By: Tanner Watkins and Spencer Neff
March 13, 2020 | 10:00 AM
As the calendar turns to March and the freeze of winter begins to melt away, the streets of St. Petersburg will begin to buzz once again with the sights and sounds of open-wheel racing. IndyCar is finally back!
Open-Wheels is proud to kick off its seventh season of NTT IndyCar Series coverage, aiming for even more interaction, content, and coverage for the world’s best motorsports fans.
Thanks to all of you who have supported us – especially over the last three seasons in our re-boot, which has seen the site soar to new heights. A thank you to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is in order, as well, for the resources and access they provide us to effectively do our job.
Now that all of that conversation is out of the way, let’s get down to business today: It is prediction time!
Each year, we have taken the time to (try) and predict key events in the IndyCar season – such as the series champion, Indy 500 winner, and more. We are back with that again, offering our opinions and outlook on the year below.
Give it a read, compare it to your thoughts for 2020, and engage with us on social media! IndyCar is back folks, and we couldn’t be happier.
2020 IndyCar Champion
Spencer Neff: Simon Pagenaud entered May of 2019 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with several questions about his future. Following a thrilling win at the IndyCar Grand Prix and a dominant pole to win performance at the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Although Pagenaud won just once during the remainder of the season, he did finish second in points to teammate Josef Newgarden. This year, Pagenaud could get off to a hot start as Newgarden did in 2019 and propel himself to his second title.
Tanner Watkins: Since 2008, only one driver has won the championship that did not drive for either Chip Ganassi Racing or Team Penske. That was Ryan Hunter-Reay back in 2012, and I think this year could be the year we see a breakthrough.
Many expected Alexander Rossi to take that next step in 2019, and he came up a couple of spots short in the final standings. I have (somehow) picked the last two series champions correct, so let’s keep that mojo rolling here. Alexander Rossi for the title in 2020, and Andretti Autosport breaks the Ganassi/Penske stranglehold up top.
Indianapolis 500 Winner
Neff: Along with Team Penske’s domination at IMS, Ed Carpenter Racing’s namesake has been up at the front of the field during much of the first two years of the UAK-18 (Universal Aero Kit) era.
In his 16 previous tries, the stepson of former IMS CEO Tony George has won three poles and picked up two top-five finishes at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. 2020 could be the year for the driver of the No. 20.
Watkins: The last two years I have taken big swings at the “500” prediction, with Helio Castroneves in 2018 and Marco Andretti last year on the 50th anniversary of Mario’s win. Those didn’t pan out, so let’s tame things a bit.
Actually, who am I kidding? I love the chaos. We are getting weird here.
I won’t pick a race winner, per se, but I think this is the year that we get another Indy-only or part-time entry as a winner. The last time we saw it was with the late Dan Wheldon in 2011, and something tells me we are primed for another upset.
Part-timers running the “500” this year will include Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, James Hinchcliffe, Fernando Alonso, Sage Karam, Ed Carpenter, Spencer Pigot, and once officially announced, James Davison and Sebastien Bourdais.
That is one hell of a list of talent and experience that could see a breakthrough this May. One of them will win on May 24.
Rookie of the Year
Neff: This may actually be the hardest prediction for me to make. With Dale Coyne Racing’s Alex Palou, Arrow McLaren SP’s Oliver Askew and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay debuting in 2020, the case could be made for any of the three drivers to win the honor.
Ultimately, I will go with Askew. Although the offseason changes for his team will be worth watching, he has shown plenty of talent and I think will ultimately top this year’s class.
Watkins: Of these three rookies Spencer mentioned above, I think Askew is the most complete driver at the moment. Palou has a ton of experience as well, and VeeKay could be the quickest – though a little raw. It is a tough choice between the three of them, for sure.
In the end, I think Askew will be the most consistent and has the best team behind him out of the rookie crop of drivers. Patricio O’Ward, his Arrow McLaren SP teammate, will certainly push him as well to help expedite Askew’s development.
