INDYCAR Season in Review: Five best races from 2019
Before getting to NBC’s “End of the Decade” package, it’s time to wrap up the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season. With all 17 contests on NBC or NBCSN for the first time in history, fans were treated to some outstanding action from the comfort of their own homes by watching on TV or streaming on NBC Gold or on NBCSports.com.
Other fans saw the action in person at some of the top racing venues on Earth.
Over the course of 17 races, there were many memorable moments, outstanding races, moments worth celebrating and more than a few heartbreaking moments.
So as the year winds down, here are the “Five Best Races from the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season.”
Coming up with a list like this is purely subjective and open for much debate. It’s likely the readership of NBC Sports has their own list of five races they would consider the best of the season.
Let’s start the debate.
1 – The 103rd Indianapolis 500, May 26, 2019
It should come as no surprise that the biggest stage in racing once again put on its best event. In this high-speed drama, there were two drivers who battled each other to become the “Star of the Show,” but in the end, it was Simon Pagenaud who took a bow to the crowd after a blockbuster performance.
Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi engaged in a tremendous battle over the closing laps of the contest. Rossi, who once again had a problem on a pit stop with the “Buckeye” of his fuel hose causing it to not engage properly into the tank, was seething with anger when he returned to the track.
He displayed that anger when he believed he was blocked by Orio Servia when Rossi shook his fist at the driver from Spain while racing more than 220 mph down the front straightaway at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That emotion in front of the main grandstand packed with race fans brought a huge roar from the crowd.
The race culminated with a brilliant battle between the suddenly rejuvenated Pagenaud and the aggressive Rossi.
The winner of the Indianapolis 500 is often the best driver with the best car and on this day, Pagenaud had both.
He became just the second driver (and for a second straight season) to complete a “Month of May” Sweep at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by winning the IndyCar Grand Prix, the Indianapolis 500 Pole and the Indy 500 in the same season. Team Penske teammate Will Power was the first to accomplish that in 2018.
By the numbers, Pagenaud led 116 laps, the most of any driver in an Indy 500 since Dario Franchitti led 155 laps in 2010. But this was far from a blowout with 29 lead changes in the race.
Pagenaud pitted on Lap 169 with a flawless final stop. Rossi pitted one lap later and was in-and-out after just 9 seconds.
On Lap 178, Rossi passed Pagenaud for the lead. Moments later, a huge crash occurred in Turn 3 involving Graham Rahal, Bourdais, Charlie Kimball and Zach Veach.
That brought out a red flag for 18 minutes.
During the stoppage, Rossi radioed to his crew that he was “angrier than any other driver.”
When the green flag waved and racing resumed, there were just 13 laps left, and Rossi was determined he was going to win. The battle between Rossi and Pagenaud was epic.
On Lap 187, Rossi was the leader, and Pagenaud passed him for the lead on the frontstretch.
Rossi returned the favor to regain the lead in Turn 1 on the next lap. One lap later, Pagenaud passed Rossi on the frontstretch.
At this point, Rossi decided to stay as close to Pagenaud’s rear as he could, waiting for the right moment to make what he hoped would be the race-winning pass.
With two laps remaining in the race, Rossi made the pass for the lead in Turn 1. But he couldn’t build a large enough gap over Pagenaud.
On Lap 199, Pagenaud passed Rossi for the win in Turn 3. Next time by was the white flag and the lap after that, Pagenaud took the checkered flag in the Indianapolis 500 for the first time in his career by just 0.2086 of a second.
“We were able to get him back,” Pagenaud said. “Quite frankly I wasn’t really worried about getting back, I was just worried about the rhythm, when to get him back to finish first. There was a lot of planning, a lot of brake drafting, as well.
“It was a lot of fun, and obviously my teammates ... I think about Juan Montoya. I think about Helio Castroneves. I think about Josef Newgarden and Will (Power), and I think about Gil de Ferran, especially Rick Mears, as well, they’ve been teaching me so well the intricacy of driving on an oval, and I applied it today, and it worked.”
As Pagenaud celebrated the victory to the cheers of the huge crowd, Rossi spoke about his determined battle.
