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An IndyCar era begins: What to watch for in Part Two of 2024

Written by Archie O’Reilly


There were mixed emotions for the IndyCar field as they headed away from Laguna Seca - the eighth race in a 17-race season and the conclusion of ‘Part One’ of the 2024 campaign. The chequered flag at Laguna Seca drew to a close an era of IndyCar as the series’ hybrid era beckons next time out at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. 


The championship fight is finely poised - 32 points splitting the top three in a field as tightly-packed as ever - heading into the second segment of the year, which is filled by six oval races across the final nine events. Alex Palou leads from Will Power and Scott Dixon for now but there is lots to watch for across the coming months…


What could change in the hybrid era?


There are plenty of questions yet to be answered ahead of the hybrid power unit debuting in IndyCar competition after a rigorous test programme across all forms of track since last August. It has reached a stage where reliability is very strong but teething problems may be inevitable and there remains an argument that it could alter the competitive picture.


There has been an imbalance between the teams that have tested, with Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Arrow McLaren and Andretti Global completing the bulk of the work. Those with less testing time may well have a tougher time adapting to utilising the hybrid system, while it is more likely to be closer to second nature to those who are already more familiar.


The main championship contenders have all tested the hybrid more than the majority of their competitors so it should not alter the championship complexion too much. But there will yet be a test of who can get up to speed in race conditions the quickest, even if there is an expectation that any swings will not be major.


The new technology does promise even further improved racing to add to the current entertaining product. The ability to regenerate and redeploy energy for added horsepower at no race-long limit, in addition to the existing time-limited push-to-pass system, should add more control for drivers through a further strategic element to their overtake options.


Whether there will be any noticeable difference from the outside is unclear, with some drivers suggesting the current horsepower boost is not massive; it is expected that more development will be undergone in the coming years. But the added options should make drivers busier in the cockpit to possibly offer an added edge.


Will Palou get his first oval win?


Palou may head into the second part of 2024 in the lead of the championship but his buffer is significantly less than that of in excess of a race victory as in 2023 ahead of only three late-season oval races. This year, still chasing a maiden oval win, both Power and Dixon are firmly within touching distance of Palou.


The Spaniard has cracked the formula to success on high-speed ovals and an Indianapolis 500 win seems an inevitability at some point in his career given a number of near-misses in his early IndyCar career. But the late-season swing this year consists of short ovals - weaker for Palou - and the more intermediate Nashville track.


Compared to five superspeedway top-five finishes, Palou’s only top-five result on a short oval came with his maiden short oval podium in the second race at Iowa Speedway last year. 


Given Team Penske’s recent dominance on short ovals, with Power leading the standings in their colours, and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dixon’s vast experience, challenging for oval victories will be crucial if Palou is to win his third championship in five years.


With three road or street races remaining compared to the six oval events, and with no guarantee that Power will not also be a factor for a further road or street course win, Palou will have to go beyond just damage limitation on short ovals this year. Otherwise, Power could well surpass Palou with Dixon also looming after his Gateway win last year.


A consistent top-10 finisher, Palou has by no means been poor on short ovals. But becoming a contender for victories, which his trajectory suggests could yet be the case this year, is a necessary step as he bids for successive championship wins. 


With Power’s Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin also consistent frontrunners on short ovals but further back in the standings at this stage, Palou will have to be wary of having points snatched off him by other contenders for race wins. There is a sense he will have to be at least consistently in the top five if Penske’s oval form persists.


He will almost certainly be there or thereabouts in the remaining road and street events. But more crucial will be whether Palou can finally break his oval duck. That could well decide the 2024 championship.


Can Power capitalise on Penske’s oval prowess?


Penske have won nine of the last 12 oval races. And it could easily have been 10 from 12 if not for a car failure denying Newgarden a sweep of the Iowa doubleheader in 2022 - something he would achieve last year as the back-to-back Indy 500 winner spearheads Penske’s oval charge.


On short ovals, Penske have been more or less unstoppable, with 11 wins in the last 13 events on that particular track type. And while Newgarden has taken the bulk of these victories, Power has often been in close pursuit in these oval events; in each of the last two years, he has taken both poles for the Iowa doubleheader.


