The book is closed on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. The storylines this year centered on some familiar faces for Team Penske as Josef Newgarden won his second championship, and Simon Pagenaud added his face to the Borg-Warner Trophy. Other storylines included the exceptional class of Rookie drivers in the field, the continued youth movement in the series, and a wild and unpredictable Bump Day at Indianapolis that seemed like a Hollywood film.
Indianapolis always takes center stage during the season, and this year was no different. It was supposed to be the incredible return of McLaren Racing to the 500 with Fernando Alonso back behind the wheel, but they failed to make the talented 33-car field. Ricardo Juncos had all of the headlines after bumping McLaren and the two-time Formula One World Champion out of the event. It was also the return of fan-favorites Helio Castroneves and Oriol Servia and yet another drama-filled race for Alexander Rossi as he finished runner-up.
Rookies were all the rage this year, as four impressive drivers took turns showcasing their talent. The series championship, Rookie of the Year battle, and the Engine Manufacturer’s title all came down to the final lap of the final race. The site for all of that was a welcomed return to beautiful Laguna Seca, where droves of fans got to experience the intense action of IndyCar racing for the first time in 15 years.
Each year there are so many people that help make the sport what it is. Their achievements might go unnoticed at times, but it is important to reflect back and remember all of the moments during the season that made it so special. My annual Season Awards selections are outlined below, for your reading pleasure.
Best Team: Team Penske
This should come as no surprise, as Roger Penske’s operation claimed nearly every accolade during the 2019 season. Penske won the series championship with Newgarden, the Indianapolis 500 and the Month of May sweep with Simon Pagenaud, and as a team won a total of nine races. Despite Honda winning the Manufacturer’s title, Team Penske won more races than the entire Honda camp this season. As a whole, Penske earned eight poles, 17 podium finishes, and led nearly half of the total laps (997 of 2,092) over the course of the season.
Most organizations can only hope to taste a morsel of success that Team Penske has had over the years. This year they claimed their 16th series title to go along with their 18 Indy 500 wins. The future looks bright with the 28-year old winning his second Astor Cup in three years. Newgarden is just the second American driver to claim two championships since 1995. It is Penske’s fourth championship in the last six years, and they aren’t slowing down anytime soon.
Chip Ganassi’s team didn’t repeat, but Dixon had the most podium finishes (10) and they had a 1-2 finish with Rookie of the Year winner Rosenqvist right on the heels of the five-time champion.
Honorable Mention: Chip Ganassi Racing
Most Disappointing Team: AJ Foyt Racing
This should not come as a surprise to anyone that has paid attention in recent years. Despite numerous organizational changes, the last handful of years have been brutal for AJ’s team. They have changed engineers, drivers, strategists, mechanics, and everything under the sun. Unfortunately, none of it has seemed to bear any fruit. Losing longtime sponsor ABC Supply won’t help the situation, but the team plans to be on the grid with two full-time cars once again next year.
It has been a trying season for everyone associated with the organization. Tony Kanaan just finished the season without leading a lap all season for the first time since his rookie year in 1998. He did, however, earn the lone podium for the team at Gateway thanks to a timely caution that flipped the field. Kanaan also completed the fourth-most laps during the season, which speaks to his never-die attitude. Matheus Leist had a 4th place finish on the IMS road course, but the rest of his season was a massive failure. The young Brazilian has still never led a lap in his two full seasons.
Honorable Mention: Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
Most Disappointing Driver: Graham Rahal
There were actually quite a few candidates for this particular award that nobody wants to win. Ryan Hunter-Reay had his third winless season in the past four years. James Hinchcliffe had another miserable Month of May and finished 12th in the overall championship standings. Spencer Pigot failed to provide any optimism for Ed Carpenter Racing in a crucial contract year, and both Marco Andretti and Zach Veach had very poor seasons with Andretti Autosport. All of that being said, it is fair to say that more was to be expected out of Graham Rahal this year.
After going winless last season, a bounce-back year seemed likely for the man leading the charge for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Unfortunately, things did not pan out that way in 2019. Graham led a total of just nine laps all season and finished 10th in the final standings. The Ohio native managed just one podium finish and had an 11.1 average finishing position on the year. Qualifying struggles played a major part in that, but his teammate Takuma Sato earned two poles this year and also won the team’s two lone races. Sato finished ahead of Graham in the standings, which should motivate the American even more heading into the 2020 campaign.
Honorable Mention: James Hinchcliffe
Biggest Heartbreak: Fernando Alonso
The international buzz surrounding the Month of May returned this year, along with Alonso. The former World Champion was ready for his second voyage at Indianapolis and brought some familiar faces along for the ride. McLaren’s announcement in November of last year took the motorsports world by storm, and the anticipation was mounting.
What happened to Alonso and McLaren is something you could only imagine in a movie script. The mighty McLaren juggernaut was ousted in the final seconds by a tiny team with a shoestring budget in Juncos Racing. Kyle Kaiser’s magnificent four-lap run sent the big boys home on Bump Day, with the motorsports world in shock. Everyone wanted to see Alonso and McLaren in the field, but it was clear they were not prepared enough to even run mid-pack. A stronger team will surely arrive at Indianapolis next year, ready to contend.
Most Dominant Drive: Alexander Rossi, Road America
There were three races where a driver absolutely dominated the rest of the field. Newgarden destroyed the competition once again at Iowa, which is nothing new. In the last five races at Iowa, he has led 868 laps. No other driver has even led 100 laps. Rossi’s drive at Road America this year was the very definition of dominance.