“We had the superior car, we just didn’t have it at the end,” said Rossi, who was upset with lapped cars driven by Helio Castroneves and Oriol Servia impeding his progress. “It’s going to be hard to get over, but it was a great day. Earlier in the race, there were a lot of lapped cars that wouldn’t move over. Fortunately, it didn’t make a difference in the end result.
“Blocking is disrespectful, but we will take care of that another day.”
Meantime, Pagenaud kept his cool and knew he had better straight-line speed and horsepower when it mattered the most at the end of the race.
“Today was about attacking,” Pagenaud said. “We had our strategy meeting this morning, and we decided we were going to attack, we were going to control the day, and we were going to take our fate in our own hands. Destiny is what we decided to control.
“It was pretty cool. Obviously, everything played for us really well. The stars, like I’ve been saying, have aligned this month, incredibly, but especially today.”
After a winless and woeful 2018 season, Pagenaud turned into a fighter this month of May at Indianapolis.
It’s like someone flipped the switch, and the driver from France raced like a champion again.
“I think it’s fate, quite frankly,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously in racing, you need a little bit of luck on your side. You need everything to go your way. So, it did today. I could do nothing wrong, quite frankly. Sometimes I can’t do anything right.
“That doesn’t mean I lost my talent, that doesn’t mean my team is not doing a good job. It’s just you have to accept that there’s a little bit of mystery out there that you can’t control. All you can do is the best you can and extract the best out of yourself in every situation. “
“The rest, it sorts itself out.”
This was a race that featured drama, daring and aggressiveness. The fact it all came together in the biggest race in the world and the biggest race of the year once again made the Indianapolis 500 the race of the year.
2 – DXC Technologies 600, Texas Motor Speedway, June 8, 2019
The high banks of Texas Motor Speedway have provided IndyCar with plenty of thrills and excitement over the years. Next to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it is the one track that has been on the schedule every year since 1997 – the second year of the old Indy Racing League.
Texas Motor Speedway likes to call itself the “Second Home of IndyCar” and in many ways that is true. In the early years when the old IRL was struggling for acceptance, it was warmly welcomed to Texas with an announced crowd of 129,000 showing up for that first contest in 1997.
Since then, fans have been thrilled with side-by-side duels, wheel-to-wheel racing and sparks flying under the bright lights at the 1.5-mile, high-banked oval. Fists have flown a time or two, including the infamous A.J. Foyt “backhand” to Arie Luyendyk in Victory Lane after that first IndyCar race at Texas in 1997 after a highly controversial and disputed finish.
The Texas race no longer draws that huge crowds that it once did, but it remains a “Saturday Night Shootout” under the lights that leaves fans at the track and TV viewers on the edge of their seats, breathlessly anticipating what is coming next.
Team Penske prides itself on perfection, strategy and execution. The winningest team in NTT IndyCar Series history used all three as Newgarden won the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric called Newgarden into the pits during a caution period on Lap 137 after Zach Veach turned the backstretch into a slalom course with his spin. Newgarden was ninth at the time, and Cindric called his driver into the pit for fresh tires and full fuel.
Although he lost a few spots of track position, he ran faster laps than any other driver on the track by 8-10 mph.
That allowed Newgarden to be in position to leap-frog the field when he made his final pit stop on Lap 198. The team executed with a very quick pit stop so that by the time the field cycled through its stops, Newgarden was the leader on Lap 203.
He remained in front for the remainder of the 248-lap race to score his first win at Texas Motor Speedway, his first win on a superspeedway and the 13th victory of his career.
But, in order to get to Victory Lane, he had to hold off another aggressive charge from Rossi. It was similar to the battle his teammate, Pagenaud, had to fight in the closing stages of the Indianapolis 500.
Rossi tried several times late in the race to make the pass for the lead but did not have enough room in Turn 1.
“It’s these guys (on the crew), man, they keep putting me out front (and) I’m just trying to get it done at the end,” Newgarden said in Victory Lane. “I knew we had a rocket ship and it was all about getting in the front. We were better in the front than we were in the back. We knew if we could get some position, we would be OK. Team Chevy doing a great job for us. A good day to capitalize on some points. These guys put me in position so it’s all up to them.”
Newgarden credited Rossi for driving a competitive and fair race. Rossi started 11th and finished second by just 0.8164 of a second.
“He was fast,” Newgarden said of Rossi. “Honestly, he ran a great race. Both him and Scott Dixon ran me really fair at the end. It was hard to get away on the restart; that was my biggest concern was getting a jump getting going again.
