It’s the last dance for NTT IndyCar Series drivers as this weekend’s championship closer at St. Petersburg offers the final opportunity for some to make a positive impression that could shape their future, or bring a peaceful conclusion to a season that has not delivered its expected results.
Of the many who need a strong performance at St. Pete, Arrow McLaren SP’s Oliver Askew stands above the rest. His future as an IndyCar driver has been called into question with the news that he won’t be returning in 2021, and while the Floridian has a few potential landing spots in the series, a return to form would certainly help convince a few team owners that he’s worth the investment.
Is it a make-or-break weekend for the reigning Indy Lights champion? That might be a bit of a stretch, but it’s safe to say that with a positive showing, the odds of being on the grid next year at St. Pete will vastly improve.
After Askew, it’s the cadre of drivers looking to punch their ticket for a return engagement. Dale Coyne has two young talents who aren’t signed for 2021, and in both instances, closing out the year on a high would do wonders to keep Coyne’s wandering eye in check.
Santino Ferrucci has demonstrated his road racing prowess this year in ways that weren’t readily apparent during his rookie season: A fast and clean run at St. Pete, minus contact and being bad-mouthed by the majority of the Andretti Autosport team, might leave Coyne and co-entrants Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan with no doubts as to whether his option should be taken up for a third year with the team.
Alex Palou had his IndyCar breakthrough at the third round, earning the lone podium for Coyne this season, and since then, he’s shown a ton of potential, but a variety of roadblocks have kept the Spanish rookie from producing a similar finish. Lacking a contract for 2021, another breakthrough — to end the year with an emphatic note — could seal a new deal.
Although his seat at Meyer Shank Racing isn’t in jeopardy, Jack Harvey would have a more restful offseason with a top-five finish on Sunday. He’s upped his game and has been a regular visitor inside the top 10 following a rough start to the season, but hasn’t had the Palou-esque breakthrough in 2021 that has routinely been within reach. Throw in the race’s general proximity to his Florida-based sponsor AutoNation, and there are plenty of reasons for Harvey and MSR to pinpoint the season finale as the perfect event to deliver on their rising potential.
And just for the sake of mercy for one of IndyCar’s nicest people, who is in the midst of his worst season in 15 years of trying, a quality finish — something inside the top 10 — would be a marvelous outcome for Marco Andretti. His Indy 500 pole position was the obvious highlight of his career, but with every result, bar one, landing outside the top 10…and while holding 20th in the championship, a spirited run at St. Pete might bring a sliver of light to an otherwise dark and cloudy year.
To close, the easiest group to assemble is those whose standing in the sport, or emotional wellbeing, would be helped with a win.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal is the first who jumps out as someone who would love to make a long-awaited return to the win column. Holding sixth in the championship, Rahal’s had a few podiums in 2020 and gotten back to more familiar surroundings towards the front of the field, but the success at Detroit where he won both rounds of the doubleheader in 2018, took place 56 races ago. Entering fatherhood as the last winner of the season would be a remarkable gift.
For nothing other than keeping a streak alive, Andretti’s Alexander Rossi has won at least one race per season since landing in IndyCar, and considering how bizarre the Indy 500 winner’s season has been, a victory would offer a shot of normalcy that’s been missing on too many occasions.
Finally, Rossi’s teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay is riding a shorter winless streak than Rahal at 30 races since his last trip to victory lane. With rumors of a contract extension heading in the right direction, standing atop the podium, in his adopted home state, could expedite the process for RHR.
Put it all together, and Sunday’s race will have a championship to settle, a private battle to earn the last Leaders Circle contract, and all manner of needs to satisfy or heartbreak to dispense for IndyCar’s next-generation and veteran talents.