This is the second of five articles that previews the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series. Each day this week, Arch City Media features an aspect of the upcoming season for the popular franchise. Monday’s article looked at the overall schedule.
If anything was noticed during the final stretches of the NTT IndyCar Series last season it was that no lead, even when possessed comfortably by a veteran racer early, was safe.
When Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing) powered his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda to the championship on the final race of the season last fall, he did it with both a fist pump in triumph and a wipe of the brow in relief.
Notching a sixth career title was not easy for the 40-year-old Kiwi. After claiming checkered flags in the first three races of the 2020 docket, he built a sizable lead in the standings.
However, a late stretch of finishes that saw him claim only one podium appearance in the final five races, which included numerous low Top 10s, resulted in his once-comfortable differential slowly dwindling away.
Combined with the late-charge by 2019 defending series champ Josef Newgarden (Team Penske), who claimed checkered flags in four 2020 races, including two of the last three, Dixon certainly felt the heat.
In the end, Dixon edged Newgarden in overall points after the final race, 537-521, to earn his sixth title that pushed him to second overall behind AJ Foyt’s career high of seven.
Returning with his strong collective that launches their series opener Sunday at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, Dixon fully knows that many will watch his attempt to equal Foyt’s benchmark.
“Yeah, it would be amazing,” said Dixon about the chase. “Seven sounds a lot better than six, so why not? I’ve never been able to repeat, so that’s goal number one, is to go back-to-back.
“You’ve got to take it step by step. It’s easy to come in and say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to repeat, we want to repeat, we want to win a seventh championship.’ But trying to secure that is something totally different.”
Dixon prefers to follow the path as last year with a season-opening victory, but Newgarden, a two-time IndyCar series champ that pilots the No. 2 Hitachi Chevy this season, would also like an early quick sprint Sunday.
“Obviously, I was hoping we were going to win our third championship last year and we could be working on the fourth (this season),” Newgarden said of the 2020 runner-up finish. “We’re going to have to go back to square one and try to knock the third off this season. I think if you look at the championship, there are a lot of talented people in the mix. It’s going to be really tough to stay at the front of the pack.”
A duo that is definitely in the mix is a pair of 21-year-old buzz saws that finished third and fourth respectively in the 2020 standings.
Colton Herta (Andretti Autosport) claimed his third career victory at Mid-Ohio Race #2 last September and notched seven Top 5 finishes to snare third in the final standings points (421).
This resulted in Herta being bumped up in the Andretti-brand hierarchy which arguably now makes him the primary front runner of the five-driver IndyCar team chain that includes veterans Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti.
“I like to see progress every year in myself, more so on the championship side of things,” humbly said Herta. “I’d like to make a true championship run down to the wire, have the ability to truly win it. That’s my goal. That’s the team’s goal.”
Reaching that mark in 2021 means having more finishes at the top of the podium.
”Can’t be winning one or two races a year and winning a championship,” Herta said. “You need to be winning three or four races. I have full faith in myself and in the team that we can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort from everybody.”
One who still has yet to record his first IndyCar career win is Patricio O’ Ward, who finished fourth in points last season (416) thanks to three runner-up results and six Top 5 finishes during his first full season.
There’s plenty of enthusiasm for the pilot of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.
“Man, I think it’s hard to put expectations, certain expectations down, but I think it’s nothing hidden,” O’ Ward said. “We want to win races, we want to be consistently fighting for podiums, and we want to be there. We want to be contenders every single race weekend.”
Per custom, there are veteran IndyCar stars that will make waves this season and plan on staying near the top of the leader board.
Will Power (Team Penske) finished fifth in points in 2020 thanks to a pair of wins and five podium finishes but early exits in a quarter of the races last season kept the Aussie out of serious title contention. Strong qualifying rounds has always been the propeller for weekend success and the missive is retained in the upcoming docket.
For other hopefuls, both Simon Pagenaud (Team Penske) and Takuma Sato (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) won solo checkered flags last season and Felix Rosenqvist, who notched his first career IndyCar win last July for Ganassi, now drives for Arrow McLaren SP.
Coverage of Sunday’s race airs on NBC (locally KSDK-TV, Channel 5) beginning at 2 pm Central.
For more information on the series, visit their official website.
COMING UP WEDNESDAY: Every IndyCar series contains intrigue with the new faces that arrive to the fold. This year’s crop of newcomers features a seven-time NASCAR champ and motor sport veterans from other racing series. Also, some former full-time pilots find themselves in valuable roles for teams at this year’s oval events. We’ll look at the drivers that look to chart some eye-opening results in 2021.
Arch City Media will have coverage of the series with previews and recaps of every event.
By trade, he is a six-time, regional Emmy Award-winning news videographer/editor for KTVI/KPLR-TV. By hobby, he is an announcer and digital content producer for St. Louis-based Arch Rival Roller Derby. Also a webcast announcer for post-season roller derby tournaments on wftda.tv. Yep, this Illinoisan primarily writes about derby, covering Arch Rival, the St. Chux Derby Chix and the STL GateKeepers men's league. He also writes about St. Louis SLAM Women's Football, St. Louis Lions women's soccer and other sports topics.