Season Review: 2019 NTT IndyCar Series – Newgarden takes title number two

by Jordan Groves

After another superb seventeen races of action, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series has drawn to a close, with Team Penske‘s Josef Newgarden ending the year with a second championship under his belt. Whilst Josef would lead the title after sixteen of the seventeen races, it was far from easy for him. Tension ramped up in the second half of the season as his rivals, including Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, drew close; but none could match the consistency of Newgarden that would ultimately clinch him the title.

As is often the case with the NTT IndyCar Series, the fight for the rookie of the year honours was just as enthralling as the fight for the overall title. This year’s class of rookies was stacked with talent, with Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Felix Rosenqvist ultimately edging out Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci to take the honours. However, Herta was the only rookie to take a win in his debut season, with the Teenager winning at both the Circuit of the Americas and at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Ferrucci, meanwhile, caught the eye of many with several scintillating performances on the ovals.

Meanwhile, the manufacturer’s title fight between Honda and Chevrolet saw Honda come out on top for the second year in a row; a great result for the Japanese manufacturer after they ended Chevrolet’s run of consecutive victories from 2012 to 2017.

So with the dust settled and the season now over, let’s take a look back over the last few months of competition and look at the various twists and turns that would see Newgarden come out on top for the second time.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Newgarden streaks ahead in opening races, Herta makes history at COTA

Arguably, the start of Josef Newgarden’s 2019 NTT IndyCar Series campaign was what ultimately won him the championship. After a disappointing 2018 season saw the 2017 champion fall to fifth in the standings by the end of the season, Newgarden was determined to be back in the hunt for a title in 2019 and he certainly started as he meant to go on.

After missing out on pole position for the opening race of the season by just a tenth of a second, a superb strategy call saw Josef vault into the lead of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg during a mid-race pit-stop sequence. Once he was out in the lead of the race, he never looked like he was really going to lose it.

Newgarden would take the first race win of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series with a lead of almost three-seconds over reigning champion, Scott Dixon. The win would put Newgarden at the top of the championship tables, a position that he would ultimately occupy for sixteen of the seventeen races in 2019.

The second round of 2019 saw the NTT IndyCar Series head to the Circuit of the Americas for the first time. Hoping to use the momentum from his opening-round win at St. Petersburg, Newgarden was looking to be on top in Texas, but it wasn’t until the closing stages of the race that Josef really emerged as a potential race winner.

In fact, it had been Josef’s Penske team-mate, Will Power, who had looked on course to take what would have been a dominant victory at COTA. However, as the race entered it’s closing stages, a wreck for rookie Felix Rosenqvist would bring out a caution right in the midst of what had been a green flag pit-stop sequence. The former race leaders, including Power, Rossi and Dixon, had yet to make their pit-stops and were forced to do so during the caution and would, therefore, lose track position to those who had already stopped. To add insult in injury, Power also suffered a driveshaft failure in the pit-lane that would force him to retire from the race. The retirement would prove to be the start of a torrid year for Power, who would go on to suffer numerous failures and make multiple mistakes; both of which would combine to rule him out of championship contention.

The newly re-shuffled race order saw Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s rookie, Colton Herta, cycle to the lead of the race for the final ten laps, with Newgarden now up to second place and with almost triple the amount of push-to-pass boost available to him than Colton.

Despite having more push-to-pass and the further theoretical upper hands of being much more experienced and with a much larger team, Newgarden was unable to challenge Herta for the remaining laps of the race. A superb drive saw Herta make NTT IndyCar Series history by becoming the youngest-ever race winner at just eighteen years old. It was a race the defied his years and simultaneously put him at the forefront of everybody’s minds when it comes to naming potential stars of the future.

