Monday, April 26, 2021

St. Pete Wrap-Up


Talk about flipping a script!

For the most part, what happened Sunday at St. Pete was the exact opposite of what happened at Barber the previous weekend. If the IndyCar series is anything, it's certainly unpredictable.

Here are a few takeaways.

Go Grab a Rebound. After not even making it to Turn 5 of the first lap last week in Alabama, before having their races ruined, Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden both needed a big weekend at St. Pete to turn it around, and they delivered. Newgarden, who had one the two previous events in the FLA, led both practice sessions and finished second, while Herta won the pole and dominated the race, leading 97 laps and only giving up the point on pit stops. At 21 years old, Herta now has as many wins as his dad, Bryan, who was on the box giving him the calls on Sunday. Herta has now moved up to fourth in the points, while Newgarden has improved to 10th.

On the flip side, first-time winner Alex Palou came home in 17th place and Pato O'Ward, who won the pole at Barber and finished fourth, had an awful day and finished 

Paging Mr. Rossi. Two weeks ago, I was calling Rossi our 2021 champion, and today he sits 16th in points behind rookies Romain Grosjean and Scott McLaughlin. He started 11th, which had potential, but lost his head during the race and got caught up in a bit of a spitting match with Graham Rahal mid-race. Since the start of last season, he has as many finishes of 20th or worse (five) as he does podiums. A checkered-flag-or-crash trend that isn't going to win championships anytime soon.

Biggest Movers. The drivers that finished in 6th, 7th and 8th place were all the biggest movers on the day. Will Power, who has been dominant on the Streets of St. Pete over the years, spun in the first round of qualifying and started in 20th place. He was able to methodically pick his way through traffic and improved 12 spots to finish 8th. Meanwhile, Takuma Sato had one of those days where people question their friendship with him, being involved in a couple of incidents and near-incidents, but his hyper-aggressive style moved him up nine spots from 15th to 6th. (Editor's note: I kid, everyone loves Taku, some probably just don't like him right now.), and Marcus Ericsson improved from 16th to 7th.

Edit: Thanks to IndyCar PR wiz Arni Sribhen for this one, but Rahal has passed a total of 28 cars over the course of the first two races -- 14 in each one -- which leads the league and is very deserving of mention. 

I also want to give some props to Grosjean, who moved up from his 18th-place starting spot to 13th by the end of the race. That came after knocking down a couple of walls on the same lap early in the race and being gently suggested by his team that he stay out and keep driving. As an avid watcher of Drive to Survive, I can guess that had he done that in F1, his team more than likely would have brought him in and retired the car. Given the heat and driving a car without power steering on a very tough road course, I'll give him props for deciding to stay in the fight and compete. He was absolutely exhausted at the end of the race, but he had a smile on his face, so he's still loving IndyCar!

Home game. It's rare for racers to get to play a home game, but most of the field will get to do just that when they head to Indy in a couple of weeks. For Sebastien Bourdais, he got his home game on Sunday. He loves living there and the streets have been good to him, as he's had some great results there in the past, including two wins and a 4th-place finish last October. While Sunday was a bit disappointing for him, as he qualified fifth and finished the day P10, he's still P6 in points and looks to be revitalizing AJ Foyt Racing.

Sad news, everyone. After this weekend's doubleheader in Texas the season will have already reached it's quarter point. Don't be sad, be happy that it's happening. And besides, in just a few days it's gonna be May!

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media

Sunday, April 18, 2021



The long off-season is officially over and the first race of the 2021 IndyCar season is history. We were definitely treated to a great race and if the rest of the year goes anything like this, the future is now.

Here are a few highlights.

Palou With the Win: Entering this season, there were a handful of drivers who could very well get their first win in 2021, and after signing with Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of last year, Alex Palou shot his way up that list. He got the first one out of the way quickly, with a dominant effort that saw him lead 56 of the 90 laps on the day. Make no mistake, there are more wins out there for the 24-year-old Spaniard.

O'Ward's Day Will Come: Pato O'Ward was another driver on the list of first-win potentials, and he showed what he had this weekend as he captured his second career pole and led 25 laps. Eventually he finished 4th on the day but I'm going to predict O'Ward as our second first-time winner next week at St. Pete. 

Biggest Movers: If you listened to my podcast this week (and if you haven't, why?) I predicted Sebastien Bourdais would be this week's winner. That didn't happen, but he finished a solid P5, moving up 10 spots from his original starting position. I think his partnership with AJ Foyt Racing may be a good one, and he gets a "home game" at St. Pete next weekend, a place where he has won twice and was P4 in a Foyt machine last fall. 

