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

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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

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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

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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.