IndyCar Season in Review: Five best teams from 2019

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Once again, the “Power Teams” of the NTT IndyCar Series were at the front of the field, led by Team Penske.

Team owner Roger Penske won his record-extending 18th Indianapolis 500 with Simon Pagenaud and a record-extending 16th IndyCar championship with Josef Newgarden in 2019.

Team Penske won nine of the 17 races on the schedule, Andretti Autosport won twice as did Chip Ganassi Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

A big surprise in the multiwin category was 19-year-old rookie Colton Herta, who also won twice for Harding Steinbrenner Racing and its engineering alliance at Andretti Technologies.

Herta will move over to the “big team” at Andretti Autosport in 2020 as Harding Steinbrenner Racing is folded into Michael Andretti’s overall operation.

Because INDYCAR operates on a multicar basis with its team owners, for the purpose of compiling the “Five Best Teams” from the 2019 season, let’s break each driver/car combination down as a separate team (these rankings aren’t necessarily in order of finish in the 2019 standings and are accompanied by an and analysis of each team’s strengths and why they belong on the list):

1 – Josef Newgarden, No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet, Team Penske: It’s hard to pick against the team that won its second NTT IndyCar Series championship in the past three years, so Newgarden’s side of Team Penske gets the top spot. He led the points standings after every race with the exception of the 103rd Indianapolis 500, when he trailed teammate Simon Pagenaud by one point.

Newgarden regained the lead when he won the following race, the June 1 Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Race No. 1 at Belle Isle. Another victory at Texas Motor Speedway in the June 8 DXC Technology 600 solidified his lead, and he was in firm control of the championship after his victory in the early morning hours of July 21 in the rain-delayed Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway.

That was his final win of the season, and the 2017 IndyCar champion had a 29-point lead over his closest rival at that time, Alexander Rossi.

One week later, however, that lead was down to 16 points after Newgarden was set to finish fourth when he saw an opening entering the Turn 2 area of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, course, known as the “Keyhole.” Ryan Hunter-Reay was stacked up in pursuit of the lead two cars driven by the leader, Scott Dixon, and rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist.

Instead, Newgarden’s Chevrolet banged into the side of Hunter-Reay’s Honda, sending the 2017 IndyCar Series champion off course. The engine stalled, and Newgarden’s race was over. Rossi finished fifth and Newgarden 14th and his 29-point lead was cut to 16.

It all turned around for Newgarden in the next race at Pocono Raceway when Rossi was part of a controversial first-lap pileup that was sparked when he was in the middle of a three-wide battle with Takuma Sato on the outside and Ryan Hunter-Reay to the inside. Newgarden finished fifth and combined with Rossi’s 18th, the lead increased to 35 with just three races remaining.

From that point on, Newgarden could go to his “ground game to run out the clock” as it is known in football. He finished fifth at Pocono, seventh at Gateway and fifth at Portland.

An eighth-place finish in the double-points paying season-finale was all he needed to clinch the championship.

The last five races of Newgarden’s season may not have been spectacular, but they didn’t need to be. With Team Penske President Tim Cindric calling the race strategy and new race engineer Gavin Ward from Formula One coming up with the championship playbook, this team was the best in the series over the long haul.

From nearly start to finish, from his win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10 to the eighth in the season finale at Laguna Seca, Newgarden led the standings.

This team finished with four wins, seven podiums and a remarkable 12 top-five finishes in 17 races.

Nobody was better than that.

“For me it was a natural desire to want to join the team when the opportunity was there,” Newgarden said. “I don’t know how you turn down Roger and the opportunity with Team Penske, but it’s so interesting. These guys are like the Death Star. I’ve heard people call us that, too. They’re like too good that people hate us.

“You get another side of that, too. There’s a lot of people that love Team Penske for all the right reasons. But I kind of like that. It’s lonely at the top. They’ve been so good for so long and have had such a good organization that’s built this strong structure that don’t move, and they only get better and taller, and it’s been a real pleasure.

