The 2020 season for the NTT IndyCar series was like riding a bull, or a roller coaster, or both. As with everything else, the coronavirus hijacked everything that was planned and put several people in extremely trying circumstances. Through it all, it was the leadership and guidance of several key individuals that made all of this possible. Mark Miles, Jay Frye, Doug Boles, and of course Roger Penske were mainstays in making this season a possibility. Without their direction and determination, perhaps there wouldn’t have even been a season. In the end, the 14-race calendar was filled with drama, excitement, and plenty of good memories. A major “thank you” to everyone involved in making this season a reality.
Before we can divulge into the on-track action, we must first take a trip back nearly one year ago when Roger Penske purchased the series and the speedway from the Hulman-George family. Without that transaction taking place, who knows where we are today. Having spent several days inside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway earlier this month, I can truly say that the place looks to be in pristine condition. The entire facility feels modernized, yet holds the same euphoric and symbolic mystique as you enter. IMS and IndyCar are in excellent shape as we head into the future.
When the season finally did get rolling, it looked as though Scott Dixon was going to run away with the championship. After winning the first three races of the season, the Chip Ganassi Racing ace finally returned to earth after the weekend at Gateway. He finished 10th, 10th, 9th, 8th, and 3rd in his final five races, giving last year’s champion Josef Newgarden a glimmer of hope heading into the season finale. While he didn’t finish the season in typical Dixon dominating fashion, he did just what he needed to do in order to claim his sixth series title. Dixon has now taken home the Astor Cup in four of the last eight seasons. Only AJ Foyt has more championships, and only Mario Andretti has more podium finishes.
The highlight of every season will always be the Indianapolis 500, and this year was no exception. While it was the first-ever 500-mile race in August, it was still the biggest crown jewel in auto racing. For the second time in the last four years, it was Takuma Sato that drank the milk in victory lane. It was quite the spectacle, which was boosted with Marco Andretti earning pole position for the race. It was the first time an Andretti sat on the pole for the 500 since Mario in 1987.
In addition to everything going on during the pandemic, the series had to navigate how to incorporate several new puzzle pieces. The aeroscreen was being used for the first time, with limited testing. There were various team changes and a crop of new rookies that were oozing with talent. There were limits to tires, lowered pit speeds, and of course no practice early in the season. Nothing was going to be easy, but thanks to a well-established plan and everyone following proper protocols, the season went off without any hiccups.
There was the return of McLaren, the return of Fernando Alonso, and the familiar faces of James Hinchcliffe, Helio Castroneves, Sage Karam, and of course the farewell season for Tony Kanaan that didn’t go to plan. Fortunately, it appears as though we could be seeing some of these drivers more often next year, as silly season continues to play itself out. We look forward to the 2021 season, but look back at the unforgettable 2020 season that was anything but normal.
Best Team: RLL Racing
Many teams had a driver that did well this season, but also a driver or two that struggled. Looking at the dynamic duo at RLL Racing, this one was a no-brainer. Obviously the highlight of their season was Takuma Sato’s Indy 500 victory, but there were plenty of other positives that the team can reflect on. Their two drivers finished 6th and 7th in the final standings, which is a fantastic achievement in itself. Graham Rahal had three podium finishes on the year, and a pair of 4th place finishes at his home track at Mid-Ohio. Graham led laps in six of the 14 races and had finished with nine top-tens on the season. The best is yet to come for Graham, who is expecting his first child any day now.
Anytime you drink the milk at Indianapolis, the rest of your season is just icing on the cake. Sato’s year got off to a disastrous start at Texas, when he crashed in qualifying at missed the race. Despite that, he had eight top-ten finishes and shined at Gateway with a pole and a runner-up finish. He led 172 laps this season and finished every race he started, which surely thrilled Bobby Rahal. These two drivers will be back next season, aiming to build upon this successful two-car pairing. A third car could be in play as well, should the budget come together.
Honorable Mention: Team Penske
Most Disappointing Team: Andretti Autosport
Things certainly improved in the second half of the season, but the first half was as about as bad as it could get for Michael Andretti’s team. Colton Herta was the lone bright spot for much of the season, but there wasn’t much to celebrate outside of his performances. Zach Veach lost his ride. Ryan Hunter-Reay had just one podium finish all season and led a grand total of four laps this year. Alexander Rossi was supposed to be a championship favorite but was anything but that for the majority of the year. The season finale at St Petersburg was the story in a nutshell for Andretti Autosport this season. The team was running 1-2-3 but Rossi crashed from the lead, Herta spun multiple times, and James Hinchcliffe lost control of his No. 26 Honda under yellow.
