Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Graham Rahal: P9 in the championship, average starting position of 13.4, average finishing position of 9.8, +3.6 positions.
Takuma Sato: P10 in the championship, average starting position of 16.0, average finishing position of 10.7, +5.3 positions.
The sleeper of the year so far is Graham Rahal. If it weren’t for his early three-wheeled exit from the Indy 500, Rahal would be parked closer towards the front of the championship. Six finishes inside the top seven is anything but a fluke. But at the same time, winning has not been on the menu for RLL as a whole, which is strange. Prior to 2021, the team had won at least once by this stage in three of the last four seasons.
NEEDS: It’s a familiar note by now: If Rahal were to improve his average starting position — he’s 12th on the list — there would be less work and fewer miracles required between green and checkered flags. Rahal’s epic charges forward that have been a steady sub-plot to track this year, but what if the odds weren’t stacked against him at most races? What if he was in or near the Fast Six and didn’t need to exhaust himself to produce meaningful results? Qualifying has never been his specialty, but in this new era where no weaknesses are permitted, it’s the one consistent item keeping Rahal from challenging for a title. Same note for Sato, who ranks 19th on the average qualifying position list. As a result, he’s been too far from the leaders to have a realistic chance of winning, despite being first in average positions gained. The shape of RLL’s season changes once its drivers start winning in qualifying.
Meyer Shank Racing
Jack Harvey: P14 in the championship, average starting position of 9.7, average finishing position of 14.7, -5 positions.
That Indy 500 victory definitely changed MSR’s trajectory in the sport and gave us the feel-good story of the year. Helio Castroneves’ win also might have illuminated the chasm between where the team wants to go in the future and where it is now with it’s one full-time car for Harvey.
It’s a tale of two seasons in that regard with Castroneves’ amazing result and early promise for Harvey’s year that has turned ugly with six straight finishes of 16th or lower. Put it down to growing pains as the team tries to take on the establishment in its second full season of IndyCar competition. Lots of little mistakes have prevented better results, and even when Harvey’s been on a strong run like the last race at Road America, a truly bizarre choice to throw him onto an alternate strategy while running P8 conspired against their success and proved to be a giant strategical misfire that left him in P17 at the finish.
NEEDS: The numbers don’t lie. Harvey’s been a star in qualifying, ranking ninth with his starting position, but in the races, he’s 22nd, losing more average positions than all but two drivers. MSR’s arc with Harvey is backwards — the opposite of Rahal — peaking on Saturdays and plummeting on Sundays. It’s in cleaning up the driving, pit stops, and strategy errors where Harvey’s season can be salvaged. Worth mentioning: He’s in a contract year.
A.J. Foyt Racing
Sebastien Bourdais: P16 in the championship, average starting position of 13.7, average finishing position of 16.2, -2.5 positions.
Dalton Kellett: P25 in the championship, average starting position of 24.2, average finishing position of 21.2, +3 positions.
For the first time in many years, there’s a reason to expect the No. 14 Chevy to be in the mix on road and street courses. Three visits to the Firestone Fast 12 for Sebastien Bourdais and new engineer Justin Taylor have shown promise, and on the days where he hasn’t been hit from behind, had slow pit stops, or experienced mechanical woes, the Frenchman has been a contender for solid finishes.
Bourdais also admits there have been times where he hasn’t gotten the most out of the car, and together, it speaks to an organization that has made plenty of positive steps forward but has a long way to go to become a regular threat to the establishment.
His teammate, Dalton Kellett, has performed within expectations when some of the team-related mishaps haven’t slowed his progress.
NEEDS: A return to that early season form where ample speed and limited drama had the No. 14 mixing it up with the big teams.
Dale Coyne Racing
Romain Grosjean: P18 in the championship, average starting position of 6.8, average finishing position of 12.8, -6 positions.
Ed Jones: P19 in the championship, average starting position of 15.4, average finishing position of 17.2, -1.8 positions.
Grosjean, who’s done six races which didn’t include the double-points Indy 500, is five points ahead of his full-time teammate Ed Jones, who’s done all nine, including Indy. A brutal Detroit doubleheader that featured a crash (P23) and a brake fire (P24) ruined Grosjean’s stats, but he’s been as high as P15 in the standings, which came after missing the Texas doubleheader. Grosjean’s shown himself to be a hardcore racer who only trails Palou, O’Ward, and Newgarden in average qualifying position. It feels like one or more victories are possible before we put the season to bed. Armed with race engineer Olivier Boisson, something special is brewing here.
Jones’ IndyCar return has not been kind; a new-to-IndyCar rookie teammate in Grosjean has been hard to handle, and if we look to last year, his predecessor in the same car was P8 in the championship after nine races.
NEEDS: It’s hard to say why it’s become a thing, but of the four two-car teams in the series, three — AMSP, ECR and DCR — find themselves with one driver soaring while hoping the other finds their way out of the midfield. Tough to say if the year can be salvaged for Jones, but there’s no question as to whether he’s been pushing like mad to turn his — and the DCR with Vasser Sullivan team’s — season around. Out-performing Grosjean seems like a lot to ask at this point, but shortening the gap between the two has the feel of something that can happen.
Max Chilton: P27 in the championship, average starting position of 21.0, average finishing position of 20.3, +0.7 positions.
Chilton and the Carlin team were rather racy last season as the modest operation finished every road and street course race — plus the Indy 500 — between P11-P17. Prior to a strategy gamble that just paid off with a handsome P10 at Road America, every finish for Chilton in 2021 had fallen between P20-P24, which speaks to the growing difficulties of executing a two-driver program with a single entry in 2021. Factor in an unusual degree of bad luck, and it’s been an arduous adventure so far.
NEEDS: Last in Entrants’ points, the team is in jeopardy of losing out on a $1 million Leaders Circle contract if the No. 59 Chevy fails to finish well clear of the other entries at the bottom of the standings. From Mid-Ohio through Long Beach, coming home ahead of Dalton Kellett, Felix Rosenqvist, Santino Ferrucci, and James Hinchcliffe is Job No. 1.
So, what are the big takeaways as we close the book on the first half of the season?
I’d start with how much adversity has been visited upon most of the field; in many cases, it feels like a full-season of hardships on track and in the pits have been experienced, and there’s still three months of racing to complete. It’s the same song for all but a handful of drivers, which makes me wonder if some of the lucky few should be on the lookout for turbulent waters.
We also have a number of drivers who, at a relatively early stage of the year, are on shaky ground. And finally, there’s the theme we’ve been speaking about since the pre-season with IndyCar’s next-generation stars giving the veterans all they can handle. In the top 10, drivers aged 24 and younger hold P1, P2, P6, and P7.
It’s been an upside-down season where change — both good and bad — is the constant. What might Mid-Ohio add to the story?