The Checkered Flag‘s countdown of the best drivers of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series continues today with part two; counting down our final six. Be sure to check out part one before reading on!
A major theme for our first six drivers yesterday was ‘what might have been’? All of the drivers performed well at various points, but a limited schedule, bad luck or mistakes would stop them from having a truly fantastic year.
As we count down towards our number one pick for the season, expect to see that trend a little less often. With some big names already featuring, who will occupy positions six through one?
Beginning our top six is another member of the impressive rookie class for 2019:
6. Felix Rosenqvist – Chip Ganassi Racing
Felix Rosenqvist‘s arrival in the NTT IndyCar Series had long been anticipated. After numerous tests with Chip Ganassi Racing over the last few years, the Swedish driver finally got his chance and was signed to drive the #10 Honda for the team.
He would impress almost immediately in qualifying for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, beating his reigning champion teammate, Scott Dixon, to third-place on the grid. In the race, Felix would battle Will Power and would take the lead at once stage, only to lose out to Power, Dixon and eventual winner Josef Newgarden on his way to finishing just off of the podium in fourth place.
Rosenqvist would be forced to retire from the second race at the Circuit of the Americas after being spun into the wall by James Hinchcliffe, but he would return to the top ten with a brace of tenth place finishes at the next two races at Barber Motorsports Park and at Long Beach.
Felix’s first pole position in IndyCar would come in qualifying for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, with the rookie putting on a great display to beat his team-mate by less than a tenth of a second. Sadly, his race pace was not quite as good and he would fall down the order; hindered further by fuel hose issues during two of his pit-stops.
The rest of the season saw a trend begin to form for Rosenqvist. His pace in the road course and street circuit races looked right up there with the best of anyone. At Mid-Ohio, for example, he pushed his veteran team-mate all the way to the chequered flag and would come up short of winning his first race by less than a car length. He would finish on the podium once again at the penultimate race of the season at Portland after just missing the final bit of speed he needed to go up and pass the winner, Will Power.
However, neither luck of speed would be easy to come by on the ovals. Felix would fail to finish inside the top ten at any of the five oval races of the season, with his worst race coming at Pocono Raceway when he was unfortunately caught up in the infamous lap one pile-up. Through no fault of his own, he was sent on a scary ride into the catch fencing, but he was sadly unhurt and able to return for the next race.
His lack of oval results allowed Santino Ferrucci a chance of stealing the rookie of the year honours at the final race of the season. These chances were made better when Felix was forced to start the finale down in fourteenth after a penalty in qualifying.
Determined to make up for the penalty, Rosenqvist would charge through the order and would go on to finish in fifth-place; an amazing recovery drive at one of the toughest tracks on the calendar to overtake at.
With Ferrucci retiring from the race and Colton Herta too far back in the points, Rosenqvist’s fifth-place would be enough to secure him the rookie of the year honours for 2019; a far from easy task given the quality of the rookies in the field this year.
With Felix being retained by Ganassi for 2020, it will be massively interesting to see how the Swedish driver gets on with a year’s worth of experience under his belt. If he can put the pieces of the puzzle together when it comes to the portion of the calendar that is run on ovals, he could very easily be in contention for the championship in his sophomore season.
5. Scott Dixon – Chip Ganassi Racing
Fifth-place in a top-twelve driver ranking may seem like an indicator of a strong season for a driver. However, for Scott Dixon, it would be far from where he usually aims for.
Aside from a thirteenth place at COTA, Dixon’s start to his potential championship defending campaign got off to a great, but winless, start; with Scott finishing on the podium in four of the opening five races. His first win of the season would have to wait until the halfway point, with Scott reaching the top step of the podium in the second race of the Detroit doubleheader weekend.
When you look at Scott Dixon’s season as a whole, things may not seem so bad. Ten podium finishes in seventeen races, including two race victories. However, Scott’s season would be massively curtailed by three race retirements and a further three finishes outside of the top ten.
Following Scott’s first, aforementioned, finish outside of the top ten in COTA, a lowly performance in the Indianapolis 500 would see the reigning champion finish down in seventeenth place and as the last driver to finish on the lead lap. His first race retirement of the season would come less than a week later when Scott made a hugely uncharacteristic error in the wet conditions of the Saturday Detroit race and put his #9 Honda into the wall and out of the race. Thankfully for Dixon, he was unhurt and was able to bounce back by winning the second race of the weekend on Sunday.