Marco had his moment at Indianapolis when he captured pole position but unfortunately was never a factor in the race. He finished 20th or worse nine times and had just one top-ten finish this season, a 10th place result at Iowa. This was just the second time in Marco’s career that he failed to lead a lap all season. The biggest gut punch was the cut tire that ended his great run in the season finale, which cost them a spot in the Leaders Circle money for next season. Final points standings positions: Herta 3rd, Rossi 9th, Hunter-Reay 10th, Andretti 20th, Veach 21st, Hinchcliffe 23rd with just one race win for the team in 2020. Better days await this team in 2021 as they regroup and rid themselves of all of the bad luck.
Honorable Mention: Ed Carpenter Racing
Most Disappointing Driver: Alexander Rossi
Rossi was the popular pick to win the championship before the 2020 season began, and for good reason. He has been right there each of the previous two seasons, finishing runner-up in 2018 and 3rd last year. He recorded five wins, five poles, and 15 podiums in those two seasons, but simply did not have any luck this year. The 2016 Indy 500 winner went winless for the first time in his IndyCar career and had only led 22 laps all season entering the season finale. He led 597 laps in the two previous seasons. This was also the first time Rossi failed to earn a pole since his rookie season.
Rossi finally shook the bad luck after the first three races, only to have it return at Indianapolis and the following weekend at Gateway. He managed four straight podium finishes at Mid-Ohio and the Harvest GP and led 61 laps in the final race but crashed while leading the race. It was total misery for the Californian, who had seven races where he finished 14th or worse. Sometimes lady luck is just too much to overcome. The bad luck, electrical gremlins, and everything else that coincided with 2020 always seemed to find the No. 27 car. The 2021 season is sure to be a bounce-back season for one of the most talented drivers in the series.
Honorable Mention: Simon Pagenaud
Best Finish: Felix Rosenqvist, Road America
It looked as though Pato O’Ward was about to get his first career victory in the second race at Road America, but that honor went to Felix Rosenqvist instead. The Arrow McLaren SP driver had just earned his first career pole earlier in the day and led 43 of the 55 laps on Sunday. While he had a solid lead, Rosenqvist was able to hunt him down with two laps to go as O’Ward struggled to stay out in front on worn tires. He did manage to hold on to 2nd place for his first career podium finish, but it had to have felt like kissing your sister. For Rosenqvist though, it was redemption after his disappointing outing at Texas when he crashed with 10 laps to go while running in 2nd position.
Honorable Mention: Dixon and Sato at Gateway
Most Dominant Drive: Josef Newgarden, Iowa
No one was more disappointed in the news of Iowa falling off of the 2021 schedule than Newgarden. The Team Penske driver has owned this place over the years, leading 1,150 laps over the last eight Iowa races. No other active driver has even led 100 total laps during that time. Newgarden’s finishes in those eight races were 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 6th, 4th, 1st, 5th, and 1st. This year he dominated once again by leading 214 of the 250 laps in Race 2 of the doubleheader. It was the first of four victories on the season for Josef, and really kickstarted his fight to get back into the championship hunt.
Honorable Mention: Scott Dixon, Texas
Biggest 2019 Turnaround: Pato O’Ward
This was an incredible first full-season for O’Ward, especially when you consider it was with a new team. Last year in seven races, O’Ward had just one top-ten finish (8th), never led a single lap, and had a 13.9 average finish. This season, in twice as many races, he had three runner-up finishes and four total podiums. He earned pole position at Road America, led 204 laps, and only finished outside of the top 12 once. He finished every race and completed all but three of the 1,900 laps this year for the Arrow McLaren SP team. He did a great job of qualifying and finished 4th overall in the final standings, just five points behind Herta, his former teammate in Indy Lights. The future is bright for O’Ward and this team, and they will be together again next year after the team announced that he will return to the No. 5 Chevrolet next season.
Honorable Mention: Colton Herta
Best Pass: Rinus VeeKay (Road America/Gateway/Mid-Ohio)
Take your pick of any of these three passes by VeeKay. He had a magnificent outside pass at Gateway, an epic divebomb at Mid-Ohio, and an insane pass around the carousel at Road America. The Dutch driver was fearless and aggressive at every track. Rosenqvist made a series of great moves at Road America to take the lead away from O’Ward in the final laps, and Newgarden’s daring move around multiple cars to take the lead at St Petersburg were both memorable as well.
Honorable Mention: Felix Rosenqvist at Road America
Best Non-Indy 500 Race: Harvest GP Race 1
Typically the Grand Prix race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is nowhere near the top of the list in this category. With the cooler weather and change in strategy for the Harvest GP in October, this race was an incredible show. From start to finish, all 85 laps were must-see TV as Newgarden battled with Rossi, VeeKay, and Herta for the win. There were 12 lead changes in the race among six different drivers, and a furious battle between Herta and VeeKay. It was a monster day for Newgarden, who took a major bite out of Dixon’s lead in the championship with the win.
