Monday, November 30, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: Period of Redemption

Romain Grosjean survived one of the worst accidents we have ever seen. Lance Stroll flipped. Sergio Pérez caught on fire while running third. The Formula Two championship will go down to the wire. Super GT closed its season with a championship coming down to the final corner and the last drop of fuel. Elsewhere, Kevin Magnussen is on the verge of joining Chip Ganassi Racing's IMSA program. The LMP2 grid continues to grow for the 24 Hours of Daytona. Marc Márquez's recovery is taking longer than expected. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Period of Redemption
There is something I have noticed in the North American sports world over the last handful of years, and that is it appears we are living in a period of redemption. Notable champions have come after crushing heartbreak. 

The notable ones have been in college basketball. First, it was North Carolina, who lost the 2016 national championship game on a buzzer-beater to Villanova, returning to the final the year after and defeating Gonzaga. In 2018, Virginia became the first 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed, when the University of Maryland, Baltimore County won by 20 points. Virginia returned to the tournament in 2019, as a 1-seed, and won the championship in overtime over Texas Tech. 

This year saw the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup, one season after Tampa Bay became the first Presidents' Trophy winners, given to the team with the best regular season record, to be swept in the first round. In 2019, Columbus eliminated Tampa Bay in four games. One year later, Tampa Bay was facing Columbus again in the first round and it started with a five-overtime, six-hour epic that Tampa Bay pulled out. Despite this marathon to start its Stanley Cup push, Tampa Bay had enough fire to last two months playing behind closed doors away from their families and earn its second Stanley Cup in franchise history.

After losing the World Series in 2017 and 2018 to two teams who pushed the rules and arguably cheated, the Los Angeles Dodgers earned its first championship in 32 years with pitcher Clayton Kershaw putting his postseason demons to rest. A few years ago, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series a year after losing in seven games to the San Francisco Giants and ending a 30-year championship drought. We also had the Chicago Cubs end its 108-year World Series drought not that long ago. 

Even the New England Patriots bounced back from a Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2018 to win its sixth championship over the Los Angeles Rams in 2019. 

Redemption has not been held to just the United States. France lost the UEFA Euro 2016 Final on home soil to Portugal in extra time despite Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo exiting the match in the 25th minute. Two years later, France won its second World Cup. 

Liverpool ended its 30-year championship drought this past August, but this championship came one season after Liverpool put up 97 points, at the time the third most points a club had ever earned and lost the championship to Manchester City. How did Liverpool follow up such a painstaking title loss? With a 99-point season and clinching the title with seven games remaining, the earliest a Premier League championship has been claimed. 

Let's also not forget to mention that after Liverpool lost the UEFA Champions League Final to Real Madrid in 2018, it returned to the final in 2019 and defeated Tottenham Hotspur.

When looking at how many recent redemption stories in other sports, it got me wondering of whether we have seen any in motorsports of late. 

We had Hélio Castroneves earn his first championship a few weeks ago in IMSA, and while that was not a straight up story of redemption from one year to another, it was a fulfillment of a career. 

Nick Cassidy lost the Super Formula championship on the final day of the 2018 season when Naoki Yamamoto won the finale at Suzuka and Cassidy finished second. One year later, second would be enough for Cassidy in the finale and he took the title after entering trailing Yamamoto by a point. 

IndyCar has hit a period of Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden trading championships, but before that we had a few redemption stories. Simon Pagenaud's 2016 title came after a disappointing first season with Team Penske in 2015, not a horrible season but not a good one either. Will Power's championship in 2014 came after years of heartbreak, including losing the championship after leading entering the finale in three consecutive seasons. In 2012, Ryan Hunter-Reay won the championship after failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 the year before.

Kyle Busch won his first NASCAR Cup championship after breaking his leg and missing the first 11 races in 2015. 

The truth is these redemption stories do not feel the same as other sports. 

It is not that redemption is not possible in motorsports. It doesn't quite match what is seen in team sports. The heartbreak isn't the same. In motorsports, the finale doesn't always decide the championship and it isn't always a case of it coming down to two drivers battling for one spot to decide it all on the final lap. In other sports, you can boil it down to one moment, North Carolina losing on a buzzer-beater, Virginia losing to a 16-seed, Tampa Bay being swept. In motorsports, while you can look at one moment, an entire season makes up a lost championship. 

Taking Cassidy's lost 2018 championship as example, yes, he could have finished ahead of Yamamoto in the Suzuka finale, but he could have earned two more points in any one of three other races. Cassidy was seventh in the Suzuka season opener. A fifth-place finish would have given him two more points and earned him the championship. The Okayama race was rain-shortened, and half points were awarded. Cassidy was fifth at Okayama and instead of getting four points, he only got two. That is another place where those two points could have gone in Cassidy's favor.

We are also in a period of dominance across the motorsports world. In Formula One, it is Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes cleaning up every year. Unless you want to consider Nico Rosberg beating Hamilton for the title in 2016 a story of redemption, it really hasn't happened since Jenson Button and Brawn GP stunned the world in 2009.

Marc Márquez was injured this year, but MotoGP has seen Márquez control the championship pretty much since he arrived in 2013. The exits of Porsche and Audi from LMP1 racing left the championships Toyota's for the taking. While I listed three IndyCar championships above, the last four years have been two drivers trading the title. 

There is also the case where not every champion is a redemption story. Most aren't. That is the case most of the time in NASCAR. Chase Elliott's championship this year was not some sort of redemption. The same can be said of Kyle Busch last year and Joey Logano the year before that. Martin Truex, Jr.'s championship in 2017 could fit the mold, as his was more a career achievement after having periods of poor results and it was a Cinderella story with Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing winning a title. Before that, we Jimmie Johnson wrapping up seven championships in 11 seasons. 

There will be possible redemption stories in 2021. 

In NASCAR, the main one will be Denny Hamlin getting his first championship after two seasons making the final four and coming short. Kevin Harvick will be another possibility after he won nine races in 2020 only not to make the final four and not have a shot at the championship in the finale. 

Alexander Rossi will look to bounce back and get his first IndyCar championship after 2020 saw him go winless for the first time in his career. The same will go for Rossi in the Indianapolis 500 after he was taken out of contention due to a penalty in this year's race.

Marc Márquez's absence due to injury has created a redemption story after he missed nearly the entire 2020 season. It wouldn't be the most shocking result if Márquez won the title, but it would make up for a season lost. 

Formula One is the one place redemption doesn't seem possible next year. With Hamilton's dominance, no one has been hard done. If 2021 were to be Valtteri Bottas' year, it wouldn't really be redemption. It would be Bottas getting his share of success. If Red Bull were to breakthrough, it would be a breakthrough, not really redemption. 

Sebastian Vettel could be looking for redemption after his disastrous end with Ferrari. If Vettel were to win the world championship in his first season with Aston Martin, that would be a redemption story. Vettel doesn't even have to win the world championship to earn redemption. He just has to be competitive. Other than Vettel, most are looking to rock the boat, not to make up for something lost. 

Next year might not bring the redemption stories that feel kind of regular, but everyone will be gunning to be better. We could see the familiar faces remain on top or perhaps someone will earn a championship that means just a little more than if someone else won it.

Champions From the Weekend

The #100 Team Kunimitsu Honda of Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino clinched the Super GT GT500 championship with a victory at Fuji. Yamamoto overtook the #37 Team KeePer'sOM's Toyota of Ryō Hirakawa exiting the final corner when Hirakawa ran out of fuel. Hirakawa would have won the championship had he held on to win the race.

The #56 Kondō Racing Nissan of João Paulo de Oliveira and Kiyoto Fujinami clinched the Super GT GT300 championship with a runner-up finish at Fuji.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Naoki Yamamoto and Tadasuke Makino, but did you know...