Sadly, another race retirement would come at the next race, with Scott being involved in an on-track incident with Colton Herta that saw both take a sudden trip to the outside wall. His race at Road America a few weeks later looked to be going in a similar direction after he was spun by Ryan Hunter-Reay at the start of the race, but despite not benefitting from a caution that would’ve seen him close back up to the rest of the field, Dixon would end the race in a solid fifth-place after carving his way through the field; a testament to his skill and experience in the NTT IndyCar Series.
A four-race run of top-two finishes would follow, with Scott finishing as the runner-up at Toronto, Iowa and Pocono and as the race winner at Mid-Ohio after just managing to hold off his hard-charging rookie team-mate, Felix Rosenqvist, by less than a car length at the drop of the chequered flag.
Thanks to his consistently high finishes when he was able to make it to the chequered flag, Dixon entered the final handful of races in mathematical contention for the championship. However, any realistic hopes of an incredible comeback to take the crown were dashed at the fifteenth and sixteenth rounds of the season at Gateway and Portland respectively. Scott would suffer from two race destroying issues in succession, first at Gateway when his #9 Honda developed a water leak and then again at Portland when a battery failure forced him three laps down having led the race early on.
In the end, Dixon would end the season with one last podium finish at Laguna Seca and, with it, fourth place in the championship standings. Given his numerous retirements throughout the year, it is easy to say that Dixon could have very easily defended his crown had things gone differently. However, that is the way motorsport goes sometimes and Dixon will have undoubtedly already put 2019 behind him as he focuses forward to 2020 and his next chance at becoming a six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion.
4. Colton Herta – Harding Steinbrenner Racing
To some, Colton Herta entered his rookie season of IndyCar racing with not the highest of expectations compared to his fellow young drivers. When he and his 2019 Indy Lights rival, Patricio O’Ward, made their debuts at last year’s season-ending race at Sonoma Raceway, O’Ward stole all the headlines by qualifying in the top five and finishing in the top ten, whilst Herta would quietly stay out of trouble but finish down in twentieth.
However, Colton emerged almost immediately as a supremely talented force for not just the future, but for right now as well. Such was his speed right out of the gate, Colton looked to be in the fight for pole position at St. Petersburg. However, Colton would pick up a penalty for impeding Carlin‘s Charlie Kimball, which would see him unable to advance to the final round and forced to start in eleventh place.
Herta would recover to finish in a decent eighth place in his first race of 2019, however, it was the second race of the season where he would well and truly announce himself to the world of IndyCar racing. He made up for his wrongdoings in qualifying at St. Petersburg by qualifying in fourth-place and would run solidly towards the front of the order for much of the race.
Running deeper into the race on his tyres than others, Herta benefitted massively when a caution came out towards the end of the race. He would be able to pit during the caution period and would take the final restart in the lead of the race; with former dominant race winner, Will Power, retiring in the pits after a driveshaft failure.
From there, no one could stop Colton. Even with Josef Newgarden right on his tail at the restart, Colton would pull away and go on to take a sensational victory in just his third IndyCar Series start. What’s more, he would break Graham Rahal‘s record and become the youngest-ever IndyCar race winner.
Unbelievably, COTA would be Colton’s last finish inside the top ten for the next few months. Herta would retire from four of the next seven races, usually due to numerous technical gremlins that kept appearing throughout the year. His most gutting retirement came early on in the Indianapolis 500 after having qualified in a superb fifth-place. However, Colton did make a handful of mistakes two, most notably at Texas Motor Speedway when he crashed whilst battling with Scott Dixon.
Herta would return to his rightful place by taking pole position at Road America. However, another problem would cost him a strong finish. This time, a faulty fuel hose would see him fall down the order and to an eventual finish of eighth place. A number of other top-ten finishes would come during the final few rounds of the season, but two more retirements at Iowa Speedway at Pocono Raceway would further hinder his rookie season.
Colton’s rookie season would, at least, end in a decent way. He took pole position for the penultimate race at Portland, but tyre management issues on his side would see him only finish in fourth place. He would start on pole position once again for the season finale at Laguna Seca. This time, he showed that he had already learned from his mistakes at Portland and would drive a race beyond his years to win after leading almost every single lap of the race.
Despite not finishing in the top ten in over half of all the races during the season, Colton still came very close to stealing the rookie of the year title from Felix Rosenqvist at the last gasp. Just five points separated the pair at the end of the year.
What impressed so many people this year, myself included, was how Colton was able to defy his young age and race with the aptitude, awareness, and confidence of a seasoned veteran. With Harding Steinbrenner Racing being welcomed officially under the umbrella of Andretti Autosport for 2020 as a fifth full-time entry, lord only knows what Colton could accomplish in his second season of IndyCar racing. If he can get some luck on his side more regularly, Colton could certainly be a threat for the championship next year.