Neff: Following a rookie season in which he showed progress, Marcus Ericsson jumped into a third entry with Chip Ganassi Racing.
With 2019 Rookie of Year Felix Rosenqvist and five-time champion Scott Dixon as teammates, the potential for additional improvements in performance and results is certainly there. If things go well, Ericsson could certainly be in the mix for podiums and potentially a race victory.
Watkins: For those in the industry, this may not come as a great surprise, but I feel the Meyer Shank Racing team with Jack Harvey at the helm just isn’t getting enough run at the moment.
The MSR outfit has methodically worked their way into the IndyCar fold over the last three years, finally going full-time in 2020. Jack has been the perfect fit for this team’s foray into the NTT IndyCar Series, and he rewarded Mike Shank with a podium run at last May’s Indy Grand Prix.
If Meyer Shank can continue to steadily improve just as they have since 2017, the team has a legitimate shot at winning a race in 2020.
Neff: With two wins and three poles, Colton Herta made his mark on the NTT IndyCar Series during his rookie season in 2019.
For 2020, he moves to Andretti Autosport to form a five-car full-time team. Herta’s talent is unquestionable and he will be a contender throughout 2020 but expecting a repeat of 2019 may be a bit much.
Watkins: Earlier in the year, it was announced that qualifying boost would rise for Indianapolis 500 qualifications – pleasing fans all across the nation in search of quicker speeds in May. I don’t think we should be getting our hopes up in terms of approaching any speed records at IMS any time soon.
The boost increase is likely just enough to offset the additional weight added to the cars with the Aeroscreen part of the 2020 package, plus maybe an extra mile per hour on last year’s pole speed of nearly 230 mph.
I think we could be in that 231-232 mph range for 2020, but anything north of that will take some grippy track conditions and big risks from the race teams, which I don’t see happening.
Neff: Since taking part of the broadcast schedule in 2009 (as Versus), NBC Sports Group has done an excellent job. Last year, NBC and NBCSN took over the full schedule for the first time.
Despite their efforts, there is one area I could see NBC improving on – the scheduling. As was the case in 2019, eight races will be broadcast on NBC and nine on NBCSN. The first four events and each non-Indianapolis 500 oval will be broadcast on NBCSN.
For 2021 and beyond, I hope IndyCar and NBC reconsider the schedule formatting. Not having the opening four races on broadcast television shrinks the audience that the sport could reach early on in the season.
As for the lack of ovals on NBC, IndyCar’s main selling points have often been the diverse schedule it runs and its oval-based heritage. Although NBC’s broadcast slate features road and street courses as well as the Indianapolis 500, several marquee events are left off of network television.
Historic events like Long Beach and Toronto – as well as thrilling, newer venues like Iowa Speedway and Barber Motorsports Park – could provide new viewers a chance to see what longtime fans have grown to love about IndyCar.
Watkins: In my years as an open-wheel racing enthusiast, I can’t remember a better time period for IndyCar’s optimism and future than what we have experienced since 2016.
The 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 kicked things off with a sellout crowd and a surprise winner, who has turned into a star and future face of the series. The “500” has continued to thrive with J. Douglas Boles as the helm as Speedway president, and Roger Penske’s purchase of IMS will only rise that tide higher in the coming years.
Furthermore, IndyCar has a deeply-committed partner in NBC Sports. Admittedly, their network television schedule could use a little bit of work, but we have seen more promotion and out-of-the-box thinking from NBC in one year than the last decade spent with ESPN and ABC.
Couple this with a new engine formula coming down the line, and eventually, a chassis which will more fluidly integrate an Aeroscreen device, and things are continually looking up for IndyCar. The only folks who don’t agree are the same ones fighting battles from the 1990s, and they will never be pleased.
We have it pretty good at the moment. It’s time to get excited because cars are back on track this weekend, and all will be right with the world once again!
Header image by Karl Zemlin/INDYCAR.