Lewis Hamilton won the Bahrain Grand Prix, his 11th victory of 2020. 

Felipe Drugovich and Robert Shwartzman split the Formula Two races from Bahrain. 

The #52 Saitama Toyopet Green Brave Toyota of Kohta Kawaai and Hiroki Yoshida won in the GT300 class in the Super GT race from Fuji. 

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One remains in Bahrain but will run the perimeter circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Super Formula has a doubleheader at Suzuka for its penultimate round of 2020.
Rally Monza closes out the World Rally Championship season.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Best of the Month: November 2020

Thanksgiving has just ended, and we are entering the Christmas season. While preparing for the holidays, purchasing presents, putting up lights and other decorations, there are a lot of races still on the schedule. However, many seasons have come to a close. There have been numerous of championships awarded this month, some on schedule, a few later than planned. There were plenty of good stories to pick from.

Castroneves' Championship
In one of the less ideal situations, Hélio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor clinched the 2020 Daytona Prototype international championship with a last place finish at the 12 Hours of Sebring. This wasn't one of those cases where all Castroneves and Taylor had to do was start the race in the #7 Acura. Honestly, last place was the last thing this team needed to win a championship. 

Castroneves and Taylor opened the season with two consecutive last place finishes. Most years in IMSA that is season over right then and there. With the way the point system is set up, it does not allow much forgiveness to poor results, especially in a class that only features eight cars. 

Somehow, in this crazy 2020 season, three last-place finishes and a second-to-last finish did not prevent the #7 Acura from winning the championship, but Castroneves and Taylor needed all four victories and the one runner-up finish it got in the other five races. It needed team orders and the last lap position swap with the #6 Acura at Laguna Seca to win the championship. 

Nothing wrong with that, as it is a team sport, and after the #6 Acura won the title in 2019, Team Penske did all it could to secure its second consecutive title and it was successful by the skin of its teeth with every break going its way between the #10 Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac needing repairs after contact with the #77 Mazda and the #31 Action Express Racing Cadillac spinning off and being penalized for contact with the #6 Acura. 

After the #7 Acura appeared to have lost the title when the team went back to the garage due to intercooler issues in the first hour, there was a great relief when the checkered flag waved and Castroneves and Taylor came out on top by one point. 

Castroneves could exhale after 20 years of frustration. At 45 years old, his final season with Team Penske, he won the first championship in his career. After many titles lost in IndyCar and close calls in junior formula, this IMSA season was going to be his last great shot at a championship and if there was anyone who deserved a lifetime achievement championship, it was Castroneves. 

It felt fitting for him to get this championship and I am trying to remember the last time we had a champion like this in motorsports. 

Most drivers don't have to wait an entire career for their first championship. Looking over the IndyCar champions, most got their first title with plenty of time left in their careers. Dario Franchitti's first title in 2007 felt like a long-time coming, but he was only 34 years old at the time, 11 years younger than Castroneves now and Franchitti ended up having five more years in IndyCar. Paul Tracy's championship in 2003 fits the criteria somewhat. Johnny Rutherford's only IndyCar championship was in 1980, the year of his third Indianapolis 500 victory, in his 19th season, and at the age of 42.

It almost never happens in Formula One. I guess Jenson Button's championship came after a long and unusual path, but Button was 29 years old. For Button, it was more about finally living up to the expectations the British public set when he broke in at 20 years old. Before that, you have to look back to Nigel Mansell's championship in 1992 at 39 years old after 13 years trying and a handful of years where a title slipped through his grasp.

In NASCAR, we had Jimmie Johnson collect seven titles, but all the champions in-between over the last 15 years have been in the prime of their careers and none of them made up for a career of futility. If Denny Hamlin were to win a championship, he would fit the mold, but it has been a while since NASCAR had that champion. Mark Martin was notable for five runner-up championship finishes and never earning that long-awaited championship. I think NASCAR really hasn't had that type of champion since Bobby Allison in 1983, when he won the title at 44 years old in his 20th season. 

The closest recent example I can think of was when Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Loïc Duval won the 2013 World Endurance Drivers' Championship. For Kristensen and McNish, becoming world champions was a bow on their illustrious careers. However, it was only the second FIA World Endurance Championship season and there had not been a world sports car championship for almost the entirety of their careers. McNish had won three American Le Mans Series championships. Kristensen won Formula Three championships in Germany and Japan. Neither driver needed that WEC champion to complete their careers, but with all of their success at Le Mans and Sebring and in the world of endurance racing, it made sense if those two could call themselves world champions. 

Castroneves' title is to motorsports almost what Ray Bourque's Stanley Cup victory in 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche was to hockey. Bourque had been one of the best defensemen for two decades, but the Stanley Cup remained the one item missing from his résumé. Castroneves had three Indianapolis 500s, 30 IndyCar victories, four vice-championships and been in the top five of the championship 14 times. 

Yes, Castroneves' championship came in sports cars, the second act of his career, but his form never dropped after the switch. His stint in sports car has ended with a hard-earned championship against a slew of talented drivers, maybe against some of the strongest driver combinations North American sports car racing has ever seen. It was the final touch to an already stellar career.

Gavin's Goodbye
While Castroneves' career is not over after his championship success, one driver is taking a significant step back after the 12 Hours of Sebring. 

Oliver Gavin announced prior to the 2020 IMSA finale he would be stepping out of the full-time seat at Corvette Racing, a place he had held since 2002.

Gavin was one of a handful of drivers who will be remembered for donning the Corvette yellow. In a similar image as Jan Magnussen, Johnny O'Connell and Ron Fellows, it felt like Gavin would never leave the American team. Every silly season, when you used pencil to draft every other entry, you could write down Gavin next to Corvette in pen. 

Five is the magic number for Gavin's career. He had five Le Mans class victories, five Sebring class victories and between ALMS and the post-merger IMSA, five class championships. 

He had accomplished it all in sports car racing, and though the 2020 season was not going to have the same championship ending as Castroneves, Gavin was going out on top having been a part of Corvette's resurgence in the debut season for the mid-engine Corvette C8.R. 

We were getting to the point where Gavin would eventually walk away from competition. He is 48 years old. Magnussen was let go after 2019 and he is a year younger than Gavin. Fellows was 49 years old in his final year with Corvette. O'Connell was 48. Corvette has been fair to all its drivers. It has given many lengthy careers and they have all succeeded. Based on the past, Gavin went the distance. He accomplished everything Corvette could have asked and then some. 

It will be sad seeing Gavin not on the grid full-time. Hopefully, he gets a few endurance race opportunities, but we are onto the next wave of Corvette drivers. Antonio García and Tommy Milner will continue to be around. Jordan Taylor has what it takes to carry the next generation of Corvette drivers and all signs point to Nick Tandy replacing Gavin. Tandy is already one of the best in the world and Corvette has made another smart hire. 

Castroneves and Gavin were rivals in the 1995 British Formula Three championship. Gavin took the title while Castroneves was third. Twenty-five years later, Castroneves won his first championship while Gavin ended the GT Le Mans season third in that championship.

More 2020 Tidbits
With another month coming to a close, many championships have concluded and there are some notes from around the world worth sharing. 

A driver that finished last place three of the four IMSA class championships won a championship somewhere else this year. 

Mike Conway was last place in the Daytona Prototype international championship and Conway won the World Endurance Drivers' Championship. 

Alessandro Pier Guidi shared last place in the GT Le Mans championship with James Calado, Daniel Serra and Davide Rigon. Pier Guidi won the GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Championship. 