Also making a big move was Graham Rahal, who improved 11 spots on the grid to finish P7. After qualifying P2 the last time the race was held at Barber two years ago, it was a disaster of a Saturday for both Rahal and teammate Takuma Sato, who went from the pole in 2019 to P19 this weekend. Rahal bounced back and topped the speed charts in the morning warmup and showed good speed in the race.

Rinus Veekay started 14th and improved eight spots to finish P6, but had an interesting day. He was involved in the Lap 1 incident with Newgarden and others, and was moved to the back of the line after the subsequent yellow for pitting for repairs when the pits were closed. So to bounce back from that was a good effort for the young driver.

Championship implications: I saw a few people commenting that speculating about the championship after Newgarden's first-lap incident is a dumb move, but his last-place finish and six championship points is definitely an ouchie. Scott Dixon has said before that if he's within 100 points he still feels he has a chance, but Newgarden is down 47 points right out of the gate. He has two things going for him, though: one, he's great at St. Pete and two, he has 16 races to dig himself out. No, this wasn't a killer for him, but he has to flip the script next weekend for sure.

The Rookies: Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin and Jimmie Johnson all had (mostly) incident-free days, so chalk it up as a positive for all three. Grosjean feel three spots from his starting position to finish P10, while McLaughlin fell two spots from his grid position to P14. Johnson did spin early in the race and brought out a quick yellow, but he didn't hit anything and got the car going again, and finished three laps down in 19th place. Johnson is still running a little off pace, but he's going to eventually figure it out.

The Podcast

Have you listened to my interview with this week's winner, Alex Palou? If not, check it out here

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Three Things: HIGPA Qualifying at Barber


You know one good thing about having guys like Scott McLaughlin, Jimmie Johnson and Romain Grosjean in the field? People who haven't watched IndyCar until today because they got to see one kickass qualifying session.

Qualifying for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was as usual a battle, and set up some extremely interesting storylines for tomorrow. Let's chat about a few.

Pato on Pole: The talk all winter long is that Pato O'Ward would be one of the breakout stars of 2021, and he may have even raised those expectations with his pole-winning effort Saturday. On a newly repaved track with plenty of grip, the 21-year-old Mexican threw his car all over the place and made it stick to win the second P1 Pole Award of his career. Rounding out the front row is Angry Alexander Rossi, what is the run to Turn 1 at the green flag going to be like with these two?

Where is Penske?: While three of the four Chip Ganassi Racing cars made it into the Firestone Fast 6, it was the opposite for Team Penske as only Will Power made it to the third round. Power will start fourth next to CGR's Alex Palou, while Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson will make up the third row. Josef Newgarden barley missed the Fast 6 for Penske and will start P8, while Scott McLaughlin was impressive in getting through the first round and will start P12. Simon Pagenaud was eliminated in the first round and will start P15 as his qualifying woes continue.

The Rookies: Of course, the three rookies will be a story all year. As mentioned, McLaughlin will start 12th in tomorrow's race but fellow rookie Romain Grosjean flirted with the Fast 6 before being knocked out by Power at the last moment and will start an impressive P7 in his debut race. Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was a bit off the pace, as expected, and will start 21st on Sunday. Honestly, that is a good effort on JJ's part, people need to realize that this is going to take a while for him.

This all sets up for a great race tomorrow. I'll be back then!

The Rumble Strip

If you haven't had a chance to listen to my latest episode with Alex Palou, check it out here! 

Photo credit: Chris Owens/IndyCar Media

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

2021 Predictions!


After a long, cold, dreary winter, IndyCar is finally back!

OK, the winter was only cold and dreary for a stretch, but it has been 170 days (give or take depending on when you read this) since the series was last on track in St. Pete. 

This year gets started at Barber Motorsports Park, of course, and starts a busy stretch of four races over three weekends, then of course the Month of May (or 15 days of it) gets going before the green flag for the Indy 500 drops on May 30. 

The wait was hard, but it was worth it. Seventeen races lie in front of us over the next five months in what could be the most competitive season of IndyCar we've ever had. 

As usual, I have a lot to say about the potential that this season shows, so let's throw out a few predictions for the coming season.

IndyCar Champion: Alexander Rossi. After finishing P2, P3 and P9 in the season standings the last three years, I think it all comes together for him this year. Last year he was a victim of lots of bad luck, and some poor qualifying efforts put him in a position that got him swept up into a couple of incidents. Four finishes of P20 or worse -- especially crashing out of the 500 and finishing 27th -- were what did him in, but he did post four podiums in the final five races. If he cleans that kind of stuff up and the team puts a great car underneath him, he will be raising the Astor Cup in his home state of California in September.