“(Rossi) was good, man, he was just hard to hold off. He was so good in dirty air. I saw him earlier in the race and how good he was behind people. I knew it was going to be tough, really tough, but you saw the speed I had on the front stretch to hold him off, so thanks to Team Chevy. It was a good day in Texas, man. I’m glad we finally figured this place out. It’s been a while.
“We’ve been close here before, not necessarily at the end of the race. I know we’ve had good cars here before and have not been able to make it happen and one thing happens or another. To just finally figure it out has been great.”
Newgarden was able to fend off Rossi’s charge at the end. Rossi’s brilliant drive in defeat once again made him a star of the show, even without winning the race.
“The second lane never came in,” Rossi said. “It’s disappointing because, he was really nowhere all night. They called a great race, and he had a fast car. Once he got track position, there wasn’t much I could do. I could get halfway around him in Turn 1, but then the front of the car would take off, and I couldn’t complete the pass.
“He drove it as he should. He covered the outside, and there wasn’t much I could do. It was close in the Colton Herta-Scott Dixon incident (crash on Lap 229), and I was lucky to get through that. Going down to the apron at high speed is always sketchy. Luck was on our side today, we were able to come through and get second-place, but it’s still disappointing. Without that yellow, Scott Dixon and I were looking good on fuel.”
Rossi believes his No. 27 Honda worked best when he was able to get a run on Newgarden off Turns 3 and 4. But the racing groove in Turn 1 where a driver could make his car stick was about a lane-and-a-half.
“I tried it like six times, and it never worked, so I doubt it would have worked if I tried another three or four times,” Rossi said. “Maybe I could have taken a bit more of risk, but it was pretty low percentage. I didn’t think a lot of guys were making it happen. Ultimately then it became about trying to beat him for the line. But we took out a lot of the tire life going in lane two there, so we just didn’t have the rear tires there at the end to stay close to him.
“That sucks. I didn’t see him up front all day. All of a sudden, he appears in P1, so... Obviously they’re doing a good job. He had a fast car once he got in front.
“We’re always there, but we’re always playing the bridesmaid as of late.”
3 – Iowa 300, Iowa Speedway, July 20-21, 2019
The best way to sum up IndyCar’s return to racing under the lights at Iowa Speedway was that good things come to those who wait.
Because of a massive rainstorm that hit the track shortly before it was scheduled to start, it was a race that started Saturday night and ended early Sunday morning.
It was the latest local time start to an IndyCar Series race in history at 10:46 p.m. Central Time (11:46 Eastern), and it was by far the latest finish to a race in IndyCar’s very long history.
The checkered flag waved at 1:30 a.m. local time (2:30 a.m. ET) with Newgarden defeating hard-charging, five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon by 2.8527 seconds.
Newgarden started third and led 245 of the 300 laps in the race. He took the lead for the first time on Lap 49 and on the final time on Lap 258. He was able to defeat Dixon, who at one point was a lap down and in 19th place, after Dixon’s team had him pit under caution late in the race. With fresh tires, Dixon was able to easily race his way up to second place but couldn’t close the gap on Newgarden.
The victory also gave Newgarden a sense of redemption from last year’s race, when he led 229 laps, but finished fourth to winner James Hinchcliffe.
“I felt ready to rock,” Newgarden said. “I just wanted to make amends for not getting the pole. The pole is not the most important thing. I kind of look at it like it’s two races in the weekend. Qualifying is its own race, and the race itself is its own race. The race specifically is more important. You want to win both.
“That’s where that competitive spirit was. Yeah, I wanted to get it right tonight. That’s when I really wanted to make it work.”
Last year, Newgarden led 229 laps but faded at the end of the race when he was passed by eventual winner Hinchcliffe. Newgarden’s Team Penske squad threw away a guaranteed podium finish by pitting under yellow with less than five laps left believing the race would be restarted for a final dash to the checkered flag.
But the race ended under yellow, and Newgarden finished fourth.
“We redeemed ourselves from last year, too,” Newgarden said. “Last year I felt we had the car. It honestly fell apart with the 100 laps to go. Why did it fall apart last year and how do we make it right again?
“I think we achieved that tonight.”
