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INDYCAR Season in Review: Five drivers to remember from 2019

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With a new decade approaching, NBC Sports wraps up the 2019 NTT IndyCar Season with a review of five drivers to remember from this past season. Once there is a wrap on 2019, it will be time to reflect on the decade of the 2010s with a complete package of features to remember one of the most important 10-year periods in INDYCAR history.

Earlier this offseason, NBC Sports broke down the “Five Best Teams” in IndyCar during the past season. That took into account the combination of driver, engineer, race strategist and team owner. Because many of the top teams were also the same as picking “Five Best Drivers,” this list will be a bit different.

Instead, let’s take a look at “Five Drivers to Remember from the 2019 Season.”

This is not a ranking of the five best drivers, but five drivers who left their mark on 2019. Obviously, the list will include several drivers that finished in the top five in the season, but there are a few surprises, such as two rookies who burst onto the scene but didn’t finish in the top 10 in points.

It won’t be long until the presents under the tree get unwrapped, so staying within the spirt of the Holiday Season, let’s unwrap “INDYCAR Season in Review: Five Drivers to remember from the 2019 Season.”

1 – SIMON PAGENAUD

In many ways, 2019 was the “Season of Simon.” Although it was his teammate, Josef Newgarden, who won the season championship, the memorable moments of 2019 belonged to the popular driver from France.

Newgarden may have won the title, but Pagenaud won the big races, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26 and the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 11. The Team Penske driver also won the pole for the Indy 500 for the first time.

To add to his impressive collection from 2019 was a win on Bastille Day in the Honda Indy Toronto in July.

“There were a lot of French people at the race and since I won Indy there is an enthusiasm toward IndyCar from the French side,” Pagenaud said. “It was awesome to have a lot of French there on Bastille Day. Overall, it was an awesome day for France and to wave the flag in victory lane.”

The 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion may not have won the championship, but he came pretty close. He surpassed Alexander Rossi in the final race to grab the No. 2 spot in the standings giving team owner Roger Penske a 1-2 finish to the 2019 season.

Off the track, Pagenaud was hailed as a French hero when the Borg Warner Trophy was taken to Paris and as a hometown hero when he returned to Montmorillon, France.

There was another life-changing moment for Pagenaud on Oct. 25. That is when he married his longtime girlfriend, Hailey McDermott, at a small, private outdoor ceremony in Napa, California.

McDermott and Pagenaud have been together for seven years. Six weeks ago, they made it official.

“I have been married for a while to that lovely lady,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “I’ve accomplished all my dreams.”

Pagenaud was truly the “Comeback Kid” in 2019. He entered the season in the midst of a woeful losing streak and had pretty much been put on notice that he needed to win and win soon.

It was just a week before Team Penske left for the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Team Penske Competition Director Kyle Moyer, who is also Pagenaud’s race strategist, told NBC Sports.com that drivers are expected to win at Team Penske, or they will find a driver who will.

Although Moyer contends that message wasn’t specifically directed at Pagenaud, the driver got the message with a stunning month of May.

He won the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the third time in his career, tying him with teammate Will Power for the most wins in that event. He also won the Indy 500 pole for the first time in his career and following that with a win in the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

The “Season of Simon” was solidified with his Toronto victory and capped off with a season-ending run at Monterey that allowed him to pass Rossi for second in the standings.

The final tally had Newgarden winning his second-career NTT IndyCar Series championship by 25 points over Pagenaud.

“If anyone doubted me, they are wrong,” Pagenaud said. “I won Indy. I’m second in the championship. I’ve been second twice, and I won the championship in 2016.

“If the results don’t speak for themselves, I don’t think they know what they are talking about. I’m with Team Penske for a reason.

“I think Josef was the best all season long. He was the most consistent. I won the Indianapolis 500 and can’t be disappointed with that. Frankly, it was my most complete season and the season where I had the most fun. I’m proud, and I’m proud of the team.

“We’ll see what we can do next year, but this will be hard to top.”

2 – ALEXANDER ROSSI

Once again, the talented driver from Northern California fell short of claiming his first career NTT IndyCar Series championship, but once again, Rossi was the driver who put on the show.

He is the driver the fans talk about, win or lose, after a race. Perhaps no driver since Juan Pablo Montoya in his early CART days of 1999 and 2000 has better car control than Rossi. He is able to drive the car on parts of the track “where angels fear to tread.”