Rossi led all but one lap, which came during a pit sequence. Unfortunately, those were the last laps that he would lead all season. Road America is an easy place to make a mistake, but he never made one. Rossi’s 28.439-second margin of victory was the largest of the season. It was even more special for Rossi when you consider his previous three finishes at Road America were 15th, 13th, and 16th. He had never even led a lap before his ass-kicking performance this year.
Honorable Mention: Josef Newgarden, Iowa
Biggest 2018 Turnaround: Simon Pagenaud
Yes, another award for Team Penske. There actually weren’t many candidates for this one, but looking at the numbers and the consequences of another poor year, and there is no telling where Simon would be driving in 2020. Last season Pagenaud failed to win a race and had just two podium finishes all year. He led a mere 31 laps finished 6th in the championship standings after hovering around 10th place for most of the 2018 campaign. Those may not be disastrous numbers anywhere else, but those are not at all Penske standards.
If there ever was a statement season, we just witnessed it. With his future uncertain, Pagenaud responded in the best way possible. He won three races this season, including the Indianapolis 500 as part of a sweep at IMS. His four podium finishes and 268 laps led propelled him to a 2nd place finish in the championship standings, just 25 points behind his teammate. Simon completed more laps than anyone this year, and his 6.5 average finishing position was third-best. Newgarden may have won the title, but it’s fair to say that Simon had the more satisfying season.
Honorable Mention: Ed Carpenter
Best Pass: Simon Pagenaud, IndyCar GP
Speaking of Simon, here he is again with a memorable moment on the IMS road course. This pass on Dixon for the lead and the race win was incredible, especially considering the rain that was coming down. It was a sensational drive by the Frenchman, and it really seemed to set the stage for his epic month at Indianapolis. He claimed at the time it was one of his favorite moments in an IndyCar, but little did he know that was about to be short-lived.
Best Race Outside of Indianapolis: Gateway
The racing under the lights at Gateway was magnificent. It was a spectacular show that delivered a lot of drama and exciting racing. The 1.250-mile oval in Madison Illinois did not disappoint. Power exited early with a spin, Dixon’s night ended early with a punctured radiator, and Bourdais was looking to return to victory lane after starting on the front row, but a late spin ended those chances. The race was turned upside down, which left Sato at the front with a slew a fan favorites in Carpenter, Kanaan, Daly, and Ferrucci. The high-level drama only intensified from there.
The 0.0399 of a second margin of victory was the closest IndyCar finish in Gateway’s ten-year history. Just behind them was a spinning Newgarden, who lost multiple positions as he was just feet from the start/finish line. While the near run-in with Ferrucci cost him some valuable championship points, it ultimately didn’t ruin his season. It was an impressive all-around night from Daly, who was making hey in his Carlin machine. The race was top-notch from start to finish.
Honorable Mention: Texas
Best Moment: Robert Wickens, Toronto
A no-brainer here. An incredible moment for Robert and his fiancée Karli Woods paced the field in an Acura NSX pace car with modified hand controls. To say Robert’s recovery is an inspiration would be a massive understatement.
Funniest Moment: Barber Flip
The driver of this track sweeper at Barber Motorsports Park was okay, but his pride definitely took a hit.
Rookie of The Year: Colton Herta
Rosenqvist finished five points ahead of Herta for the official Rookie of the Year Award, and Ferrucci earned ROY at Indianapolis, but Colton gets the nod for this award. Ferrucci started four races last season, and Felix has more than a decade of experience in open-wheel cars. Colton spent the last two seasons in Indy Lights and never even won a title. The 18-year old turned heads all season long with his pace and maturity on and off the track. In his debut season, Herta captured two race wins and three poles (tied for most) while leading 144 laps. He finished 7th in the standings even after never really taking the green flag at Indianapolis, where double-points were awarded.
The second-generation driver was quick right from the start. He led numerous practice sessions and was consistently near the top of the speed chart. Herta’s 7.4 average starting position this season (fifth-best) was even more proof of that. The seven DNFs were not great, but a few of those were mechanical issues. A strong end to the season (9th, 4th, 1st) gives him all of the momentum heading into his sophomore season, where he will now officially be a member of Andretti Autosport. The future is bright, as this was one of the best Rookie classes IndyCar has seen in ages.
Honorable Mention: Felix Rosenqvist
Best Helmet Design: Kyle Kaiser, Indianapolis
While there didn’t seem to be as many fresh lids at Indianapolis this year, there were still plenty of them that looked great. My favorite is actually two different helmets that Kyle Kaiser wore during the Month of May. The two helmets had the same design but alternated colors between a deep blue and fluorescent orange. Both were brilliant, and in the end, Kyle wins the award. Major kudos to the Juncos Racing team for their unforgettable qualifying performance at IMS.
Best Livery: Conor Daly, Andretti/US Air Force
There were so many great liveries this season, which seems to be the case every year. Typically most of them are on display at Indianapolis, but there are special one-offs at other races during the season where they really capture our attention. Graham’s black and yellow Gehl throwback at Road America was sensational. Marco’s dayglow throwback at Indy was a very well done tribute to Mario, and who could forget his teammate Conor’s iconic shark teeth fighter jet Air Force livery. Sometimes it is the simple ones, like Herta’s mostly white Honda or Rosenqvist’s all-black Monster Energy machine at Gateway. Power also had the beautiful red and black Verizon 5G machine at Indianapolis.
In the end, I thought Daly’s Andretti livery was absolutely spot on, complete with the full US Air Force firesuit.
Congratulations to Josef Newgarden and the entire Team Penske organization on a fantastic championship season.