Note: The INDYCAR Writers’ Roundtable is taking the opportunity of the summer break in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule to analyze the first 10 races of the season and offer discussion and opinions about a variety of topics in the first half of the season. This multipart series will run regularly for the rest of July.
Today’s question: What is the biggest surprise in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season?
Curt Cavin: Alex Palou is the obvious answer, but I spoke to his success in Friday’s Best Offseason Move. For variety, I’ll highlight Romain Grosjean, who in seven races has transitioned from INDYCAR rookie to Hottest Prospect on the Driver Market. He has qualified in the Firestone Fast Six three times with a pole and a pair of seventh-place starts (at his first race, at Barber Motorsports Park, and at Road America). Grosjean has converted those strong starts into quality finishes, too, with four top 10s and 45 laps led. Fact is, he has had only one bad weekend, that coming in the doubleheader in Detroit. Remember, that’s a temporary street circuit that is arguably the most challenging venue of the season.
Zach Horrall: I’m going to stick with Chip Ganassi Racing here and say Marcus Ericsson has been the biggest surprise of 2021. He’s been a consistent driver in his previous two NTT INDYCAR SERIES seasons but never a title contender. Something changed this season. He has seven top-10 finishes in 10 races, including in the last four races, which feature a win at Belle Isle-1 and second at Mid-Ohio. This midseason charge has put him fifth in the championship standings, 104 points behind teammate Alex Palou and the highest he’s ever been in the driver standings since he came to the series from Formula One in 2019. This is certainly a pleasant and welcome surprise. With the momentum he has now, I’m eager to see how he can close out the season. Is he a dark horse title contender?
Paul Kelly: If someone had told me in March that Team Penske and Andretti Autosport each would have just one win at the summer break, I would have furrowed my brow and then laughed. But here we are. Colton Herta scored Andretti’s only win so far back in the second race of the season, April 25 at St. Petersburg. And it took Penske 10 races to enter the winner’s circle before Josef Newgarden broke through with a long-awaited win July 4 at Mid-Ohio. Part of the reason behind both team’s dry spells is the incredible parity and depth across the entire NTT INDYCAR SERIES lineup. Also realize Team Penske should have more victories by now, as Newgarden could have easily won the second Detroit race and at Road America, and Will Power was cruelly robbed of a shot at victory in the first Detroit race by a mechanical gremlin. Don’t forget that Scott McLaughlin also was only a Scott Dixon bobble away from pulling off a shock victory in the first Texas race, too. Andretti’s situation is tougher, as its four drivers have combined for just two podium finishes, both by Herta. The gray cloud of bad luck over the team has to lift in the stretch run, right?