By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The NTT IndyCar Series have an influx of young stars, established veterans and competitors who are looking to break through. When you look at last season’s top-five points finishers, all three traits can be applied.
Two championship veterans continued to be the standard bearers, but the youth movement was more vibrant than ever before. More so when they were the ones occasionally winning and racking up max points. In the end, one of them hoisted the Astor Cup at Long Beach for the first time.
In the final season preview installment, we’ll be looking at last season’s top finishers Colton Herta, Scott Dixon, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden and Alex Palou.
Colton Herta – No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda
Years in IndyCar: 4
Career Wins: 6
Career Poles: 7
Career Podiums: 9
2021 Standings: 5th
Feast or famine are the best words to describe Colton Herta’s INDYCAR career so far. When Herta is quick, it’s extremely difficult for any competitor to beat the Californian. However, there have been numerous times when Herta wasn’t in contention for wins. This past season was no different and then some.
Herta scored three dominant victories at St. Petersburg (which kicks-off the 2022 season), Laguna Seca and Long Beach. But eight finishes outside the top-10 really set him back with Nashville being the absolute sore spot. Not because he ran bad, but how he lost the race that appeared to be his.
In the closing laps of the attrition-plagued grand prix, Herta wasn’t able to turn the car and slammed the Turn 7 barrier. The incident gave Marcus Ericsson the lead and subsequent race win while Herta exited out of the car heartbroken.
“As much as that weekend sucked, it was a good learning experience, and it’s probably in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably good that it happened,” said Herta. “You just kind of learn from repetition. That’s probably the best way to learn I feel. That’s something I’ll keep in the back of my head, and I think it’s something that next time it won’t be a problem.”
Low points like that is what Herta needs less if he’s really going to be a title contender. More so that his future may lead him to Formula One which was among the most talked about topics this off-season.
For now, Herta’s vision is INDYCAR for the time being and knows that he can always come back if and when an F1 opportunity arrives.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to do Formula 1, and I want to do a lot of stuff in my career, but a lot of it’s also — needs certain timing. Formula 1 is one of those things,” said Herta. “If you’re 28, you’re not going to Formula 1, unfortunately. That’s just how it works. The time is right for me if I got the opportunity. I’d have to have a good think about it, but I most likely would do it because I want to run in Formula 1 at some point.
“That’s not to say I think people forget that I’m 21 years old and I can’t come back in five years and still run 15 years in INDYCAR and be 40.
“Yeah, I definitely want to give it a crack if I get the opportunity. But definitely not disappointed at all in INDYCAR. I like this series more than any series in the world, and I enjoy racing in a it a lot. But yeah, there’s just a lot of stuff that I’d like to try in my racing career outside of INDYCAR, also.”
Scott Dixon – No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Years in IndyCar: 21
Championships: 6 (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, 2018, 2020)
Career Wins: 51
Career Poles: 26
Career Podiums: 127
2021 Standings: 4th
It’s rare seeing Scott Dixon not being in the championship picture. More so that he ended a season with just a single win for the first time since 2017. Dixon won early in the first Texas race but wasn’t able to be on par with his teammate Alex Palou, who was more consistent.
Poor finishes towards the tail end of August at Indy and Gateway really set him out of contention for the second time in four years, Dixon wound up fourth in points. Those keeping score, the other two years were championship campaigns. Still an overall solid season, but not exactly what Dixon had hoped for especially when Palou and Marcus Ericsson have stepped up their game.
Among the main takeaways Dixon had from 2021 was how they were able to quickly adapt to tire grip changes. A good lesson he’ll hope to improve on in order to fight for his seventh championship.
“For me we kind of knew even before the season was over there was one specific tire and kind of track that was tougher for me. In low-grip situations it was very easy to saturate the front tire and then kind of dial the car out of the window,” Dixon explained.
“Luckily enough, two of the teammates were probably a little more adjusted to that, and maybe just from junior categories, it applied a little bit better.
“Again, going back to the start of having good teammates to be able to see how it’s done I think is definitely a good step in the right direction, but trying to apply that is something difficult, too,” Dixon continued.
“When you have a natural style or something that has got you through a lot of different situations and having to adjust it is not always easy, but that’s definitely been the focus in the off-season, whether it’s talking with Dario – I spent a lot of time talking with him in the off-season – to the engineering group. Even did a bit of driver coaching and things like that as well, and style.
“There’s always something that you can pick at. The tire changes again this year for those specific circuits, and then some of those circuits, if you look at Road America and Laguna Seca will be different kinds of circuits after this season, as well, with being repaved, so they’ll go back to a pretty high-grip situation.
“It’s nice, and that’s what keeps you in such — at least me engaged is that it’s constantly changing. That’s the fun part about this sport is always trying to adapt,” Dixon concluded.
Pato O’Ward – No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet
Years in IndyCar: 4
Career Wins: 2
Career Poles: 4
Career Podiums: 9
2021 Standings: 3rd
Similar to Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward has been on the sport’s rising stars. Raw talent, at times unbeatable, but prone to mistakes. Those three traits rung true for O’Ward, but was able to keep the latter at a minimal compared to Herta.
O’Ward is a take no prisoners racer, especially when the race boiled down between him and Josef Newgarden. The second leg of the Texas and Belle Isle doubleheader being true moments as to why people refer to him as “The Ninja.”
More so on the latter because Newgarden had led the first 67 laps but wasn’t able to literally fend off O’Ward’s late-race charge. The 22-year-old will fight aggressively and hunt a competitor down as shown in those victories. It’s why at season’s end, O’Ward was Palou’s true threat for the championship.
However, the finale at Long Beach was pure frustration that cultivated in a opening lap incident that dashed his quest of bringing Mexico its first INDYCAR championship.
Consistency is paramount for O’Ward if Arrow McLaren SP are going to stop the title reign of Penske-Ganassi, and Andretti. The last time a team competing against those three won an INDYCAR championship was Panther Racing in 2002 with Sam Hornish, Jr. as their championship-winning driver.
“I just don’t think we’ve had a very consistent car. Where we’ve been strong, we’ve been very strong, but where we haven’t been strong, we’ve been very weak, and that’s where we’ve lost a lot of points. I feel like there’s no sugar coating it. It’s just not good enough,” said O’Ward.
“I have to try and maximize what I can control, and I know the engineers are going to do their part. We’re not up to where Penske, Andretti and Ganassi are. We sure as hell are trying to and working hard for that, but they are Penske, Ganassi and Andretti for a reason.
“Yeah, I think we’re definitely on the way. It’s been a path, but I think we keep getting better and we keep putting the bar higher and higher every year. This year we’ve got it pretty much as high as you want it to be. We were close to the 500 win. We were very close to the championship win. Yeah, there’s just — the big cookies are left.”
Josef Newgarden – No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet
Years in IndyCar: 10
Championships: 2 (2017 and 2019)
Career Wins: 20
Career Poles: 15
Career Podiums: 41
2021 Standings: 2nd
Josef Newgarden started of 2021 in the worst way imaginable, unable to complete the opening lap of the season after crashing out at Barger. Aside from a rather disappointing result in the Indy 500 and mechanical woes late in the going at Road America, Newgarden was indeed Team Penske’s true shining armor.
With two wins at Mid-Ohio and Gateway, Newgarden entered Long Beach as a long shot to score his third INDYCAR championship in the last five years. An enthusiastic Newgarden locked up pole position and fought hard to cut Alex Palou’s points lead. While it wasn’t meant to be, Newgarden was the highest-finishing title contender with a fourth runner-up finish.
What he was able to do is finish second in pints for the second straight year. Entering 2022, Newgarden won’t have Gavin Ward as he’ll be heading to Arrow McLaren SP and is still searching for that elusive Indy 500 triumph.
However, Newgarden knows to be in the title mix, he can’t afford a mulligan at the start of the year.
“It’s a collection of every race. For me, I knew immediately last year that we’d already given a Mulligan away, which you will. That was one for the year that you’re not going to get back. Now you have to be more on your game every weekend going forward,” Newgarden explained.
“Ideally when you start the year, you want to sort of build your bank account, build up some credit, build a little bit of a nest egg in there. If you can deplete that at certain times throughout the year, have something to fall back on. When you start the year like we did in Barber, you’re taking out credit and you have no money to pay for it.
“Yeah, for me it was not a championship blow,” Newgarden continued. “It was just not the way you wanted to come out of the gates. It was disappointing. But I think we clawed back. Got in position in plenty good time. Unfortunately we just were short to end the season. The performance we needed at the end of the year wasn’t enough.
“Some other things could have gone our way, without a doubt. Anyone can say that any year. Everyone’s going to have their story. We were just short at the end of the day.”
Alex Palou – No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
Years in IndyCar: 2
Championships: 1 (2021)
Career Wins: 3
Career Poles: 1
Career Podiums: 9
2021 Standings: 1st
There was no such thing as a “sophomore slump” from Spain’s Alex Palou. In fact, he showcased that his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon can be dominated by a teammate.
Expectations were indeed high when Palou signed with Chip Ganassi Racing after breaking through at Dale Coyne Racing the year before. Unfazed, Palou absolutely wasted no time fighting for wins, scoring his maiden INDYCAR win at Barber.
From there, it was all about consistency, similar to Dixon’s notable driving characteristic. If a win wasn’t in the cards, scoring as many points as possible was as important.
That’s what the former Super Formula standout accomplished and while he had late-season woes in the August Indy GP race and Gateway, Palou didn’t skip a beat.
When the title came down to himself, O’Ward and Newgarden at Long Beach, it was the Spaniard who got the job done. Palou became the first Ganassi racer not named Dixon to win the INDYCAR championship since Dario Franchitti in 2011.
Now entering his third season in the sport, Palou’s mindset hasn’t changed after becoming a champion. It hasn’t added any pressure nor made him as relaxed.
“Just winning one championship, it means but it doesn’t mean a lot. You need to continue winning races and championships to still be valued as a champion,” said Palou.
“Yeah, I think it’s going to be good having the target in our car. It’s always good when people is chasing you. But 2022 is going to be brand-new. We’re going to start everybody with zero points, with new people around us, new teams, new tracks that we’ll go to as well. Yeah, should be a fun year.”