The NTT IndyCar Series is fresh off a much-needed break after a seemingly endless five-week haul, giving everyone a perfect opportunity to catch their breath.
Now, we are just past the halfway point in the 2019 season with nine races down and eight to go. If the sizzling untamed action on display two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway is any indication, this is going to be one hell of a summer.
With the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge over and Simon Pagenaud its victor, the focus has shifted to the season championship and hopes of winning the Astor Cup.
So how is everything shaping up for the final stretch? Well, most of the usual suspects are at the sharp end of the standings. Josef Newgarden leads the way with 367 points and a series-best three wins. Behind him are Alexander Rossi (25 points behind), Pagenaud (-48), Scott Dixon (-89) and, a likely surprise to many, the enigmatic Takuma Sato (-95).
With victory falling out of his clutches at Circuit of The Americas in March, Will Power only possesses two podiums to this point while leading the “best of the rest” at sixth place (-113).
Often, there is one driver who has been near flawless during the opening three months. However, this ultra-competitive season has seen every driver encounter at least one problem, with their rivals pouncing without hesitation.
Newgarden has finished in the top four in all but two races in 2019, but they’re painful results of 15th place (Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and 19th (Belle Isle Race 2).
After Rossi cruised to a dominating win for the second year in a row at Long Beach in April, he looked poised to break out on a championship run of his own. While that is still possible, he is still paying for a 22nd-place finish (IMS road course). Even his three sensational – albeit frustrating, if you asked him – runner-up results over the last four races haven’t been enough to pull Rossi completely out of the hole.
Even the savvy reigning and five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, notorious for dodging trouble, has found it this year with four finishes of 13th or worse, including 17th or lower in three of the last four races.
Through all the mayhem that has evolved up and down the grid, the results have manifested some intriguing potential storylines for the remainder of the season.
Newgarden vs. Rossi
This rivalry is a fight for supremacy on who takes honors as the top American in North America’s premier open-wheel championship. Newgarden pilots a Chevrolet for Team Penske and won the title in 2017. Rossi drives a Honda for Andretti Autosport and won the 2016 Indy 500.
Each has accolades the other still desires, but only one is left to play for this year.
For all the amazing moments Dixon has enjoyed throughout his 19 years of Indy car racing, he has never pulled off a successful title defense. Despite his uncharacteristic troubles through the first part of the season, this is about the time of year the Kiwi really starts to turn up the wick on the rest of the field.
Pagenaud eyes rare feat
Every year following the Indy 500, the question is asked if the winner can carry that momentum into capturing the championship. It has become a rarity over the last decade. No driver has done it since Dario Franchitti in 2010. If Pagenaud does indeed have his winning groove back, this could very well be the year we see that streak snapped.
Everyone loves the underdog story. In many ways, Sato is exactly that. The 42-year-old Japanese pilot shook the demons of his last-lap glory run crash in the 2012 Indy 500 to claim redemption in 2017 edition of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” That year also resulted in a career-best eighth in the championship, the only time he has finished among the top 10 since coming over from Formula One in 2010.
While that success came in his only season with Andretti Autosport, he has carried that momentum and to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where he has won a pair of races over the past one-plus seasons. The early part of his career showed flashes, but Sato is now a legitimate threat every weekend.
We’ll follow these storylines and more as the NTT IndyCar Series heads to the land of beers, brats and cheese curds this weekend. It’s time for the boys of summer to make their mark at the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR at Road America.