The race was supposed to be an early evening start at 6 p.m. local time, but a heavy rain storm with lightning delayed the race for more than four hours, making it a true night race.
Little did many of the drivers realize it would end up being a morning finish.
“It was fun that we raced under the lights,” Newgarden said. “If the weather didn’t happen, it wasn’t really going to be a night race. It was actually kind of nice that the weather delayed it from that standpoint.
“Every other standpoint, it wasn’t a good thing. No one likes waiting around. We certainly don’t like making the fans wait. The ones that went home, completely understandable, got pretty late there. The ones that stuck with us, it was really nice they got to see a full show. I think we’re all pretty pumped about that.”
This race featured the unique IndyCar brand of short oval racing on perhaps the best short oval on the schedule, the high-banked Iowa Speedway. There was wild action and fierce racing for position throughout the field.
Throw in the unusual starting time for the race and the highly improbably early morning finish, and this truly deserved it ranking as one of the five races to remember in 2019.
4 – Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, July 28, 2019
This is the only road or street course race to make the top-five. Prior to arriving at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season had seen dominating performances on the street and road circuits. Those include impressive wins by Newgarden at St. Pete, Sato at Barber Motorsports Park, a total beatdown by Rossi at Long Beach when he started on the pole and led 80 laps in the 85-lap contest and won by a whopping 20.236 seconds over Josef Newgarden.
The IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway earned Honorable Mention Status as did the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of the Americas. But the two victories at Detroit went to the dominant driver in the race; Rossi had another blowout win at Road America by starting on the pole and leading 54 laps in the 55-lap race and left second-place finisher Will Power in another county with a 28.439 second-margin of victory. Pagenaud led 80 of 85 laps on the streets of Toronto.
It was much more competitive, and far more racy, at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course as different race strategies and some fierce battles on the track made this the best road course race of the season.
Scott Dixon still wears the crown as the “King of Mid-Ohio” after the five-time NTT IndyCar Series championship scored his sixth career victory at the 13-turn, 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. It was Dixon’s 46th career victory as he closed in on Mario Andretti’s 52, second on the all-time wins list.
He defeated rookie teammate Felix Rosenqvist by 0.0934 of a second -- the closest Indy car finish at Mid-Ohio. It is the third-closest Indy car finish on a road/street course. Only races at Portland International Raceway in 1997 and 1986 are closer.
“These days are huge,” Dixon said. “I think I understand and know what it takes to get something -- I think the ones like this coming from eighth and being able to pass cars and make the strategy work and as a team effort and have a one-two finish for Chip (Ganassi, his team owner) I think is huge. It could have been a one-two either way there the last lap with Felix Rosenqvist.
“But I’m just super proud of the team. It’s almost unheard of to have cars that were sixth and eighth on the grid come through and drive through the field like we did today to finish first and second.”
Dixon started eighth and raced his way to the lead on a set of Firestone red tires, that gave him the speed and advantage he needed. He was involved in a brilliant side-by-side battle with Will Power that could best be described as a “Man’s Race” when the two champions fiercely fought for position in what would ultimately be the determining factor in getting Dixon to the lead.
That battle began on Lap 32 after their first pit stops and Power was on blacks. The two drivers raced through the tight turns of the track, even bumping a time or two, before Dixon passed Power on Lap 34.
At the time, it was a battle for ninth and 10th place, but with a mixed-up field of pit strategy, it ultimately would allow Dixon to drive to a huge lead once he took over first place on Lap 46.
Dixon would build a 14.2908-second lead over his rookie teammate, Felix Rosenqvist.
Dixon’s last set of tires were a scuffed set of Firestone reds that began to dramatically lose grip. His once huge lead evaporated, and he was in a fight to the finish with teammate Rosenqvist.
“With about 15 to go, I started moaning to the team,” Dixon said. “I’m like, ‘Man, I think we’re going to have to pit again.’ A lot of it I think was just bad choices from my front. I think after the race, Chip said that he had decided that we should have gone to blacks. And I said, ‘Well, you own the team -- how did we not go to blacks?”
“But I said, ‘it looks like the Reds are holding on pretty well,’ but we made adjustments to the first set of sticker reds, had quite a bit of understeer. We made those changes for the used second set that already had four laps on it from qualifying, and they just couldn’t take it. It was too aggressive.