That is the high line, where tiny bits of rubber and other dust and debris make the track surface as slippery as a skating rink. If a driver so much as gets half a wheel in that area, they are risking loss of control and potentially a crash.

Rossi, however, is able to drive in that area to make his trademark daring and bold moves.

He has also earned the nickname “Quick Hands” from NBC Sports analyst and former driver Paul Tracy from his unbelievably fast movements on the steering wheel when he is racing at high speeds.

When Rossi wins races, he wins big. He dominated the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, winning from the pole for the second year in a row and leading 80 of the 85 laps and defeating Newgarden by 20.236 seconds.

He had another beatdown victory at Road America in June when he started second and led 54 laps in the 55-lap race to defeat Will Power by 28.439 seconds.

While those victories are a testament to his skill, it’s his second-place finishes that are a testament to his greatness.

He drove with anger in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 and put on a fierce battle with Pagenaud over the final portion of the race. Rossi made several dramatic passes for the lead in the final laps before Pagenaud made the final pass for the win at the start of the final lap.

Rossi also had another fierce battle with Newgarden two weeks later at Texas Motor Speedway. Rossi tried to drive to the outside around Newgarden in the closing stages of the race but couldn’t make it work. He believed he needed just a bit more horsepower and a bit more grip on the tires to pull off the pass for the win.

But rather than push the issue and possibly crash the car, Rossi took it to the very edge before finishing second.

“We’re always there, but we’re always playing the bridesmaid as of late,” Rossi said afterward.

From the Indy 500 at the end of May though Road America at the end of June, Rossi finished lower than second just one time – a fifth-place finish in the second race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. He was second at Indy, the first Detroit race, Texas and won at Road America.

For most of 2019, it appeared Rossi was primed for a championship. But that all came unraveled on the first lap at Pocono when Rossi was involved in the controversial first-lap crash that was triggered by Takuma Sato near Turn 2. The multicar crash also involved Ryan Hunter-Reay, Felix Rosenqvist, James Hinchcliffe and others.

Although Rossi’s car was repaired and returned to the race, he was unable to gain any positions and finished 18th. The next week at Gateway, Rossi was 13th. By then a third place at Portland and a sixth at Laguna Seca was not enough to get him the championship.

Rossi, though, is a pure racer and probably has the most raw talent of any driver in the series today. But when he isn’t racing in the NTT IndyCar Series, he shows his versatility in other forms of racing.

In 2019, Rossi competed for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring IMSA races, the Bathurst 1000 for the first time in his career and the Baja 1000 Off-Road event for the second year in a row.

Rossi is certainly a driver to remember.

3 – COLTON HERTA

At first glance, Colton Herta is just like any other Generation Z kid in Southern California. He still lives with his parents, plays in a band with his buddies called “The Zibs” and likes to raid the refrigerator and have his mother do his laundry.

Take a closer look at Herta, however, and you see future racing greatness.

The son of former NTT IndyCar Series driver and current team co-owner Bryan Herta is already a two-time IndyCar race winner, and he’s just 19 years old. When he drove the Harding Steinbrenner Honda to victory in the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas on March 24, he became the youngest winner in IndyCar history at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

After that win, however, Herta experienced the trials and tribulations of a rookie driver. What followed was a string of races that included 24th at Barber Motorsports Park, 23rd at Long Beach, 23rd in the IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis and last in the 33-car field for the Indy 500 after starting fourth.

It wasn’t until Road America at the end of June that Herta finished back in the top 10 and that was eighth place after starting on the pole for the first time in his career.

But he finished the season on a flourish. He won the pole for the final two races of 2019, finished fourth at Portland and drove to victory at Laguna Seca, 20 years after his father had driven to victory at that demanding race course.

Herta entered the season with lofty expectations as a highly touted Indy Lights Series driver.

He exceeded those expectations in his rookie season.

He was not the “Rookie of the Year,” however as Chip Ganassi Racing driver Felix Rosenqvist finished sixth in the NTT IndyCar Series standings, just one position ahead of Herta in the final standings.

“All credit to Felix,” father Bryan said. “Felix had a great rookie season. This was an amazing rookie class. All four of the guys that were in it for the season, I think you are going to hear a lot more from in IndyCar. It didn’t go Colton’s way in the rookie of the year championship, but three poles and two wins, I think he can hold his head high.

