The Case For Experience Over Youth in Heated IndyCar Title Homestretch
The final three weeks of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, which begins with Sunday’s race at Portland International Raceway, will essentially come down to one thing: youth vs. experience.
Even though the top 11 drivers in the standings are still mathematically eligible to win the championship (several will drop off after Portland), the top five remaining drivers with the best chances to win the championship are separated by a total of just 60 points.
Pato O’Ward enters this weekend at the top of the point standings with 435 points. Alex Palou is 10 points behind O’Ward, followed by Josef Newgarden (-22 points), reigning champ Scott Dixon (-43 points) and Marcus Ericsson (-60).
“Now the championship is more into the mindset of just really be aware of who we’re racing and when,” O’Ward said. “To make your life easier, you score more points than the guys you’re fighting.”
O’Ward then added with a laugh, “It’s not really as easy as it sounds.”
O’Ward, Palou, Newgarden and Ericsson all have two wins apiece in the first 13 races of the season, while Dixon uncharacteristically only has one win. Do the math and those five drivers have won a combined 70 percent of the races run thus far this season.
From a team perspective, Chip Ganassi Racing is swinging the biggest stick of all team owners, with three of his five drivers—Palou, Dixon and Ericsson—still in the title hunt (the other two CGR drivers, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Kanaan, are driving a part-time split season).
Which leaves the three races remaining to crown a champion essentially boiling down to that youthful exuberance against championship experience.
O’Ward is 26 years old, while Palou is 24. Both drivers have a combined four career wins, two apiece, with all of those triumphs coming this season.
Ericsson, meanwhile, is 31 and his first two IndyCar career wins have also come this season, as well.
NTT IndyCar Series Points Leaders
The experience factor
The 41-year-old Dixon not only is the defending champion, he has won six championships during his IndyCar career—including four in the last nine seasons—and has amassed a total of 51 wins, one short of tying the legendary Mario Andretti for No. 2 on the all-time series wins list.
This has been an unusual season for Dixon by his normal standards and performance. As we said, the one win to date in 2021 has been very uncharacteristic for a guy who is used to winning so much. By comparison, he won four races en route to last year’s title, won two in 2019 and three in the prior 2018 championship season.
Dixon also has a very uncharacteristic dearth of podium finishes this year. He has just three in 2021, compared to—take a big breath—8 in 2003, 6 in 2006, 10 in 2007, 12 in 2008, 10 in 2009, 5 in 2010, 9 in 2011, 6 each in 2012 and 2013, 4 each from 2014 through 2016, 7 in 2017, 9 in 2018, 10 in 2019 and 7 in 2020.
That adds up to 120 of his 125 career podiums in the premier open-wheel series in the U.S.
Based upon his numbers to date this season and the fact he is the third-oldest full-time driver in the series this season (Takuma Sato is 44 and Sebastien Bourdais is 42), is the 41-year-old Dixon slowing down, given that right now he is tied for the fewest wins in a season in his career with one each in 2017, 2005 and 2001, and the fewest season podiums since his run of four each from 2014 through 2016?
But Dixon has one thing that makes him stand out among all of the top five championship contenders: he is the best of the quintet when it comes to racing under pressure. He has made a career of having a knack for turning lemons that have been dealt to him into lemonade.
For that reason alone, and even though he’s 43 points behind points leader O’Ward, Dixon’s experience and past success make him not a longshot to win his seventh title—which would tie A.J. Foyt for most IndyCar championships—but arguably the favorite. If the youngsters are going to beat Dixon, they’re going to have to have the collectively three-best races of their careers.
Still, my money’s on Dixon.
Then there’s Newgarden. Since moving from Ed Carpenter Racing to Team Penske in 2017, the Tennessee native has amassed 17 of his 20 career IndyCar wins, as well as championships in 2017 and 2019, and was a close runner-up to Dixon for last year’s championship.
Newgarden has two wins, five podiums and three poles this season. What’s more, with each of the three remaining races being road courses, they play to Newgarden’s strength: 12 of his 20 wins to date have been on either permanent road or temporary street courses.
He’s also on a hot streak of late, with two wins, an eighth- and 10th-place finish in the last four races, including a triumph in the season’s most recent event two weeks ago on the oval at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis.
