Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach

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Another thrilling NTT INDYCAR SERIES season has ended, again with a Chip Ganassi Racing driver clutching the Astor Challenge Cup. Alex Palou added his name to the list that includes Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi (twice), Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti (three times) and Scott Dixon (six times).

The latest title puts Chip Ganassi’s organization only two behind Team Penske for the all-time series lead among entrants. Roger Penske’s team lost out on this championship when Josef Newgarden finished 38 points behind Palou, although Newgarden gave it a valiant weekend fight in winning the NTT P1 Award for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, leading 18 laps and finishing second in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. Palou did his part by finishing fourth in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP finished third in the standings to take another step toward what he hopes will eventually be a championship-winning season. He finished fourth in 2020. Dixon finished fourth, Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian fifth and Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing sixth.

As the competitors exhale following an exciting 16-race schedule, a handful of fresh topics are pushed to the surface. Consider:

Who Saw This Type of Season Coming?

At the end of last season, Ganassi’s team announced the surprise hiring of Palou, who had just finished 16th in the standings for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh. The response of NBC broadcaster and former INDYCAR driver Townsend Bell likely summed it up best by saying, “Hmm, that’s interesting.”

Palou made an immediate impact by winning the season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. It felt like a nice story to have a young driver score his first INDYCAR victory, but no one could have predicted the results and the consistency the Spaniard would continue to produce. He finished the season with a series-leading three race wins (adding the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America and the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway) to become INDYCAR’s youngest champion since Dixon in 2003 and the first to win the title in his second season since Sebastien Bourdais in 2004.

As we know now, Palou also started a season-defining revolution in becoming the first of four drivers to reach victory lane in INDYCAR for the first time. O’Ward won the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing won the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Ericsson won the opening race of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. Palou became the first driver to win his first series race and first series championship in the same season since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001.

Led by Palou’s three wins, drivers under the age of 25 won nine of the 16 races. Herta also grabbed three wins, including the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and Sunday’s Long Beach race to become the first driver since Will Power in 2013 to end the year with two victories. O’Ward won the second half of the Detroit doubleheader to give him two victories and as noted, VeeKay won at IMS.

At the opposite end of INDYCAR’s age spectrum was Helio Castroneves’ historic victory in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. At 46, few expected the popular Brazilian to become the fourth member of the four-time winner’s club, joining A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears, especially in his first race with Meyer Shank Racing. But he passed Palou in dramatic fashion with two laps to go to send the crowd – and himself -- into a frenzy.

Dixon, then 40, won the Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, and Power won the Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix at IMS at the same age.

The most accomplished rookie class in INDYCAR’s modern era also delivered, with Scott McLaughlin, the three-time Australian Supercars champion, using quick adaptation to the ovals to become Team Penske’s first INDYCAR Rookie of the Year. Romain Grosjean’s first and only season with Dale Coyne Racing with RWR included the 10-year Formula One veteran netting an NTT P1 Award in qualifying on the IMS road course and scoring three podium finishes. Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson made significant strides in the second half of his first INDYCAR season with Chip Ganassi Racing.

All of this begs the question: What will 2022 hold?

How Offseason Shakes Out

Monday’s confirmation of Meyer Shank Racing hiring Simon Pagenaud continued the process of clarifying the competitor lineup for next season. Also of note: Grosjean to Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 car (replacing Ryan Hunter-Reay) and rookie Callum Ilott committing to an entire season with Juncos Hollinger Racing. Still, there is more news to come.

Eleven of the 28 drivers in Sunday’s field had not confirmed their plans as of the checkered flag. Foremost among those are two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato, who could be leaving Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Jack Harvey, who recently announced he is leaving Meyer Shank Racing. Harvey is expected to join Bobby Rahal’s team.

James Hinchcliffe’s time at Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport appears to be done, expected to be replaced by another Canadian, Indy Lights driver Devlin DeFrancesco. Max Chilton likely will return to Carlin for a fifth season, although that has not yet been decided.

The status of Bourdais and Dalton Kellett at AJ Foyt Racing also must be determined, and there will be significant interest in what happens with Hunter-Reay, Conor Daly, Oliver Askew, Ed Jones, Charlie Kimball and Indy Lights leader Kyle Kirkwood and his title challenger, David Malukas.

And remember: Dale Coyne has fared well in signing “surprise” drivers, Palou (from Japan’s Super Formula series) and Grosjean (F1) are the most recent examples. Who might be next?

Who Are Next Year’s Contenders?

Once car-and-driver combinations have been set, pursuit of the 2022 championship can begin in earnest. Obviously, it starts with the top contenders of this season.

Palou will seek to become INDYCAR’s first repeat champion since Franchitti won three in succession (2009, 2010 and 2011). O’Ward will try to take the next step, and Herta’s late-season surge makes him a legitimate threat if Michael Andretti’s organization can return to prominence on the ovals, particularly at Indy, where they haven’t won since back-to-back wins in 2016 and ’17.

Dixon’s pursuit of A.J. Foyt’s record seven titles resumes, and anyone who counts Dixon out after a single-win season should remember that he’s never won championships in consecutive seasons. He delivered third-place finishes in two of this season’s final three races (Portland and Long Beach), proof of the tenacity that continues to burn within him.

Newgarden also finished this season reasonably strong, scoring top-10 finishes in the final seven races with a victory in the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and four NTT P1 Awards, including three in succession. He also delivered – again – in the season finale when an outstanding result was necessary, although he finished second, one position below his target. With Newgarden finishing in the top two in four of the past five seasons with a series-leading 17 race wins, there’s every reason to consider him a challenger in 2022.

Others? Interested eyes will be on Pagenaud’s move to Meyer Shank Racing, where he and Castroneves will work together as they did for three seasons at Team Penske (2015-17). Pagenaud figures to be out to prove the disappointing seasons of the past two years were an aberration.

Also, do not discount Grosjean’s move to Andretti Autosport, where Alexander Rossi also will be a factor, and Ericsson’s ascension at Chip Ganassi Racing.

As for Rookie of the Year contenders, the list will include Ilott and should include DeFrancesco, with Kirkwood and Malukas possible to join.

Other Questions To Be Answered

Can Castroneves achieve the once unthinkable fifth victory in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?” Certainly, his pursuit of the record will be a significant draw for IMS as it seeks to return to full spectator capacity for the first time since the 2019 “500.”

Can Dixon catch Mario Andretti for second place on INDYCAR’s all-time wins list? He needs only one more win to reach Andretti’s 52, two to pass the legend. After that, Foyt’s stands alone with 67.

Can Power continue his march toward becoming INDYCAR’s No. 1 pole winner? Power has had at least one in 13 consecutive seasons and needs four more to match Andretti’s record (67). But Power only had one NTT P1 Award this season as the competition reached an extraordinary level.

And then there’s Palou’s title defense. In Sunday’s championship presentation, Chip Ganassi compared him to Dixon. Lofty praise, for sure.

Up Next

Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing will be honored Friday with a celebration in Indianapolis, and then the quest for 2022 supremacy begins with an Oct. 8 oval test at IMS.

Next season will come quickly, with only 22 weeks between Sunday’s Long Beach race and the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Feb. 27. This will be INDYCAR’s earliest start to a season since St. Petersburg hosted its first race in 2003 (a win by Paul Tracy).

The 17-race schedule has been lauded for its 14 network television broadcasts, including the first six races. The 106th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will be Sunday, May 29, with the season finale Sept. 11 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.