IndyCar: Has the offseason produced a new title contender?

Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, IndyCar (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)
Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing, IndyCar (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images) /

One rising IndyCar star and new winner stands to benefit more from this offseason than anybody, and it’s not hard to see why.

The 2021 IndyCar season saw a total of four new winners, all in the first seven races. Those four drivers combined to win eight of the season’s 16 races.

Eventual series champion Alex Palou won the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park in his first start with Chip Ganassi Racing.

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Championship contender Pato O’Ward, in his second full season like Palou, won the second race of the doubleheader at Texas Motor Speedway for Arrow McLaren SP.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay, also in his second season, then won the first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson, in his second season with the team and third season overall, won the first race of the doubleheader at Belle Isle.

Three of these four drivers finished the season in the top six in the championship standings, including two in the top three, but one just sort of disappeared from contention past the midway point of the season and failed to finish inside the top 10.

After the Belle Isle doubleheader, VeeKay sat in fifth place in the standings.

But during the week between this doubleheader and the next race at Road America, VeeKay broke his collarbone in a cycling crash.

The 21-year-old Dutchman missed the race at Road America but was cleared to return two weeks later for the race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

But the difference in his results from before his accident and after it was quite alarming.

Only VeeKay truly knows whether or not the injury he suffered from the accident played a direct role in this drop-off; he certainly didn’t make excuses if it did, but something clearly wasn’t right. What we do know is that he was medically cleared to return after missing one race, and he did not miss any of the season’s final seven races, so we’ll take that for what it’s worth.

Either way, if there is one driver who benefits most from this offseason, it’s VeeKay, and that could be bad news for the rest of the grid.

Before the accident, VeeKay competed in eight races at six tracks. At all six of those tracks, he finished in the top nine. His overall average finish in these events was 9.13, and his average finish including his top finishes at each of the six tracks was 5.83.

Qualifying took place for six of these eight races (at five tracks), and VeeKay’s average starting position was 7.67. Including his top efforts at each of these five tracks, his average starting position was 6.80.

After the accident, his best finish in seven events was 16th place, and his average finish was 20.71. He qualified in 22nd or worse in five of the seven races, and he qualified no higher than ninth. His average starting position was 19.71.

VeeKay did suffer three DNFs during this span, including one caused by a fuel pressure issue. But two were caused by crashes, and all three came after he started in 22nd place or worse, so it’s not like he was slated for decent results anyway.

Could a potential Ed Carpenter Racing regression explain this?

Not really, because there wasn’t one.

In the season’s first eight races, VeeKay finished as the top Ed Carpenter Racing driver five times (four times against Conor Daly in the five road and street course races and once against Ed Carpenter in the two Texas Motor Speedway oval races). In the Indy 500 when the team ran three cars, he finished behind Carpenter and ahead of Daly.

But in the season’s final seven races, VeeKay’s only finish ahead of his teammate was in the lone oval race against Carpenter at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway — and that only happened because VeeKay crashed 10 laps later than Carpenter did.

Not exactly something to brag about.

Daly, who didn’t have a top 10 finish all year with Ed Carpenter Racing or Carlin, finished ahead of VeeKay in all six of the road and street course races following VeeKay’s return.

All in all, the driver who ranked as high as fourth place in the standings during the 2021 season plummeted from fifth to a tie for 12th following his accident.

But given how well VeeKay performed during the first half of the season before the accident, there is no telling how fast he might be following a five-month offseason; it could not have come at a better time.

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The 2022 season is scheduled to begin on Sunday, February 27 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. This race is set to be broadcast live on NBC beginning at 12:00 p.m. ET. If you haven’t started your free trial of FuboTV, now would be a great time to do so!