After a Honda Indy 200 doubleheader at Mid-Ohio that was chock full of surprises, it’s 11 races down, three to go, and plenty to discuss. Starting with…
* It took until September for the 2020 edition of the NTT IndyCar Series championship to feel somewhat normal. Thanks to Will Power’s charge from pole on Saturday to own the day, all three of Team Penske’s drivers have earned wins, which is something we’d expect in regular times. And with Andretti Autosport’s year of misery ending in epic fashion with an unchallenged 1-2-3 on Sunday, that’s two of the biggest and most lingering oddities erased from the season’s ‘to-do’ list.
* The third, which was a significant part of many pre-season predictions, involves Colton Herta’s first win, albeit at the tail end of his sophomore year. Coming off his complete domination of 2019’s final race, we thought the momentum would continue as Herta migrated to Andretti Autosport where a few more wins – and possibly moving to the top of the team’s depth chart – was going to happen early in the championship. In the context of the team’s rough season, Herta did become the first Andretti driver to earn a victory, and with maximum points taken on Sunday—50 for the win, one for pole, one for leading a lap, and two for leading the most laps—he moved up to fourth in the standings. At 129 points behind Scott Dixon, and with a total of 162 points available over the last three races, Herta’s title chances are incredibly slim, but he could challenge Pato O’Ward for third (11 points ahead) in the standings. Taking down Josef Newgarden in second is also a possibility (57 points ahead), but it won’t be easy.
* With his third IndyCar victory, Herta passes a number of well-known names from the series’ past. He moves ahead of Christian Fittipaldi, Scott Pruett, and Robby Gordon, among others with two wins. He’s also drawn even with Tony Stewart, race steward Max Papis, Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, and even current rival Ed Carpenter at three. All of this in 29 total races. And who’s next on the list to match when he gets that fourth win? A certain B. Herta…
* Whomever bet $10,000 on ‘Six-time Mid-Ohio winner and championship leader Scott Dixon, who seemingly owns the 2.2-mile road course, will earn a pair of 10th-place finishes this weekend’ is the world’s newest billionaire. We’ve seen Dixon do remarkable things like drive from the back of the field to win at Mid-Ohio, but I’m not sure we’ve seen the Chip Ganassi Racing driver to it twice in a 24-hour span. From the terrible qualifying session on Saturday that blighted his chances to the spin that threw away a potential podium on Sunday, the points leader started 17th and climbed to 10th in Round 1, which was good, but with Newgarden claiming second, some championship damage was done. Sunday was a delightful yo-yo routine as well for Dixon, who started third, pitted while holding second, returned in fourth, spun down to 20th, and rallied back to 10th. Newgarden, lacking Saturday’s podium pace, coming home eighth at Round 2 was Dixon’s best friend on a day filled with adversity.
The Penske driver’s taken 45 points off Dixon’s lead since World Wide Technology Raceway Round 2, which is meaningful. But let’s also consider how those 45 points were reclaimed over three races and, if we’re honest, while Dixon had a trouble-filled weekend at Mid-Ohio. The Ganassi driver holds a 72-point advantage over Newgarden leaving Ohio, and with three races remaining, he’d need to suffer three cartoon anvil strikes to hand the lead to the Penske man.
* If Dixon thought he was in bad shape on Sunday, consider Pato O’Ward’s efforts to recover from his misfortune in qualifying that left the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy 21st on the starting grid. He’d race his way to ninth – one spot ahead of Dixon – while entertaining fans with his radio commentary as Carlin Racing’s Max Chilton proved to be a tougher pass than expected.
* Speaking of Carlin, Chilton, and Conor Daly, who handled the ovals in the No. 59 Chevy, the modest single-car outfit holds 16th in Entrants’ points (215) exiting Mid-Ohio. Why is that worth mentioning? Provided the Briton has a solid close to the season, it’s entirely possible for the scrappy Carlin outfit to displace Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 21 Chevy (15th, 224 points), Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 Honda (14th, 225 points), and Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 8 Honda (230 points) to claim 13th overall. The other way of looking at it is Chilton/Daly and the one-car ridesharing team have put seven entries behind the No. 59 so far, and could take a few more spots off its bigger rivals by the end of St. Petersburg.
