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.


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