conor Daly will finally have seat stability as he’ll drive for Ed Carpenter Racing all season. This comes years of either having one-off rides, part-time gigs or splitting seat time for two teams.
No longer he’ll have to worry about the awkward scenarios of going team-to-team like he’s done during the years he drove for both ECR and Carlin. Now, the mindset shifts on improving his performances after finishing down one spot in the standings last season.
“It is awkward going from team to team. There’s no doubt about that. It’s just an odd thing,” said Daly. “In racing you’re very much in-house, you know what I mean? You don’t want to share information with anybody else because you got to keep it in-house, keep your stuff going on.
“Everybody is a little bit like, Great to see you, where you going now? Someone else that we want to beat?
“Kind of an awkward situation. It will be something that I’ve craved for a long time just to get back to. It will be nice not taking stuff from one locker to another.”
Helio Castroneves – No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda
Years in IndyCar: 24
Career Wins: 31 (including four Indy 500s – 2001-02, 2009, 2021)
Career Poles: 54
Career Podiums: 94
Best Points Finish: 2nd (4x – 2002, 2008, 2013-14)
As the cliché goes, “always make a good first impression.”
Helio Castronves did just that and more in the 105th Indianapolis 500 when he joined the elite four-time winners club. Not only it brought Meyer Shank Racing’s elusive first INDYCAR win but it kickstarted the vision of MSR expanding into two full-time entries.
Although Castroneves started last season with a win, the rest of the part-time schedule had little celebratory moments. A ninth-place finish in the attrition-marred Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, his first race after winning the 500, would be his other top-10 result.
Incidents, woeful strategy and outright pace proved to be an absolute pain for the No. 06 Honda camp. The most experienced driver on the INDYCAR grid that’s competing full-time still learns new things.
Especially, with a team he’s been around a couple of years now. He used his time in IMSA as an example of why learning is still important for a competitor.
“I really enjoyed everywhere I went, learning different process. Through the Acura program I was able to relearn again 10, 15 years ago when you did have different manufacturers developing the car engine and stuff like that, which fascinates me. Obviously in the car all the engines are regulated, the rules are different,” Castroneves explained.
“However, you still learn something. That’s why people sometimes don’t understand, those small details, whether it’s outside talking to different engineers because sometimes you have different lingo talking about that, but it actually translate to something you’re doing within the car which you can explain a little bit better and improve what you were doing.
“This is what I enjoyed over the years. That’s why I’m so, so pumped for 2022 because now we going to be able to go to all the tracks again and try different things and keep it going,” Castroneves continued.
“It’s a constant learning process. I always say the quote Rick Mears told me, You never stop learning until you’re six or seven feet under the ground, depends how tall are you. It’s true. You always keep learning.”
Scott McLaughlin – No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet
Years in IndyCar: 1
Best Career Finish: 2nd (Texas Race No. 1)
2021 Standings: 14th
Three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin had an interesting rookie campaign in the NTT IndyCar Series.
He was able to win top rookie honors in both the Indy 500 and the series as a whole. But the biggest surprise was being able to adapt to the ovals right away with all but one of his top-10 finishes being at those circuits. The highlights being a superb runner-up result in the first Texas race along with a fourth at Gateway.
However, the road and street courses proved to be the opposite. Only a ninth in Portland was his best outing and was frequently outshined by fellow rookie rival Romain Grosjean.
Disappointment? McLaughlin thought about it when asked if his expectations were met last season. It also served as motivation of becoming better entering his second year.
“I’d lie if I wasn’t disappointed a little bit,” said McLaughlin. “I think we showed some really good promise on the ovals and stuff. I felt really strong there, which surprised me a little bit. I probably exceeded my expectations on the ovals.
“But the road courses, I would have loved to have qualified better. I was really content with my races. I felt really strong in the races. I did a few mistakes I probably shouldn’t have made.
“On the qualifying side, especially that has been my strong suit in other categories for many years. Working very hard to get better. Certainly I feel like I’m in a good spot right now head space-wise, where I am in my development to continue moving forward.”
Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Years in IndyCar: 1
Best Career Finish: 17th (2x – Laguna Seca and Long Beach)
2021 Standings: 26th
Jimmie Johnson’s rookie year was all about progress. It’s a whole different animal tackling an open wheel machine compared to the heavier stock car.
Needless to say, Johnson had a humbling season with only two top-20 finishes in his first eight starts. The lowest point was a disastrous weekend in Nashville where he wrecked multiple cars and subsequently disqualified from the race. This was a result of making unapproved changes to the No. 48 Honda under red flag conditions.
However, things turned around for the absolute better in the last four races he competed. Johnson closed out 2021 with top-20 finishes, including a pair of 17th place finishes at Laguna Seca and Long Beach.
Going into his sophomore year, Johnson (like Grosjean) will run the entire schedule which includes his first attempt at the Indianapolis 500. More importantly, Johnson comes into the year with much more comfort and confidence.
“My performance at the end of the year suggests and really reflects, I guess, probably better to say reflects the learning that I did over the course of the season,” said Johnson. “To add to that, we had two races on the INDYCAR Road Course, and from race one to race two, my comfort level was four or five times more than it was the first go-around.
“Very excited for year number two. There will be some new circuits for me. I have not been to Toronto yet, the ovals, some of them — Iowa I’ve never been to oddly enough. I didn’t run the Xfinity car there or anything, so that will be another new track for me.
“Excited to get back. Second time around at a track, to know the nuances of the track, to have notes to work off of, to have video to work off of, those things really make a big difference.”
Marcus Ericsson – No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Years in IndyCar: 3
Career Wins: 2
Career Podiums: 4
2021 Standings: 6th
Many people would say Marcus Ericsson’s two wins were circumstantial. You still can’t discredit the Swede’s breakout year who just missed out at a top-five points campaign. Those two wins in particular were nonetheless a morale booster.
The first being at Belle Isle Race No. 1 where he inherited the lead from Will Power, whose ECU melted under the red flag. Once the red was lifted, Power’s Chevrolet wouldn’t fire and his shot at a win was over. Ericsson held onto the lead and became the first driver from Sweden to win an INDYCAR race since Kenny Brack in 2002.
Fast forward to Nashville, Ericsson’s day almost ended when he ran into the back of Sebastien Bourdais, lifting his car into the air and damaged his front wing. They never gave up and kept fighting.
For the entire weekend, it was Colton Herta’s world but Ericsson later saw himself in the hunt for the win. In the closing laps, a mistake by Herta sent him into the barriers, ending his race. Ericsson was now in the lead and pulled off the unthinkable victory on a weekend that came down to luck.
Never a bad feeling when it boils down to it and Ericsson was no different.
Two wins aside, Ericsson was super consistent with his race finishes. Only four times he failed to finish in the top-10 and had a single retirement at Long Beach.
“I think the consistency is a key in INDYCAR. That was the reason why I was running for a championship there deep into the season last year. I aim to continue that,” Ericsson on his 2022 expectations.
“Instead of a lot of seventh or eighth finishes, trying to change that to top fives. That’s how we’re going to be able to challenge really for the championship. Keep that consistency, but try and, yeah, improve top 10s to top fives.”