3. Simon Pagenaud – Team Penske
2019 was a massively important season for Simon Pagenaud. After going winless in 2018 and finishing in sixth place in the standings, Simon was determined to get back on the right track this year.
The year started off in a sadly familiar fashion for the Frenchman. Whilst his Penske teammate Newgarden sprinted off to an early title lead, Simon would finish no better than sixth in the opening four races.
However, it was the month of May that really turned Simon’s season around. In one of the most impressive drives of his career, Simon would break a twenty-one race winless streak by winning the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The Frenchman was the class of the field in the wet conditions during the race, culminating in a penultimate-lap overtake on Scott Dixon for the lead of the race and, subsequently, the race victory.
With confidence back in his court once more, Simon transferred his speed from the road course to the famous speedway itself. He would claim a superb pole position for the Indianapolis 500, defying the trio of Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolets from the top spot of the grid.
In the race, Pagenaud put on a determined performance. He stayed at or near the front of the pack for virtually the entire race and was so incensed on staying in the lead that his team was beginning to worry about his fuel milage compared to his rivals who were running in his slipstream.
At the end of the race, Pagenaud had to get his elbows out in an intense battle with Alexander Rossi for the victory. The pair would trade positions lap after lap after lap in the final few moments of the race, with Simon ultimately coming out on top to win his first Indianapolis 500; the biggest moment of his racing career to date. What’s more, his second win in succession would put him in the lead of the championship, just ahead of teammate Newgarden.
After Indianapolis, Simon looked to return to his usual finishing positions. He would end the season having finished outside of the top ten on only two occasions out of seventeen races, however, his finishes were not usually too high up the order. He would claim a superb third and final win of the year on the streets of Toronto, Canada. Other than that, his only other podium would come at Pocono Raceway.
In the end, his sheer consistency in the top ten would allow him to end the year as the runner-up in second-place in the standings. There is no question that Pagenaud certainly improved in 2019, but he still seems to be lacking that next step that would put him in direct competition with his team-mate, Newgarden, week in, week out. If he wants to be in contention in 2020, he will have to use the momentum he gained from a great 2019 campaign in order to be finishing as high up as possible week after week.
2. Alexander Rossi – Andretti Autosport
On his day in 2019, Alexander Rossi in the #27 Andretti Autosport Honda would be nigh on unbeatable. Sadly, his day came a little too infrequently for him to be able to take his first NTT IndyCar Series championship.
A decent but unspectacular start to the season would see him take two fifth-place finishes and a ninth-place finish in the first three races of the season. His first win of the year would come at the fourth race at Long Beach, where Alexander would utterly dominate from pole position for the second year in a row to take a dominant win; with his rivals totally unable to do anything about him throughout the race.
Rossi’s race at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis would be ruined almost straight away after contact with Patricio O’Ward. As the field came to green, O’Ward would be caught out by the field slowing ahead of him, with the Mexican hitting the back of Rossi and causing the Andretti driver to limp around to the pits. He would finish down in twenty-second place.
Rossi entered the all-important Indianapolis 500 as one of the favourites for the race win. However, Chevrolet drivers seemed to have just a little edge over Honda drivers throughout the event. He qualified in ninth place for the race, but in his usual determined way, he soon began to make his way up the order with some seriously impressive overtakes. His hopes for the win took a turn for the worse when he was hampered with a slow pit-stop due to a faulty fuel hose. What’s more, Rossi would be further angered when the lapped car of Oriol Servia fought him for track position and cost him vital time to the leaders.
A late caution would put Rossi on the tail of the race leader, Pagenaud, for the final few laps. Rossi gave it his absolute all and traded positions with Simon lap after lap, but once Simon took the lead on the penultimate lap, Alexander wasn’t quite able to get back up to his gearbox. In the end, Rossi would miss out on his second Indianapolis 500 victory by just two-tenths of a second.
As frustrating as it was, Rossi’s second place at Indianapolis would kick-start a mid-season run that would see him close right up to Newgarden in the championship standings on numerous occasions. The next seven races after Indianapolis would see Alexander finish in the top six, with his second win of the season at Road America perhaps being one of the most dominant wins by any driver in the modern era of IndyCar. He took the lead from Colton Herta on the first lap and would go on to win by a scarcely believable margin of almost half a minute.
Sadly, Rossi’s 2019 season would fall off of the rails over the course of one week at the end of the year. His race at Pocono Raceway would be all but ended on lap one in the infamous pile-up involving himself, Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Felix Rosenqvist. To add insult to injury, an ill-timed caution just six days later at Gateway Motorsports Park would trap Alexander a lap down on the leaders in the closing stages of the race, forcing Rossi to finish down in only thirteenth-place.
