After a flurry of 10 races in 12 weekends, the NTT IndyCar Series gets to take a well-deserved nap for the rest of July. With Mid-Ohio serving as the last race until we reconvene on the streets of Nashville — and without the traditional mid-July trip to Toronto on the calendar — we have plenty of time to ponder all that lies ahead. For now, let’s focus on a few specifics, starting with…
It’s time for a simple appreciation of everything Josef Newgarden has come to represent for Roger Penske. Since joining the team in 2017 with three wins from Ed Carpenter Racing on his record, the Tennessean has taken ownership of the team among its drivers. In the win column, he’s amassed 16 more victories for RP in 75 races to date. That’s a win rate of 21.3 percent. Next on the list since Newgarden arrived is Will Power, with 10 wins for a 13.3-percent win rate. And on that same calendar from 2017-21, Simon Pagenaud has six wins for an eight-percent win rate.
Power and Pagenaud obviously contributed Indy 500 wins since 2017, and there’s no denying the value they represent to RP, so while Newgarden is The Captain’s constant earner, give credit to his teammates who’ve delivered marquee victories at IndyCar’s biggest race.
But — and there’s a noteworthy “but” to insert here — as amazing as it might be to win Indy, it’s an annual roll of the dice. In the annual race to win championships, where drivers can have a great influence over the final outcome, Newgarden has become RP’s gold standard, taking the 2017 and 2019 titles. In his four full years at Team Penske, Newgarden has taken home championships at an incredible 50-percent clip. And adding to that marker, he’s been top dog among all Penske IndyCar drivers in the standings three out of those four years, and currently leads the team in 2021.
Since his first race for RP, Newgarden has captured 2979 points. Next on the list is Pagenaud at 2347, and third, not far behind, is Power at 2299. For Newgarden, that’s 21.22 percent more points than Pagenaud, and 22.83 percent more than Power since he arrived. Once again, that’s extraordinary. It tells us that he has better days, on average, than his teammates, and that can’t be attributed to luck. Is Newgarden more talented than Power or Pagenaud? That part is debatable. Does he get the job done for his boss on a more regular basis than Power and Pagenaud? That’s not up for debate; it’s a fact.
For the sake of comparison outside of Team Penske since 2017, Newgarden’s main title rival, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon who took the 2018 and 2020 championships, has fewer wins (11), a lower win rate (14.6 percent), and fewer points (2742).
The numbers tell us one thing: Not only is Newgarden the class of his team, but he’s also risen above the best IndyCar driver of the 2000s — from a statistical standpoint, at least — since joining a team that was able to compete on an equal level. Is he better than Dixon? Let’s talk when four more championships arrive and his face is on the BorgWarner trophy.
Leaving Mid-Ohio, let’s just say that with his win and a manageable 69-point deficit for championship leader Alex Palou with six races to go, it felt like we just witnessed a turning point in Newgarden’s season and a re-energized run at title number three.
HEY MAN, NICE SHOT
Sunday’s 80-lap contest at Mid-Ohio capped the best weekend of work I’ve seen from Marcus Ericsson in IndyCar. His one weakness has been qualifying, which he nearly aced by earning P3 on Saturday. The race was close to perfection for the Swede who ran second or third all day and carved into Newgarden’s lead to close the event.
From as low as P13 in the standings after the first Texas race where pit stop problems marred his early season, Ericsson is up to P5 in the championship and has become a legitimate front-runner wherever the series goes. And in a reminder of how well his CGR team is performing, Ericsson is only third on the championship depth chart, with Palou (P1) and Dixon (P3) performing at higher levels.
ACME AT ANDRETTI
For most of my life, I’ve held firm to a belief that ACME, makers of cartoon anvils, dynamite, and all manner of products deployed by Wile E. Coyote to defeat the Road Runner, were an equal opportunity provider of mischief-causing items.
After the opening lap of the Mid-Ohio race, and Colton Herta’s brutal visits to pit lane, I’ve had to accept that fact that ACME does indeed make a secret Andretti Autosport cartoon anvil that can’t be stopped with prayers, the burning of sage, or other protective measures.
Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe — the two drivers on the shakiest ground at the moment — are the ones who hit each other to start the race and, in typical ACME style, there was no real fault to apportion to either driver. Nonetheless, ACME deployed its custom Andretti Autosport cartoon anvils on Lap 1 as RHR braked to avoid a slowing car going up the hill to Turn 5, and both drivers were struck from above. Hinchcliffe, the better off of the two, recovered to finish P17 after shining with a qualifying run to P9. Hunter-Reay was relegated to a finish of P24, and with half the team laid to waste by ACME, Herta was next in the company’s crosshairs.
Running P2, he dealt with a faulty fuel probe on his first stop that dropped him to P7, and on his second and final stop, there was another delay that saw him pit from the lead, watch as a delay in inserting the replacement probe took place, and for good measure, he stalled the car and returned in P9. Just to ensure his day was completely miserable, another Andretti-only cartoon anvil fell when Herta was called into the pits for a splash of fuel on Lap 79 of 80 — while holding P7 — which left the front-row qualifier an unsavory P13 at the checkered flag.
And in the last note, it’s also clear that ACME has some work to do on its targeting system because they completely missed Alexander Rossi, its favorite Andretti Autosport target of 2021. Sneaking through its web of heartbreak, Rossi started P6 and finished P5 which, in another remarkable turn, produced his best back-to-back finishes of the year with runs to P7 and P5 in a span of a week.
Altogether, the Andretti Autosport cartoon anvil clobbered three quarters of the team, which was more than enough damage for one event.
Honorable mention goes to Ed Jones who outqualified his coveted teammate Romain Grosjean, and then became the only driver to plow into a smoke-hidden Will Power and end his day on the spot. Even when he does nothing wrong, things still go wrong for Jones. Just brutal. If the racing gods exist, they owe Jones a podium result, ASAP.