“Luckily I used them early to try and get past some of those lap traffic cars that did help us later on, I think at least delay Felix getting to us. But ultimately had we gone to the black tires, we would have maintained our eight- or ten-second gap, but it definitely made it exciting for me and I’m sure everybody else.
“And huge respect for Felix. He drove clean, and ultimately, I don’t know, it was going to be hard for any car to come past, even though we were about three seconds slower a lap than anyone else.”
The race also featured an uncharacteristic bad decision by ultimate NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden. On the final lap entering the “Keyhole” section of the race course, Newgarden tried to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay for third place. The two cars bounced off each other, and Newgarden’s Chevrolet ended up in the gravel pit.
Instead of finishing fourth and building on his lead, Newgarden finished 14th, and that allowed Rossi and Pagenaud to climb back into contention for the championship.
5 – Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline, World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Aug. 24, 2019
This was another wild race on a short oval on a Saturday night, and it provided Takuma Sato with some satisfying redemption.
Just one week earlier, Sato had been blamed by many drivers for triggering a first-lap crash in Turn 2 at Pocono Raceway that sent rookie driver Felix Rosenqvist into the wall, very close to where driver Robert Wickens was severely injured in a crash in 2018. Also involved in that crash was championship contender Alexander Rossi and his Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, as well as James Hinchcliffe.
Nearly everyone involved blamed Sato, but the driver from Tokyo defended himself with onboard video that proved he held his lane, and the other drivers came into him.
Although who was at fault remained debatable, Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Team supported their driver.
Just six days after the Pocono crash, Sato celebrated with a hard-fought victory at Gateway.
Sato led 97 laps of the 248-lap contest at the 1.25-mile short oval and claimed the fifth NTT IndyCar Series victory of his career.
“This win for the whole team effort, we can put it all behind,” Sato said. “Tonight’s champagne tasted so beautiful, but I have to thank everyone so much for their support.”
At one stage, Sato was a lap down, but the race played out perfectly for the driver from Tokyo to not only get his lap back, but race to the front.
“It’s been an incredible weekend,” Sato said. “Every race weekend is intense with a lot of pressure, but this one was a tough one after Pocono. I got support from a lot of people, actually. They changed their mind after seeing the evidence.
“My team’s support was incredible. I want to thank every single person on the team and all the fans that supported me, and the media, they showed what was a fact. It wasn’t easy, but we focused and built a fast car. We kept our head down and it was a very, very exciting show tonight.”
Earlier in the race, the main players in last week’s crash at Pocono were racing side-by-side at Gateway with Sato and Hunter-Reay just inches apart and with Rossi close by.
This time, there was no incident, but it was certainly ironic.
“When Ryan and I went side-by-side we tried to give each other room,” Sato recalled. “Today was very close again. We raced fair, in a hard battle, and I had no problem with that.
“But I had a huge moment at the start when James Hinchcliffe and I touched at the start and I lost a lot of positions on that.”
But Sato was able to battle back.
When Sato went down one lap, he went to the back of the grid at the end of a caution and pitted one more time so that he could stretch his fuel and get the lap back. He was successful in that.
He was able to use the same strategy later in the race when he stretched his fuel again and went from 13 to first. He was also able to save fuel during the final caution that lasted from Laps 192 to 204.
“That, too, was a very important moment,” Sato said.
The final dash to the finish included a fearless battle with Sato in front of a hard-charging Ed Carpenter.
When the checkered flag waved, there was Sato beating Carpenter to the line by just 0.0399-of-a-second and achieving redemption.
“Literally the definition of professional sports: hero maybe one minute, zero the next, hero again,” Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden said of Sato’s performance. “That’s just how it goes.
“Everyone thought Takuma was the worst thing on the planet of Earth leaving Pocono. Now it was like it wasn’t his fault. Now he’s probably a hero again. Next week he could be a loser one more time. No one knows.
“You live day by day in this sport. It’s every day you’re judged. A great day for him obviously. All these teams put in a lot of work. I’m sure it’s very gratifying for those guys. Really everyone in front of us did a great job. I’m sure for Sato and his crew, they’re going to be pretty happy about it.
“I wish it was us. It’s hard not to feel happy for everybody because there’s a lot of work that goes into this paddock from all the teams.”