Nicki Thiim shared last place in the GT Daytona championship with Alex Riberas and Thiim won the World Endurance GTE Championship. 

Joan Mir won the MotoGP championship with one victory. That is the fewest victory for a premier class grand prix motorcycle champion ever. 

Mir also became only the second premier class champion not to have a pole position in a championship season joining Wayne Rainey who did it in 1992.

Austin Cindric won NASCAR Grand National Series championship with six victories, while Chase Briscoe had the most victories in the season with nine. The last time the NASCAR Grand National Series champion had the most victories was in 2009 with Kyle Busch.

René Rast won his third Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters championship in the last four seasons. Rast has won seven races in the last three seasons. He has 24 career DTM victories, which puts him fourth all-time, one behind Mattias Ekström and one ahead of Gary Paffett. Rast is 13 victories behind Klaus Ludwig in second and 22 victories behind Bernd Schneider's all-time record.

December Preview
Formula One season ends after a six-month sprint to complete 17 rounds. 

After this week's Bahrain Grand Prix, the teams will remain at the Bahrain International Circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix, which will take place on the perimeter circuit. It will be the third different configuration of the Bahrain International Circuit to host a Formula One grand prix. The 2.202-mile perimeter circuit will be the fifth shortest to host a Formula One round behind Zeltweg, Long Beach, Monaco and Jarama. It will be an 87-lap race.

A week after the second Bahrain round, the season will conclude from Abu Dhabi. 

Lewis Hamilton could end up with 97 career victories. Hamilton has three Bahrain Grand Prix victories and one more would tie him with Sebastian Vettel for the most in event history. A victory in the Sakhir Grand Prix would be his 29th different grand prix won. Hamilton already has five victories at Abu Dhabi, and it could become the sixth different grand prix Hamilton has won at least six times. 

Valterri Bottas is 27 points ahead of Max Verstappen for second in the championship. Sergio Pérez is now fourth in the championship on 100 points after his podium finish in Turkey. Charles Leclerc is three points behind Pérez and Daniel Ricciardo is four points back.

Carlos Sainz, Jr. sits on 75 points, one point ahead of his McLaren teammate Lando Norris and Alexander Albon is four points back. 

Pierre Gasly sits in tenth on 63 points, four points ahead of Lance Stroll and 23 points ahead of Esteban Ocon. Sebastian Vettel finds himself on 33 points after his third-place finish in Turkey. Daniil Kvyat is on 26 points with unattached Nico Hülkenberg on ten points. Alfa Romeo teammates Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi are tied on four points. Romain Grosjean has two points, one more than Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen. Williams teammates Nicholas Latifi and George Russell are both scoreless.

Mercedes has clinched the World Constructors' Championship on 504 points. Red Bull is solidly in second on 240 points. Racing Point is third on 154 points, five ahead of McLaren. Renault has 136 points, six ahead of Ferrari. AlphaTauri has settled into seventh on 89 points. Alfa Romeo has eight points; Haas has three and Williams is on zero.

Other events of note in December:
Super Formula has three races left, a doubleheader at Suzuka and the finale at Fuji.
The Kyalami 9 Hours might take place.
Rally Monza closes out the World Rally Championship season. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Chip Ganassi Racing's 2020 Season

We have made it to the final IndyCar Wrap-Up and it is the championship winning Chip Ganassi Racing. While Scott Dixon led the way, his two teammates held their own and for the first time since 2014, Ganassi had multiple drivers picked up a victory. After this 2020 season, Chip Ganassi Racing has 13 IndyCar championships and 113 IndyCar victories.

Make that six championships for Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon
In what was already going to be a historic season off the track because of the pandemic, Scott Dixon made sure it would be a historic season on the track as well. Dixon opened with three consecutive victories, something he had never done before. He picked up his 50th victory, becoming only the third driver to reach that milestone. He led the championship wire-to-wire and he became one of four drivers to complete every lap in a season. 

What objectively was his best race?
Dixon picked up four victories, including the first three races of the season at Texas, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the first Road America race. The fourth was at Gateway and it was Dixon's 50th career victory.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is actually a race he didn't win. It is the Indianapolis 500. 

Dixon was the best car all race, and in a season where Dixon had already won three races, finished in the top five for five of the six races and already had a 49-point lead, an Indianapolis 500 victory felt par for the course for him. We knew we were watching a historic season and an Indianapolis 500 victory would have been the cherry to top it off. 

Dixon led 111 laps from second on the grid and it was a tremendous day for him. Late in the race, Takuma Sato leapfrogged ahead of him and Dixon put together a valiant challenge to re-take the lead. Sato foiled each attempt and the late caution for Spencer Pigot's accident ended Dixon's hopes for a late overtake and for he to be the one celebrating his second Indianapolis 500 victory.

It is rare for Dixon to be the best driver in a race and not it. He had the strongest car at Texas and won and he had the strongest car in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and won by a country mile. After Alexander Rossi fell out of contention with his penalty, it felt like Dixon was set for his second Indianapolis 500 victory, but Sato stepped up to the task and took control late. 

In the way Dixon drove, Indianapolis was his best race, but because of the result, you could consider it his worst as well. He has come close to a second Indianapolis 500 victory many times. He is now third all-time in Indianapolis 500 laps led behind only Al Unser and Ralph DePalma. He has eight top five finishes in the race. Already anointed champion before the start of August, it felt like this was Dixon's year for Indianapolis glory, but he will have to wait a little longer.

What objectively was his worst race?
Dixon's worst finish of 2020 was 12th in the second Road America race. Dixon stalled on two pit stops and that dropped him from a certain top ten finish.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Though he was outside of the top ten in only one race, there was a four-race stretch between the Mid-Ohio doubleheader and the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader where Dixon lost significant ground and he wasn't running that poorly. 

He was in the top ten in all four of those races, but his championship lead went from 96 points to 32 points. In all four of those races, qualifying didn't go his way. He was either caught out when a red flag fell or was stuck in traffic. Dixon spun out from fourth in the second Mid-Ohio race after simply clipping the grass. It could have been a day where he secured his championship lead, instead he had to fight back to slow the bleeding and his hard charge from 17th to tenth ultimately saved him seven points.

In the Harvest Grand Prix races, Dixon struggled with tires in the closing stint and fell from fifth to ninth, something uncharacteristic for him. His floor was damaged at the start of the second race and it cost him spots early on, but he rebounded to finish eighth. 

Once again, finishes of tenth, tenth, ninth and eighth were bad days for Dixon. If only we could all be so lucky.

Scott Dixon's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 1st (537 points)
Wins: 4
Podiums: 7
Top Fives: 9
Top Tens: 13
Laps Led: 340
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 9.142
Average Finish: 5.0

A promising start did not go as planned for Felix Rosenqvist

Felix Rosenqvist
For every good day Rosenqvist had in 2020, there was a bad day to cancel it out. While he did get his first career victory, there were too many days where a minor mechanical issue cost him or days where he just didn't have the pace of the top drivers. It wasn't a horrible season, but after his strong rookie outing, it definitely fell flat.

What objectively was his best race?
His first career victory! In a race that would come down to tire strategy, the second Road America race saw Rosenqvist overcome a four-second gap to Patricio O'Ward in the final stint and he made the pass for the victory with a little over a lap and a half to go.

What subjectively was his best race?
That last stint at Road America deserves praise because Rosenqvist had a few opportunities to take the lead early in the race and fell short. However, he kept showing better pace at the end of stints compared to O'Ward and that is when he would make up his time. If he could remain within four or five seconds of O'Ward after that final round of pit stops, he was always going to be a challenger for the victory.

Rosenqvist had to put together a near-flawless 15-lap string of laps to win that race. O'Ward also caught traffic at favorable times for Rosenqvist, but when push came to shove, Rosenqvist was able to take the lead and he earned that victory.

