It’s hard to believe but we’re already to the midway mark of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. With nine races down and only eight to go, this season has flown by. Currently, Josef Newgarden holds the points lead over Alexander Rossi by just 25 points. Simon Pagenaud (-48), Scott Dixon (-89) and Takuma Sato (-95) are there too.
But, how has this overall year stacked up?
This has been another year of parity. Through nine races, we’ve seen six different winners from five different organizations. Since last year, we’ve seen seven different drivers reach victory lane in 10 races.
Josef Newgarden battles Alexander Rossi at Texas – INDYCAR Media Site
Andretti/Ganassi/Penske Still Kings Of The Series
While parity is high, it’s also still a race for the championship between Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske. The “Big 3” have won seven times already this season. Since last year, they’ve combined to win 21 of the last 26 races. Penske has won 11 times themselves with Andretti and Ganassi winning 6 and 4 times each respectively. The next best is Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing with two trips to victory lane, each by Takuma Sato. No one else has more than one win.
But, if you go back another full season (43 races), the trio of teams have won an astounding 34 times including 30 of the last 35 races overall.
With how this season is going with the top six of the top seven spots in the points standings belonging to their drivers, the title for the 17th straight year goes through them.
Josef Newgarden wins the first race at Belle Isle in early June – INDYCAR Media Site
End Of Races Much Closer This Year Compared To Last
The races this season just keep getting closer. While the lead changes are down a tick, the margin of victory isn’t. It’s actually closer than ever. Other than an Alexander Rossi whopping up on the field in Long Beach, none of the other races have seen the margin between first and second be more than 2.8-seconds.
Three of the last four races on the year have seen the deficit from first to second be under a second.
Last year at this point, there were only four races with a margin less than 2.8 second and this year we’ve already had eight. Four of those seven races were under 2 seconds at that with last year only seeing two.
Cautions Are Down
At this point last year, 31 yellow flags were displayed through the first nine races. This year, that number is down to 24. The year started off with the four five races seeing three or fewer cautions thrown in each race with last Saturday night’s race at Texas only having three stoppages too.
The cars are harder to driver as ever and the mistakes are getting fewer and fewer too.
The start of Saturday night’s DXC Technology 600 – INDYCAR Media Site
Starting Position Still Matters
If you want to win in the series this season, you better make the Fast Six. Seven of the nine races have been won from a top six starting position. On street courses, the winners have come from second (St. Pete), first (Long Beach), second (Belle Isle 1) and sixth (Belle Isle 2) respectively. On natural road courses, it’s been fourth (COTA), first (Barber) and eighth (Indy). On superspeedway’s, it’s been first (Indy 500) and seventh (Texas) respectively.
With one race on a street course and one on a superspeedway race left, you can see how much qualifying on the front row will be important. Then, with four natural road courses still left, making the Fast Six is the best bet to reach victory lane too.
11 of the last 16 races overall have been won by a driver coming from the first 2 Rows.
Simon Pagenaud battles Alexander Rossi for the Indy 500 win – INDYCAR Media Site
Honda vs. Chevy (Penske)
Honda appears to have the preferred engine still. But, Team Penske and Chevy can still win this championship. See, we have two Honda and two Chevy’s in the top four of the standings. If you go back to sixth, it’s an even split still at 3-3.
Past that, it’s where Honda gets the advantage. They have nine of the top 12 spots in the standings with the only three Chevy’s up front being that from Team Penske. Spencer Pigot (Ed Carpenter Racing) in 13th is the only other Chevy driver in the top 15 of the standings.
Also, through nine races, Chevy leads the battle 5-4 in victories. Still, close between the two. But, if you go back to last year, Honda has won 10 of the last 16 overall. That comes after Chevy won four of the first six races in 2018. They’re 7-for-20 since.
This fight has become a Honda vs. Penske battle.
Action during last year’s Indy Car race at Road America – INDYCAR Media Site
Success Natural Road Courses Will Decide Who Wins This Championship
Team Penske has struggled in 2019 on natural road courses. That’s not too shocking when you dig deeper to find out why.
Will Power’s finishes on these track this year are 24th, 11th and seventh respectively. Josef Newgarden’s are second, fourth and 15th respectively. Simon Pagenaud’s are 19th, ninth and first respectively.
Combined, that’s three top fives. That’s very unPenske like. Where that’s concerning is, half of the final eight races this season are on natural road courses. Literally. That includes the final two events and three of the last five.
So, where did the speed go?