From there, Newgarden was able to virtually coast him for the final two races of the season and take the 2019 title. Rossi, meanwhile, would lose second-place in the standings at the final moment to Simon Pagenaud. This meant that Rossi would end 2019 in third place in the title; a decent result but a far cry from what Rossi will have entered the year hoping for.
Rossi’s raw speed is totally unquestionable. He has proven on numerous occasions that he, himself, has the ability to win at any time and at any race track. However, the speed of his #27 Honda has fluctuated from week to week. If the team can get things back to a more consistent level in 2020, there is every chance that Rossi could be in the mix for the title for the third year running. Maybe this time he will be able to take his first-ever NTT IndyCar Series championship.
1. Josef Newgarden – Team Penske
Who else could really take the number one spot but our champion himself? Josef Newgarden ended 2018 a little disappointed after failing to defend his 2017 championship crown and finishing in only fifth-place in the overall standings. His 2019 campaign, however, was the definition of the phrase ‘consistency is key’.
Josef’s season got off to a great start with a win in the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after starting in second. A fantastic strategy call by his engineer, Tim Cindric, coupled with great tyre management from Josef, would see Newgarden come home with the win by almost three seconds.
In the opening seven races of the season, Josef would only fail to finish outside of the top four on just one occasion. His Grand Prix of Indianapolis was ruined when a mistake on a pit-stop saw a stray tyre roll across pit-lane, earning Josef a penalty that would relegate him to an eventual finish of fifteenth.
Newgarden’s consistency allowed him to build up a solid points buffer to his rivals; with his lead only being lost after team-mate Simon Pagenaud scored double points for winning the Indianapolis 500. Josef would regain the lead after winning the first race of the Grand Prix of Detroit and the race at Texas Motor Speedway, offsetting a poor finish of nineteenth in the second race at Detroit after the American was caught up in an incident involving Alexander Rossi and James Hinchcliffe.
Josef’s fourth and final win would come at the short oval of Iowa Speedway, with Newgarden leading 245 of the 300 lap race distance. Entering the final five races, he would hold a buffer of twenty-nine points over his nearest rivals, Rossi and Pagenaud.
Mid-Ohio seemed to mark a change in the way that Newgarden would continue his championship quest. Josef had been running in fourth-place as the race entered its final lap, with Ryan Hunter-Reay just ahead in third-place. Josef tried hard to make the pass to get onto the podium, but he would spin off at turn two in the process. Josef’s #2 Chevrolet would be unable to finish the final lap, thus seeing him classified down in fourteenth place and behind his rivals, whom he had been running ahead of prior to his spin.
From then on, Newgarden seemed to prioritise finishing safely rather than fighting as hard as he could for every position. He never really looked fast enough to win at Pocono Raceway, but with his closest rival Rossi being involved in the lap one wreck, Newgarden was able to extend his title advantage from just sixteen points to thirty-five points.
Seventh place would follow at the next race at Gateway. Josef was forced to take evasive action when Santino Ferrucci slowed out of the final corner on the final lap, with Josef crawling across the line and losing a handful of positions as a result. Again, however, Rossi would finish down in thirteenth place, which meant that Newgarden’s advantage would once again extend to thirty-eight points.
Josef looked to be in some trouble at the penultimate race of the season at Portland. A poor qualifying would leave Newgarden in thirteenth place on the grid and in the danger zone for any potential incidents at the start of the race. However, Josef was able to keep himself out of trouble and would impressively climb up to fifth-place by the end of his first stint. He would remain there for the remainder of the race and would, unbelievably, once again extend his points advantage to forty-one points.
With double points on offer at the season finale at Laguna Seca, Newgarden couldn’t be too comfortable of claiming the crown. He started the race in fourth-place but would soon begin to trickle down the order and choose to let his opponents by rather than fight for position. He would ultimately come home in eighth place, which would be enough to see him clinch his second championship with a final buffer of twenty-five points between himself and runner-up, Simon Pagenaud; who just jumped ahead of Alexander Rossi at the final round.
After climbing from the cockpit of his #2 Chevrolet, Newgarden was visibly overcome with emotion. At only twenty-seven years old and in just his third year with Team Penske, Josef has the potential to have a very long and very successful career in IndyCar.
With two titles already and the ability to win at any race track he comes to, Josef could very easily win again next season. If anyone wants to stop him in the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series, they will really have to up their game.
Do you agree with our top twelve ranking? What would you change for your own list? Let us know in the comments below, or on Twitter @TheCheckerFlag.