IndyCar 2019 preview: Past champions still contenders?

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Editor’s Note: Over the next two days, MotorsportsTalk will preview all full-time entries competing in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series. Our first preview features all seven past champions who will compete this season. 

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series begins on March 10 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app. Additional coverage can be found on NBC Sports Gold.

Scott Dixon – #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

2003, 2008, 2013, 2015 & 2018 IndyCar Series Champion

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Scott Dixon may be the best IndyCar driver in the last 20 years, but whenever he decides to hang up his helmet, he should be viewed as one of the greatest ever. His 2018 season is a perfect example. Dixon eclipsed Michael Andretti as the third-winningest IndyCar driver with his victory in the first race at Belle Isle, and took to the top spot in the points standings with a win at Texas Motor Speedway a week later – a position he would not relinquish for the remainder of the season en route to his fifth championship.

Dixon has not finished lower than third in points during 11 of the 12 last seasons. The Kiwi driver was, not surprisingly, fast in February’s tests at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Circuit of the Americas, with a best finish of fourth in COTA’s third session. With the same team, strategist, and engine manufacturer as last year, expect Dixon to pick up right where he left off last season and to be a threat to win on any given Sunday.

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Will Power – #12 Team Penske Chevrolet

2014 IndyCar Series Champion

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Prior to last season, Will Power had won nearly everything there is to win in IndyCar racing, with the exception of the sport’s marquee event, the Indianapolis 500. That changed when Power led 59 laps, including the final five, to win the 102nd running of ‘The Greatest Spectacle in Racing’ (airing for the first time this season on NBC). Power also won the IndyCar Grand Prix on IMS’ road course and Gateway last season, and earned his 54th career pole at Portland to pass A.J. Foyt for second all-time.

Finishing third in the overall points standings last year, and having not finished outside the top five in points since a partial season in 2009, consistency will once again be the focus of Power’s 2019 campaign. Outperforming both Penske teammates last season and finishing third quickest in the combined results from IndyCar’s test sessions at Circuit of the Americas last month, Power enters 2019 with no need to stress much about his expectations – a much better development for a driver who had famously struggled to win the biggest prizes the sport has to offer. From here on out, each race win and championship simply adds to an already impressive resume. Power will surely reach victory lane once again this season, and he will likely be in contention throughout the year to win his first championship since 2014. 

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Ryan Hunter-Reay – #28 Andretti Autosport Honda

2012 IndyCar Series Champion

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The 2012 series champion — nicknamed “Captain America” — and 2014 Indianapolis 500 champion is the winningest American driver currently competing in the series with 18 victories, two of which came last season at the second race at Detroit’s Belle Isle Park and the final race of the season at Sonoma Raceway.

The Andretti Autosport driver looks to bring the heat once again this season, with more victories likely and another strong finish in the points standings not out of the question. Should he avoid too many DNF’s in 2019, don’t be surprised to see Hunter-Reay in contention for the title at Laguna Seca. Hunter-Reay was recently honored the National Automotive Racing Lifetime Achievement Award on February 23 by Jay Leno at the gala for the 13th annual Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance in Florida. Hunter-Reay and longtime sponsor DHL will once again return to the #28 Honda.

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Josef Newgarden – #2 Team Penske Chevrolet

2017 IndyCar Series Champion

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Though a lack of consistent finishes obstructed Josef Newgarden from clenching back-to-back titles in 2018, he was still one of the season’s most dominant drivers. Newgarden scored four poles and three victories last season, taking the checkered flag first at ISM Raceway, Barber Motorsports Park and Road America. Newgarden lead 485 laps in 2018, the most of all drivers.

The 28-year-old will likely lead many more this year as he enters his third season with Team Penske. Newgarden has shown speed throughout preseason testing this year, finishing in the top half of the leaderboard in every session, including third in COTA’s first session. Known for his charismatic demeanor and raw talent, Newgarden remains a fan favorite. A second championship or first Indianapolis 500 victory are certainly not out of the realm of possibility for the Tennessean, who recently got engaged to his longtime girlfriend Ashley while on vacation in Japan last October.

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Simon Pagenaud – #22 Team Penske Chevrolet

2016 IndyCar Series Champion

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Few drivers are probably looking forward to hitting the reset button this Sunday more than Simon Pagenaud. The 2016 series champion struggled throughout last season, failing to win a race for the first time since 2015. The Frenchman also failed to score a pole and led only 31 laps en route to a mere two podiums, though a second place finish at Texas last June began a streak of nine consecutive finishes of eighth or better to conclude the season. Pagenaud has also previously proven he is championship-caliber material in seasons prior, so 2018 was likely a fluke.

Once again returning to the familiar #22 Team Penske machine, Pagenaud finished a respectable fifth overall during IndyCar’s preseason testing at COTA. Don’t count him out of contending for wins this year and even as a dark horse pick for the championship.

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Sebastien Bourdais – #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda

2004, 2005, 2006 & 2007 ChampCar World Series Champion

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Sebastien Bourdais might not be employed by a powerhouse team like Penske, Ganassi or Andretti, but he sure drives like he is, having won at least once each season since 2014 despite driving for more modestly budgeted teams including Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan.

Bourdais once again will return to Coyne this season in the familiar #18 Sealmaster Honda, and despite finishing in the bottom half of the charts during preseason testing last month, Bourdais is still expected to run up front throughout the year. Ranked sixth on the all-time wins column with 37 victories, don’t be surprised if Seabass nabs another win or two. A native of racing capital Le Mans, France, Bourdais and his family now call St. Petersburg, Florida home, which coincidentally is the site of this weekend’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The 2017 and 2018 champion of the race, Bourdais looks to make it three in a row in St. Pete this Sunday.

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Tony Kanaan – #14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet

2004 IndyCar Series Champion

Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

One of the series’ most popular drivers, Tony Kanaan is the elder statesman of IndyCar. Entering his second season with A.J. Foyt Racing, one has to wonder how many more seasons the 44-year-old Brazilian has left in him. His 16th place finish in the points standings last year was his worst since missing four races in 2000. Kanaan’s 20 laps led in 2018 are also the fewest since his rookie season in 1998.

However, Kanaan isn’t ready to retire just yet. Determined to rebound in 2019, Kannan and his family recently moved from his longtime home in Miami to Indianapolis to be closer to the race team’s shop. Kanaan will also reunite with Scott Harner, who was hired to become A.J. Foyt Racing’s vice president of operations and Kanaan’s race strategist. Harner, whose motorsports career began in 1985, was in charge of Kanaan’s car during his four-year tenure at Ganassi from 2014-17. Though Kanaan and team owner A.J. Foyt would both likely be happy to see the #14 return to victory lane at any track, there is no other race that either want to win more than the Indianapolis 500. The 2013 champion of the race, Kanaan has IMS’s famed yard of bricks and Borg-Warner Trophy tattooed on his right arm.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

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Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”