What objectively was his worst race?
Rosenqvist was collateral damage when Santino Ferrucci went off at the start of the second Mid-Ohio race and Ferrucci's return to the circuit in the middle of turn five led to contact with Palou and Rosenqvist. Ferrucci continued but Rosenqvist's day was done and he was classified in 22nd.

What subjectively was his worst race?
There were more down days in 2020 than I think Rosenqvist would have hoped for, but the worst was Texas because it should have been a second-place finish. He was coming alive late in that race and was closing in on Dixon for the lead. I don't think he would have won the race, but he should have finished second. 

He made a risky move on the outside of the lapped car of James Hinchcliffe, got into the stained portion of the race because of the PJ1 traction compound put down for the NASCAR races, which had significantly less grip, and he spun out with ten laps to go. 

It kind of set the tone for his season. Yes, Rosenqvist won three races later, but he was 20th in the first race instead of second. Six of his first seven finishes were outside the top ten. Not all those results were because of the driver, but the number of podium finishes and top five finishes were disappointing. This season was a bit of a sophomore slump when many expected Rosenqvist would backup his seventh-place championship finish from his rookie season.

Felix Rosenqvist's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 11th (306 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 2
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 24
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 9.571
Average Finish: 12.285

Marcus Ericsson's stock is rising after 2020

Marcus Ericsson
The best surprise of the 2020 season might be Ericsson. After stunning many moving to Ganassi after a wonky rookie season, Ericsson showed Ganassi knew what it was doing and improved mightily across the board. While he did not challenge the likes of Dixon, he was equal to his fellow Swede Rosenqvist.

What objectively was his best race?
It was fourth in the second Road America race.

What subjectively was his best race?
This is difficult because Ericsson had a lot of strong days, many of which were him going from the back of the grid to the front.

He used a three-stop strategy to go from 14th to sixth in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. 

He made his way from 16th to fourth in the second Road America race. 

In the first Gateway race, he started fourth, stayed in the top ten all race and finished fifth. 

At the second Mid-Ohio race, he went from 15th to fifth after great pit stops and he had better pace late to get into the top five. 

This was an encouraging year for Ericsson. He needs to improve on his qualifying form, but that didn't stop him from driving to the front. He also didn't get into many accidents, really only one.

What objectively was his worst race?
Ericsson's only accident happened 24 laps into the Indianapolis 500 and that classified him in 32nd, only ahead of James Davison, whose wheel assembly caught fire a handful of laps into the 500-mile affair.

What subjectively was his worst race?
There are two results that do not truly show how well Ericsson ran:

He was 19th at Texas after a fuel probe issue didn't get the car full on what was supposed to be his final pit stop and led him to pit an extra time, dropping him from a top ten finish. 

In the second Gateway race, he had a loose rear wing force him to make a late stop and instead of finishing again in the top ten and possibly in the top five, he finished 23rd, dead last, ten laps down.

Marcus Ericsson's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 12th (291 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 9
Laps Led: 4
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 13.071
Average Finish: 12.071

An Early Look Ahead
Normally, a championship winning team does not shake things up much the following season, but Chip Ganassi Racing has been a bit of a circus. 

With Rosenqvist leaving to join the Arrow McLaren SP outfit, Ganassi has brought in Álex Palou. The team will also expand to four cars as an accommodation for Jimmie Johnson's IndyCar rookie season of road and street course races only. Tony Kanaan will fill the oval portion.

All that shuffling alone is out of the norm for Ganassi, and yet I don't think it will hamper the team all that much. Dixon will continue to be Dixon, even though he is now 40 years old. He will continue to be his consistent self and likely finish in the top three or four of the championship with a handful of victories under his belt. 

However, the one issue that has long followed Ganassi will continue into 2021 and that is Dixon carries much, if not all the weight. The hope that Rosenqvist would be the heir apparent is gone, and it was not because Rosenqvist underperformed, but rather Rosenqvist got poached. Normally, Ganassi does not have to worry about losing drivers. 

That leaves Ericsson, who did well in his sophomore season, but has yet to show the pace of a race winner. Palou is only 23 years old and his rookie season was not that dissimilar from Ericsson's rookie season, but no one is expecting Palou to immediately be a race winner. I think there is still some developing he has to do. The Spaniard could make the same leap as Ericsson did. The two drivers had very similar rookie seasons. Ericsson made a large gain joining Ganassi for his sophomore season. Palou could be poised to do the same.

Johnson is there for fun. He wants results and to be competitive, but ultimately this is a side project. There is no long-term IndyCar commitment, and nor should you expect one from a 45-year-old rookie. This is a two-year experiment and Kanaan is getting a great opportunity for victories late in his career. It is a duo that makes sense and it is another veteran driver around Johnson. 

Think about this: Johnson will have a six-time champion in Dixon, a four-time champion in Dario Franchitti and a one-time champion in Kanaan to debrief with. Add to it the great technical minds of Mike Hull, Mike Cannon and Chris Simmons, and Johnson has surrounded himself with all the right people.

With Kanaan roped into the oval for the #48 Honda, Ganassi can head into the holiday season with all its drivers known and it can firmly focus on the 2021 season. 

As long as the team has Dixon, it will be fine, but a day will soon come where Dixon will not be there and the last seven or eight years have shown us Ganassi lacks that second driver ready to step up when the top driver has an off day. Penske regularly has that and typically has three drivers ready to go. Andretti Autosport has regularly had a good one-two combo. I would say Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is even in a good position, and yet Ganassi continues to struggle to find a second driver to match with Dixon. 

It doesn't hurt now but in the near future the team could be feeling it. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Team Penske's 2020 Season

This is the penultimate IndyCar Wrap-Up and it will be Team Penske. Unable to retain the title, Team Penske put up a strong effort and won its fair share of races in a series that Roger Penske now owns. It again showed from top to bottom it is the best team on the grid, even if it did not take home all the hardware, and the notable pieces went to other entities this season. 

Josef Newgarden's season was close to splendid

Josef Newgarden
After picking up his second championship in 2019, Newgarden looked to make it three titles in four seasons, and while he fell short, Newgarden took the championship defense to the wire, even after it appeared it was settled before the summer came to a close.

What objectively was his best race?
Newgarden won four races this season, the second Iowa race, the second Gateway race, the first Harvest Grand Prix race and the St. Petersburg season finale. 

What subjectively was his best race?
Somebody is going to be sad that Iowa is not on the schedule in 2021 because Newgarden led 214 laps on his way to victory from pole position this year. In his last eight Iowa races, his finishes were second, second, first, sixth, fourth, first, fifth and first. In four races, he led over 200 laps. In another he led over 100 laps and he led 1,150 laps, the all-time Iowa leader. 

At Gateway, he stayed at the front and when he could pounce during the final pit cycle, he did and leapfrogged ahead of Patricio O'Ward. Tire strategy played into his favor in the first Harvest Grand Prix race and he pulled away to victory. In the finale, Newgarden took advantage of the Alexander Rossi's spin, Colton Herta's faulty car and pulled out a victory when he needed a victory, even if he didn't have the best car. Unfortunately for him, Scott Dixon did not falter.

What objectively was his worst race?
Fourteenth in the first Road America race and it should have been his first victory of the season. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
How did Road America go wrong? 

Newgarden was running away with the race. He led 25 of the first 27 laps before he stalled on his second pit stop. He dropped out of the contention for the victory but had a shot at the top five and then he locked up on the tires on a restart. This forced an extra pit stop and what was a certain victory turned into a 14th-place finish. 