Second-place for Newgarden would be a superb result after the American qualified down in seventh. With his rivals from St. Petersburg finishing further down the order, he would open up a sizable lead heading into the third round at Barber Motorsports Park; one of his strongest tracks on the calendar. However, despite entering Alabama full of confidence, Josef’s weekend hopes looked to take an early blow when he was shockingly eliminated in round one of qualifying and would start Sunday’s race down in sixteenth.

Once again, a well-timed caution helped Newgarden gain some positions in Sunday’s race. He began the final stages of the race in ninth place and he had the faster, alternate tyre compound fitted to his #2 Chevrolet. In the remaining laps, Josef would scythe his way through to fourth-place at the chequered flag; an incredible recovery after a disastrous qualifying session. What’s more, Newgarden’s fourth-place came in a race where another surprise winner had emerged; with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing‘s Takuma Sato utterly dominating the race from a sensational pole position.

The fourth race at Long Beach was another successful event for Newgarden. Fourth place in qualifying would be followed up by a solid second place in the race. However, Josef was left somewhat frustrated that he didn’t have the pace to challenge the dominant race winner, Alexander Rossi. Nevertheless, the opening four races of the 2019 season had seen Newgarden put himself firmly at the top of the standings with a twenty-eight point advantage over Rossi heading into the all-important month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Colton Herta (USA), Harding Steinbrenner Racing, 2019 NTT IndyCar Series, Circuit of the Americas
Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Pagenaud enters the fight with stunning month of May

Whilst his team-mate Newgarden was streaking away in the lead of the championship standings, Simon Pagenaud was having a lacklustre start to his 2019 campaign. He entered the season determined to make improvements are a massively disappointing 2018 season that saw him finish the year with zero victories and only two podium finishes in seventeen rounds.

In the first four races of 2019, things looked to be heading in a similar direction for Simon. He finished inside the top ten in three of the opening four races, but he would finish only as high as sixth-place at Long Beach. Simon knew, heading into the month of May at Indianapolis, that he really needed to step up his game.

Pagenaud would qualify in eighth-place for the first race of the month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course, but rain would soon begin to bucket down on the famous circuit and thus shake things up sizably.

With the drivers switching over to wet tyres, Pagenaud began to excel. He soon found himself fighting for the podium positions. His pace, coupled with his experience of driving in the rain, allowed him to make his way by the likes of Spencer Pigot, Matheus Leist and Ed Jones to move into third place, with the Frenchman then passing Jack Harvey soon after to take second place.

With five laps to go, Simon had a six-second deficit to the race-leader, Scott Dixon. With two laps remaining, the pair were nose-to-tail. Simon’s speed was stunning, but he now had to try and find a way by the reigning series champion. Simon finally made his move at the chicane of turns eight and nine, holding his #22 Penske around the outside of the right-hander so that he would have the inside line on Dixon into the left-hander. The pair made light contact, but Simon was through and would begin to immediately pull away.

One lap later, Simon would cross the line to take his first win since the 2017 Grand Prix of Sonoma and, with it, ease a vast majority of the pressure that he had been subjected to after a tricky 2018 season. Scott Dixon would have to settle for second, with Jack Harvey sensationally securing his and Meyer Shank Racing‘s first podium in IndyCar after a superlative performance from the small team.

With the momentum of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis victory behind him, Simon was very much looking forward to the biggest race of the season shortly thereafter; the 2019 Indianapolis 500. As expected, the Penske Chevrolet trio showed speed throughout practice leading up to qualifying and went on to make it into the ‘fast-nine’ shootout for pole position.

There, Pagenaud would pull out a fantastic four-lap qualifying run to secure himself pole position for the Indy 500, beating the three Ed Carpenter Racing team-mates who would occupy positions two to four.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Elsewhere, the headlines away from the fight for pole position centred around the fight to qualify for the race itself. With more than the maximum number of thirty-three entrants attempting to race, the slowest after qualifying would have to watch from the sidelines. In the end, six drivers would contest the “last-row shootout” for the final three spots in the field, with Carlin‘s Max Chilton and Patricio O’Ward being bumped from the field alongside, shockingly, Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing; driving a car with technical support from Carlin. Alonso and O’Ward’s hopes of qualifying were ultimately ruined by crashes during the week of practice leading up to pole day. Alonso will have to wait another year to have a shot at completing his elusive “triple crown”.