“Did I need to join Team Penske to take the next step? I don’t think that was necessary, but I definitely jumped at the chance. I thought it was a great opportunity to not turn down.”

2 – Simon Pagenaud, No. 22 Chevrolet, Team Penske: The “Comeback Driver” of 2019 was also one of its greatest stars.

He entered the “Month of May” 11th in the standings and winless since the final race of the 2017 season. Though he wouldn’t acknowledge it, the pressure was on Pagenaud to produce. As Team Penske IndyCar manager Kyle Moyer (who also is Pagenaud’s race strategist) told NBCSports.com at the beginning of May, drivers are expected to produce and win at Team Penske, or they don’t stick around.

Pagenaud apparently got the message as he won the IndyCar Grand Prix (after starting eighth) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the third time in his career. The next weekend, Pagenaud was celebrating his first Indianapolis 500 pole.

On May 26 came the greatest victory of his career when he won a dramatic 103rd Indianapolis 500, sparking a celebration that lasted for the rest of the year and included taking the Borg-Warner Trophy to France and his hometown of Poitiers. His face was unveiled on the Borg-Warner Trophy in Paris, and his beloved pet “Norman” – a Jack Russell Terrier – joined Pagenaud when his face was included on the driver’s “Baby Borg” Trophy on Sept. 9.

Pagenaud went from 11th in the standings to first after the Indy 500 win, which thrust him into the championship race.

The dramatic impact of his Indianapolis 500 win started a bit of a “June Swoon” for Pagenaud as he finished sixth twice, 17th and ninth in the four races that month. But he opened July back in Victory Lane with a Bastille Day win in the Honda Indy Toronto on July 14.

With Moyer’s cool and calm demeanor on top of the pit stand combined with one of the best engineers up and down pit lane in Ben Bretzman, a rejuvenated Pagenaud had one of the best runs to close out the season. Beginning with his victory at Toronto, he finished fourth at Iowa, sixth at Mid-Ohio, third at Pocono, fifth at Gateway, seventh at Portland and fourth at Laguna Seca.

His dramatic drive in the season finale allowed him to take second in the standings away from Rossi and proved the “Flying Frenchman” is part of one of the best teams in racing. His three wins were second only to teammate and champion Newgarden’s four.

“For me and Josef, the No. 1 priority is for us to have a Team Penske car at the end to win for the team because they did such an incredible job of giving us the best cars all year,” Pagenaud said. “It’s already been a golden year, but ’16 was very special to get that first step winning the championship. My next dream was to win Indy, now it’s done. Now all we can do is make better numbers from this point on. Definitely want to be a repeat champion. We came close in ’17.

“So, the goal is just finishing the job.”

3 – Scott Dixon, No. 9 PNC Honda, Chip Ganassi Racing: Though he finished fourth in the standings, this team gets the nod over third-place finisher Alexander Rossi because … well, it’s Scott Dixon and the No. 9 Honda at Chip Ganassi Racing.

Even Rossi admits that Dixon and his team “set the benchmark” in IndyCar. With five NTT IndyCar Series championships and 46 wins including the 2008 Indianapolis 500, Dixon is already a legend in IndyCar history. But this team keeps contending for championships and race victories against a fierce group of young and competitive racers led by Newgarden, Rossi and now youngsters such as 19-year-old Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci, 21.

Consider that Dixon won his first championship back in 2003, long before today’s young IndyCar stars had even begun their careers.

Everything about this team seems to work. From hard-nosed team owner Chip Ganassi and his hashtag #ChipLovesWinners, to the team’s managing director and Dixon’s race strategist, Mike Hull, to multi-championship winning engineer Chris Simmons and his assistant Kate Gundlach to crew chief and Dixon’s fellow New Zealander, Blair Julian, they all set the standard for their position up and down pit lane.

But the person who sets the bar the highest is Dixon, who scored victories in the second Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in June and the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio in July.

From the Honda Indy Toronto on July 14, Dixon finished second, second, first and second through the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono on Aug. 18.

