Four races isn’t even a quarter of an IndyCar season, but as the series prepares for that near-magical time called May at Brickyard, we already have a pretty good idea of how the current field may be falling apart.
And some of the big names in the chain have dug very deep holes for themselves.
Given the results of previous years, can the driver save his season in Indianapolis after a poor start? Well, sure, because winning a 500 makes the year successful no matter how the races go.
But for the Championship, a return to a bad start is rare. Since 2010, the Ultimate Champion has only made it to the Indy 500 without having already scored at least twice on the podium – Scott Dixon in 2013 (with second and fifth place) and Dixon again in 2018 (second and fourth) .
Last year, if you look at the drivers who finished in the top nine at this point in the season, you end up with eight of them. Finishing year in the top nine as well. It’s no exaggeration to say about 25 full-time entries, we can Previously Narrow the field to six drivers with a realistic chance of championship.
With that in mind, let’s distribute the first quarter report cards, and take a look at the top runners, who are looking to get back into the competition, and who’s capitalizing on their season in this unforgettable race.
Alex Ballou, Scott McLaughlin, Joseph Newgarden, Will Power
Yes, four drivers are too crowded for the front row, but a very crowded 10-point gap on the leaderboard. As James Hincliffe pointed out recently, these four are only separated by the difference between the first and second in a single race.
It’s starting to get scary what a good defending series champion Balu looks like. In the last 11 non-oval races, Balu has eight podiums, five more than teammate and legend Dixon (Balou isn’t quite weak on the oval either). At the age of twenty-five, “very happy” comes in second place, so one can only imagine what he will be like when he decides that only the first is the best enough.
He’s in a fight with the three members of Penske’s squad, who have had some trouble qualifying so far, but have been piling up passes after the green flag fell. Power, whose season finished ninth last year and was his worst season in 10 years with Penske, may be on a compensatory run. A new, more relaxed attitude seemed to work, as he was remarkably able to go from 19th to 4th in the usually unfriendly barbershop.
After the race, the Australian talked about how being unfazed by his poor qualification helped him in Barber. McLaughlin’s lack of experience with open-wheel cars doesn’t seem to hold him back, but with such competition, he may just need a little more spice to come out on top.
In the two races Newgarden did not win, he tried and failed to beat the middle qualification by using an alternate strategy to approach the front of the field. Don’t expect it to happen much in the future, so it might be preferable at this point.
Pay to pass
Pato Award, Scott Dixon
After the first two races, O’Ward looked his way out, both mentally and physically. But after getting on the same page with McLaren about his future in IndyCar, Team Pato went on to finish fifth in Long Beach with a dominant victory over Barber.
A big result in Indy could put him back in the championship debate. O’Ward’s big results would also be a strong indication that Arrow McLaren SP is ready to join Penske and Ganassi (and perhaps Andretti?) as one of IndyCar’s top teams.
Dixon’s start was good if not exceptional, but no one is ready to write off the six-time champion, especially considering his ability to lift it late in the year.
on an alternative strategy
Grosjean has so far continued a successful ‘rookie’ campaign with some good results in 2022, but he may need more experience at the Ovals before he becomes a serious championship contender. And the presence of Graham Rahal looking to retaliate for what Rahal considered Barber’s intentional contact could be problematic.
Need some modifications
Marcus Ericson, Graham Rahal
Rahal improved his position in 16 of the 18 races he didn’t crash in 2021 and 2022, with an average improvement of 4.35 places. This is the good news.
The Bad – The average starting position is 11.75, with the best position being fifth. This is not a formula for long-term success. Rahal seems to have had years of trying to figure out what his limits are, and five of those years have passed since his last race win.
Ericsson appears similarly stuck in the middle of the field, and with two of his teammates ahead of him in the standings, he needs to figure out how to get to the next level or team owner Chip Ganassi may start looking for someone who can.
Get the wave around
After a disastrous second half last year, Mr. Van Calmuthot appears to be back on his level, although after taking first place at Barber, his third place finish has been somewhat disappointing.
The big questions for VeeKay’s career seem to be: 1) is he on the same level with Palou and O’Ward, and 2) can he find a ride with a team that will give us the chance to find out?
Last year he ran at a pace similar to Joseph Newgarden’s final year with his ECR, until everything collapsed after a bike accident (although he said it didn’t affect him physically). The remainder of this year looks crucial to his future in the sport.
Colton Hertha, Alexander Rossi
After 2019, Andretti Autosport was supposed to become one of the “Big 3” teams, and Herta and Rossi were their big guns.
Since then, Rossi’s career has been in tatters, as she finished ninth in the standings in 2020 followed by 10th in 2021, and finished best eighth in the first four races this year. Rossi appears unable to turn the same page with his team, and rumors persist of a pending jump to McLaren in 2023.
Herta continued to be a bright spot for the team in 2020 and 2021, but he has struggled with mistakes this year and now desperately needs big points in Indianapolis to get back into the fight. He has the speed to be competitive, he might just need a little more age and wisdom to avoid some of his more dangerous maneuvers that have led to trips off the track.
There’s one more thing about Herta: Forget about your F1 aspirations for now and worry about your full-time job. If F1 – and especially McLaren wants you – is such a long-lost lover, they will wait for you. You’ll only boost your worth, your value, and your final salary day if you end up in Formula 1, if you have the IndyCar Championship on your resume.
Needs more tests
Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud
The Indy 500 champion, four-time defending champion and 2016 series champion hasn’t had much to talk about so far this season, but with Hélio trying his first full season in five years and Simon moving to a new team, both will be going to get more time to settle in. Neither of them will finish near the top of the rankings in 2022, but both should be considered a threat in the 500.
stuck in the hole
Felix Rosenqvist, Takuma Sato, Conor Daly, Jack Harvey
Four men in different stages of their careers, but the common denominator between them is a disappointing start to 2022.
Since joining McLaren last season, Rosenqvist has only made two top 10 spots (6th and 8th) and seems to be gone this year.
At 45, Sato kept busy until it was time to try his third child Borg on Memorial Day weekend.
Daly now has one podium in 84 IndyCar races. We’ll leave it at that.
Harvey looked on his way to success last year with MSR, but so far, his sudden transition to Rahal has only paid off in his Hy-Vee commercials. Like the rest of this group, the post-Indianapolis season will be written off, but Harvey needs to score some positive results to get some momentum for 2023.
Do their own rocky tests
Christian Lundgaard, Kyle Kirkwood, David Mallukas, Callum Ellot, Devlin Di Francesco, Tatiana Calderon
Among the starters, Kirkwood had the best result of the season with 10th, Lundgaard and Ellot had had their moments, but at the moment none of this group appears to be a threat to make any impact on the standings.
Interesting things happen to the young drivers at Indy though, so we’ll see if anyone here can pull off this package. Calderon won’t be driving in the 500, and now she needs to prove she has the talent to be on the right track at that level.
What, he’s a gentleman, and a driver, what did you think I meant? It seems somewhat improbable at this point that Johnson will ever find out on the road and street courses, but he does seem to be enjoying himself. And in Texas, the seven-time NASCAR champion showed he can be a threat to the Ovals. Indy will be his chance to influence the series by leading him, rather than just his fame.
Let’s go back to the garage
I’m sure Mr. Kellett is a very nice person, and I think the money he brings in helps AJ Foyt Racing, but at this point he clearly doesn’t have the talent to be a legitimate participant in this series.