“We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” Newgarden said. “We certainly have to be strong. We’re not in some cushiony position where we can just sit back and (let) anything happen to us. Hopefully we have a good, solid end here. If we do, that could add up to a championship.”
In search of his first IndyCar championship in his third full-time season in the series, Ericsson is also very hot of late. In his last seven starts, he has wins at Belle Isle and Nashville, a runner-up showing at Mid-Ohio and a combined seven top-10 finishes.
Ericsson has one significant problem, though—actually, make that two significant problems: his two CGR teammates. Palou has been arguably the hottest driver of all in the series this season, while Dixon is the most formidable foe Ericsson will face. Neither is going to lay down for a teammate.
Plus, Ericsson has perhaps the hardest road of all five drivers in contention for the championship: he has to win each of the last three races, or at least two wins and three total podium finishes, and hope that the four drivers in front of him all fall into slumps—an unlikely happenstance—for him to have even a chance at the championship.
Ericsson will need nothing short of a miracle to win the championship. Of course, wins all three of the final races would likely do it for him, and the fact all three are road courses plays to the Swedish driver’s strengths.
Then there’s the young guys. There’s no question Palou and O’Ward are enjoying break-out seasons.
After literally running the table in the first 11 races, Palou has had terrible finishes in his last two starts: engine failure led to a last-place showing in last month’s Indianapolis Grand Prix, while he wrecked in the most recent race at WWTR—otherwise known as Gateway—two weeks ago. Those were his first two DNFs of the season, and couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Spaniard, with the Gateway finish knocking him off the top rung of the standings and watching O’Ward jump past him to No. 1. That only adds to the pressure Palou faces heading into Portland.
Compounding issues for Palou is O’Ward’s ascendency to the top spot in the standings. Starting with a fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500 in late May, the Arrow McLaren SP driver has a win at Belle Isle, runner-up at Gateway, third in the other Belle Isle event and fifth in last month’s Indy Grand Prix In addition, he was eighth at Mid-Ohio and ninth at Road America. His worst finish in that stretch—and the only one outside the top-10—was 13th at Nashville.
“To be honest, man, it’s so tight,” O’Ward said of the title battle. “There’s still three races to go, 150 points on the table. You try not to think about it too much because there’s so much racing (left). Whenever it’s so competitive like this series is in IndyCar, just a lot can shift in one race. We’re just going to push until the checkered flag waves in Long Beach and see where we stand.”
Can O’Ward and/or Palou hang on in the last three races to emerge as the champion? While you have to give them points for youthful exuberance and the willingness to take chances or stick their car in places other drivers typically won’t, that same attitude could eventually come back to haunt them – as it did for Palou at Gateway or for non-championship contender Colton Herta at Nashville, costing him an almost guaranteed win.
And don’t sell short the other drivers that are still mathematically in contention for the championship, but admitted longshots: Colton Herta, Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal, Will Power, Takuma Sato and Rinus Veekay. And don’t totally rule out Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais and Romain Grosjean. They all have strong potential to do well and play potential spoilers in Portland, Laguna Seca and the season-ending race at Long Beach.
That leaves the best – both figuratively and literally – for last, namely, Dixon. But he has a small mountain to climb first. He admittedly has struggled in the last two races, finishing 17th in last month’s Indianapolis Grand Prix, and crashed out of the most recent event two weeks ago at Gateway, finishing 19th. In so doing, he dropped from second place in the standings after Nashville to his current fourth place ranking.
But Dixon remains the biggest obstacle for the other drivers to overcome, something that could prove problematic Sunday. If Dixon bounces back from his last two outings to win at Portland (although his best showing there was fifth in 2018; he was 16t in the 2019 race there), it will significantly tighten the standings. And given Dixon is a great momentum driver, a win Sunday could potentially put him in the driver’s seat for the title.
Remember this: Dixon finished second in the season-ending race at Sonoma to win the 2018 championship, and was third in the season-ending race last year at St. Petersburg, Florida, to win the 2020 crown. Admittedly, Dixon had one thing in his favor last year: he led the point standings the entire season. This year, he led the points after three races earlier in the season, but his crash at Gateway knocked him back to fourth place, the lowest he’s ranked all season.
If there ever was a time for IndyCar’s Ice Man to show up everyone else and make history in the process, these next three weeks are it.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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