The NTT IndyCar Series has much to look forward to in 2020. The offseason has been a period of major change for the series, for the second year in a row; there’s new ownership from perhaps the biggest name in motorsports; and a significant Formula One name is hoping to make its mark. This is one of those seasons that will go down in history, either because it will generate incredible memories or because it will change the way we think about IndyCar both on and off the track.
So where do race fans possibly start? There are four storylines that should be of particular interest as we approach the 2020 IndyCar season. Some of them will unfold on track, some are focused off of it, and others will end up being a little bit of both. But if you look beyond the headlines, there are some other great stories developing around the league that you just might have missed.
1. Scott Dixon’s new teammate
Scott Dixon will definitely be an IndyCar title contender again in the 2020 IndyCar season. Asking if he’s going to be in the mix for another championship is like asking if the sky is blue. But this could be an incredibly exciting season for Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing, because of the talent that the team has surrounded him with. Ganassi surprised fans when it expanded to a three-car operation over the offseason, and their acquisition of Marcus Ericsson from the old Schmidt Peterson Motorsports roster may very well be the most underrated move.
The biggest issue for Ganassi over the last half-decade has been an inability to find teammates who can succeed at least somewhat comparable to Dixon. It’s very hard to come near the win rate of a five-time champion, but the team needs a driver who will be relevant in 2020, and in turn be able to support the No. 9 in the title chase. Dixon has been doing it largely on his own for too long.
Step one was bringing in Felix Rosenqvist, who was the 2019 IndyCar Rookie of the Year. His wheel-to-wheel battle with Dixon at Mid-Ohio alone proved he’s got what it takes to contend, but he also had five other Top 5 finishes. In his second year, with the freshman anticipation in his rear-view mirror and more experience with the team and the series, he should continue to improve.
But then to add a third car for Ericsson was a clear move forward. While his results weren’t as remarkable (his one podium in Detroit was also his sole Top 5 finish), he showed some speed in the 2019 season. And it’s always a test for young drivers to see what they do with the resources and experience of a Big Three team. Some of them just need that extra push to unlock their full potential.
If Ericsson and Rosenqvist both get firing on all cylinders, Chip Ganassi Racing could take on Team Penske head-to-head for the 2020 Astor Cup and re-ignite that wonderful rivalry, which would also light a fire under IndyCar.
2. Penske’s ownership of IndyCar
The biggest headline this winter was Hulman and Company stepping away from their longtime stewardship of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and selling to Roger Penske. Penske, of course, just happens to be the owner of the most successful IndyCar team of the last decade, among many other things in his vast empire. And while much of the initial buzz was about how this might impact Team Penske, the general consensus is it’s a strong step in the right direction for a league that still has a ton of untapped potential.
It’s a cold, hard fact that the NTT IndyCar Series does not get the exposure or attention it deserves. We’ve seen some mainstream attention from Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi’s run in The Amazing Race 30, and James Hinchcliffe as the runner-up on Dancing with the Stars (and Helio Castroneves winning DWTS before that!), but those appearances can only do so much to create new race fans.
One of the most baffling things is the relative anonymity of IndyCar drivers compared to athletes in any other sport. Even in NASCAR, for example, the drivers are celebrities with reality TV shows and video games, and the mainstream media follows them both on and off the track. There’s a fantastic IndyCar community, led by upstanding drivers and team members with great personalities, and yet most people wouldn’t be able to name three drivers.
But Roger Penske has all the tools to fix that and more with IndyCar. He knows what it takes to run a championship-winning race team. He brings the complete perspective: former driver, now team owner, and strategist who’s on the pit stand every Sunday. He’s still one of the most competitive, and classiest, people in all of motorsports. He knows what to do and how to do it the right way—good business that also never loses sight of the racing.
It’ll especially be interesting to see how Penske markets the league and its teams in 2020. Team Penske has been brilliant at coming up with their own marketing ideas, particularly The Penske Games; if that kind of stuff expands to include all of IndyCar this season, there’s no reason our drivers couldn’t turn into well-deserved household names.
3. Will Hinchcliffe and Bourdais return?
Something inside many IndyCar fans died slightly when James Hinchcliffe was tossed out into the cold, replaced at the now-McLaren Arrow SP team by Patricio O’Ward. It was less shocking, but no less disappointing, when Sebastien Bourdais was cut loose from Dale Coyne Racing as well. Suddenly, two of the series’ veteran drivers were without rides for 2020, and well after most of the available seats for this season had already been filled.
It’s slim pickings for either driver if they want to stay in the sport, but IndyCar would be worse off without them both. While both Hinchcliffe and Bourdais finished outside the Top 10 in the 2019 IndyCar season standings, they were still able to each claim a podium finish last season and a few Top 10 race results. Neither man would say last year was their best year, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped being competitive.
Results aside, their absence would certainly be felt in the big picture of the NTT IndyCar Series. They’re personalities we’ve come to love and names we know. Bourdais speaks softly but he’s got a great sense of humor when it has the chance to come out, and Hinchcliffe is one of the fans’ most beloved drivers for his outgoing personality. He puts so much fun into the series, and such genuine love that it makes other people love IndyCar.
If they’re not around, the league will definitely suffer, because it needs to have those high-energy folks like James Hinchcliffe to pull people in and show them why IndyCar is the best racing series in the world.
4. Conor Daly’s move to Ed Carpenter Racing
Around the same time Hinchcliffe got a terrible break, his close friend Conor Daly got a good one. The longtime journeyman was hired by Ed Carpenter Racing to serve as the part-time driver of the No. 20 ECR entry on the road and street courses that owner-driver Ed Carpenter doesn’t compete on. Daly replaces former Ganassi driver Ed Jones, who’s also on the list of people without a ride at the moment.
And there was much rejoicing, because so many people have been pulling for Daly to get another opportunity after A.J. Foyt Racing jettisoned him a few seasons ago. Unlike the Foyt gig, his Carpenter deal isn’t a full-time contract, but it’s still a nice feather in his cap and includes a guaranteed Indianapolis 500 ride. Daly is a talented driver who just keeps getting kicked for one reason or another, whether it’s being on a less than competitive team or just not being able to get his foot in the door.
After what he did in 2019, there’s a renewed buzz around him in the 2020 IndyCar season, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving driver. It will be well worth seeing what Daly can do with a consistent race seat again, and if it goes well, he could also make Ed Carpenter Racing competitive again.
That team has been looking for a new spark of its own ever since reigning IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden left for Team Penske, and this is the fresh start that ought to catapult ECR forward. In that case, everybody wins: Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter, and the NTT IndyCar Series when another two-car team is competitive enough to raise the stakes just that much higher.
Photo Credit: Joe Skibinski/Courtesy of IndyCar. Article content is (c)2020 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr.