Note: With eight of 17 races completed in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, the Writers’ Roundtable will answer five questions about the 2023 season between June 22-27.
Today’s question: Who is the biggest surprise among drivers in the first half of the season?
Curt Cavin: I don’t think any of us had Alex Palou jumping to a 74-point lead as the schedule heads to July, but we could have seen it coming based on the way he dominated the end of last season, winning the finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca by more than 30 seconds. But a mega surprise has been Agustin Canapino, who has largely driven like a series veteran. Yes, he is 33 years old and now has 600 professional starts, but he had never raced a formula car, and certainly not an elite one, before this season. Yet, he finished 12th in his first two NTT INDYCAR SERIES races, safely earned a starting spot in the Indianapolis 500 and finished 14th in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. I’m beyond impressed, and that doesn’t even take into account he only spoke about eight words in English before arriving in January. OK, eight might be low, but you get the point. Dude is rolling in 2023.
Joey Barnes: Let’s go with the surprise that is staring everyone in the face: Alex Palou. Yes, he’s a former NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, but no one predicted him climbing to a 74-point lead after just eight of 17 rounds. The surprising aspects of this are how he – and Chip Ganassi Racing – responded after last year’s drama surrounding McLaren Racing as his next destination. The Spaniard and CGR had every reason to treat this as a procedural year together, and it has been anything but the pair “going through the motions.” Think about that lead and how it comes with being one of only two drivers, teammate Marcus Ericsson being the other, to finish every race in the top 10 – that’s something that Palou hadn’t accomplished in his three previous seasons. Even during his 2021 run to the title, he had two finishes of 15th or worse through opening eight races, with last year being no different. What’s more, his worse finish of eighth thus far is still a better result than eight of the other 24 drivers to start every race this year. While we all know the likes of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Palou and Will Power have the potential of stringing together races to this capacity, but to see it executed to this level is an entirely mystifying thing to witness. The combination of pace, mental strength and natural ability has Palou sitting alone at the top, and to see that extracted in such a way that make even the most talented in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES look ordinary right now is stunning.
Paul Kelly: There’s no doubt Alex Palou is producing a year for the ages, as it may be the first season since 2005 in which the title is decided before the season finale. But my biggest surprise comes from his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Marcus Ericsson. I never questioned the Swede’s ability, but I wondered if his consistent, steady approach would keep him in the top six of the standings for another season. Silly me: It has. Ericsson sent a statement of intent by winning the season opener at St. Petersburg and hasn’t relented that much despite not entering the winner’s circle since then. He is second in the standings, 74 points behind Palou. Ericsson and Palou are the only drivers to finish in the top 10 in all eight races this season, and Palou deservedly is feeling the glow of the highest-watt bulbs of the spotlight with his recent hot streak. But sometimes I get the sense people are just waiting for Josef Newgarden, Pato O’Ward or Scott Dixon to go on a summer tear and overhaul Ericsson in the standings. Is that a sure thing? I don’t think so. And if Palou falters, which I don’t think is likely, Ericsson may be the driver most able to race past the rubble and win the Astor Challenge Cup simply because many drivers would do a triple burnout to have one of his “bad days.” Will Power used the same formula last season to stave off Newgarden and Dixon and earn his second championship. Ericsson is a true superstar in this series who doesn’t get the credit he deserves and who, at age 32, could contend for NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships for the next decade.