Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Fearless 2022 Predictions

Welcome to the first race week of the 2022 NTT Data IndyCar Series season!

Florida is calling for those who will be making the trip to the GP of St. Pete, or, as a handful of locals call it "The Prix" or the "NASCAR 500 IndyCar race".

Editor's note: There is a story behind that. If you want to know, just ask!

Like a lot of you, I'm approaching this season with a lot of excitement. Every year, it seems, we say "it can't get any better" and then the next season, it does.

History could be made in a lot of different ways: can Colton Herta or Pato O'Ward win their first championships? Can Alex Palou match his championship-winning form in 2021? Can Helio Castroneves become the first five-time winner of the Indy 500?

Lots of good stuff is out there, and I'm ready to make my fearless predictions for the 2022 season. I've done these in the past, and looking back I miss on most of them, but that's the beauty of the series, it's unpredictable that way.

But I'm going to try. Here's what I'm seeing for 2022.

Champion: Colton Herta. After closing out last season with wins at Laguna Seca and Long Beach, the soon-to-be-22-year-old already has his first victory of they year, which came at the Rolex 24 when he combined with fellow IndyCar drivers O'Ward and Devlin Defrancesco to win the LMP2 class for DragonSpeed. As always, it will come down to a fight involving several drivers, but one thing Herta has shown is that he knows how to close out seasons strong, and this year it all falls in line for him.

Indy 500 winner: Conor Daly. Save me a seat on the Conor hype train! After watching his dominant performance at Indy last year, I think he is ascending to the point where he can win the race. If not for hitting an errant tire last May, he could have already done it as he was one of the cars to beat. One thing we need to remember, is that in the past Daly ran the non-Indy ovals with Carlin and the 500 with ECR. Now he is with ECR for the ovals too, and I think that having that consistency will help. His confidence at Indy has been growing over the years, so look for him to be up front on May 29.

First first-time race winner: Romain Grosjean. Grosjean was one of the pleasant surprises of 2021, both on and off the track. Off the track he truly enjoyed being part of the IndyCar community, and his quotable interviews and rapport with the fans quickly made him a favorite among the fanbase. On the track, he was quicker than anyone had anticipated, won the pole at the Indy GP in May and notched three podiums, including a thrilling drive at Laguna that may have been the drive of the year. Now he is with Andretti Autosport, and that combination will put him on the top step of the podium at some point, maybe as early as this weekend.

Rookie of the Year: Kyle Kirkwood. I'm not basing this on who will be ROY, I'm basing it on who is the best of the rookie class and who will have the best career out of this year's class. Given his impressive run at the August Indy GP I'm going to say that Christian Lundgaard will be the official, points-based ROY, but Kirkwood is still a year away from really being able to show what he's got. It's good for him to be in IndyCar, he's happy where he is at right now and it gives him a chance to learn without a lot of pressure. 

Drivers with the most to prove: Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal. Rossi enters the 2022 season having last won at Road America in 2019, and over the last two years has finished 9th and 10th, respectively, in the season standings. Not everything has been his fault, though in the end "ball don't lie", you are what your standing says you are. With Rossi in a contract year and a couple of plum seats possibly opening up for 2023, it's time for him to get back on track.

Rahal, meanwhile, hasn't won since going back-to-back at Detroit in 2017, and while his performance hasn't been bad, per se, I'm still waiting for him to take the next step in his career. He's the lead driver for his team, he should be winning more and contending for championships. 

So those are my predictions! Let's check back in October to see how well I did.

One Last Thing

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the passing of Roger Rager, who drove in the 1980 Indy 500. While I don't mention the passing of most drivers, Rager's was a little closer to me personally because for one month of May when I was 10 years old, he was one of my idols. Of course most people know that he qualified 10th with a car using an engine block from an old school bus, but the story doesn't describe the sound. His car was so loud you could hear it all the way around the track, and a car driven by a dude named Rager? 

