INDY NXT by Firestone

The 2023 season for INDY NXT by Firestone has been nothing short of eventful, and it has only reached the halfway point.

With seven of 14 races in the books, the development category for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has seen six drivers visit Victory Lane, and the championship remains up for grabs. So, this seems like the perfect time for some observations before the upcoming round July 22 at Iowa Speedway.

Biggest Surprise: Nolan Siegel

There hasn't been another driver that has burst on the scene through the opening half of the season quite like Nolan Siegel. An 18-year-old from Palo Alto, California, he came into the series this year with no finish in any category higher than fourth in the championship standings, which happened last year in USF Pro 2000.

Rookie Siegel was two laps away from winning the season-opening round on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, but settled for a runner-up, a result he replicated the following race at Barber Motorsports Park. Siegel was also two turns away from sweeping Detroit, with a gearbox failing on his No. 39 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing machine while leading during Race 1 and delaying his maiden series win, which came the next day in the series’ only doubleheader event thus far. The momentum carried into Road America, where he claimed victory, becoming the only multiple winner this season.

Siegel has adapted to a car with more downforce and power at a level that has delivered results maybe a year ahead of schedule. He carries a 16-point lead in the championship standings over HMD teammate Christian Rasmussen and won’t be easy to topple the rest of the way.

Don’t Sleep On: Louis Foster, Hunter McElrea

Simply put, the early-season results are not what Louis Foster or Hunter McElrea expected for 2023.

Foster, who captured the USF Pro 2000 title last year, has been the fastest qualifier by far this year, with three poles, including one in his debut in St. Petersburg. However, time and again misfortune has struck the 19-year-old Briton, with the most obvious being hit from behind by Andretti Autosport teammate McElrea moments after leading the field to the green flag in Race 1 at Detroit.

Even still, Foster finally broke through to earn his maiden INDY NXT by Firestone win at the most recent race, July 2 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. That win vaulted him to fourth in the overall standings, 42 points behind Siegel (244-202), despite three finishes of 14th or worse. The pace has been there for the driver of the No. 26 Copart/USF Pro Championship entry.

McElrea, a 23-year-old New Zealand native who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Australia, has used consistency – one podium and five top-five finishes – to reach third in the championship standings, 39 points behind Siegel (244-205). If 2022 INDY NXT Rookie of the Year McElrea can get on a similar summer run as last year, when he earned two wins and four podiums over the last seven races, he could shake up the standings. But he is still searching for his first win of the year and needs to put his No. 27 Smart Motors entry in Victory Lane if hopes of a title continue.

Best Race So Far: INDY NXT Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

The opening round in St. Petersburg set the theme for the season.

A thrilling, unpredictable race on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit featured four different leaders, with chaos seemingly at every corner spawning five cautions. The race foreshadowed the likes of Siegel and Foster as title contenders, while also showcasing the impressive growth of Jacob Abel, who led a race-high 27 of 40 laps.

Then Danial Frost kickstarted his third season in the series with a thrilling late pass on Siegel to earn the victory – the second of his INDY NXT career.

In Need of a Strong Second Half: Danial Frost

Speaking of Frost, the victory at St. Petersburg to start the year remains his only podium thus far in what has undoubtedly been a frustrating season for a driver expected to contend for the championship.

The 21-year-old Singaporean has maintained some consistency beyond the win. In the other six rounds, he has one top-five finish and two additional top-10s, putting him seventh in the championship standings, 67 points off leader Siegel (244-177).

This brief break ahead of Iowa Speedway may have come at the perfect time for the driver of the No. 68 HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing entry, who will look to reset and re-establish himself to make a late push up the rankings.

Most Improved: Jacob Abel

Several observers probably overlooked Abel as a title contender, but they were quickly proved wrong after the 22-year-old’s showing in St. Petersburg, where he narrowly missed a victory before finishing third for his first career INDY NXT by Firestone podium.

Since then, the sophomore driver of his family’s No. 51 Abel Motorsports entry has finished in the top 10 in all but one race and elevated his career-best finish by one spot with a runner-up result at Road America. He sits fifth in the standings, 48 points off Siegel’s lead (244-196).

The small Abel team has included Colin Kaminsky in a second car at most of the rounds, but it’s very much a “David versus Goliath” story as Abel is the team’s only full-time driver, racing against the multicar powerhouses at HMD Motorsports and Andretti Autosport. Abel is punching above his weight, and the question remains if he can continue to show that strength for seven more rounds and dethrone HMD and Andretti. It would be an upset story for the ages in INDY NXT by Firestone, and Abel has proven to not to be counted out or overlooked.