Photo: Walter G. Arce Sr. /ASP Inc.

DEHARDE: The Best and Worst of 2019

By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer

Through triumph and shortcomings, the NTT IndyCar Series and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship soldiered through 2019 to finish their campaigns with solid champions crowned and the rest of the respective fields picking up the pieces ahead of a new year and a new decade.

From Daytona and St. Petersburg to Road Atlanta and WeatherTech Raceway, IMSA and IndyCar had some very good, and at times, tumultuous dealings both on and off track. Let’s take a look back at some of the best and worst of 2019.

The Best

Simon Pagenaud’s performance in the month of May solidified his career with Team Penske. The 2016 IndyCar champion hadn’t won a race since the 2017 finale before the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. With speculation from some that the Frenchman would be out of the team at the end of the season, Pagenaud made his critics eat their words not once, not twice, but three times in the state of Indiana.

First, Pagenaud caught Scott Dixon in the rain as the INDYCAR Grand Prix ended. Eight days later, Pagenaud secured pole position for the 103rd Indianapolis 500. One week later, Pagenaud led the most laps and out-dueled Alexander Rossi to win the 500, handing Rossi his first of what would be three runner-up finishes in the next four races.

Rossi had his bright spots, too. The California native shined at two historical IndyCar Series venues with dominant drives at Long Beach and Road America, leading a combined 134 laps out of 140.

Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing provided everybody with a storybook ending to the last row shootout for this year’s Indianapolis 500 as the tiny team managed to bump out McLaren and their effort.

The 2019 IndyCar rookie class was probably the most stacked rookie class in recent memory. Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist re-introduced IndyCar racing to their native Sweden, with both rookies finishing on the podium. Santino Ferrucci entered his first full IndyCar campaign and was the highest scoring rookie on ovals. But, it was Colton Herta that perhaps shined brightest despite losing Rookie of the Year to Rosenqvist.

Herta won twice for Harding-Steinbrenner Racing in 2019, the first win coming at Circuit of the Americas where the teenager broke Graham Rahal’s record for youngest IndyCar winner by winning just a few days short of his 19th birthday. Herta then won the season-ending race in a drive that reminded many graybeards of Bryan Herta’s dominance at the Monterey, California track just two decades ago.

The Road to Indy featured three deserved champions with Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood giving their hometown of Jupiter, Florida some great reasons to smile in Indy Lights and Indy Pro 2000 while Braden Eves kept his cool at the final race of the year in USF2000 to bring home a scholarship to advance to Indy Pro 2000.

In IMSA, Mazda Team Joest were the ultimate comeback story. After numerous memes, tweets, Facebook posts and other comments made light of their run of futility, Mazda finally got the pieces right to win three races in a row in the middle of the season, starting with the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen, and in dominating fashion, too.

The Nissan DPi effort was reduced from two cars to one and CORE Autosport flew the flag proudly, but a fourth place finish at the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona would be the main bright spot for the South Carolina team that shuttered their DPi program after Petit Le Mans.

The GTD championship battle behind the No. 86 Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 was unpredictable throughout the season. Bill Auberlen and Robby Foley climbed from as low as 13th in the GTD standings to second at the end of the year with two wins.

The race-ending battles at Watkins Glen were among the highlights of the year in DPi and GTLM with Mazda chasing their first win in the former class while Corvette was trying to get around Porsche in the latter class.

IMSA president Scott Atherton retired after four decades in the sport with John Doonan taking up the helm in 2020. Doonan led Mazda’s North American motorsports efforts and is a fine choice to lead the organization.

The Worst

While much has been made of the new NBC sports package that the IndyCar Series has, there were still questions about international viewership. Canadian viewers had some difficulty following James Hinchcliffe’s exploits while many Central American viewers were looking to follow Patricio O’Ward’s races when he drove.

Add that to the fact that the St. Petersburg race had several minutes with no coverage thanks to an overheating piece of equipment, and you have a partnership that had a less than ideal start.

Overtaking was down at many races this year after everybody had an extra year with the new Universal Aero Kits and were able to figure them out more.

Pocono was dropped in favor of Richmond and while more short ovals are nice, superspeedways are also a good thing to have on the schedule, especially with how the balance is between road/street courses and ovals.

In IMSA, BoP was a massive topic of discussion throughout the year. Cadillacs and Acuras had some mid-season adjustments in DPi but GTLM had some issues of their own.

Corvette Racing last won at Long Beach in 2018, but three second place finishes at Long Beach, Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen were the closest the C7.R machines would get to victory lane ahead of the new C8.R for 2020.

The season bade farewell to CORE Autosport’s Nissan DPi effort and it is uncertain if that manufacturer will be back in that class for 2020. Ford concluded their Ford GT program after a four year run in GTLM with nothing announced for future involvement.

The Absolute Worst

During and after IndyCar’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, many took to Twitter to express their displeasure regarding the first lap incident. Whether the displeasure was aimed at Pocono Raceway itself, Takuma Sato, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, INDYCAR or any number of entities, one thing was very very clear.

Everyone loves to blame, when really, sometimes there isn’t something to blame.

Sometimes in motorsports, stuff happens. Racing incidents are just that, racing incidents, but many people can’t seem to be satisfied with that. Onboard camera footage gets overanalyzed frame-by-frame like the Zapruder Film, and instead of looking for a rational solution, blame was thrown around like dice on a Monopoly board.

When racing cars are going over 210 mph, sometimes chaos happens. It’s something nobody wants to happen, but in a competitive environment such as motorsports, anything can happen.

People have forgotten that. And it’s about time that they remember it.

Happy 2020, everybody.

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A 2012 graduate of LSU, Christopher DeHarde primarily focuses on the NTT IndyCar Series and the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. DeHarde has actively covered motorsports since 2014.