The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season was all about the youth movement, with one notable exception in the Month of May. There were four first-time winners, new teams in victory lane, and a second-year driver that was crowned champion. The season was also a welcome return to normalcy after an abbreviated 2020 season that saw races postponed and little to no fans in attendance. The 16-race calendar provided lasting memories, loads of excitement, and plenty of drama.
The young guns of IndyCar were off to a quick start as Alex Palou, Colton Herta, Pato O’Ward, Rinus VeeKay, and Marcus Ericsson won eight of the first 11 races. While the attention was rightfully on the blossoming young talent, many eyes were on the Team Penske foursome of Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Scott McLaughlin. Incredibly, the team did not get their first win until the tenth race of the season when Newgarden won at Mid-Ohio. It was a strange beginning to the season, but one that put the spotlight on the depth of the series.
Like every year, the highlight of the season is the Indianapolis 500 and this one was a home run. The 105th running of the Indy 500 was all about the return of the fans as 135,000 were permitted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to witness the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. In what can only be described as a monumentally historic moment at the speedway, Helio Castroneves finally achieved his goal of joining the four-time winners club. After 20 Indy 500 starts with Penske, Castroneves took Meyer Shank Racing to victory lane at Indianapolis as a one-off entry. It was a euphoric moment as Spiderman climbed the fence once again to celebrate with the fans. Hollywood couldn’t write a better script if they tried.
This season also featured a truly unique rookie class, with a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion, a three-time Australian Supercars champion, and a Formula One veteran who all decided that now was the time for them to join the series. While some had more success than others, all of them were intriguing to watch over the course of the season. They had many obstacles to overcome and were not afraid of the challenges that they were facing, going against a much more experienced IndyCar paddock.
With the 2021 season officially in the history books, it is time to look back at some of the incredible moments and accomplishments that we will not soon forget.
Best Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
Ganassi was clearly the team to beat this season, and everyone knew it. Having a legend like six-time champion Scott Dixon means you always have a chance at the title, and this year was no exception. It has always been the Dixon show ever since Dario Franchitti retired but this year the team was incredibly deep. As a whole, they had their best season when you look at the entire four-car team. Palou winning the championship was the cherry on top, winning three races and scoring the most podium finishes (eight) in the series.
Dixon finished inside the top four of the championship for the 16th time in his career. His nine top-five finishes were highlighted by his win at Texas. He qualified on pole at Indy but his luck was rotten in the race. Palou’s runner-up finish led the way with Kanaan and Marcus Ericsson finishing 10th and 11th. Ericsson had a breakthrough season, scoring his first two career wins. He had a solid 11th place finish at Indy and recorded nine straight top-ten finishes after that. Palou, Dixon, and Ericsson were all inside the top five of the standings entering the season finale at Long Beach.
Jimmie Johnson showed massive improvement from his first few races until the checkered flag waved at Long Beach. He should be even better heading into next year, which could potentially be a full-time schedule. That would mean possibly running a fifth car for the team for Tony Kanan, who did well in his four starts this season in the No. 48 car. The Brazilian completed 918 of 920 laps and finished 11th and 15th at Texas, 13th at Gateway, and recorded his 11th top-ten finish at Indianapolis.
Honorable Mention: Arrow McLaren SP
Most Disappointing Team: AJ Foyt Racing
Two weeks ago this had Andretti Autosport written all over it. That is until Herta put on a show at Laguna Seca and Long Beach. His three wins and three poles were their saving grace, as the rest of the team continued to struggle. Alexander Rossi went without a win or a pole for the second consecutive season. Since going full-time in 2008, this was the first season in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s career that he did not get a podium finish. The James Hinchcliffe reunion could not have been worse, as he was consistently at the back of the field and finished 20th in the final standings. Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Hinchcliffe combined to lead a total of six laps this season.
