By: Ashley McCubbin
The wait is finally open as the NTT IndyCar Series will open their season at Barber Motorsports Park on Saturday. While the field will be close with everybody legitimately having a shot at victory, certain contenders stand above the rest.
Takuma Sato knows what it takes to get the job done in Alabama as he accomplished the task in the series’ last visit there in 2019, pacing 74 laps and out-running Scott Dixon at the checkered flag. Since becoming part of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the Japanese driver has hit his stride as evident by success on the biggest stage, the Indianapolis 500, and top-10 placing in points the past two years.
Admittedly after he won the Indy 500 in 2020, Sato followed it up with a runner-up and ninth at Gateway a week later, and then four straight results outside the top-15 before a 10th to finish it off. Needless to say, starting off the year with another win would be a huge turnaround.
The likelihood of that may be slim, though. While Sato has a top-10 in each of his last three appearances on the circuit, he was unable to complete the feat in the seven events prior.
The other thing that dampers those chances is when you consider before Sato’s trip to victory lane in 2019, Team Penske was able to secure the four races prior, with Josef Newgarden taking three of those trophies home.
Simon Pagenaud took home the other victory in that span, and has been respectable in Alabama with an average finish of sixth and no results outside the top-10 in nine appearances. Considering both he and Newgarden are on the same team, there’s notes to be shared allowing both competitors to easily shine.
The only downfall in the bright yellow Menards armor when you look back at 2020 is the inconsistency that plagued Pagenaud en route to eighth in points. With a field as steep as the IndyCar Series, scoring just three podiums in 14 events is not going to get the job done. It also becomes tougher when you realize he had eight finishes outside the top-10, including a 22nd. Being able to ease those away and get off a strong start should be paramount.
Newgarden, meanwhile, has been dubbed the King of Alabama over the years, and reasonably so with just one finish outside of the top-10 in eight races, and an average finish of 5.5. He also enters the year with a lot of momentum after coming up just 16 points short of securing the championship. There’s no better way to erase the pain of defeat than adding another crown to the collection.
That said, Scott Dixon may be the man standing in his way at the checkered flag as he’s done enough to earn the crown of the Alabama, too. The driver of the No. 9 has the best average finish of active competitors – 3.4 – with no finishes outside of the top-10, including eight top-five’s. You have to believe four wins and seven podiums last year gives him momentum entering 2021, and you may just have to #Bankonthe9 as Chip Ganassi Racing social says.
You also cannot forget about Will Power – who at one time was the man everyone looked towards solely as the road course ace. A couple years removed and the field has gotten stronger, but you still cannot take your eyes off of the No. 12 as he certain to be a factor. After all, he has an average finish of seventh across 10 starts, including a pair of victories.
If you are looking for someone outside of the top two teams, then eyes should be on Pato O’Ward. He enters the year with a lot of momentum following a runner-up in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to complete 2020 and placed fourth in the standings. Combined with contending for the win against Felix Rosenqvist at Road America and a fifth at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, it seems he is falling into his own as a driver nicely.
While he has not ran an IndyCar Series event at Barber, he was able to partake in a test at the Alabama-based facility and swept the weekend in Indy Lights competition in 2018.
Ultimately, eyes will be on the battle for the win, but also on the rookie of the year contenders cannot be overlooked either. A NASCAR Champion in Jimmie Johnson, a Formula 1 driver in Romain Grosjean, and V8 SuperCar Champion Scott McLaughlin may up the list for 2021. Who will come out on top? Arguments could be made for all three, but nobody will have a clue until the first checkered flag is waved.