Loud cars and a sweet last name carries a lot of cred with a 10-year-old boy. But like teenage summer love, it was over so fast, as he crashed out just past the quarter-mark of the race and finished 23rd and never raced at IMS again. Still he has my utmost respect because: 1) he qualified for the greatest race on the planet and 2) led 2 laps, making him just one of 236 drivers who have led a lap in the race, and matches the total of laps led by both Dan Gurney and 1912 winner Joe Dawson.


Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Helio Makes Magic Again

 Like many others, over the last few years I had documented what I thought was the tail end of Helio Castroneves' career.

He doesn't have his fastball, I once said, another time I said that when he stopped being a full-time driver after the 2017 season that his chance at winning a fourth Indy 500 was gone. I probably said a few other things, but you are getting the idea.

I'm hear to say, I was not quite right, as Arthur Fonzarelli once succinctly said. 

I wasn't right, because right now Helio may be one of the hottest drivers on the planet. In the last two-plus seasons he has won the WeatherTech SportsCar DPi championship, his fourth Indy 500, and, as of Sunday, his second consecutive Rolex 24 overall win driving for Meyer Shank Racing (last year he won with Wayne Taylor Racing), who will also be running him full-time in IndyCar in 2022.

Editor's note: Congrats also go out to Helio's teammates Oliver Jarvis, Tom Blomqvist and Simon Pagenaud, and everyone involved with MSR. It was an incredible effort by a team that just seems to keep getting better and better all the time.

I think what all of this leads to is that maybe it's time to step back and reassess Helio's racing legacy.

In other words, he's an all-time great.

Look at it this way: on top of his two Rolex wins (and a class win at the 2008 Petit LeMans) he's 10th all-time in IndyCar with 31 wins, fourth with 50 poles and has four wins and four poles at Indy. 

Obviously, the elephant in the room is his lack of an IndyCar championship. It's kind of crazy thinking he never won one at Team Penske, but he was in the hunt almost every year. From 2002-2017 he finished in the Top 5 in points 13 times.

In any sport, athletes are measured by championships -- it's why we play, right? But the margin is so thin in Helio's case (he's finished second in points four times), does he really need a championship to cement his legacy?

In IndyCar history, a total of 42 drivers have won a single championship. I'm going to say without a second's pause that Helio's resume is better than all but a handful of them.

As a fan of the Indy 500 first, success at the Speedway carries a lot of weight with me. Meaning, Helio's record at IMS pushes the lack of a championship.

Along with his four wins and four poles, he has nine total Top 5 finishes and 15 Top 10 finishes in 21 total starts. Over the course of his career, he's completed the full race distance (factoring in the rain-shortened races in 2004 and 2007) 17 times.

He is, without a doubt, one of the All-Time greats at the Speedway, which means to me that he is one of the All-Time greats of IndyCar


More Rolex News

A total of 12 full-time IndyCar drivers took to the track at the Rolex 24, and five came home with Rolexes for overall or class wins. We've already mentioned Helio and Simon, but also receiving new timepieces were Colton Herta, Pato O'Ward and Devlin DeFrancesco, who teamed up with Eric Lux to win the LMP2 class for DragonSpeed.

Also having a great weekend at Daytona International Speedway was Robert Wickens, who returned to competition 3 1/2 years after his horrific crash at Pocono in 2018. Competing for Bryan Herta Autosport in the touring class of the Michelin Pilot Challenge, Wickens opened the 4-hour race behind the wheel and after close to 90 minutes in the car, turned it over to Mark Wilkins as the pair worked together to put it on the podium in third place.

Like me, I'm sure most of you have followed along with Robert on his journey via social media, and it's nothing short of inspiring. Add to it the fact he and his wife, Karli, announced they were becoming parents later on this year, and 2022 is starting off in a good way for Wickens.

Speaking of fastballs, Robert still has his. He was pretty hacked after qualifying seventh for the race and afterwards was talking about the goal this year was to win the series title. He showed in his first race that he is still super competitive, both in his mindset and his driving, so why not?

After all I've watched him go through, I'm a believer!

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