Team Penske was also up for consideration here, as their four-car lineup was surprisingly absent of victory lane through the first nine races of the season. Newgarden finally broke through and the floodgates opened, but Pagenaud finished winless once again and McLaughlin’s rookie season didn’t quite live up to expectations. The RLL Racing team didn’t score a win this year either but Graham Rahal was consistent and their third car was always near the front of the field.
The highlight for Ed Carpenter Racing was obviously VeeKay’s win on the IMS road course. He had a solid start to the season but after breaking his collarbone after the Belle Isle race weekend, his best finish in the remaining eight races was 16th. Conor Daly was never able to find the right combination of pace and luck in the No. 20 car. He never earned a top-ten finish but he led 40 laps at Indianapolis before Rahal’s tire struck his car. Carpenter himself did well and recorded his third top-five finish at Indy.
While there are many worthy candidates for this award, the team that seemed to disappoint the most was AJ Foyt Racing. Though we have heard it for many years, this was supposed to be the year they finally turned things around. With Sebastien Bourdais on board full-time and Charlie Kimball providing more experience, the retooled race team should have improved. Bourdais kept getting hit in the rear, Kellett continued to just ride around, and Kimball wasn’t fast enough to qualify for the Indy 500. More changes are on the horizon for this team, as they keep trying to improve.
Honorable Mention: Ed Carpenter Racing
Most Disappointing Driver: Alexander Rossi
After a dismal 2020 season that saw Rossi finish ninth in the final standings, the 2021 campaign went even worse. He ended last season on a high note and collected five podium finishes but had just one of those this year. Despite not earning a pole, he started on the front row four times but always had something happen that took him out of contention. Indianapolis was supposed to be the place where he could get back into it but he finished 29th after a 27th place result last year. He and Dixon ran out of fuel during an ill-timed caution, which up them multiple laps down to the leader.
Rossi’s string of bad luck this season is almost comical. Some incidents were simple misfortune (Indy), some he was taken out before the race even started (Texas) and others he just made a minor mistake (Gateway, Portland) and he wasn’t able to recover. While some have begun to question whether Rossi is actually one of the top drivers in the series, his six victories and 19 podium finishes in his first four seasons were no fluke. Expect the American to regain his form next season, and for the entire Andretti stable to follow suit.
Honorable Mention: Simon Pagenaud
Best Finish: Detroit Belle Isle Race 2
After a somewhat strange race on Saturday, the Sunday show in Detroit was simply electric. Newgarden had a firm grip on the race, leading the first 67 laps on the bumpy street circuit. After a late restart, it was O’Ward who was a man on a mission. The Arrow McLaren SP driver made a sensational pass on Newgarden with three laps remaining to secure his second win of the season after starting in 16th position.
Grosjean’s car caught fire 11 laps from the finish and the rest of the race was just as hot. O’Ward lined up in 5th on the final restart and made his march forward. Daring move after daring move, he found his way around them all. O’Ward was the only driver to finish on the podium in both races at Belle Isle. Saturday he qualified on pole and the win on Sunday moved him into the points lead heading into Road America.
Honorable Mention: Road America
Most Dominant Drive: Colton Herta, Laguna Seca
With apologies to Dixon, this award belongs to Herta. In the first race at Texas, Dixon dominated by leading 206 of the 212 laps. It was his only win of the season but he completely ran away with it. As good as that is, dominating two non-oval races is even more impressive. That is exactly what Herta did at St Petersburg and Laguna Seca.
In the second race of the season, Herta started from pole position and led 97 of the 100 laps in the Sunshine State. In the second-to-last race of the season, Herta again started on pole and cruised to victory by leading 91 of the 95 laps in Monterey. Both were phenomenal drives by the second-generation driver, who has won four out of the last five races in which he started from pole position.
