With the Barber Motorsports Park race in the rearview mirror and the Long Beach Grand Prix immediately upon us, here’s a few reflections from Alabama that lead into the NTT IndyCar Series’ trip to the streets of southern California.
Three races into the 2019 season, the NTT IndyCar Series championship standings are an unsightly mess for all but one driver.
Points leader Josef Newgarden is the only member of the group whose trips to St. Petersburg, Circuit of The Americas, and Barber Motorsports Park resemble orderly outcomes. A win to open the year, a second in Texas, and an almighty drive from 16th on the starting grid to 4th at the Alabama finish line has the Team Penske driver and his Chevy-powered entry sitting comfortably atop the standings.
Things are going so well for Newgarden’s No. 2 team, his race engineer Gavin Ward also became the latest recipient of Penske’s ‘Chalice of Excellence,’ which the Canadian slid into frame during his driver’s post-race interview on NBCSN.
Behind the 2017 series champion, the majority of his rivals have been hit by cartoon anvils, blown motors, electrical gremlins, or solid finishes surrendered for strange reasons.
Holding a 27-point deficit to Newgarden, Scott Dixon is like many of those trailing the Penske driver whose one or two strong results – in Dixon’s case, a pair of seconds – have been dampened by something forgettable (a 13th).
Barber winner Takuma Sato, 34 points back in third, got his misfortune out of the way early with a 19th in Florida, and has followed with a seventh and a first. Alexander Rossi has a pair of fifths, and did some stellar work to minimize getting burned on the late caution at COTA to place ninth. He’s 41 points behind Newgarden in fourth.
After Rossi, it’s more of the same: Colton Herta’s down to fifth (-44) after fuel delivery problems on Sunday left him 24th and last. Sebastien Bourdais is up to sixth (-53), but, like Herta, has a last-place finish on his record. Hinchcliffe, in seventh (-54), has a 16th he’d like to drop; Ryan Hunter-Reay is saddled by a 23rd, which has him sharing seventh in the championship with Will Power (both are -59), who was last at COTA and struggled mightily at Barber on the way to 11th.
Newgarden’s lead at this early stage in the season is far from insurmountable, but if he can continue to hover inside the top five and capture a few more podiums through April and May, it’s more than possible to build a commanding advantage in the championship.
He’s the only driver to avoid taking a hit so far. Will it last?
Full credit to Ed Carpenter Racing’s Ed Jones for pulling off one thing every fan has probably dreamed of doing at least once: Starting from the back of the field in 21st, Jones gassed it a few moments before the start, motored by most of the field as they anticipated the wave of the green flag, and shot to fourth by the apex of Turn 1!
For anyone who’s ever thought to themselves, “If I got the chance to drive one of these things in a race, to hell with waiting, I’d go early and let them penalize me later,” Jones made it look like a big ball of fun … until receiving an invitation to perform a drive-through penalty that left his No. 20 Chevy 19th at the finish.
Crashing back to reality
Robin Miller’s commentary on IndyCar’s old guard fending off the advances of the next-generation drivers at Barber drew attention to the first race of the season where rookies failed to factor in the lead pack.
Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci did well to qualify ninth and tenth; Felix Rosenqvist and Patricio O’Ward were surprises down in 17th and 18th; and once the quartet went into race mode, few things panned out as desired.
Herta suffered a fuel feed issue to his twin-turbo V6 Honda; O’Ward, who made another incredible pass – around the outside of Rosenqvist at Turn 5 – suffered a refueling probe issue late in the race that sent him to pit lane multiple times under green; Rosenqvist had a decent day in moving from 17th to 10th; and Ferrucci ran inside the top 10 for a little while before missing out on a chance to pit under yellow, which left him 15th, one position ahead of O’Ward.
Three races into the season, and we’ve already reached a point where it seems strange when IndyCar’s rookies aren’t challenging the veterans for spots on the podium.
Chevy excelled on the point-and-squirt St. Petersburg street course to open the championship, and appeared to be on its way to another win at COTA with Will Power before misfortune struck. Hondas owned Barber, but that had more to do with Team Penske being off its marks than a brand-wide performance deficit.
It will make tracking the Bowtie’s progress in Long Beach a worthwhile endeavor as we continue to search for a trend in IndyCar’s engine wars. Honda held the upper hand on street courses in 2018, winning all five; Chevy pushed back on roughly half the road courses, and held the edge on ovals.
If Chevy gets the job done in Long Beach, we’ll know its off-season efforts to catch Honda have paid off and could shape the rest of the year in an interesting manner.