I don’t think it necessarily went anywhere, it’s just the fact that everyone caught up. See, Penske spent a ton of time this past offseason focusing on improving their street course game. They knew that if they wanted to win another championship, going 1-for-10 in street course wins the last two years aren’t going to cut it.
So, they spent a lot of time in development in the winter months on figuring out how they can gain speed there. After the first half of the season is behind us, it worked. They’ve won two of the four street course races in 2019 and have been vastly improved.
They also remained strong on superspeedways with Pagenaud winning at Indy last month on the oval too. That’s two straight Indy 500 victories for Penske.
What got neglected was the natural road course program. See, they’ve been so good on them, it was time to up their game elsewhere. With how competitive the series is today, other teams are going to get stronger at their weaker points.
With how good Penske has been on these tracks, it’s only natural for everyone else to figure out how to go quicker there. In turn, it’s not necessarily led to a loss of speed but rather everyone else gaining more than them.
So, with four races to go on these tracks, most of any other type of circuit on the schedule, these will shape who wins this year’s championship moving forward.
Graham Rahal practices his No. 15 Honda at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – INDYCAR Media Site
Most Impressive Team
This has to be RLL right? They’ve won twice over the last 11 races as they’re the only team not of the “Big 3” to get multiple trips to victory lane. Out of the top seven in the standings, Sato is the only one not of the “Big 3” in it. Plus, throw in Graham Rahal in eighth in the standings and you get RLL inching close to making this the “Big 4.”
You’d have all three Penske’s, two Andretti drivers, both RLL drivers, a Ganassi driver in the top eight of the standings.
Sato, has five top eight finishes this season including three podiums, one of which being in the Indy 500.
Rahal, has six top 10 results himself, two of which being fourth place runs and another a podium last Saturday night in Texas. If not for a mechanical issue at Barber, Rahal was heading towards a top four finish. If not for Sebastien Bourdais getting into Rahal in Turn 3 of the ‘500, Rahal was heading towards a top six or seven place run. If neither of those occur, the worst finish for Rahal all year is 12th and that was in the season opener. So, you can see that the speed is there.
At Barber, the RLL swept the front row too. They’re getting stronger and stronger.
Tony Kanaan practicing at the Texas Motor Speedway – INDYCAR Media Site
Least Impressive Team
That has to be AJ Foyt Racing right? They just don’t seem to have it again. Out of the full time entrants, they have two of the bottom three drivers. Matheus Leist lucked into a top five in the INDYCAR Grand Prix, but that’s his only finish better than 15th all season. Tony Kanaan’s best finish is ninth in the Indy 500. That is his only finish better than 15th.
With how many changes the organization has made over the last few years, I’m still puzzled on how far off they remain.
The biggest part of the silly season will be what Alexander Rossi does. Simon Pagenaud secured himself a future seat with Penske following his Month of May domination. So, does the Captain cut Helio’s bid for a fourth Indy 500 short and bring back a fourth car full time with Rossi in it, or does he stand pat with three and allow Rossi to remain with Honda?
Notice, I said Honda.
The bidding war for Chevy vs. Honda will be if Penske wants to expand to a four car team and bring Rossi over. If not, Rossi will remain with Honda because I don’t see him leaving Andretti for Carlin, Foyt or Carpenter this offseason.
Then, it’s a matter of a bidding war between Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport. CGR mentioned in their annual Fast Friday press conference that they’re open to expansion again. With a driver like Rossi sitting there, why not make an offer. He’s a game changer.
If the bidding gets too high, Andretti could just bring Colton Herta back and replace Rossi for a cheaper option with a budding superstar. Don’t get me wrong, Andretti doesn’t want to lose Rossi, but they do have options.
Speaking of Herta, it’s tight over there at Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Rumors are circulating on if they can finish the season. If that happens, maybe Herta ends up in a fifth car at Andretti or maybe even Ganassi gets in the race for him too.
Carlin could have a seat open for 2020. Marcus Ericsson is working hard at coming back to Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and it seems like Dale Coyne Racing loves the lineup that they have and would prefer to keep both drivers another season. After all, they’re the third best Honda team right now.
AJ Foyt Racing is eyeing another shakeup, but does that cost either of the drivers their seat. Foyt is fond of Tony Kanaan, so I don’t know if Tony would be fired, but would he come back?
From there, it doesn’t really leave much open.
All three Penske’s will be back. Three of the four Andretti’s are signed for next year. James Hinchcliffe seems like he’s back with ASPM. RLL will likely retain both Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Meyer Shank Racing wants to go full time with Jack Harvey.
The only questions would be ECR and Foyt at this point. But, Rossi’s situation is the first domino.