First first-time winner: Pato O'Ward. O'Ward knocked on the door a few times last year, with four podium finishes. He lost his tires at Road America 2 and was passed by Felix Rosenqvist in the final stretches of the race, had another opportunity to win at Gateway and was second in the final race of the season at St. Pete. He's ready and capable of winning, just needs everything to fall the right way for it to happen.

Indy 500 Winner: James Hinchcliffe/Alex Palou/Juan Montoya. This isn't as much as a prediction as it is trying to wish something into existence. If you have followed this space over the last several years, you'd know that I'm a big supporter of Hinch, especially at the Speedway. And, if you've followed Hinch over the last few years, you know that IMS owes him, big time. It's crazy to think that his best finish there is P6, but he has started on the front row three times and knows how to get around the Brickyard.

Palou is also a first first-win contender, but I think O'Ward will have his first win under his belt by the time we get to May 30. I'm biased because I've become a big Palou fan, but it's my blog so I can feel that way, right? He put himself in the Fast Nine a year ago in a Dale Coyne Racing car, so I think his move to Ganassi this year gives him an even better shot at the 500 this May.

Here's why I want Montoya to win: he's one of the best drivers of his generation, and a third 500 win will cement that. If he'd run CART/IndyCar his entire career, he'd be considered one of the all-time greats in this sport. But still, think about it: 2 Indy 500 wins, a CART championship, seven wins, 13 poles and two P3 season finishes in F1, and three overall Rolex 24 wins. 

Numbers-wise, lots of people have had better "careers" in each of those disciplines, but show me another driver with that diverse of a winning portfolio over the last 20 years. Sadly, he's remembered more for his NASCAR career and hitting a jet dryer, which is sad, uniformed and just plain stupid. He's magic in a race car, and a third win at Indy, especially at age 45, puts him in a rarified air that we just don't see anymore.

Rookie of the Year: Scott McLaughlin. If Jimmie Johnson and Roman Grosjean were running full-time schedules this year, it could be a tight battle for ROY, but of the three McLaughlin is the only one running all 17 events, so I think he is a lock. 

Speaking of, how will this triumvirate of superstars will do? I see people predicting potential wins and podiums, but I don't anticipate that happening until maybe later in the season. Maybe. All three of these guys come to IndyCar with impressive credentials -- with Johnson and McLaughlin being one of the best all-time in their respective disciplines -- but look at the field and tell me how anybody without IndyCar experience is going to compete with this field. No disrespect intended, especially because I'm a big Jimmie Johnson fan, but testing and racing are two different things, and it's going to take a little bit of time for any of these guys to get up to speed.

No doubt they'll do it, they are all three talented drivers, but expecting anything beyond midfield until well in the summer is a bit of a stretch.

Breakout star: Pato O'Ward. I'm not going to get into the discussion that is popular right now that IndyCar has a marketing problem. One, because I'd still love to work for IndyCar someday and two, I believe that any issues mostly start with a budget and goes from there. Beyond that I will stay respectfully silent. But if I were IndyCar, I'd put O'Ward front and center in its marketing efforts. He's young, quick and is part of the future of the series. Not to mention he is multicultural and bilingual, which could be used to create lots of new fans. Not only that, he races for McLaren, which while it doesn't have the same shine in IndyCar as F1, is a massively recognizable brand, and he can be the face of it in the US. Just sayin'.

Driver on the Hotseat: Simon Pagenaud. I hate typing this...I absolutely hate it. Simon has had a fantastic IndyCar career with 15 wins, a championship and an IndyCar title. But, despite a win and three total podiums last year, he finished eighth in the standings on a team that saw his teammates combine for six wins and 10 podiums. He's 37 and in a contract year, and while I don't know the contract statuses of the paddock, there are a lot of young drivers who would love to be in that seat. I mean, I could also throw Will Power on this list as he is in a contract year as well, but every time Will Power seems down on the mat he gets up and starts swinging again. I hope Simon can come back and repeat his 2019 season, because drivers as accomplished as he is should be able to dictate his own terms.

The Rumble Strip Podcast

I interviewed Alex Palou a few weeks ago and finally got around to putting it into a podcast! You can listen to it here on Soundcloud and can also check it out on iTunes

Photo credit: James Black/IndyCar Media