With the margin to Palou ahead only 23 points, a continuation of the recent oval trend for Penske - shown this year on the longer 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a front row lockout for the Indy 500 - could put Power in the championship driving seat. 


A repave at Iowa and returns to the Milwaukee Mile and Nashville Superspeedway after extended periods away do cast some jeopardy for Penske. But the degree of their oval prowess - even if Ganassi, led by Palou and Dixon, are not to be underestimated by any stretch - suggests they should still master the challenge.


It has been a much improved year for Power after the removal of the off-track distraction that was a life-threatening illness to his now-recovered wife Liz last year. In many ways, 2024 feels like the true attempt to defend his second IndyCar Series crown from 2022. 


To be in a title fight after last year’s adversity is testament to Power’s resilience.


Penske have also shown drastically improved road and street course form and Power has taken advantage of this. He made only one Fast Six appearance out of 12 road and street races last year but has already surpassed this with four appearances in seven attempts this year - including three top-three starts and in addition to starting second for the Indy 500.


Away from an Indy 500 crash, Power has finished no lower than seventh, has sat on the podium four times and ended a two-year winless run with a poignant victory at Road America. 


Given this remarkably consistent form on road and street courses and with the oval run to come, plus his restored level-headedness, it feels as though Power is well-placed for a third title.


Can Newgarden and McLaughlin claw back?


Ever since being disqualified from the season opener in St. Petersburg, it has been an uphill climb for Penske duo Newgarden (winner of that race) and McLaughlin (third-place finisher). 


Newgarden has won the Indy 500, finished second at Road America and picked up fourth at Long Beach; otherwise the two-time champion has finished 16th or lower in every race. McLaughlin won at Barber Motorsports Park but has recently made errors in Detroit and at Laguna Seca that have dropped him down the order. 


As a result, McLaughlin is 97 points back from the championship lead and Newgarden 104 behind. Without the St. Pete issue, and for McLaughlin a mechanical issue the following race at Long Beach, both could viably be in the championship fight at this point.


But do they still have a chance? With Penske’s oval form so impressive of late, the pair will likely be contending for wins in each of the six oval races unless anything goes awry compared to the recent trend. 


Newgarden has won six of the last seven oval races - and could have won eight of the last nine if not for his 2022 Iowa issue - with McLaughlin often second-in-command as he searches for his long-awaited first oval success. But they will also be relying on things going awry for those presently at the head of the standings.


It would take a herculean effort and some rather extreme circumstances to topple teammate Power, who is currently 74 points ahead of McLaughlin and 81 clear of Newgarden, in essentially the same machinery. And beating Palou and Dixon, as well as other proven oval drivers such as Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi, would be a necessity in each oval event.


It is ultimately hard to see a world in which everything aligns for Newgarden or McLaughlin to become serious championship factors, even if one or both of the pair take multiple wins. It would require bulletproof consistency along with the flailing of currently seven rivals ahead.


But their likely charge is certainly one to watch. Because in this sport, who knows?


Will Dixon be an end-of-season factor?


One of the toughest things to evaluate is how Dixon may end up rounding out the season. He has seemed to lack the peak performance of the likes of teammate Palou in recent years but, at any given time, the slightest circumstance in a race can be turned into an opportunistic victory of supreme management from the six-time champion. 


Dixon started 2024 quicker than any season since he was victorious in the opening three races en-route to his last championship win in 2020. He has two wins to his name - both coming inside the first six races - at Long Beach and in Detroit, with each of his three successes last year coming inside the final four races. 


The Kiwi has tended to end seasons better than he starts them. If that trend continues into 2024 with the addition of two early-season wins, then there is every chance that Dixon could yet win a record-equalling seventh championship this year.


He will have to fend off the Penske drivers during the oval swing, as well as any others that may be a threat across those six races. But Dixon went off-strategy to spectacularly win the Gateway event last year and is another consistent top-10 short oval finisher, with no finish lower than sixth in the recent four Iowa events.  


He also won at Gateway in 2020 and was a second-place finisher at Iowa as recently as in 2019 then post-aeroscreen in 2020.