With pole position in his pocket, Pagenaud had just one goal when the Indy 500 race day came around and he had just one idea of how to secure it. He wanted to win the biggest race of his career and he wanted to lead the race as much as he could to ensure that he had the best possible chance. Even when his team would have rathered he fall back behind some cars to save fuel in the slipstream, Simon looked reluctant to give his lead away.

Thankfully for Simon, a late-race caution with just over twenty laps remaining put him back on the right track to make it to the end of the race on fuel. On the flip side, however, he now had a hungry pack of cars right on his tail hoping to steal the win away in what would be a final thirteen-lap sprint to the finish.

Pagenaud’s main threat came in the form of an angry Alexander Rossi. The Californian was fired up after a difficult mid-portion of the race that saw him drop out of the lead battle due to a slow pit-stop. Driving angry, he surged his way all the way back up into second place and soon went wheel-to-wheel with Simon for the win with just a handful of laps remaining.

Pagenaud and Rossi would trade the lead lap after lap as the chequered flag drew ever nearer. Ultimately, the final change of leadership would take place on the penultimate lap, with Pagenaud sweeping by Rossi to take back first place. Rossi gave it everything he had to try and get back into the lead on the final lap, but he was not quite close enough in the drag-race to the finish line.

Alexander would have to settle for second place, with Simon taking the chequered flag to win the biggest race of his career so far. He would add his name to the history books and will be forever remembered as a winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Taking victory at both races at Indianapolis – which included double championship points being awarded for the Indianapolis 500 – meant that Simon would end up leading the championship standings as the IndyCar series left the famous speedway. His problems in the 2018 season were now firmly behind him and he was now determined to continue fighting for the 2019 crown.

Credit: James Black / Courtesy of IndyCar

Rossi strikes back with mid-season surge, Rosenqvist and Ferrucci close on rookie honours

As the championship came to and passed its midway point, it soon became apparent that there were four realistic title contenders. A win at the opening race of the Duel in Detroit would see Josef Newgarden take back the championship lead from team-mate Simon Pagenaud, with another victory a few weeks later at Texas Motor Speedway putting Josef a fair way out in front in the standings once again.

The reigning champion, Scott Dixon, would finally open his account with a race win in the second part of the doubleheader weekend in Detroit. This, coupled with his run of four podiums in the first five races of the season, meant that Scott would be a factor as the year went on, albeit with a margin to those ahead of him after a poor finish at the Indianapolis 500 and then an uncharacteristic unforced error that saw the veteran crash out in the Saturday race at Belle Isle.

One driver who hit his peak during the mid-stages of the season was Andretti’s, Alexander Rossi. After securing an early win at Long Beach in dominating fashion, Rossi was hampered by a lap one incident in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis which would see him finish down in twenty-second place and lose vital points to his rivals.

Determined to bounce back, however, Rossi would go on a tear and score seven top-five finishes in the following eight races, finishing on the podium on five of those occasions which also included a second win of the season, once again in a dominating fashion, at Road America.

Newgarden and Pagenaud wouldn’t exactly slow down either, with both drivers picking up wins at Iowa Speedway and Toronto, but it was the consistency of Rossi that allowed him to slowly edge his way close and closer to the championship. Rossi got to within seventeen points of Newgarden after the race at Mid-Ohio when Josef spun out of fourth-place on the final lap and subsequently finished down in fourteenth.

Sadly for Rossi, just as it looked as though he was on course to close right in on Newgarden, disaster would strike. A now-infamous first lap at Pocono Raceway would see Rossi caught up in a wreck alongside Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Felix Rosenqvist. This would force him down to into an eighteenth-place finish, which would be followed up by a thirteenth-place finish after going a lap down the following week at Gateway Motorsports Park.

