Today’s question: The 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES features a jam-packed schedule in 2021, with 17 races between April and September. What will be the most crucial stretch of this season for any driver with title aspirations?
Curt Cavin: It’s a relevant question given the compacted nature of the schedule. There are four months with at least three races, but I think we’d all agree that May and September are the most critical. I’d be inclined to say September is the most important given that the season’s final three races will be held in consecutive weeks, but if you look at 2019, the last year these three events were held, the accumulated point totals (factoring out double points) between the Power Six drivers – Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta – was a mere 36 points. That suggests drivers with eyes on the title better be close to the front to still be in contention in the final month. That brings me to May, where four races and Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge qualifying will be held. Three of those races will be held on a high-speed oval, where trouble lurks at every corner. A crash in the first race at Texas Motor Speedway (May 1) likely impacts the team for the second race there (May 2). Indianapolis Motor Speedway offers a points bonanza in May, so the drivers who come out of that month the cleanest should be best poised for a run at the spoils of September.
Zach Horrall: I think the most important month on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule is April (though I am including the Texas doubleheader May 1-2 in this, so the first four races of the season if you will). If the last five years in the series has taught us anything, it’s that to win the Astor Challenge Cup you have to come out of the gate strong. In the last two seasons, the winner of the season-opening race has gone on to win the championship: Scott Dixon won the 2020 opener in Texas and never lost the points lead, and Josef Newgarden won the 2019 opener at St. Petersburg and lost the points lead just once, following the Indianapolis 500. Go back to 2016, and while Simon Pagenaud did not win the season opener, he took the points lead for good after the second race of the season, then won races three, four and five on his way to the series title. Sensing a trend? If you want to end the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season on top, you have to start there.
Paul Kelly: May always is a HUGE month for points, as Curt explained. But I think August will be pivotal, for a few reasons. A driver who is within a race’s worth of points of the championship leader could make a serious title run with good showings at the three races in August, the 12th, 13th and 14th events of the season. But dominating that month perhaps will be the biggest challenge of the season due to the variety of circuits in the August races and because of the unknown. August features a street circuit race in Nashville (Aug. 8), a new event where no team or driver has any experience, followed by a “roval” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Aug. 14) and then a short oval at World Wide Technology Raceway (Aug. 21). Any driver who can string together three straight weekends of excellence at those varied events has the chops to win a championship.