“Colton had an amazing rookie season.”

4 – JOSEF NEWGARDEN

As the champion and the only four-win driver in the series in 2019, of course Newgarden is worth remembering. But, please note, this list is not the “Five Best Drivers from 2019” but the “Five Drivers Worth Remembering from 2019.”

The reason Newgarden is not higher on this list is because he makes hard things look so easy that he often doesn’t get the credit for accomplishing something so difficult.

He’s the perfect driver, driving for the perfect team in IndyCar. And when everything is perfect, it’s hard to truly appreciate the accomplishments.

For Newgarden, however, there are many accomplishments worth remembering in 2019. He won the NTT IndyCar Series title for the second time in his career. His first came in 2017.

He was the only driver in 2019 to win four races. He began with a win in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from the second starting position. He started second in the first Detroit doubleheader race and won then returned to victory lane the next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, fending off a challenge from Alexander Rossi.

His fourth and final win of the season came in the wee hours of July 21 at Iowa Speedway in a race that didn’t end until 2:30 a.m. ET.

By then, Newgarden had built a healthy lead in the championship and only had to drive smart to win the championships. That’s exactly what he did in the final race of the season, starting fourth and finishing eighth, choosing not to risk it because he didn’t have to, to win another championship.

“The most important thing was for a Team Penske car to win the championship, and that’s the way we devised our strategy, and you hope it works out in your favor,” Newgarden said. “Ultimately what’s important is the team winning the championship, and that was our plan.

“I’m just really proud of everybody. I’m just so thankful to have the opportunity, and I’m just happy it’s over with, to be honest with you. I can’t wait to go into this off-season. I think it’s going to be a nice little rest before next year.”

After the race, Team Penske IndyCar manager Kyle Moyer said Newgarden’s latest series championship makes him a “two-time champion and the only one on our team that has not won the Indianapolis 500.”

At Team Penske, it’s never enough.

“It means I’m still a loser on the team,” Newgarden said. “Well, there’s one thing that Roger likes a lot, and that’s Indy 500s, and I know that. I’ve known that since the beginning of my career, and I’ve been working on it. It’s just one of those races you never know if it’s going to turn your way or not. There’s guys that go their whole career and they never win the Indy 500, and then there’s guys that win it four times.

“I hope we’re in the second camp there, but you just never know. You can give your best there and you hope lady luck shines on you one day around that place, and I hope it does for us in the future, but I’m certainly going to be happy about what we put together over the last three years.

“Just being a part of this organization, it’s been a dream ride so far.”

5 – SCOTT DIXON

At 39, Scott Dixon still has it. And “it” is the ability to drive an Indy car as well as any driver in the history of racing.

With 46 career wins, he is third on the all-time victory list behind Mario Andretti’s 52 and AJ Foyt’s 67. His five NTT IndyCar Series championships are just two behind Foyt’s record seven.

As he closes in on 40, Dixon remains “The Master.” He is able to excel at a championship level and did that once again in 2019. Dixon was in serious contention for the championship until the next-to-last race of the season when a battery issue forced him into the pits at Portland. Prior to that, Dixon had led 11 laps and appeared destined for victory.

Dixon won twice in 2019 with wins in the second Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix race and his sixth career win at Mid-Ohio.

Dixon still has the magic behind the wheel, but in auto racing, there are more variables than just the driver.

“I don’t like using bad luck as a thing, but mechanical issues really can’t do anything about it,” Dixon said. “At Indianapolis, I got caught up in that accident and lost a ton of points there. Texas, we lost ton of points. Detroit, I made a mistake and lost ton of points there. Road America, I got spun out.

“Those are things you think of more opposed to the races you had really good comebacks the likes of Iowa where we were looking 12th and with strategy able to punch out a second place. Mid-Ohio and places like that had pretty good races. It’s the same for everyone, man.

“Everyone can point out parts of the year that could have changed it.”

No matter the car, the chassis, the engine, the aerodynamic package or the rules, Dixon’s greatness remains, and he will be remembered long after he pulls into the pits for the final time in his career.

That doesn’t appear to be happening any time soon, however. In Dixon’s mind, he’s just warming up.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter @BruceMartin_500