Honorable Mention: Scott Dixon, Texas Race 1
Biggest 2020 Turnaround: Alex Palou
There are typically a few good candidates for this award each season, but this year was a no-brainer. Palou went from finishing 16th in the standings last year as a rookie, to winning the championship this year – winning three races, eight podiums, and a pole. Those numbers would likely be even better had his engine not expired on the IMS road course and if he didn’t get taken out by VeeKay at Gateway. Still, he led laps in half of the races this season, to the tune of 137 total laps. Compare that to last year, when he led just one lap all season.
Obviously, going from Dale Coyne Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing is a major step up. Forget a step, it is more like an entire staircase. Still, we have seen capable drivers in this No. 10 car before, and none of them have come even remotely close to what Franchitti was during his worst days. It was an upgrade with the team, the car, but also the driver. Palou has demonstrated his talent in the cockpit, and also showed incredible composure and calmness while under pressure.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Ericsson
Best Pass: Rinus VeeKay, GMR Grand Prix
There were several on-track moves that had fans on the edge of their seats, but this was one spectacular move by VeeKay as he threaded the needle to perfection. VeeKay went on to win the race, leading 33 of the 85 laps that day. He would have one more podium finish two races later but unfortunately, it was all downhill from there, as he just wasn’t the same driver after returning from his broken collarbone.
Honorable Mention: Pato O’Ward, Belle Isle Race 2
Best Non-Indy 500 Race: Road America
Aside from being the most scenic and gorgeous race track on the calendar, Road America has just about everything you could want in a race weekend. This year was further proof as there was seemingly something happening on every lap. It started on Saturday when Dixon had trouble in qualifying. He would start 13th on the grid and worked his way up through the field and nearly landed on the podium in typical Dixon fashion. Grosjean had another top-five finish, Rossi had a solid 7th place result, and Max Chilton earned his first top-ten finish in nearly four years.
The battle up front was exceptional, with Newgarden once again putting a stranglehold on the rest of the field. For the second weekend in a row though, the No. 2 Chevrolet saw another car scream by him in the closing laps. A mechanical issue took him from the lead to 21st in the blink of an eye. Palou capitalized and became the first Ganassi driver (besides Dixon) to win multiple races in a season since 2011. This was also the IndyCar debut for Kevin Magnussen, who filled in for the injured Rosenqvist. The former Formula One driver led six laps before he lost all power in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren machine on Lap 33 of the race.
Honorable Mention: GMR Grand Prix
Best Moment: Indianapolis 500 Celebration
Nothing could possibly top the insane celebration that took place on the front stretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Helio Castroneves finally joined the four-time winners club. Both he and team owner Mike Shank were elated as they climbed the fence to celebrate with the fans, who returned for the first time after the 2020 race was held without spectators. It was pure jubilation as the crowd went into a frenzy when Spiderman finally achieved his goal.
It was a day that will be talked about for decades. The story gets even better as Castroneves will be returning again next year, in a full-time capacity with the team. It will be his first full-time season since 2017 as he aims to make even more history in 2022. This will be the first Indianapolis 500 since 1992 that a driver in the field will have the opportunity to win a record-breaking fifth Indy 500.
Honorable Mention: Pato O’Ward first career win (Texas)
Biggest Heartbreak: Graham Rahal, Indy 500
Things were setting up quite nicely for Rahal in the second half of the race. He had the car to win the Indianapolis 500, making excellent fuel numbers and showing competitive pace until it all ended on Lap 118. Rahal was on course to make one less pit stop than any other driver, but a botched pit stop ended his hopes of drinking the milk. The left-rear tire was not attached properly before he was released from his pit box and eventually came off as the No. 15 Honda spun into the turn two wall.
Honorable Mention: Josef Newgarden, Road America or Will Power, Detroit
Mr. Consistency: Marcus Ericsson
Lost in the incredible season that Palou had was the performance of his teammate in the No. 8 car. Ericsson was winless and had just one podium finish through his first two seasons with the Ganassi team. This year, something clicked and he had a breakout season capped by two race wins and four total podium finishes. He led laps in four different races and was poised for a top-five finish in the championship before he was snake-bitten on the streets of Long Beach.
