Monday, March 20, 2023

BARNES: Likely Wrong Predictions for the 2022 IndyCar Season

Scott Dixon leads the field at the 105th Running of the Indy 500.
Is Scott Dixon primed to claim a record-tying seventh championship in 2022? Image courtesy of Dan Boyd / Penske Entertainment

So, here we are.

After a long and relatively quiet off-season, the NTT IndyCar Series finally begins its 2022 journey this weekend with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The field is bursting at the seams with elite talent, including accomplished series champions Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon, along with Alex Palou, who bested everyone to grab the title last year. Youth is also recognized with consistent frontrunners Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay. Add speedy veterans like Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal, then toss ex-Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean into the mix with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson as full-time participants and that is a helluva recipe.

Oh, there’s also reigning and four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who, at 46 years young, is back full-time in a series he departed at the end of 2017. It really is the best roster of driver talent currently of any series in the world. There are several others worthy to recognize but this isn’t a preview story, it’s a prediction piece. So, let’s dive into it without further delay.

Rookie of the Year: Kyle Kirkwood, No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet

There is a lot of love about the incoming rookie class of Callum Ilott (Juncos Hollinger Racing), Christian Lundgaard (Rahal Letterman Lanigan), David Malukas (Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports), Devlin DeFrancesco (Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), Tatiana Calderon (A.J. Foyt Racing) and reigning Indy Lights champion Kirkwood. Ilott, runner-up in the 2020 F2 title, got a bit of a taste of IndyCar racing last year with three starts at the end of the year. The same can be said for Lundgaard, who started fourth and led two laps before fading to a 12th-place finish in his only IndyCar appearance last year at the August edition at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

And it’s hard to ignore what David Malukas did last year by winning seven races en route to a runner-up finish in the Indy Lights championship, and he’s progressed nicely over the off-season testing with Coyne and Co. Compound that by what many look at as an inferior team over the years at A.J. Foyt Racing, and it’s easy to see why Malukas would be a sensible pick.

However, in a series that is primarily spec with the most significant outliers being dampers and ride height, it puts even more emphasis on driver talent and Kirkwood has shown a lot of it while becoming the only driver to win titles on all three levels of the Road to Indy, IndyCar’s development system.

At the end of the day, Kirkwood showed strong pace in pre-season testing and mentioned the team made positive strides with its damper program over the winter. Keep in mind, too, that even the last handful of years have only offered flashes of positive results, the pace is still within range of the frontrunners because the racing in IndyCar is that tight. So, if they can find the right balance window for Kirkwood and have solid strategy, a number of big-time results could follow and with it, top rookie honors. Plus, it’s IndyCar, the amount of talent throughout means no one team stays in the cellar forever; or that’s what the law of averages would have me believe.

Kyle Kirkwood during preseason testing at Sebring.
A strong pre-season by Kirkwood and A.J. Foyt Racing could be a sign of things to come in 2022. Image courtesy of Chris Owens / Penske Entertainment

First-Time Winners: David Malukas, No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports Honda; Jack Harvey, No. 45 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda; Romain Grosjean, No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda; Scott McLaughlin, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

Here’s the thing… at some point it’s just your time and that’s why Harvey is on this list. Since 2017, Harvey, a two-time championship runner-up in Indy Lights, has clawed from part-time opportunities to help elevate Meyer Shank Racing into a full-time squad that went on to win the Indianapolis 500 with Helio Castroneves last year. The pace has been there and now he moves to an RLL Racing program, an already accomplished – and growing – team and retains his familiarity with Honda power. Simply put, I expect him to be especially strong at places like St. Petersburg, the IMS road course, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Portland International Raceway.

Grosjean and McLaughlin are likely to progress instead of regress after strong rookie campaigns where both reached the podium last year, and that next step is the top step. Additionally, driving for Andretti and Penske, respectively, will usually afford a few opportunities to be in contention.

Grabbing victory but losing Rookie of the Year honors sounds crazy, right? But, that’s what I’m predicting with Malukas. The thought behind that, I think he will be extremely fast at some places but also struggle with consistency. As for where that first win feels possible, I’d look at places like the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle, Mid-Ohio and World Wide Technology Raceway.