* Mr. Invisible, Round 1: Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato was certainly at the race, but I’d be hard-pressed to say he was in the race. Starting 18th, he finished 17th and never factored across 75 laps. Incredibly strange, as his Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammate Graham Rahal started eighth and finished fourth.
* The Golden Bowling Ball Award: Santino Ferrucci. No need to award TGBB for individual rounds this time; the Dale Coyne with Vasser Sullivan driver threw a gutter ball on Sunday that somehow jumped back onto the lane at the last moment to deliver a big strike. Ferrucci’s No. 18 entry managed to ruin his teammate’s day at a pivotal point in the season where Alex Palou is trying to earn a new contract, and also ruined Felix Rosenqvist’s afternoon while the Chip Ganassi driver is auditioning for a contract extension of his own. Fans have heaped a serious amount of scorn on Ferrucci, while a smaller subset have come to his defense and blamed polesitter Colton Herta for pushing him off the track. Ferrucci’s team also refutes the notion he deserves blame for the incidents. The race winner’s admission that he gave Ferrucci no room while tracking out to the left of the corner would seem to confirm Ferrucci’s innocence, but there’s a reason IndyCar’s stewards chose to penalize the Coyne driver instead of the eventual victor. Simply put, it was such a low-percentage move, which older fans have seen result in the same off-track adventure at that corner 1000 times before, that race control could not have been shocked when Ferrucci became Driver 1001 to hit the grass and go for an uncontrolled ride. On lap 1, on cold tires, and with the fastest driver in the field ahead on the inside, most would avoid going around the outside. For those who are brave enough to put themselves at the mercy of the driver on the inside, extreme hope is involved – a prayer for charity – and when that hope goes unfulfilled, we get Sunday’s outcome. On hot tires, and with a better run into that corner, we often see some awesome side-by-side battles and passing take place. But on the opening lap? Not so much. Finally, if we replaced Ferrucci in the situation, would Herta leave no room for a teammate, or a rival whom he respects? I’d think he might, which is telling.
* Beyond the aforementioned contract stuff with Rosenqvist, the Swede hovered between eighth and 10th in the championship since winning the second race at Road America. With Ferrucci’s knockout punch on Sunday, Rosenqvist has fallen outside the top 10 for the first time since mid-July. And if you love irony, the driver holding 10th leaving Mid-Ohio? That would be Ferrucci…
* There’s a quiet battle taking place among IndyCar entrants that took an unexpected turn at Mid-Ohio. Under the current Leader Circle structure, the top 22 in entrant points at the end of the season qualify for a payout of approximately $1 million from the series (each full-time car in the series is treated as an individual entry). In basic terms, to get a LC contract for the following season, you need to finish in the top 22, and with 23 full-time cars in 2020, someone is going to miss out on an invaluable chunk of change. Entering Mid-Ohio, the No. 14 A.J Foyt Racing Chevy had a long and firm grasp on 23rd, but that changed after Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 20 suffered two poor results that promoted the No. 14 car to 22nd. Although this year’s LC has been subject to a paddock-wide cut of somewhere in the 35-40% range, the race to make the top 22 will continue in earnest as the ECR No. 20 (23rd, 151 points), Foyt No. 14 (22nd, 152 points), and the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco & Curb Honda (21st, 153 points) fight to avoid last place and the lack of the LC that comes with it.
*Let’s close on something positive for Ferrucci. While he wasn’t the most popular driver at Mid-Ohio after Sunday’s outcome, it’s hard to ignore the encouraging developments on pit lane. Leaving WWTR where the No. 18 Honda suffered on most visits for fuel and tires (and at many of the previous races), a change in crew chief and a few other over-the-wall positions resulted in no issues or delays. The former crew chief also reached out to congratulate the team on their performance, which included Ferrucci’s impressive run to second in qualifying to close the event.