The numbers for Ericsson this season truly were magnificent. He finished inside the top-ten in the first two races, had another top-ten on the IMS road course, then finished 11th in the Indy 500. Since leaving Indianapolis, he rolled off nine consecutive top-ten finishes, which included both wins and a runner-up finish at Mid-Ohio. His 9.1 average finish was fifth-best this year, trailing only the top four drivers in the championship.
Honorable Mention: Graham Rahal
Funniest Moment: Calling His Shot
VeeKay called his shot before the GMR Grand Prix, with a witty response to a question on Twitter. He delivered by earning his first career win.
Honorable Mention: Scott McLaughlin’s missing keys
Best Rookie: Romain Grosjean
While McLaughlin won the Rookie of the Year award by collecting the most points, he was also the only one of the three rookies that participated in every race. Grosjean finished three points behind him but essentially competed in four fewer races, factoring in the double points awarded in the Indy 500. To McLaughlin’s credit, he was the only full-time driver this season to finish every race, and only Pagenaud completed more laps than he did. If you’re Roger Penske, that is what you’re looking for in a rookie.
Johnson was the one with the hardware but the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion was not the star of the show. Grosjean had the spotlight everywhere he went, and for good reason. The former Formula One veteran dazzled on the road courses, putting together masterful performances on the IMS road course with two runner-up finishes and his first career pole.
Grosjean led 53 laps this season, across four different tracks. His first foray into oval racing at Gateway was also sensational to watch. His third podium came at Laguna Seca when he began slashing through the field late in the race. His wheel-to-wheel contact with Johnson in the corkscrew was must-see television and the fans absolutely loved him. More success is coming his way as he takes over the No. 28 car at Andretti next season.
Honorable Mention: Scott McLaughlin
Best Helmet Design: Helio Castroneves
Castroneves has always had clean designs on his helmets, and this year’s design was breathtaking. The red and black Troy Lee Designs lid looked great inside the cockpit, and even better as he climbed the fence at Indianapolis.
Honorable Mention: Rinus VeeKay
Best Livery: Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP
The American Legion livery that Ganassi used for multiple races with Palou and Kanaan was very well done. I also thought the colorful blue and white PPG machine for McLaughlin was another excellent choice for Team Penske. One car that fans seemed to be split on was the matte black and white RoKit machine for Bourdais and AJ Foyt Racing, which I thought looked incredible.
Above all, it’s hard to beat the black and orange color combination that Arrow McLaren SP had on the No. 5 car of O’Ward. It is sleek, has a great design, and looks sensational when the light hits it just right. Power’s black and red Verizon car was sharp as well, especially with the red Firestone tires mounted.
Honorable Mention: Scott McLaughlin, PPG livery
Best Indy 500 Livery: Conor Daly, Ed Carpenter Racing
The Month of May featured several good candidates, with RLL’s HyVee/Mountain Dew colors and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s beautiful blue and white livery with AES Indiana sponsorship. The Arrow McLaren SP cars were fantastic as well, with Rosenqvist’s tiger pattern and Juan Montoya’s throwback. Speaking of throwbacks, both Rahal and JR Hildebrand had some gorgeous-looking cars that were a tribute to Buddy Rice and AJ Foyt.
In the end, I could not ignore the historical context and the pure badassness of Conor’s No. 47 ECR machine at Indy. The livery is a salute to the Tuskegee Airmen’s P-51 Mustang used during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the United States Air Force. They flew more than 15,000 sorties during World War II in Europe and North Africa. It was almost a storybook ending for the Air Force-themed machine on Memorial Day weekend, as Conor led the most laps (40) in the Indy 500 before his day was marred by Rahal’s stray tire striking the nose of his car.
Honorable Mention: Felix Rosenqvist, Indy 500 livery
Congratulations to Palou and the entire Chip Ganassi Racing organization on their 14th championship season.