Barber Motorsports Park

Each of the season’s first four NTT INDYCAR SERIES races were won by different drivers, one of those drivers winning a series race for the first time.

New rivalries have developed, with Scott McLaughlin scrapping with Romain Grosjean, and this era’s racing king, Scott Dixon, still miffed by an aggressive move by Pato O’Ward, one of the sport’s young stars.

Marcus Ericsson, the reigning champion of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, enters the Month of May with the series points lead, the slimmest margin in more than a decade.

And those are only a few of the early storylines this season.

Think the INDYCAR SERIES isn’t off to an interesting start?

Obviously, there is still much ground to cover in the 17-race march toward awarding the Astor Challenge Cup to the driver with the highest number of points, but this is shaping up to be a barn burner.

Consider that only 38 points separate the top nine drivers in the standings – last year that first-to-nine margin after four races was 60 points. Since a similarly competitive season in 2015, when Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya finished with the same number of points – Dixon became the champion on a tiebreaker -- the average spread from first to ninth place heading to the season’s fifth race was 75.1 points.

This year’s fifth race is the GMR Grand Prix on Saturday, May 13 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Ericsson holds a three-point lead over O’Ward and a nine-point advantage on Alex Palou, and those are the same margins that were in place last year at this time. But the depth of this year’s contenders is striking.

Last year, Rinus VeeKay was 38 points out of the lead after four races, and he stood seventh in the standings. This year, Kyle Kirkwood trails by 38 points, but he’s ninth with a race win. In 2020, there was a 62-point separation between first and second. This year, being 62 points out of the lead ranks 15th.

The tightness of the standings is only part of 2023’s competitive story.

The sport’s record for different race winners to start the season is eight, set in 2013, and the combination of Ericsson (St. Petersburg), Josef Newgarden (Texas Motor Speedway), Kirkwood (Long Beach) and McLaughlin (Barber Motorsports Park) has this season off to a 4-for-4 start. Dixon and Will Power figure to eventually find their way to victory lane given that they are 1-2 all-time, respectively, in seasons with at least one win (20 and 18) and consecutive seasons with one or more wins (18 and 16).

O’Ward, Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi and Palou also won races in 2022 but have yet to win this year. O’Ward has twice finished second, in St. Petersburg and at Texas. Herta and Rossi won last year’s IMS road course races.

Additionally, Newgarden is one to watch as it can be argued that only Grosjean has shown more consistent pace. Both have suffered their share of bad luck, with Newgarden’s race at Barber Motorsports Park derailed by an opening-lap bump from Felix Rosenqvist. Two-time series champion Newgarden has finishes of 17th, ninth and 15th in addition to his Texas win.

“You know, luck (and) timing kind of go hand in hand,” Newgarden said. “Certainly, they’ve not been on our side, so I think if we’re getting that out of the way and we’re going to have some great luck for the rest of the year, then I’m all good with it.”

This year stands to remain competitive through May as for the first time since 2013, the “500” will distribute single points rather than double points. The impact is significant. Last year, Ericsson entered the season’s premier event in eighth place, 53 points out of the lead. When he collected 109 points for qualifying in the fifth position and winning the race, he vaulted to the series lead by 13 points, a 66-point swing.

Four of the top five drivers in the current standings – Ericsson, O’Ward, McLaughlin and Grosjean – are in pursuit of their first series championship. Former champions rank third (Palou), sixth (Newgarden), seventh (Power) and eighth (Dixon), giving a mix of old and new.

The last time Dixon, a six-time series champion, was this deep in the standings after four races was 2011, but he was 84 points out of the lead that year. This year he is more than half as close – only 32 points in arrears.

Competitiveness has shown up in qualifying, too, with two of the tightest Firestone Fast Six sessions in history – Long Beach and Barber – occurring last month.

The GMR Grand Prix offers another opportunity for the pack to tighten as last year’s track winners – Herta and Rossi -- sit 10th and 14th, respectively, in the standings.

And then there are the rivalries that are brewing. McLaughlin’s aggression late in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg took Grosjean with him to the tire barrier and out of the race lead. The two again had contact in Sunday’s Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix en route to a 1-2 finish. At least for now, they’re on good terms, but it will be something to watch if their cars continue to be magnetized.

“I think we touched when he passed me a little bit, but it was fair game,” McLaughlin said of Grosjean. “It was awesome racing, man. It was exactly what INDYCAR is. Yeah, ain’t no procession here, that’s for sure.”

Dixon hasn’t forgotten how O’Ward pushed him into the tire barrier in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, and proof that O’Ward is in high alert for retaliation came last weekend when his crew felt the need to keep him apprised of Dixon’s position behind him.

Add it up: INDYCAR is off to a fun, competitive start.