His championship charge was doomed, however, with a 20th-place finish after a punctured radiator put him out of the Gateway race and another mechanical failure at Portland led to a 16th-place finish.

Clinging to a slim, mathematical hope in the season’s final race, Dixon raced like a champion, finishing third. It wasn’t enough to get him in the top-three in the final standings, but it was certainly an indication why this squad remains one of the best in IndyCar.

4 – Alexander Rossi, No. 27 NAPA Honda, Andretti Autosport: For most of the season, Rossi was the star driver in the NTT IndyCar Series when it came to aggressiveness, fierceness and incredible ability to make his race car do what other drivers only could dream about. Other drivers might have won races, but he was the driver the fans and media talked about afterward.

When Rossi won races, he won them big. He started on the pole and led 80 laps in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach for the second year in a row. He won by a whopping 20.236 seconds over Newgarden. In June, he started second at Road America, took the lead in the first turn and led 54 laps in the 55-lap contest, winning by an incredible 28.439 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

When Rossi finished second, he provided the chills and thrills of the race. From his fist-shaking “Red Mist” in the Indianapolis 500 when he drove with anger to finish second, to another dramatic duel with Newgarden in the closing laps at Texas Motor Speedway, Rossi was the reason IndyCar fans watched on NBC and NBCSN.

This team is able to combine Rossi’s brilliance, with the steadiness of Andretti Autosport Chief Operating Officer Rob Edwards calling his strategy. In the rare moments when Rossi’s rage needed to be harnessed, Edwards had the ability to do that on the radio. Throw in the innovative ideas from race engineer Jeremy Milless, and this is a championship team, just not this year.

Together, the No. 27 NAPA Honda had two wins, one pole, seven podiums (including three runner-up finishes) and 11 top-five finishes in 17 starts.

“The phrase within the 27 team is ‘Go fast, hurt feelings.’ We try to live by that,” Rossi said. “I’m a race car driver who’s here to win races, and that’s ultimately all I care about. A lot of people say that winning isn’t everything. I completely disagree. That’s what it really boils down to is doing the best job for my team and the people around me. I have a lot of faith and confidence in them, and I think we all feed off that kind of mentality. We’re here to beat everyone else.

“That’s our thing.

The team, however, could not overcome an 18th-place finish after it was involved in a first-lap crash at Pocono and a 13th-place finish the next week at Gateway. A charge from Pagenaud near the end of the season, dropped this team from second to third in the standings.

Dropping Rossi’s team to fourth after finishing third in the championship is not a slight on the team, as much as paying respect to the continued excellence of Dixon’s operation at Chip Ganassi Racing.

5 – Will Power, No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet, Team Penske: For a brief moment, Colton Herta’s team was about to take this position, but there is no way it can be compared to Power’s operation at Team Penske. For one, Herta’s No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing team had to overcome tremendous adversity simply to have the financial backing to finish the season. For another, Herta’s team can take the jump because of finishes of 24th at Barber, 23rd at Long Beach, 23 at the Indy GP, 33rd in the Indianapolis 500, 18th at Texas, 18th at Iowa and 16th at Pocono.

Those were all rookie “learning” moments.

So, the obvious No. 5 team here is Will Power for three very important reasons. Roger Penske, the legendary team owner, calls the race strategy and is the winningest team owner in history. David Faustino is one of the most incredible race engineers in INDYCAR and has worked with Power longer than Power has known his wife, Liz. The Power/Faustino relationship is one of the best in IndyCar history.

And then there is the driver, himself, whose career has been one monumental roller-coaster ride of emotion and accomplishment.

This team struggled to overcome a 24th-place finish at Circuit of the Americas in a race where Power was running away with the victory before an ill-timed caution period before his final pit stop doomed his bid at victory.

Power and his team rebounded nicely with two wins, a second-place and a fourth-place finish in the final five races.

This is still one of the better team combinations in the NTT IndyCar Series, and Power believes he has one more championship run left in his career.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500