It is the only blemish on his season. He was 12th in the first Gateway race, in what was an off race where he was only going to be a top ten car and was caught out after he made a pit stop before the caution for a brief drizzle. Newgarden did not do much wrong this season. 

Unfortunately, one mistake is all it takes to lose a championship. If Newgarden pulled off a podium finish instead of 14th, picked up 39 points instead of 20, he would be champion. One race. That is all it takes and even when you are virtually spotless in the other 13 events, one race can be enough to keep the Astor Cup out of your grasp.

Josef Newgarden's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 2nd (521 points)
Wins: 4
Podiums: 6
Top Fives: 9
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 455
Poles: 3
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 5.5
Average Finish: 5.214

It was tough to gauge Will Power's season at times

Will Power
No driver showed more visible and verbal frustration than Power this season. At times, it came off as a driver unapologetically angry even on his best days, breaking the Team Penske mold we were accustomed of seeing. While misfortunate events cost Power a few results, he had more good days than most and again showed why he is one of the best of his generation.

What objectively was his best race?
Power had two victories, the first Mid-Ohio race and the second Harvest Grand Prix race.

What subjectively was his best race?
When you lead every lap from pole position that is your best race and Power did just that in the second Harvest Grand Prix race. Kudos though to his first Mid-Ohio race, where he led 66 of 75 laps and no one came close to challenging him for victory.

What objectively was his worst race?
Power's season ended with a 24th-place finish at St. Petersburg after slapping the wall exiting turn three. That race had already started poorly when downshifting issues caused him to lose a few spots in the opening laps.

What subjectively was his worst race?
There is a common trend to Power's poor races. 

Start at the front, run competitively, have an obscure mechanical failure or mistake take him out of the running. 

St. Petersburg fits that criteria. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis fits that criteria, where Power started on pole position, he was caught out when Oliver Askew had his accident, he fought back into podium contention and then stalled on his final pit stop. 

He spun out of the first Iowa race, suffered a tire puncture in the first Gateway race after he had led a great chunk early on and he was an afterthought in the Indianapolis 500. 

Ever since his championship season in 2014, Power cannot avoid a handful of bad finishes, especially in races where he is highly competitive. It feels like every season he has two or three victories slip through his grasp and this year was no different. He could have another title if it weren't for these unavoidable strings of results each season. 

Will Power's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 5th (396 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 5
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 292
Poles: 5
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 5.357
Average Finish: 10.142

Simon Pagenaud was good, but good is underperforming at Penske

Simon Pagenaud
Known for his consistency and brilliance, Pagenaud was somewhat off his game this season. It started strong and suggested that he could be a championship contender, but qualifying difficulties plagued his season. He quickly fell out of championship contention and out of the top five in the championship altogether. It ended up being a slightly disappointing season in what would otherwise be a respectable year for any other non-Penske driver on the grid.

What objectively was his best race?
Pagenaud's only victory was from 23rd on the grid in the first Iowa race after he was unable to qualify due to fuel pressure issues. Credit to Ben Bretzman for nailing the strategy to put Pagenaud in the top ten and then caught a caution before making his second pit stop. He also caught a break when the only caution of the night was extended after Rinus VeeKay and Colton Herta got together when the initial attempt was waved off. This allowed Pagenaud to stretch his fuel and pull out a victory.

What subjectively was his best race?
The first Iowa race was special, as was the second Iowa race, because he had to start 23rd in that race as well and finished fourth, but I think his best race was the Grand Prix of Indianapolis 

Pagenaud started 20th, committed early to the three-stop strategy and made up significant ground while a few teams stuck to a two-stop race and others went longer on that first stint. The only caution came at the right time after his second stop and he made up some more ground, finding himself fighting for a podium position and he got third.

What objectively was his worst race?
This team did not have speed at the Indianapolis 500 and he was 22nd purely on speed. Nothing went wrong. Pagenaud didn't have it in his Indianapolis 500 defense.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Indianapolis was bad because it is the race Roger Penske cares about most and when one of his cars is completely uncompetitive that will not be tolerated. Penske will make adjustments when necessary, and Pagenaud's qualifying pace was dreadful this season. 

He started outside the top twenty in five races and outside the top fifteen in eight of 14 races. His prior worst average starting position in a full season was 11.6. He was 4.3 positions worse than that in 2020. While he could overcome that setback in a few races, there were plenty of cases where he could not do better than average. 

Pagenaud was run over in the first Gateway race at the start and that ruined the entire weekend. He spun early into race one at Mid-Ohio and ruined a top ten start and he was completely anonymous in the two Harvest Grand Prix races.

Simon Pagenaud's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 8th (339 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 97
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 15.928
Average Finish: 10.571

An Early Look Ahead
All three drivers will return, and Team Penske will expand back to four cars with three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin making the full-time switch to IndyCar after making his debut at St. Petersburg in October. 

Penske will be fine. The team won seven races this year, half the races, and I am sure the team considers 2020 a disappointment. No Indianapolis 500 victory and the championship went to Scott Dixon, but Penske won half the races, no other team won more than four races, and no other Chevrolet team reached the top step of the podium. 

All three of the returning drivers are still championship contenders. Newgarden has been close to flawless since joining Team Penske with two championships, a second and a fourth. Newgarden is already one championship behind Rick Mears for most IndyCar titles in the history of the Penske organization. Next year will only be his fifth season with the team. He is not going anywhere anytime soon. Power and Pagenaud will continue to be a threat for two to six victories a season. However, only one driver can come out on top in the championship.   

For most teams, two drivers in the top five of the championship and three drivers in the top ten would be a monumental result, but at Team Penske, you could be demoted after finishing fourth place in the championship. Juan Pablo Montoya lost his full-time ride after finishing eighth in the championship. Hélio Castroneves had six consecutive seasons finishing in the top five of the championship and he had been in the top five in nine of ten seasons when he was moved out of the IndyCar program to Penske's IMSA program with Acura. 

The results have to come at a consistent rate and then they have to be better than that. 

I don't think any of the three are in danger, and yet there seems to always be pressure. Newgarden is the safest of all. He doesn't have the harsh luck of Power and he is more consistent than Pagenaud, and Pagenaud is one of the most consistent drivers out there. On top of that, I am not sure there are many other drivers in IndyCar that Team Penske can poach as upgrades over Power and Pagenaud. Scott Dixon isn't going anywhere. Alexander Rossi is early into his contract with Andretti Autosport. Colton Herta has familial ties to Andretti Autosport. Graham Rahal has familial ties to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Patricio O'Ward is still young. Outside of those drivers, I don't think there are any other sensible options on the grid for Team Penske. 

McLaughlin will have some learning to do. He has been good each time he was in an IndyCar. He was impressively quick in testing at Austin in February and after eight months on the sideline, he stepped into the car at St. Petersburg and immediately blended into the field. Though his first few outings were promising, he will make mistakes or find greater difficulty than first expected. He will be presented with scenarios he has never experienced behind the wheel of a race car before and he will be doing it at 13 tracks he has never visited before. We will have to wait and see how this experiment goes. 

Team Penske is out of Supercars. If this does not work out, McLaughlin does not have a fallback plan within the organization. 

Next year will be the same as all the other seasons for Team Penske. It is going to win a lot and it will have multiple drivers in the championship picture. That does not guarantee 2021 will be a successful year for the outfit, but no other IndyCar team can have such a high minimum standard and meet it each season.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Musings From the Weekend: It's Time for NASCAR to Dump Points

This was a quiet weekend in what has otherwise been a noisy and chaotic year. Off-track, Chip Ganassi Racing confirmed its return to sports car racing. NASCAR is allowing 60% of the field into the Clash. The Trucks will be trading Eldora for Knoxville. The Macau Grand Prix happened this weekend with a mostly local crowd, but Rob Huff was still there, and Rob Huff does what Rob Huff does, however, a post-race penalty kept him from having a perfect weekend. MotoGP ended its season in Portugal. Lewis Hamilton will be knighted. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

It's Time for NASCAR to Dump Points
Two weeks removed from another marathon NASCAR season concluding, there are a few thoughts floating around. 

