Mid-Season Ramblings

We are now past the halfway point of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. Nine races have been run, with eight remaining. There have been a few pleasant surprises, a few disappointments and a few head-scratchers. With a week away from here, I had a chance to relax. But how did I relax during my Father’s Day weekend to push away from racing? By watching Le Mans, of course. Still, I was able to do some other things that I enjoy that didn’t involve motorsports at all. But I also caught myself thinking back and reflecting on what we’ve seen so far.

It doesn’t seem that long ago at all that Susan and I went to St. Petersburg to take in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Looking back on that weekend, the one thing that I think of that was race-related was how off the pace Team Penske seemed in practice, yet Will Power qualified on the pole and Josef Newgarden started on the front-row and won the race. It seems that has been a precursor to much of the season.

It has seemed that Team Penske has been very un-Penske like at several races this season. Yet they have won five of the nine races (including the Indianapolis 500) and one of their drivers has led the points from Day One.

Simon Pagenaud was off to a start that mirrored last season, when he went winless. But he dominated the Month of May with an inspired drive in the wet in the IndyCar Grand Prix, then went on to win the pole for the Indianapolis 500 before winning the race in a dominating fashion – leading 116 laps and holding off Alexander Rossi for the remaining thirteen laps. He has since cooled off, failing to score a Top-Five finish in the three June races following the “500”.

Will Power’s season started off strong. He won the pole at St. Petersburg and finished third in the race. He followed that up with wining the pole in the next race at COTA, before dominating much of the race. But then it went terribly wrong. A gearbox failure in his final pit stop resulted in a last-place finish. Mediocrity and bad luck have dogged Power since then. He finished fifth in the Indianapolis 500 and third in the second Detroit race, but other than those semi-bright spots – it’s been a season to forget for Power.

Josef Newgarden has been either spectacular or at worst – consistently solid. He has won three races so far this season, more than any other driver. When he has not had the best car, he had the best strategist (Tim Cindric) putting him into position to win. He has had two bad races – the IndyCar Grand Prix and the second Detroit race when he made a mistake in forcing an issue. Other than those two races, he has finished no worse than fourth in the other seven. That kind of performance is what wins championships.

So even though there have been mistakes and qualifying blunders by Team Penske, they still lead in the two most important categories – wins and championship points.

Another team that is having an uncharacteristic season is Chip Ganassi Racing – and that is not all on their rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist and his affinity for crashing cars. Scott Dixon has won one race and finished on the podium four other times. But in those four races that Dixon didn’t land on the podium, his finishes have been thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-second and seventeenth. That type of inconsistency is what loses championships. Dixon and his team need to win more races and eliminate the DNFs if they are to contend for the championship. At a current eighty-nine point deficit, it’s hard to actually consider Dixon in the championship hunt right now.

It’s also been a mixed bag at Andretti Autosport. Alexander Rossi dominated in his lone win at Long Beach and has shown flashes of brilliance in some of his other drives. Normally finishing second in three out of the last four races would reward a driver. But those bridesmaid performances were to whomever he was chasing in the points. At the IndyCar Grand Prix, all the Andretti cars were off the pace in qualifying and Rossi was no different. That put him starting in the back, where he was punted by Pato O’Ward at the green flag. Rossi finished twenty-second. Had that day followed the pattern of the other races, Rossi would be leading the points right now.

Ryan Hunter-Reay has been steady, but unspectacular. He finished last at St. Petersburg, but has been solid since – save the IndyCar Grand Prix. But steady is only good for about seventh in points, which is where Hunter-Reay sits now.

Zach Veach has had a horrible sophomore season. Except for two eighth-place finishes at Belle Isle, his best finish is twelfth – with three finishes worse than twentieth. Marco Andretti’s is not much better. But after a disastrous Indianapolis 500, he does have a sixth at Detroit and a tenth at Texas.

The bright spot at Rahal Letterman Lanigan has not been the lead driver, Graham Rahal – but their second driver, Takuma Sato. He currently sits fifth in points, bolstered by a win at Barber and two pole positions, at Barber and Texas. But fans of the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner were left wondering what could have been, when Sato struck a crew member while leading at Texas a couple of weeks ago. The delayed pit stop combined with the consequential penalty resulted in a disappointing fifteenth place finish.

Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have had what most would consider a disappointing season. Marcus Ericsson has had a couple of good races lately to show some promise, but it had been a rough go of it before Belle Isle. James Hinchcliffe has also had a disappointing season thus far. He appeared to be heading to a Top-Five finish at Texas when he slapped the Turn Two wall and crashed out of the race. Hinch and Ericsson are currently eleventh and fifteenth in points, respectively.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing is another team wondering what could have been. Rookie sensation Colton Herta has been spectacular in most races, as he was in winning only his third career IndyCar race and still at the age of eighteen. A couple of times he has looked like, well…a rookie. But other times his car has failed him, making you wonder if it was the team or simply bad luck.

As eye-catching as Colton Herta can be, it is Dale Coyne’s Santino Ferrucci that is leading the Rookie of Year in points. More impressive is that the young American from Connecticut has finished all but two laps this season and is ninth in the championship standings, three points ahead of his four-time champion teammate – Sébastien Bourdais.

Things can’t be fun at Ed Carpenter Racing. Their full-time driver, Spencer Pigot, sits thirteenth in points. His lone finishing position was a fifth-place finish at the IndyCar Grand Prix. He started on the front row at Indianapolis, but faded to finish fourteenth. The highlight for Ed Jones came in the Month of May, when he finished sixth at the IndyCar Grand Prix and started fourth in the Indianapolis 500. Like Pigot, Jones also faded in the ”500” and finished a disappointing thirteenth, after being one of the fastest cars all month.

