PRUETT: IndyCar midseason thoughts

It’s nine races down and seven to go in the NTT IndyCar Series season. Just past the halfway point of the championship, we can rightfully say fans have returned in force, TV ratings are up, and each race has felt like a scripted drama designed to extract maximum emotions from the audience and participants alike.

As we start a new run to settle the championship, let’s wander through some teams and drivers and make a few observations about how the year has unfolded so far and what the full-timers and those spending the majority of the year in each entry need going forward.

Chip Ganassi Racing

Alex Palou: P1 in the championship, average starting position of 6.7, average finishing position of 5.9, +0.8 positions.

Scott Dixon: P3 in the championship, average starting position of 7.1, average finishing position of 6.4, +0.7 positions.

Marcus Ericsson: P8 in the championship, average starting position of 13.7, average finishing position of 9.2, +4.5 positions.

Jimmie Johnson: P30 in the championship, average starting position of 22.8, average finishing position of 22.0, +0.8 positions.

A kid who participated in his first IndyCar race on June 6, 2020, is your championship leader. Let that sink in for a moment.

He qualified inside the Fast Nine on his Indy 500 debut and scored a runner-up finish on his return. He’s also been on the podium — with two wins included — in five of nine starts for his new team. And he and race engineer/technical director Julian Robertson have become the series’ newest revelation.

I wouldn’t pretend to know the details of Alex Palou’s contract with Chip Ganassi Racing, but I am confident in saying whatever he signed during the offseason might be the steal of the century based on how the sophomore IndyCar driver from Spain has performed in the No. 10 Honda.

Just as Pato O’Ward was the breakout star of 2020, it’s fair to say Palou was not expected — even within CGR — to play that role in 2021, or to be leading the standings and have a 56-percent podium output to date.

With seven races left to run, it’s far too early to paint Palou as the championship favorite, but if he can continue delivering quality results in the coming rounds, why can’t the 24-year-old complete his season of shock and awe with the title in hand? There’s a reasonable chance it could happen, which is yet another fascinating aspect of this crazy season.

Dixon’s always there or thereabouts at the front of the standings, so there’s not much to add here, but there’s been a slight lack of crispness in a number of qualifying sessions and races this year for the six-timer that stand out from the easy speed seen so often on the way to last year’s title. For the first time since Dario Franchitti was his CGR teammate, Dixon has a legitimate threat to his championship aspirations under the same tent, and that will make for a thread to follow as the season marches ahead.

Factor in Marcus Ericsson’s rise in competitiveness, and the defending series champions hold P1, P3, and P8 in the standings—best among all teams—through collective consistency.

NEEDS: With Palou and Dixon in title contention, let’s turn to Ericsson, who’s one of IndyCar’s biggest movers on race day. But it’s a bit of a false read since he tends to start well behind the other two. The Swede’s season would be vastly improved with better starting positions and less ground to cover to then earn bigger helpings of championship points, so for him, focus on the Fast Six. Jimmie Johnson has struggled, as expected, and shown noteworthy improvement, as expected. But it’s the making of the same mistakes in the races, with spin after spin, that suggests the car is talking when its at its limit and he’s still not hearing it. Learning without being a regular generator of caution periods is his next breakthrough.

Arrow McLaren SP

Pato O’Ward: P2 in the championship, average starting position of 8.8, average finishing position of 6.6, +2.2 positions.

Felix Rosenqvist: P24 in the championship (P20 prior to his Detroit 1 crash), average starting position of 16.4, average finishing position of 18.7, -2.3 positions.

O’Ward told RACER before the start of the season that he wanted to be “a headache” for the rest of the drivers, and boy howdy, he’s living up to that lofty expectation. NBC Sports’ Leigh Diffey has nicknamed O’Ward “The Ninja” for all of his daring drives, and I think we might add one more by borrowing the “Human Highlight Reel” nickname given to NBA legend and all-time slam dunk great Dominique Wilkins.

O’Ward at Texas: Looks like the rest had better get used to this… Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

Thanks to his constantly outrageous passes that defy logic, gravity, and physics, O’Ward has been the season’s must-see driver. He doesn’t win his first IndyCar race without summoning the ever-present bravado and car control at Texas to try passes high and low that were too extreme for others. And that’s another attribute O’Ward has displayed; if there’s a question as to whether he should try a pass that might end in tears, he’s already shot through the gap or ventured onto an unfriendly piece of tarmac to give it a try. So far, his aggression has not resulted in tears.

O’Ward’s youthful precociousness is a major ingredient in why he’s led the championship and been inside the top four in points at every race except for St. Petersburg. The team has done a reasonable job of keeping the bad days from becoming terrible, and that’s the kind of consistency a rising operation like AMSP needs to keep mixing it up with its more established rivals.

Teammate Felix Rosenqvist’s crash was a most unfortunate punctuation point to an unrelentingly bad start with his new team.

NEEDS: For Rosenqvist to get back in the groove at Mid-Ohio and deliver the results he produced on a regular basis during his first two years in the series. Before the crash, the obvious difference between O’Ward and Rosenqvist was shown in qualifying where for former’s average start of 8.8 and the latter’s 16.4 meant the two were competing in entirely different races. With so much separation to consider and distance to cover to reach the front of the field, O’Ward’s been left to fend for himself on most occasions. If O’Ward’s going to mount a championship run, he could use a tail-gunner to assist in taking points away from his rivals. With his hopes for the season all but lost, Rosenqvist’s assignment is clear.