MILLER: IndyCar's on the cusp of a golden era

Image by Levitt/LAT

MILLER: IndyCar's on the cusp of a golden era

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: IndyCar's on the cusp of a golden era

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The 2020 IndyCar season gets the green flag Sunday at St Petersburg with lots of good storylines, cars and drivers galore, and a ‘wizard of ahs’ behind the curtain.

In what figures to be another combative season with tight fields and good racing, two-time F1 champ Fernando Alonso is headed back to the Indianapolis 500, Australian Supercars king Scott McLaughlin will be making his IndyCar debut, and seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson is planning to test an IndyCar in the coming weeks with an eye on road racing it in 2021.

At least 36 cars will be at Indianapolis, other races will sport 25-27 cars, the Indy purse has been increased and there’s serious talk of bumping up the Leaders Circle in the near future. Television viewers in Canada and Australia have a much better chance of watching the action in 2020 thanks to some hard work by IndyCar’s Stephen Starks.

And atop all this positive energy is Roger S. Penske.

The fact Penske is now calling the shots, shaping the strategy and plotting the future gives IndyCar an air of optimism it hasn’t had since USAC’s Marlboro Championship Trail in 1970, or CART’s days with Nigel Mansell in 1993-94.

“There is a lot to be very excited about, and it starts with Roger buying the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the series,” said Bobby Rahal, the three-time IndyCar champion who fields two cars in the NTT series along with partners David Letterman and Mike Lanigan. “If that doesn’t make you feel positive, I’m not sure what would. He gives a lot of people comfort that the right things are going to be done, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

“And it’s a big responsibility on all of us to ensure we take advantage of these positives and build on them. We can’t just sit there and rely on Roger. But I don’t think we could be in a better place. The racing is going to be great, that’s a given, we’ve got a lot of young talent that’s going to shape our future, and we’ve got 26 cars at St. Pete. I think we’re about to embark on a special time in IndyCar.”

“It’s a big responsibility on all of us to ensure we take advantage of these positives and build on them,” says Bobby Rahal. “We can’t just sit there and rely on Roger.” Image by Levitt/LAT

As The Captain, who purchased IMS and IndyCar in January, navigates contracts, explores opportunities, upgrades IMS and looks for ways to make IndyCar more profitable across the board, Team Penske remains the gold standard on the track.

Josef Newgarden held off teammate Simon Pagenaud to claim the 2019 championship, and together with Will Power they racked up nine wins, eight poles and led a combined 997 laps out of 2,092 with Chevrolet power. Newgarden’s four wins were tops, while Pagenaud delivered Penske’s 18th Indy 500 triumph.

Scott Dixon, coming off a disappointing season for a five-time champion (fourth in the point standings, two wins and 214 laps led), is back with Chip Ganassi for a 20th season, and has veteran Mike Cannon taking over engineering duties from Chris Simmons.

Dixon is Honda’s horse, along with Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta and Takuma Sato, all four of whom scored a pair of victories in 2019.

Rossi, who chased Pagenaud to the checkered flag at Indianapolis after a dandy duel in the closing laps, didn’t take much solace from finishing second at IMS or third in the point standings, but is primed to be front and center again.

Herta was the best story of the year: the teenaged, second-generation talent looked like a 10-year veteran in qualifying and racing under the guidance of engineer Nathan O’Rourke. Holding off the best of IndyCar to win the season-finale at Laguna Seca was a thing of beauty, and now he’s integrated as a full-blown Andretti Autosport driver instead of just relying on the mothership’s technical information.

Sato, seemingly getting smarter and faster at age 43, spanked the competition at Barber before winning his first short oval at Gateway and was also closing fast at Indy for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais were shut out of the win column last season and should be extra motivated in 2020, although Seabass only has four races scheduled with A.J. Foyt so far, and Hinch has three with Andretti.

Ed Carpenter’s team was again impressive at Indy, and he’s added Conor Daly to try and ramp up their road course performance.

But the big stories could be the new faces. Indy Lights champs Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward were hired to give the revamped Arrow McLaren SP team a kick start along with acquiring the engineering expertise of Craig Hampson, while Light’s runner-up Rinus Veekay has found a home with ECR.

A stellar sophomore group is set to be bolstered by another rick rookie crop, including ECR’s Rinus VeeKay. Image by LAT

Santino Ferrucci was the pleasant surprise of 2019 for Dale Coyne Racing, and with Cannon gone, the ‘shock doctor’ Olivier Boisson assumes engineering duties. The 22-year-old American is teamed with Alex Palou, who has been impressive in testing.

Former F1 regular Felipe Nasr gave Trevor Carlin pause for thought about hiring him after setting quickest time at Sebring, only to have Max Chilton duplicate that feat the next day.

Swedes Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson are teammate at Ganassi for their second pass in the NTT IndyCar Series, and both showed some muscle at various times in 2019.

Jack Harvey’s good showing in 2019 was rewarded with a full season for Meyer-Shank Racing, and they’re back with Andretti as a technical partner.

Tony Kanaan’s farewell tour will consist of only the five ovals for A.J. Foyt, but if the 2013 Indy winner can regain his IMS form of two years ago, it will be a sweet swansong for the popular 45-year-old Brazilian. And Bourdais’ pre-season testing has given Foyt’s team some much-needed direction in road racing spec.

The schedule has only one change from 2019, with Richmond replacing Pocono and there will be a four-week gap (mid-July to mid-August) while NBC covers the Summer Olympics.

But with Meyer Shank becoming full-time, Elton Julian’s DragonSpeed team committed to six races, Dreyer & Reinbold running Sage Karam at St. Pete, Indy and Toronto, and Andretti adding an extra car for Hinch at both IMS races and Texas, the pit lanes and competition will be tighter than ever.

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