The current system leaves a lot of room to be dissatisfied. A driver can be great for 34 weeks and then have one down performance and be out of it. There are always the defensive arguments that in past systems a driver could be great and not win the championship or win the most races and not be champion, but those seasons were different. There were no resets. NASCAR didn't bring the pack back together. 

If a driver came out on top it was because he had a better 29-race or 30-race or 31-race season than his fellow competitors. That driver might not have won the most races, but the results from two-dozen plus races were better than the rest. The bad days didn't counterbalance the good days. While a rival driver may have taken more trips to victory lane, he might have had just as many finishes outside the top 25. 

Now, if you win a race, you're good until the final ten races. One of 16 playoff spots will be reserved for that driver as long as he is in the top 30 in the championship, which is very easy to maintain. Once in the playoffs, then you have to put together one solid three-race stretches after another. The bar has been lowered. Strategically, a driver who is over 400 points behind the championship leader after 26 races can be champion without having to overcome a 400-point deficit. The system does 90% of the work.

This year, we had Chase Elliott win the championship, but everyone had just seen Kevin Harvick win nine races and lead the champion for 30 of the first 34 races. Harvick broke 20 top five finishes, something no other driver did, and had over 25 top ten finishes, something no other driver did. Harvick completed 9,911 of 9,914 laps. It was an outstanding season. It will go down in the record book as the fifth best for 2020, however it will be difficult to name four seasons that were better.

Prior to his stunning elimination at Martinsville, Harvick had not been lower than third in the championship at any point over the first 34 races. He was technically third in the standings after Martinsville, but because Joey Logano won at Kansas and Elliott won at Martinsville, those two drivers took two championship spots. The other two went to Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski in first and second of points at the end of the semifinal round. 

It isn't so much Harvick dropped because everyone else was better, but a case where a few drivers were better at the right time. Harvick had two stretches where he did not finish in the top ten in consecutive races: Martinsville and Homestead in June and Texas and Martinsville in the semifinal round. 

Now, Harvick ended up 17th at Martinsville going for broke to get around Kyle Busch for ninth and spun out, but a stretch of second, 16th and tenth for a driver with nine victories you would think be enough, and it wasn't. 

People were dissatisfied after Martinsville. Harvick didn't do anything wrong all season. His bad days were no worse than the bad days of any of the four finalists. Harvick had one finish outside the top twenty, a 26th at Homestead. Elliott and Logano each had eight finishes outside the top twenty. Keselowski had three. Hamlin had four.

The totals did not matter, but the timing of the results did, and that remains a difficult adjustment to make.

NASCAR has fully dived into this format. It is not going back to previous formats even though nothing suggests the current system is keeping people's attention or drawing in more viewers. 

However, if NASCAR wants to embrace this, it has to fully embrace it and it has to dump the points system.

As long as NASCAR has a points system and officially keeps track of points standings, we will always have something to discredit the system that NASCAR uses to determine its champion. With a points system, we will always have a 36-race sample size either confirming or dismissing the champion NASCAR has crowned.

If NASCAR wants winning to matter, then have only winning matter. You can still use a playoff format and structure it where playoff victories advance a driver, but it would just make winning over the course of the season more important. 

Let's use this year as an example. 

All the race winners still make the playoffs, easy enough, but that is only 11 drivers and there are 16 playoff spots. Fill those up with drivers who finish second. Can't win a race? At least finish second then, and it would shake up who gets those final five spots. 

Kyle Busch was the notable driver without a victory through 26 races, but he ended up with three runner-up finishes and would have been fine. That would have left four spots open and there were five other drivers with a runner-up finish in the regular season that did not have a victory. 

Like any other tiebreaker, we will take third-place finishes and fourth-place finishes and so on to break that tie. 

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. would get a spot because he was runner-up at Talladega and third at Las Vegas and fourth in the 500-kilometer Charlotte race. Matt DiBenedetto would still get a spot after he was second at Las Vegas and third at Kentucky. Tyler Reddick would be in, as he was second at Texas and fourth at Homestead. The final spot would go to Clint Bowyer, as he was second at Bristol and fifth at Phoenix.

The odd man out? Matt Kenseth. His only top five finish was second in the Brickyard 400. 

With Stenhouse, Jr. and Reddick making it, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch would be on the outside. In the first 26 races, the best Almirola finished was third on three occasions. Busch had two third-place finishes. Both would miss out. Talk about every position mattering. 

How would the playoffs work? 

The three winners from each round advance and then the remaining spots are filled with the drivers with the most victories over the course of the season. That is a large security blanket for those who won races over the first 26 races and it would great incentivize winning races and not letting one or two drivers run away from the field, like we saw with Harvick and Hamlin this year. What if there are more available spots than winners remaining? Just as we filled the spots for the playoffs, take the driver with the best finish from that round. 

After round one, Harvick took two victories, increasing his insurance and Keselowski also added a victory to his total. They advance. All the other race winners from the regular season advance because there were only 11 race winners and 12 spots in the second round. That 12th spot would go to Kyle Busch because he finished second at Bristol. 

In round two, Hamlin and Elliott won races and Kurt Busch's victory now means nothing because he wasn't in the playoffs. Harvick and Keselowski were set with nine and four victories respectively. Logano would be set on two victories, but that would account for five spots, three would be left and there would be six drivers with one victory. 

Round two results break the tie. Martin Truex, Jr. and William Byron both had fourth-place finishes in the round, so they take two spots. Austin Dillon would be out, as his best finish was 12th and Cole Custer's best finish was ninth. 

The final spot in the semifinal round would be between Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman. Both drivers had a fifth-place finish in the round, but Blaney's next best result was seventh while Bowman's was 14th. Blaney advances. 

In this format, there would be the likelihood one driver would have a final four spot clinched before the semifinal round even began, and that would have been the case in 2020. Harvick had nine victories. No one could surpass him. He would clinch a spot in Phoenix and the final three spots would come down to the race winners. Once Kyle Busch won at Texas, Hamlin would have clinched a spot because there would only be two race winners in that round. 

It might sound anti-climactic having three of four spots determined before Martinsville, but there would still be five drivers going into the penultimate race knowing a victory secures a championship spot in Phoenix, and the two drivers that combined to win nearly half the races would be guaranteed a shot for the championship. 

The drama would still exist at Martinsville and the best drivers over the course of the season would clinch a shot at the title. It is arguably NASCAR having its cake and eating it as well.

All that would have changed in a victories-only format in 2020 would be Harvick making it to Phoenix and Keselowski ending up on the outside. Harvick might not have won the championship over Elliott if he made the final four in the Phoenix race, but it would have felt more fitting if Harvick at least had a shot. He did all he could over 35 races, won nine times and the least he deserved was an opportunity. If Phoenix didn't play out in his favor, oh well, but at least the opportunity would have been there for Harvick. That didn't happen this year despite everything pointing to Harvick being more deserving than any other driver. 

Would people hate the elimination of points? Absolutely, but the points don't matter. NASCAR doesn't want the points to matter. Instead of creating playoff points and stage points, it should just focus on victories. Just push victories. Stop making a 12th-place finish matter. Stop acting like a driver salvaged a seventh-place finish when he should have been 15th. Drop stage points, drop playoff points, the only thing to sell is winning the race. It doesn't get easier than that. 