Honorable Mention: Road America
Best Moment: Conor Daly/Carlin Pole
The unique format that IndyCar used for qualifying at Iowa was wild and exciting. With the driver’s first lap setting their starting spot in the first race, and their second lap determining where they started in Race 2, the action was fast and furious around the 7/8-mile bullring. Conor Daly surprised everyone with a blistering first lap, which earned him pole position as he bested the likes of Newgarden, Power, Herta, and Rossi. It was the first career pole for Conor and the first for Carlin Racing. The pair have been a formidable duo on ovals in each of the past two seasons. In his nine races with the team, Conor has an average finish of 9.5 which is quite impressive when you consider the limited resources and challenges this new team has had to deal with. Andretti’s Indy 500 pole was a close 2nd here but Marco never lead a lap and was a non-factor in the race. The underdog story here with Conor and Carlin was just too good to be topped.
Honorable Mention: Marco Andretti, Indianapolis 500 Pole
Mr. Consistency: Colton Herta
After finishing 7th in the championship standings as a rookie, Herta performed as the best driver on one of the “Big Three” teams this year. The 20-year old was the saving grace for Andretti Autosport, finishing 3rd in the standings as the only driver to win a race for the team this season. While Herta earned just one pole and one race win this season, he was much better than last year. In 2019 he failed to finish seven races, which was a major reason why he finished 7th in the standings. His average finishing position improved from 13.2 to 7.5 this season, which correlated with his steady consistent pace.
Herta’s only DNF of the season was that strange airborne crash he had at Iowa after the cars in front of him checked up during a restart. If you dismiss Iowa, he finished inside the top 11 in every other race this season. Furthermore, he led laps and ran in the top two for most of the final race at St Petersburg, but a pair of spins cost him another podium finish. He earned seven top-five finishes and led 110 laps on the season. While Dixon and Newgarden continue to battle one another for championships, Herta should be right there once again next season.
Honorable Mention: Jack Harvey
Funniest Moment: Indy 500 Prank
Rossi was the victim of the latest prank in Indianapolis, where his golf cart was taken advantage of. The game of “who done it” began with Daly and Herta finally taking responsibility for the act.
Honorable Mention: Multiple iRacing moments…
Rookie of The Year: Rinus VeeKay
Fans were split on which driver would earn ROY honors before the season began. It was an outstanding crop of rookies, but in the end it was all VeeKay. The talented young driver got off to a rocky start at Texas, but things appeared to “click” for him after the Indy 500 in August. Since that race, he finished 6th, 4th, and 8th over the course of his next three races. Following that, he earned his first career pole position on the IMS road course, and also collected his first podium finish. He has been the saving grace in an otherwise dismal season for Ed Carpenter Racing. Both Alex Palou and Oliver Askew had their moments, but their futures are uncertain heading into the offseason. As for VeeKay, the ECR team announced before the season finale in St Petersburg that he will be back full-time in the No. 21 Chevrolet next season. VeeKay shined at Indy as he qualified 4th for the race and was the only Chevrolet in the top 12 in qualifying. He finished 14th in the overall standings, just two points out of 12th place.
Honorable Mention: Alex Palou
Best Helmet Design: Max Chilton
Each year there are a handful of helmet designs that really stand out at Indianapolis. It is difficult to choose between them, but this year was different. Not only did Max Chilton easily have the best-designed helmet on the grid, it just might be the greatest helmet ever worn at Indianapolis. English painter Jason Fowler made Chilton’s helmet into a 3-D chrome tribute to the iconic BorgWarner trophy. Interestingly enough, Max stated that the helmet was originally going to debut in last year’s 500, but it had to wait until this year after he failed to qualify for the 103rd running of the race.
Honorable Mention: JR Hildebrand
Best Livery: Marcus Ericsson, Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Honda
There are always great looking liveries each year, and it is never easy to pick a winner in this category. Normally this award goes to a special one-off livery but not this time. The ECR United States Air Force machines at Indy were both outstanding. I loved the sleek black and orange that Arrow McLaren SP used on their two full-time cars as well. In the end, it was the red and white combination on Marcus Ericsson’s Huski Chocolate outfit that won me over. The mountain design is cool and the red really pops when they have the alternate red Firestone tires mounted on the car.
Honorable Mention: Conor Daly and Ed Carpenter, ECR United States Air Force
Congratulations to Scott Dixon and the entire Chip Ganassi Racing organization on another championship season.