Today’s question: Who is the favorite to win the season opener this Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, and which driver most needs a strong start to the season?
Curt Cavin: Josef Newgarden of Team Penske is considered the favorite to win because of his consistent success at the track. He has won three of the past five INDYCAR races, one of them from the pole, and finished third and fourth in the other two. I think if Alexander Rossi has a strong first race, he will be in title contention throughout the season, so that’s an important indicator to watch. Rossi was on the podium in four of the final races of 2020 – and was leading the St. Petersburg race when he crashed -- and hopes to build on that momentum to capture his first series championship.
Zach Horrall: Curt is right, Newgarden is the odds-on favorite to take the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race of the season. Looking beyond the two-time champ, I think you have to give a nod to Pato O’Ward. He won two Indy Lights races at Barber in 2018, so he knows how to get around the track. He had three second-place finishes in 2020, two of which came in the tire tracks of Newgarden. He’s been knocking on the door for a year now, and I think this weekend is when he breaks through. As for who is in need of a strong start, I think it’s the “rookies” of F1 veteran Romain Grosjean, three-time Australian V8 Supercars champ Scott McLaughlin and seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. These guys are starting a new chapter of their career, and quite honestly they have a lot to prove. The transition to North America’s premier open-wheel series isn’t going to be easy, but the better they start off the season the easier that transition is going to be.
Paul Kelly: As you both said, it’s pretty tough to overlook the Baron of Barber, Josef Newgarden. But I’m going with the guy who won the last race at Barber, in 2019 – Takuma Sato. Taku just seems to improve with age every season, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan has been consistently quick during road course testing during the offseason. I also see Sebastien Bourdais as a dark horse winner for AJ Foyt Racing. Bourdais was near the top of the time sheet during preseason testing at Barber, and his skill in the cockpit and in technical debriefs has shifted the Foyt operation into a higher gear. Who needs a strong start? Will Power. DJ Willy P is a driver fueled by emotion and momentum. He didn’t win a race in 2020 until the 10th race of the season, at Mid-Ohio, and he ended up fifth in the standings. But a win at Barber will provide a mental and points catapult for Power, and a confident Will Power is perhaps the biggest threat to dethrone Scott Dixon due to his almost unmatched pure speed for Team Penske.