After 15 years of NASCAR changing and tinkering and turning the championship into a three-ring circus, let's cut the bullshit. Make winning the only thing that matters and truly reward the drivers that are best over the entire season.

Champions From the Weekend

Enea Bastianini clinched the Moto2 championship with a fifth-place finish at Portimão.

Albert Arenas clinched the Moto3 championship with a 12th-place finish at Portimão.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Enea Bastianini and Albert Arenas, but did you know...

Miguel Oliveira won his home race, MotoGP's Portuguese Grand Prix, his second victory of the season. Remy Gardner won the Moto2 race, his first career victory. Raúl Fernández won the Moto3 race, his second victory of the season.

Hon Chio Leong won the Macau Grand Prix. Leong is the first Macau driver to win the Macau Grand Prix since André Couto in 2000. This year's race was a part of the China Formula 4 Championship. Leong also won the qualifying race. 

Rob Huff and Jason Zhang split the Guia Races from Macau. Huff was first on the road in the second race but was penalized 30 seconds for causing an accident with Ma Qing Hua. Huff does have ten Macau victories after his triumph in race one. These races were a part of the TCR China Touring Car Championship this year.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One runs the Bahrain Grand Prix about eight months behind schedule. 
Super GT concludes its 2020 season at Fuji.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Andretti Autosport's 2020 Season

We are into the final few IndyCar Wrap-Ups for this season and we are now at the largest team on the IndyCar grid, Andretti Autosport. After absorbing the Harding Steinbrenner Racing operation, Andretti Autosport fielded five cars for 2020. Each driver had remained in the exact same seat he was in for the 2019 season. While there was almost no disruption from year to year, the team started slow and the results were tougher than usual to come by.

Colton Herta quickly became Andretti Autosport's leader

Colton Herta
Now officially under the Andretti Autosport banner, Herta showed no signs of growing pains in his sophomore season. After being masterful in a single-car operation, Herta quickly became the leader of the five-car Andretti program, which included two past Indianapolis 500 winners, a past champion and two of the most experienced drivers in IndyCar history.

What objectively was his best race?
Herta picked up his third career victory at the second Mid-Ohio race, where he started on pole position and led 57 of 75 laps and he led an Andretti Autosport 1-2-3 finish ahead of Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay. It was the first time the team swept the podium since the team's famous 1-2-3-4 finish at St. Petersburg in 2005. 

What subjectively was his best race?
It is probably the second Mid-Ohio race, but I think the two Harvest Grand Prix races deserve a nod. In the first race, Herta led 29 laps and it felt like he was going to pull out a victory, but in the final stint, he did not get the best use out of the alternate tires, lost the lead to Josef Newgarden and slid back to fourth. 

However, the next day, Herta found the balance on the alternate tires and he challenged Will Power in the closing laps for the victory. Power held on, but Herta kept him honest and it was important to see Herta learn from the tribulations the day before. 

What objectively was his worst race?
Herta ended up 20th in the first Iowa race after contact with Rinus VeeKay when a restart was waved off. Herta climbed over the car of VeeKay and took notable air before landing on all four wheels. Both drivers were ok, but both were out of the race.

What subjectively was his worst race?
In the St. Petersburg season finale, Herta had a great chance at victory after Rossi spun out in turn three when he got into the marbles. This set up Herta to take the lead after the pit cycle. The problem was Herta dealt with overboost issues and it bogged him down on the restart. Álex Palou and Josef Newgarden both overtook Herta and a little later Herta locked up and got into the turn four tires.

He was able to reverse and continue the race, but a podium finish was gone and what could have been a victory ended up an 11th-place finish.

Colton Herta's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 3rd (421 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 2
Top Fives: 7
Top Tens: 11
Laps Led: 110
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 2
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 6.214
Average Finish: 7.427

Alexander Rossi experienced just about everything but victory in 2020

Alexander Rossi
A championship hopeful for the last few seasons, Rossi took a few big blows early in the season and immediately put into question whether or not he could compete for the Astor Cup this year. Results remained inconsistent over the middle of the season with an unfortunate set of events at the Indianapolis 500 effectively taking Rossi out of contention. He ended the season strong, but he could not completely shake the hardship.

What objectively was his best race?
Rossi had two runner-up finishes, first to his teammate at Mid-Ohio and then to Josef Newgarden in the first Harvest Grand Prix race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is one of his most painful races: St. Petersburg. Rossi started second and controlled that race, taking the lead early when Will Power was having downshifting issues. Rossi was gone. No one was touching him and he was set to end this season with a victory. 

He had led 61 of 69 laps when he got into the marbles exiting turn three and spun out. It was the final nail in the coffin of a difficult season and Rossi ended up 21st instead of with silverware in hand. 

What objectively was his worst race?
The painful 27th-place finish at the Indianapolis 500 after a penalty for an unsafe release on the pit lane took him out of contention for victory and then led to a spin in turn two.

What subjectively was his worst race?
The only answer is Indianapolis, but there are a handful of races you can go with. 

Rossi made slight contact with Sato exiting his pit box and it landed him a penalty. He immediately went from second to outside the top twenty and pretty much out of contention for victory. Rossi had been Scott Dixon's equal all race and we were set for another late battle involving Rossi. When he was sent to the rear of the field, it felt like a futile effort and doomed to end in disaster, in a race where passing was extremely difficult. Rossi went for broke and ended up in the wall, a spotless Indianapolis 500 record tarnished, and one of the most breathtaking drivers to arrive at the 2.5-mile oval in the 21st century has to wait another year for his second triumph in IndyCar's grandest race. 

Rossi ended up ninth in the championship, but it could have been considerably greater considering all the breaks that went against him. The car wouldn't start at Texas and then when fired he had to start at the back and serve a penalty. Fuel pressure issues took him out of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis when he was in the top ten and could have battled for a top five. He was lost in the first Road America and he was run over before even taking the green flag in the first Gateway race, which basically took him out of contention in the second race that weekend. And then there was the finale and those tricky marbles.

It was not a championship season, but a break at Indianapolis and St. Petersburg and he is in the top five of the championship, perhaps even the best Andretti Autosport driver.

Alexander Rossi's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 9th (317 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 5
Top Fives: 5
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 83
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 2
Average Start: 8.857
Average Finish: 12.142

Ryan Hunter-Reay remained in the top ten for another season

Ryan Hunter-Reay
Andretti Autosport's eldest statesman had a good year, but far from a great year. While Hunter-Reay had a few good days, a few disappointing days were sprinkled in. Despite his seniority in the team, Hunter-Reay was often not leading the Andretti Autosport charge, an unusual position for the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. He was able to hold onto a top ten championship position, but he was holding on for dear life.

What objectively was his best race?
Hunter-Reay rounded out the Andretti Autosport 1-2-3 finish in the second Mid-Ohio race. He had started eighth but worked his way into the top three.

What subjectively was his best race?
The entire Mid-Ohio weekend deserves a shoutout, because in race one, Hunter-Reay started second and finished fifth and he spent that entire race in the top five. The next day he had a smooth drive and deserved third. 

What objectively was his worst race?
Hunter-Reay had two finishes of 22nd. In the second Road America race, he made contact with Will Power and Graham Rahal in the first corner and his race was over. In the second Iowa race, he spun exiting the pit lane and his night was over.

What subjectively was his worst race?
It is the entire Iowa weekend, because he had spins exiting the pit lane on both nights and it cost him better results than he ended up with. To make matters worse, Hunter-Reay was one of the best at Iowa only five years ago and he has not stood out there since.