The disappointments have also spread to their boss, Ed Carpenter. Although Carpenter was edged by Pagenaud for the Indianapolis 500 pole, he was considered a favorite to win the race. After being up front for most of the day, he fell back and finished an unremarkable sixth. At Texas, it was worse. Carpenter qualified a disappointing thirteenth, drooped back to twentieth at the start and struggled to get back up to thirteenth by the end of the race.

But if you think the mood is bad at Ed Carpenter Racing, they probably seem downright giddy compared to how things are at a couple of the other full-time teams – Carlin and AJ Foyt Enterprises.

Carlin had a rough debut season in 2018, but more was expected of them for this season. The list of drivers that have driven for Trevor Carlin in various support series reads like a Who’s Who in racing. Those that have followed them for years say it’s only a matter of time before they figure out the NTT IndyCar Series and begin to dominate. It won’t be this year. Counting their association with McLaren, the three cars that failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 were all Carlin cars. Max Chilton’s fulltime effort was lackluster throughout the month, while Pato O’Ward crashed his primary car in practice. The blame game is all we really know that really went on between McLaren and Carlin, but Carlin probably figured into the McLaren misery just a little.

Since then, Max Chilton has announced he will no longer be running the ovals and O’Ward is out of money. It was announced yesterday that O’Ward will be running the second car this weekend at Road America, so we’ll see how that goes. Conor Daly did an admirable job of filling in for Chilton at Texas, but nothing has been announced for Iowa. You know things are bad when out of five drivers that have been associated with the team this season, Charlie Kimball is your only bright spot.

But Carlin is still a fledgling team in the NTT IndyCar Series. What’s the excuse at Foyt? Every offseason, we hear of substantial changes being made at the team owned by my all-time favorite driver. We are told that they have finally found the missing piece of the puzzle by hiring (insert name of drivers, engineers or race strategists). By every mid-season, it is always apparent that it’s the same old story. In qualifying at Texas, Robin Miller interviewed AJ Foyt where the seven-time champion said he can’t stand what they’re doing and they aren’t going to tolerate it any longer. I’m not quite sure what that meant, but it sounds like someone is about to be on the chopping block…again.

It pains me to say this, but if AJ really wants his team to succeed – he needs to step away completely and just be visible in the ABC Supply hospitality tent. I don’t know this and have heard no rumors to even hint about it, but my gut tells me that AJ Foyt is still running this team and his son, Larry, has very little say in how things are run. They have improved their pit stops over the years, but their race strategies are sometimes perplexing, at best.

I think Matheus Leist is a much better driver than his results show. It also pains me to watch one of my favorites, Tony Kanaan, end his career in this fashion. Currently, Kanaan is seventeenth in points and Leist is twentieth, one spot behind Ed Jones who did not even start at Texas.

So what do I see for the second half of the season? Probably much of the same. I think Josef Newgarden will continue to shine for Team Penske, but I can’t say the same for their other two drivers. Pagenaud may squeeze out one more win, but he won’t be a championship contender heading into Laguna Seca. As for Will Power, I will not be surprised at all if he goes winless this season.

Personally, I think Power may be done – and not just for this season. Oh, he’ll win an occasional race and a few more poles, but I think his days as a championship contender are behind him. He will be thirty-nine before next season. With a wife and a young son that he absolutely adores, I’m not sure he is still willing to put everything on the line going into a fast corner. Scott Dixon is still willing to take on a fearless Colton Herta who has nothing to lose, but I think Power is now thinking about life after racing. I can’t say that I blame him.

I do see Scott Dixon mounting a second-half charge, maybe even starting this weekend at Road America, where he won two years ago. He has crashed out of two of the past three races. If he can eliminate those in the second half, with a little luck, he can still contend for his sixth championship – even though he has never won back-to-back championships.

I also see Alexander Rossi winning a few more races in the second half of the season, but he will be the only shining star for Andretti Autosport. I also see him resigning with Michael Andretti, but that may be more wishful thinking on my part rather than logic.

I think Marcus Ericsson will continue to improve and will end up having a better season than his teammate James Hinchcliffe. At Rahal Letterman Lanigan, I think Graham Rahal’s pride has been ruffled a bit and he’ll respond with a strong second half of the season, while Sato will cool off a bit. Don’t ask me why I think that, but I just do.

I also think that there are good days ahead for Dale Coyne Racing. I think Santino Ferrucci will continue to grow and impress, while winning Rookie of the Year. But I also think that Sébastien Bourdais will win at least e race before the season is over. With Road America, Toronto and Mid-Ohio all looming ahead, I think he could win any of those.

Unfortunately, for Ed Carpenter Racing, Carlin and AJ Foyt Enterprises – the second half of the season will be much like the first.

So who do I see being crowned as champion at Laguna Seca? The same person that I did before the season started – Alexander Rossi, and not because I’m a fan of his. I’m a huge Josef Newgarden fan, also. I just think all of these second-place finishes are frustrating him and he is going to use that as motivation. Stay tuned. There’s a lot of racing left.

George Phillips

5 Responses to “Mid-Season Ramblings”

  1. Finally, our long national nightmare is over and OilPressure has returned! haha Welcome back Geo, hope your break was relaxing and enjoyable.

    Special thanks to Miss Deborah, aka Ballyhoo, who was kind enough to send me the Road America tickets and I am taking my dad there as a late Father’s Day present. This will be my first time to Road America and it has sat atop my “tracks I want to visit” list for a long time! Bucketlist stuff, thank you Deborah! 🙂

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The Carlin carousel will be fascinating, if sobering, to watch. The Leader’s Circle money should encourage the team to keep fielding both cars, but what a crazy mess. Seems like a real chance for an Indy Lights driver who can find a few bucks, though, or Charlie Kimball if he can find a couple more.

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