Sebastien Bourdais

The 2024 NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie class will feature a talented crop of drivers led by the last two INDY NXT by Firestone champions, Linus Lundqvist and Christian Rasmussen.

Lundqvist has joined Chip Ganassi Racing, which also fields a car for 2023 Rookie of the Year Marcus Armstrong. Another rookie and INDY NXT by Firestone veteran, Kyffin Simpson, will join Lundqvist in the five-driver CGR lineup in 2024.

Rasmussen will run a partial schedule for Ed Carpenter Racing, in racing in all road and street course events and the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Tom Blomqvist of Meyer Shank Racing is the fourth driver announced so far aiming for Rookie of the Year honors in 2024.

Since we’re on the topic of rookies, let’s look at the five best rookie seasons in the INDYCAR SERIES over the last 20 years.

5. Danica Patrick (2005)

On stats alone, Patrick’s first year in 2005 with Rahal Letterman Racing may not merit a top-five designation. However, when combining stats and the attention and allure she brought to the series, it does.

“Danica Mania” was a real thing that year, a phenomenon that transcended the sport. The amount of attention and impact she brought to the series was unfathomable. The INDYCAR SERIES featured a mainstream driver that by Memorial Day weekend had become a global racing icon and a household name in America, with media coverage around the world, including a cover story in Sports Illustrated the week after the “500.”

Patrick, then 23, broke barriers as the best starting (fourth) and finishing (fourth) female in Indianapolis 500 history in 2005. When she took over the lead late in the race that year, the crowd roared just as loud as those engines circling the track.

The strong “500” performance was the highlight of a season that saw Patrick produce an average finish of 7.8 with a pair of top-five finishes, eight top 10s and 63 laps led.

4. 2019 Rookie Class

The 2019 group of Felix Rosenqvist, Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, Marcus Ericsson and Santino Ferrucci may end up going down as the best rookie class of the last 20 years. In 17 races, they each had their moments to shine.

Rosenqvist won Rookie of the Year for 2019 for Chip Ganassi Racing as he produced the best points finish (sixth) among rookie drivers in the last decade. It also was tied for the third-best points finish for a rookie since 2004. While he didn’t win a race that season, Rosenqvist finished runner-up twice, at Mid-Ohio and Portland.

Herta unlocked the winning equation as a rookie, taking two checkered flags and becoming the youngest winner in INDYCAR SERIES after he won at Circuit of the Americas at age 18. He also won three poles, becoming the youngest INDYCAR SERIES pole winner. His 144 laps led were 12th-best ever by a rookie.

Rosenqvist outpaced Herta on a more consistent basis with more top-five finishes (6-3) and top 10’s (10-8), but Herta had the win (2-0), poles (3-1) and laps led (144-71) categories to his credit.

While O’Ward, Ericsson and Ferrucci were further back in points, they each had their moments in the limelight.

O’Ward finished eighth in his season debut at COTA. Ericsson placed runner-up at Detroit. Ferrucci caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr. with his seventh-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. He also had three fourth-placed finishes on the season.

Which is why you truly can’t separate these five. It’s better to encompass them all as one.

3. Robert Doornbos (2007)

While some may argue that most of the top-flight teams had exited Champ Car by this point, be cautious from overlooking just how strong Robert Doornbos’ rookie season was and against whom he competed in 2007.

Names like Sebastien Bourdais, Justin Wilson, Will Power, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Oriol Servia, Bruno Junqueria, Alex Tagliani and Paul Tracy each ran a full season, and Doornbos beat all but Bourdais and Wilson in the standings.

Doornbos’ third-place finish remains as the best result for a rookie since 2001. He scored two wins, six podium finishes and nine top-10 finishes in 14 races with Minardi Team USA, which has a long history that started as Bettenhausen Motorsports in 1986. The team morphed into Herdez Competition in 2002 and HVM Racing in 2005 before Minardi Team USA took over for 2007. The organization had four career wins between 1986 through 2006. Doornbos won half of that amount in one season by himself. His runner-up finish in the 2007 season opener in Las Vegas was the best finish in a debut since 1993 (Nigel Mansell – second place).

2. Robert Wickens (2018)

Robert Wickens unfortunately didn’t get the chance to finish his maiden season in the INDYCAR SERIES due to serious injuries suffered in a racing accident, which is a real shame. His stats in his 14 races were good enough to list him among the greatest debut drivers over the last two decades.

Wickens got off to a quick start with a pole in the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg. And if not for a late-race incident in Turn 1 with Alexander Rossi, he very well could have become the first rookie driver to win his debut race since Buzz Calkins did in 1996 at Disney World, where most of the field was classified as rookies since it was the inaugural event for the Indy Racing League. Prior to that incident, Wickens led all but two laps.

Still, the Canadian had seven top-five finishes, including four on the podium, with two of those being runner-up. He also finished in the top 10 in 10 of his 14 starts.

1. Sebastien Bourdais (2003)

Rookies have won only 13 races since 2003. Sebastien Bourdais won three in 2003. That’s how strong of a debut season the Frenchman produced two decades ago.

Bourdais improved from no top-10 finishes in any of his first three starts to three wins in a six-race span to follow. He also had three runner-up finishes over the second half of the season to give him seven podiums in 18 starts. He was fourth in points at the end, marking that the second-best rookie points finisher since 2001.

Honorable Mention – Simon Pagenaud (2012)

It was hard to classify Simon Pagenaud on this list.

On one hand, he had four podium finishes, including a runner-up result at Long Beach to go with six top-five finishes and nine top-10 finishes in 15 starts for his 2012 INDYCAR SERIES season. That earned him Rookie of the Year honors as his fifth-place finish in the final standings, the third-best result for a rookie since 2000 when looking at Champ Car, CART and the INDYCAR SERIES.

But … Pagenaud technically was a Champ Car rookie in 2007. With most of the CART/Champ Car stats coming over with the 2008 Champ Car-INDYCAR merger, it was tough to incorporate Pagenaud’s 2012 INDYCAR SERIES season in a top-five list when he already had a full season under his belt.

The reason why Pagenaud held the unique designation of being a rookie in both series is due to the entire 2007 Champ Car season being run on road and street courses. With the INDYCAR SERIES featuring ovals on its schedule, those that ran Champ Car but had no oval experience were designated as a rookie when they came to the unified INDYCAR SERIES.

That’s why names like Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Gil de Ferran and others weren’t listed as rookies when they moved from CART/Champ Car to the INDYCAR SERIES because they had raced on high-speed ovals in those cars. Pagenaud hadn’t.

Pagenaud produced six top-five finishes in Champ Car to go along with 10 top-10 results in 14 starts as a Champ Car rookie in 2007.