Indianapolis 500 winner: Josef Newgarden, No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet

I’ve wrestled with this pick more than any other simply because this is anyone’s race on any given day. I could see Castroneves getting his fifth to become the event’s outright all-time wins leader, and then just as easily witness someone like Herta or Palou putting their name in the history books. There’s even the possibility of Alexander Rossi or Simon Pagenaud capitalizing on an electrifying run to becoming a two-time winner. But, and this drives most people crazy, I just have a feeling about a kid from Tennessee for this year’s 106th edition.

Fun fact, Newgarden’s best-ever finish at “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is third in 2016 while driving with Ed Carpenter Racing. It’s his only podium in 10 Indy 500 appearances. Since joining Team Penske in 2017, the two-time IndyCar champion has endured a mixed bag of results, with two top fives and an additional top 10 over that span.

This all said, he’s always been quick and one to watch around the 2.5-mile superspeedway, and he drives for Roger Penske, who has captured 18 Indy 500 wins (most all-time) as a team owner.

Josef Newgarden during pre-season testing at Sebring.
Is the sun going to shine on Newgarden in his 11th Indianapolis 500 appearance in May? Image courtesy of Chris Owens / Penske Entertainment

There are a few factors that come into play, obviously, and one of them is having a new race engineer atop the timing stand with Eric Leichtle replacing Gavin Ward, who departed over the off-season to Arrow McLaren SP. However, there is some familiarity for Newgarden with Leichtle, who previously held the role as IndyCar program manager for Pratt & Miller Engineering, a firm for Chevrolet’s race engineering and special projects in IndyCar.

Another element to the possibility of capturing the Borg-Warner Trophy for Newgarden is the consistent message from a number of people affiliated with Chevrolet that the bow-tie brand has found something more for this year to bring a bigger fight to Honda. As for what that is, time will tell, but there seems to be a tremendous amount of optimism on that end. Lastly, it’s the mindset of Newgarden. He has a unique way of being level and attack-minded at the same time, which is a credit to how he won the Astor Cup Trophy twice. I also think back to the Iowa doubleheader in 2020, when he was openly angry with a fifth-place finish in Race 1 and went on to deliver a dominating performance in Race 2.

Put all of this together and Newgarden might very well be the one chosen by the Racing Gods to enjoy the swig of milk in the on Memorial Day weekend.

IndyCar Champion: Scott Dixon, No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Apologies to anyone this might offend but when the NTT IndyCar Series is so hyped on the youth movement that it excludes its six-time series champion in its latest ‘DEFY EVERYTHING’ marketing campaign, you’ve already screwed up.

Only a year removed from capturing the crown during a pandemic-riddled 2020, and somehow Dixon is already buried on the promotional depth chart. Seems a bit disrespectful, but hey, you do you and write him off at your peril.

Last time I checked, ‘The Iceman’ was still winning races, he’s still at Chip Ganassi Racing – the current team to beat after winning three championships over the last four years. And with CGR selling its NASCAR Cup Series program, the priorities shift at putting even more focus on its IndyCar efforts.

There is also something to be said for the challenges of defending the title, with Palou trying to be the first back-to-back series champion since Dario Franchitti’s three-peat from 2009-11. Although Dixon has failed to successfully defend the title, it’s what happens after as reason for my thinking. On two other occasions he has put a one-year gap between championship runs, 2013 and 2015, and then 2018 and 2020. Point is, he doesn’t stay down long and even last year, he still had one win, five podiums and nine top fives in 16 races.

It’s been obvious since Dixon’s maiden IndyCar title in 2003 that when things are rolling, his grip tightens on the competition to the point where they have to be perfect, and usually mistakes follow.

Just one win will draw him level with Mario Andretti for second on the all-time wins list (52), and if another Astor Cup Trophy follows, Dixon will join A.J. Foyt with a record-tying seventh Indy car championship. In short, 2022 could be a magical season for one of the most underappreciated talents in the sport.

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