A podium in the penultimate race at Portland International Raceway would put Rossi in second-place in the standings heading into the final race of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, trailing the championship leader Newgarden by forty-one points. With double points on offer, there was still a chance for Alexander to walk away with his first IndyCar title.

An incredible run of consistent top-ten finishes towards the end of the season would see Simon Pagenaud enter the finale trailing Newgarden by just forty-two points. In the sixteen races prior to the finale, Pagenaud had finished inside the top ten on fourteen occasions. He would be hoping that he could follow up his Indianapolis 500 with an overall series championship.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

The final few races were less kind to Ganassi’s Scott Dixon. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver would enter the final race still with a mathematical chance at taking the title, but only by the skin of his teeth. The nail in the coffin of his realistic hopes of defending his title came after suffering mechanical issues at both Gateway and Portland. His car would grind to a halt on both occasions and would leave him needing to make up an almost insurmountable tally of eighty-five points at Laguna Seca.

Away from the overall series championship, the rookie of the year fight really started to get interesting in the second half of the season. After claiming his win earlier in the year at COTA, Colton Herta suffered bad luck at almost every turn thereafter. Six race retirements would dig him a hole that would be too deep to climb out of, with Herta only finishing in the top ten on five occasions between COTA and the penultimate race of the season. The Harding Steinbrenner Racing driver continued to regularly show flashes of awesome speed, claiming pole position at both Road America and Portland, but he would find himself trailing his rookie rivals heading into the finale.

With Herta suffering from bad luck, the rookie title would then be fought for by Felix Rosenqvist and Santino Ferrucci. Interestingly, the pair would seldom battle on the track wheel-to-wheel, as Ferrucci’s best results came on the ovals whilst Rosenqvist would fight back in the street course and road course races.

Three fourth-place finishes at Texas Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park would see Ferrucci launch himself into contention for the rookie title, whilst Rosenqvist came within a car length of securing his maiden victory in a late-race battle with his veteran team-mate, Scott Dixon, at Mid-Ohio. That result would be Felix’s first podium in IndyCar, with the Swedish driver finishing in second place again at the penultimate round at Portland.

Entering the final round, Rosenqvist would lead Ferrucci by twenty-six points. Herta was still a long-shot hopeful of taking the crown for himself but would need to hope for everything to go his way in order to steal the accolade from Felix and Santino.

Arrow Schmidt Peterson’s Marcus Ericsson also could have been in the hunt, especially after showing great speed early on in the year and taking a sensational second-place at Detroit, but a string of poor finishes – coupled with missing the penultimate race after being called to Spa-Francorchamps by Alfa Romeo Racing to perform Formula 1 reserve duties – would see Marcus all but out of the hunt and trailing by a long way.

Credit: Stephen King / Courtesy of IndyCar

Newgarden holds on to seal the deal as rivals falter

The stage was set for yet another thrilling conclusion to yet another thrilling season of NTT IndyCar Series racing. Not only did we have the overall title and the rookie honours to be decided, but we also had the anticipation and the unknowns of racing on a circuit that has long been absent from the calendar; the legendary WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

With the four title contenders vying for every possible bonus point, all four were determined to take pole position for themselves. However, the polesitter would instead be Harding Steinbrenner’s Colton Herta; who would claim th third pole position of his rookie season and his second in succession.

Scott Dixon would lead the title contenders in the session and would secure a spot on the front-row, with Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden sharing the second row. The final contender, Simon Pagenaud, would qualify in sixth-place.

Herta’s pole would see him leading the rookies. However, Felix Rosenqvist could well have been fast enough to take pole for himself. However, a spin in an early session would see him receive a penalty for impeding another driver, thus meaning that he would not be allowed to advance out of the first round. He would qualify way down in fourteenth place and would be absolutely livid as he was the lowest-placed rookie on the grid.