Aside from his wins in 2024, Dixon has not held the same consistency as last year; in 2023, he finished no lower than seventh apart from being forced to retire in Long Beach. He has had errant finishes at Barber (15th) and Road America (21st) without any major factors outside of his control.


Otherwise, Dixon has again finished no lower than seventh. But he will have to maintain this level of consistency without any fall-off if he is to supersede Power and teammate Palou. And if Ganassi are not able to match Penske on the ovals, the final three road and street races will be pivotal - just like for Palou.


Are there any other title contenders?


At the moment, the top three have cut themselves adrift of others in the championship. But with one race more than has already been run to come, there are yet swings that could come about in the hybrid portion of the campaign.


The line is probably drawn at McLaughlin and Newgarden in eighth and ninth in terms of even fractional contenders, even if Felix Rosenqvist has had a stellar first season with the Andretti-affiliated Meyer Shank Racing one place back in 10th. 


Behind Dixon by 36 points is Andretti Global’s Colton Herta, closely followed by teammate Kyle Kirkwood - with the best-worst race finish in the field with 11th at present - seven points further behind. Arrow McLaren duo O’Ward - two points behind Kirkwood - is in hand only 10 points ahead of teammate Rossi. 


Again, it will likely come down to oval performances as to whether anybody else can get in the championship mix, even with added factors such Andretti’s upturn in consistency this year. Of those in the gaggle behind the leading three, both O’Ward and Rossi have the most success on ovals before reaching the Penske pair. 


O’Ward inherited victory in Iowa in 2022, when Newgarden was sent crashing out, and has been on the podium in three of the last four Iowa races. The Mexican was also on the Gateway podium in second last year, adding to a podium in 2021 and two podiums in the 2020 doubleheader, with a lowest finish of fourth in 2022.


Kirkwood is yet to notch an oval podium but has shown flashes of speed in his first two years on short ovals, albeit with only one top 10 - seventh in the first Iowa race last year. His teammate Herta is also without an oval podium and has not particularly caught the eye at Iowa, though he has finished fourth and sixth twice at Gateway.


It would probably still be a stretch to see any of this group consistently match and oust the three at the top enough to reach the championship lead, even if the prospect of breaking into the top three by the season’s end could be feasible. 


But with two ovals new to many and Iowa possibly a changed beast, plus the not insignificant fact of three road and street races remaining, there is still a lot to play for.


Who may be looking to prove more?


Outside of the lead group, there are a lot of drivers that will have points to prove after challenging starts to the year. The brutality of IndyCar for those underperforming by even the slightest amount has been shown already this year and the usual frenetic driver market threatens to burst into life imminently. Some may be in peril from this.


With a charter system possibly looming, which would likely be restricted at three per team, Ganassi immediately springs to mind given their three-car operation. Rookie Linus Lundqvist has a pole and a podium but sits 18th in the standings after otherwise best finishes of 16th in qualifying and 12th in race trim.


Lundqvist leads the Rookie of the Year standings but is only 25 points ahead of fellow rookie teammate Kyffin Simpson, who has much less junior success and has been held back by being innocently caught up in race-impacting incidents in the last three events. The 2022 Indy Lights champion will be searching for more in the second part of the year.


Agustin Canapino missed one race amid the recent off-track situation but is 58 points behind Juncos Hollinger Racing teammate Romain Grosjean and has not made the expected progress so far in his second year. A similar premise applies for AJ Foyt Racing sophomore Sting Ray Robb, who is 23rd and 76 points behind teammate Santino Ferrucci.


Ed Carpenter Racing have had unfulfilled potential too. Rinus VeeKay has been massively unlucky with several mechanical issues through the season. And rookie Christian Rasmussen - last year’s Indy NXT champion - is third in the Rookie of the Year standings, behind Simpson, with only three races remaining in his non-oval deal this year.


Christian Lundgaard (11th in points), Graham Rahal (29 points back in 16th) and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team will be searching to re-find their race-winning and three-time pole-taking form from 2023 that has not been equalled yet this year. Their oval performance will be something to watch for after last year’s struggles.


Marcus Ericsson is still searching to find his feet with new team Andretti, currently 13th in the standings and 60 points behind nearest teammate Kirkwood. He endured a torrid Month of May and has not managed to replicate the consistency from his Ganassi years.

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