PRUETT: Barber showcased IndyCar's generational clash

Gavin Baker/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: Barber showcased IndyCar's generational clash

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Barber showcased IndyCar's generational clash

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Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix had the look and feel of the NTT IndyCar Series’ present and future being on display.

Pato O’Ward made a welcome return to victory lane after nearly a year of anxiously waiting to get another win. Alex Palou did what we’ve come to expect by moving forward and grabbing handfuls of points on the way to second, and polesitter Rinus VeeKay led the most laps — 57 of the 90 — while staying cool under fire and finishing third.

We had the 2018 Indy Lights champion on the top step of the podium, a junior open-wheel standout in Europe and Japan on one side, and the 2019 Indy Lights runner up flanking O’Ward on the other. Palou, the reigning series champion, was the old man in the group at 25; O’Ward turns 23 on Friday and VeeKay is 21, giving IndyCar a podium with an average age of 22.6 years old. The unique youth-filled podium wasn’t a fluke; get used to seeing more instances of IndyCar’s next-generation stars transforming into today’s major players.

Running as high as sixth for the unheralded Juncos Hollinger Racing team, rookie Callum Ilott made his first big statement in mixing it up with IndyCar’s top stars. A mistake halted his charge, but there’s no doubt the 23-year-old is capable of running near the sharp end of the field. A strategy error in qualifying put Colton Herta in a difficult position in the race, but he rose as high as seventh before an ambitious passing attempt and spin relegated the 22-year-old to 10th, right where he started.

If we overlook the self-generated misfortunes for Ilott and Herta, two more of IndyCar’s best young drivers were primed to make an impact at Barber. Factor in the immense promise shown this year by a pair of rookies in 23-year-old rookie Kyle Kirkwood and 20-year-old Christian Lundgaard, and that’s seven drivers among the 26 full-time entries who are 25 or younger and on trajectories to lead the series into the next decade.

This year’s Barber podium was the youngest in IndyCar Series history. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

IndyCar’s youth movement performed in front of an absolutely packed house at Barber Motorsports Park, which only added to the atmosphere, and although he’ll turn 29 in June and isn’t quite as young as the podium finishers, Scott McLaughlin definitely belongs in the same conversation due to his comparable inexperience in IndyCar. The St. Petersburg race winner ran inside the top three for about half the race, settled for sixth, and leaves Barber holding second in the championship after earning Rookie of the Year honors in 2021.

The real fun comes in with the steadfast refusal for IndyCar’s old guard — the hardened champions and Indy 500 winners — to give way to the lion cubs biting at their heels. Josef Newgarden’s only 31, but he’s also in his 11th season and has won half the races held so far this year. Will Power’s 41 and driving with more fire and consistency than he’s displayed in forever; he’s yet to finish worse than fourth in four races. And Scott Dixon, who turns 42 in July and put in an epic drive at Barber to recover from a poor starting position, is the same threat as always as he chases a seventh IndyCar championship.

Is it fair to say the 25-and-under group (plus McLaughlin) are starting to inch ahead? The current championship pecking order suggests it would be silly to say otherwise. Palou (P1), McLaughlin (P2), O’Ward (P5) and VeeKay (P7) are mounting a strong case for a youth-led takeover, but it’s still early. All the experience amassed by Newgarden (P3), Power (P4) and Dixon (P6) tends to be flexed as the championship builds momentum and moves into the summer months.

So yes, it’s way too early to proclaim the old guard is about to be replaced by the new guard. It’s also growing more apparent that a changeover is getting closer than it’s ever been in the Dallara DW12 era. As the Palous, O’Wards, VeeKays, McLaughlins, Hertas, Ilotts, and Kirkwoods of IndyCar continue to rise and the average age on the podiums continues to fall, we’ll have new opportunities for long-term rivalries to follow.

The kids are here and they aren’t waiting for the veterans retire before taking over the spotlight. The rest of the season — and the years ahead — are going to be awesome.

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