The race itself would be a tense affair. As the race wore on, each of the championship contenders would show great speed and then fade away at various points. After qualifying the lowest of the quartet, Simon Pagenaud looked to have the best race pace and soon charged his way into contention for the final spot on the podium; with Scott Dixon just ahead of him as the race entered it’s closing stages.

Josef Newgarden, meanwhile, was playing the safe game. Rather than risk his championship by going toe-to-toe and wheel-to-wheel to gain positions, he would drop into a comfortable eighth-place as the race came to a close. He dropped back far enough that, if Pagenaud had been able to move into the lead of the race, Josef could have had to title stolen from him.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

However, with Herta dominating from pole position to take the victory, Dixon holding off Pagenaud to take the final spot on the podium and Rossi only coming home in sixth place after a disappointing showing, eighth place would be enough to see Josef Newgarden secure his second NTT IndyCar Series championship.

Ultimately, Newgarden’s crushing performances and – more notably – his consistently high finishes in the opening few races would prove absolutely crucial in what would be his successful title campaign. He built enough of a points buffer to give himself a cushion on his rare off days. He also showed speed at every single type of race track on the calendar. These two factors would prove too much for his rivals to overhaul.

Simon Pagenaud’s aggressive drive would see him rewarded with second place in the standings by the end of the race, ultimately pipping Rossi to the runner-up position by just eight points. Pagenaud’s campaign almost entirely depended on his success at Indianapolis, as without his amazing haul of points, he would not have been in a position to contend for the title at the finale. This season seems to have re-energised the 2016 champion and he could be in the hunt again next year.

For Rossi, it was a case of what might have been for the second year in a row. When both he, the team and his car were performing to the best of their abilities, they would be nigh on unstoppable. His victory at Road America showcased this, as it was one of the most dominant displays by a driver in the modern era of IndyCar racing. If he and the team can be more consistent and iron out issues next year, he could well be crowned champion for the first time in under twelve months time.

Dixon’s title hopes were slim at best entering the weekend. His hopes of defending his title took a serious nosedive with his unforced error at the first race in Detroit and his two mechanical failures at Gateway and Portland. Nevertheless, the five-time series champion still looks as fast as ever and will almost certainly be vying for his sixth title next year.

Finally, we come to the rookie honours for 2019. Colton Herta gave it everything he had to try and steal the accolade for himself at the last moment. Dominating the race from pole position, leading all but the laps during pit cycles and winning the race would see him come very close, but ultimately it would be Ganassi’s Felix Rosenqvist who would take the 2019 rookie of the year title by just five points.

Rosenqvist charged through the field after his penalty to go from fourteenth on the grid to fifth-place, with his other rival, Santino Ferrucci, making a mistake and crashing out of the race in the mid-stages.

Rosenqvist, Herta and Ferrucci, along with their fellow full-time rookie, Marcus Ericsson, all showed great pace at various points throughout the season. All four look to be continuing in 2020, with Rosenqvist retained at Ganassi alongside Dixon and new team-mate Ericsson. Herta, too, will carry on after Harding merged with Andretti Autosport to form a fifth Andretti entrant. The only question mark remains over Ferrucci, but all signs are pointing to the American being retained by Dale Coyne Racing.

Watching the quartet throughout the season has been just as entertaining as watching the fight for the overall title. With all four looking to be remaining on the grid, we could be in for more thrilling racing in 2020; perhaps with the drivers moving up to compete for wins and the title itself.

So that’s it for yet another thrilling season of NTT IndyCar Series racing. Josef Newgarden is unquestionably the deserving 2019 series champion and will head into 2020 with the #1 on his car and his sights set on a third title. Who will be able to challenge him? Be sure to come back to The Checkered Flag for continued full reports from every race of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series.

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series will kick-off with the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, March 15.

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

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