Note: The INDYCAR Writers’ Roundtable is looking back at a fantastic, entertaining 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule to offer discussion and opinions about a variety of topics. This 10-part series will run regularly in October.
Today’s question: What happened in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season that you never would have predicted Jan. 1, 2021?
Curt Cavin: The obvious answer is Alex Palou winning the season-opening race (Barber), much less two additional races (Road America and Portland) and the series championship in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing (second year in INDYCAR). But let me suggest Simon Pagenaud’s struggles – and eventual departure – at Team Penske is a close second. Pagenaud seemed disconnected from the organization and finished eighth in the standings for the second straight year. He also didn’t win a race and his average finish was 10.7, the lowest of his INDYCAR career. Honorable mention: NBC’s commitment to network broadcasts of 14 of the 2022 season’s 17 races, plus Indy 500 qualifying. That was surprisingly good news for INDYCAR, an indication of the series’ momentum and NBC’s commitment to the sport.
Zach Horrall: I think we all can agree that we couldn’t have predicted that Alex Palou would take over the NTT INDYCAR SERIES like he has. So as not to point out the obvious, I’m going to lean toward his teammate Marcus Ericsson’s success. Coming into this season, I would not have predicted that Marcus would score two wins and prove to be one of the hottest drivers of the second half of the season. He ended the season sixth in the standings, but let’s not forget that over the summer Marcus had a run where he scored the most points of anyone in the stretch after the Indianapolis 500 and was a legitimate title contender. It certainly was a pleasant surprise, and now I’m eager to see what he can do in 2022 with all this success under his belt.
Paul Kelly: I’m not sure I would have predicted a 46-year-old Helio Castroneves earning his fourth Indy 500 victory last January, but it at least was plausible. But never in a million years would I have called that Alex Palou would win the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship in just his second season in the series and in his first year driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. Sure, Alex showed some flashes last season with Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh, including making the Fast Nine Shootout in Indy 500 qualifying and driving to a stirring third-place finish at Road America. But when I first got word he was going to Ganassi last fall, I thought, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” But never in a million years did I think he would beat teammate Scott Dixon and guys like Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Alexander Rossi and Pato O’Ward to the Astor Cup just 11 months later. It’s an incredible story.