This was not a spectacular season for Hunter-Reay. Frankly, it felt like a tipping point. He is about to turn 40 years old. He has gone winless for the second consecutive season and for the fourth time in the last five years. He didn't even have the heartbreaking race where he leads a good chunk of the race and then had the mechanical failure that only happens to Hunter-Reay take him out. 

There were weekends where was he just off. Iowa was bad. He was off in all three IMS road course races. The pandemic might have thrown him off. A few drivers had uncharacteristically rough seasons, see Rossi, but Hunter-Reay's results have been too wishy-washy over the last few seasons. 

I don't think his ability is completely gone, but the end is approaching.

Ryan Hunter-Reay's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 10th (315 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 4
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 4
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 8.0
Average Finish: 11.5

Marco Andretti could not catch a break

Marco Andretti
Few drivers had a harder season than Andretti did in 2020. No matter how a race weekend started, something always seemed to trip up Andretti. If things were going well, he would get knocked back a few rungs. If things started poorly, they somehow ended up worse. Andretti had one of the highlights of the season and even that can hardly be viewed as a fond moment from this season.

What objectively was his best race?
Andretti's only top ten finish came in the second Iowa race and he only got tenth on the final lap from Tony Kanaan.

What subjectively was his best race?
It is actually a race where the finish doesn't show how well Andretti did. It is St. Petersburg. Andretti started 23rd, but was making moves up the order and drove into the top ten. He was set to finish seventh or eighth, his best result of the season, and then Takuma Sato got into Jack Harvey and Andretti and Andretti was taken out 26 laps away from the finish, a cruel end to a much crueler season. 

What objectively was his worst race?
Late in the first Harvest Grand Prix race, Andretti lost his engine while in 11th with six laps to go. With no other cars out of the race, he dropped from 11th and maybe sneaking into the top ten, down to 25th, dead-last.

What subjectively was his worst race?
Close your eyes and throw a dart at the wall because about 11 of 14 races fit this category. He ended up 20th or worse in nine of 14 races. He was behind Oliver Askew in the championship, who missed two races and ahead of Zach Veach, who missed the final three races, by only ten points. 

I think what is worst of all is even on the one day it appeared Andretti was going to be good, he was not a factor. He won pole position for the Indianapolis 500, didn't lead a lap and finished 13th and at no point looked to be a threat to lead laps. He slid out of the top five, was anonymous in seventh or eighth and then slipped out of the top ten. For a week, people bought into this being Andretti's best shot to get that historic victory for his family. His grandfather Mario drove the two-seater and his father Michael was a passenger. They had a photo-op moment during the pace laps. The buildup for this year's Indianapolis 500 was some sort of Andretti family redemption story and that storyline died in a matter of moments. 

Marco Andretti's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 20th (176 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 0
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 14.285
Average Finish: 19.285

Zach Veach's career is at a crossroads

Zach Veach
Entering a contract year, Veach knew results had to improve if he wanted a fourth season at Andretti Autosport. The first race went great. Every race from there on was a nightmare. With the results not turning around, Veach stepped away from the car with three races remaining.

What objectively was his best race?
The season opener at Texas saw Veach start fifth, only the second time he had started in the top five in his career, and he finished fourth, matching his career-best finish. 

What subjectively was his best race?
Texas. That is it. He had one good race all season.

What objectively was his worst race?
Veach burned out the clutch in the first Iowa race and was 23rd, dead-last with only 95 laps completed. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
After Texas, Veach had ten consecutive races where he started outside the top ten, nine of which were outside the top fifteen and he had ten consecutive finishes outside the top ten. It was clear Veach's time was running out at Andretti Autosport and after Mid-Ohio, his home race, he vacated the #26 Gainbridge Honda. 

Zach Veach's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 21st (166 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 17
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 0
Average Start: 17.909
Average Finish: 17.09

For a part-timer, James Hinchcliffe was respectable

James Hinchcliffe
Originally set to run three races this season in a sixth Andretti car, Hinchcliffe ended up doubling his number of starts when he picked up the final three races in the #26 Gainbridge Honda. In what was a partial season, Hinchcliffe showed he is not close to being done from full-time competition, but there were a few moments that he probably wishes he had back.

What objectively was his best race?
Hinchcliffe was seventh in the Indianapolis 500, the best Andretti Autosport finisher in that race. 

What subjectively was his best race?
It is St. Petersburg, even though the results does not show it. He qualified fourth and for a good portion of that race it looked like Andretti Autosport was set for another 1-2-3 finish with Rossi, Herta and Hinchcliffe. However... it did not end that way and we will get to that a little further below.

What objectively was his worst race?
Hinchcliffe ran the Texas season opener, but in an additional car for the team. He was 18th in a one-day show and after having no seat time leading up to the first race. 

What subjectively was his worst race?
It is St. Petersburg, because while it was setting up for a 1-2-3 Andretti Autosport finish, Rossi spun out when he was set to inherit the lead and under that caution Hinchcliffe lost it in the final corner, lurched forward and made contact with Jack Harvey. 

Hinchcliffe's possible podium finish was gone with the spin, the contact with Harvey took away any chance to recover and compete for a top five or top ten finish and he ended up 14th.

James Hinchcliffe's 2020 Statistics
Championship Position: 23rd (138 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 1
Laps Led: 3
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 1
Average Start: 12.5
Average Finish: 12.833

An Early Look Ahead
Herta and Rossi will be back, but the other three seats remain unknown.

It is believed Hunter-Reay will return in the #28 Honda, though there has been no word on if DHL will return as the sponsor. Hinchcliffe is the leading favorite for the #26 Honda, though there has been no word on if Gainbridge will return as the sponsor. For some reason everyone expects Marco Andretti to walk away from Indycar in the near-future, even though he is only 33 years old and will not turn 34 years old until a week after next year's season opener at St. Petersburg. 

If any team felt off because of the pandemic, Andretti Autosport was off the most. Between Rossi's horrendous start, Hunter-Reay's lack of results and Veach and Andretti both being woefully behind, Andretti Autosport was down a cylinder for almost this entire season. 

Herta carried the team and his sophomore season ended up being better than his historic rookie campaign. He and Rossi could be the one-two punch that Andretti Autosport hasn't had since Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan were with the team. 

The pieces around Herta and Rossi are suspect. I think Hunter-Reay could have a few seasons left and could get some results, but I think his days as a championship contender are over. He can still be a capable driver, pick up a handful of top five finishes and finish in the top ten more times than not, but with his lack of victories it is hard to imagine he will be able to string together another season with three to five victories, seven to ten podium finishes and no problems. 

Hunter-Reay is still an asset to the team. We saw at St. Petersburg, where he went from 19th to fifth, that he can pick up results from behind, but we are watching the final days of his career. 

Veach had to go and I cannot figure out Andretti. Andretti has days where he is in the top ten in practice and looks competitive and then that pace disappears. I don't think this season is indicative of where he is at as a driver. It always seemed to be something different that would cost him. Between Mid-Ohio and the Harvest Grand Prix, he stared 11th, seventh, fifth and 12th. I don't know why the results didn't match in those cases and we already went over St. Petersburg, where Andretti was on fire until something out of his making took him out. Though it isn't all on him, something has to change in 2021 for Andretti. 

When the results were not coming in at the start of the season, I thought this team should cut down to four cars because five proved to be too much. I am not sure the team is thinking that way and maybe it can make five full-time entries work. 

I expect things to get better in 2021, mostly because of how hard Rossi's season was and Andretti cannot be that far off again. For Andretti Autosport, which is always included in IndyCar's "Big Three" with Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, one victory in a season is not enough. It has also been eight years since the team's last championship. Rossi has had a few close calls with the championship, but it is time for either he or Herta to break the Scott Dixon/Josef Newgarden juggernaut.