IndyCar driver change finally keeps 12-year streak alive

Simon Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing, Nashville, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Simon Pagenaud, Meyer Shank Racing, Nashville, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports /

Linus Lundqvist being named Simon Pagenaud’s replacement for Sunday’s Nashville race keeps a significant 12-year IndyCar streak alive.

Among the many strengths of IndyCar are the depth and success of its Road to Indy program, a ladder system which starts with USF Juniors and runs through the USF2000 Championship, the USF Pro 2000 Championship, and Indy NXT (Lights), all the way up to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indy 500.

So when one of the most highly touted Indy Lights champions in recent years was left on the sidelines with no promise of any sort of an IndyCar ride beyond the occasional test, there were naturally some serious questions about just how strong the Road to Indy ladder system is.

While those questions still might be asked, and justifiably so, reigning Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist is finally set to have the opportunity to compete in an IndyCar race.

The 24-year-old Swede is set to replace Simon Pagenaud behind the wheel of Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 Honda in Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix at Nashville Street Circuit as the 2016 IndyCar champion and 2019 Indy 500 winner continues to recover from his nasty shunt at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in early July.

It took until the 13th of 17 races on the 2023 IndyCar schedule, but Linus Lundqvist’s opportunity extends a significant streak.

You have to go all the way back to 2010/2011 to find the last time a reigning Indy Lights champion did not land the opportunity to compete in IndyCar race the following year. Jean-Karl Vernay won the 2010 championship, but that was the last time we heard from him in the world of American open-wheel racing.

2011 champion Josef Newgarden landed a full-time ride in 2012 and has been competing full-time ever since. 2012 champion Tristan Vautier competed full-time in 2013. 2013 champion Sage Karam competed in the 2014 Indy 500. 2014 champion Gabby Chaves competed full-time in 2015, and 2015 champion Spencer Pigot competed part-time in 2016, including in the Indy 500.

2016 champion Ed Jones competed full-time in 2017, and 2017 champion Kyle Kaiser competed in a handful of races in 2018, including the Indy 500. 2018 champion Pato O’Ward initially had a full-time ride lined up for 2019, but he ended up competing only part-time and failing to qualify for the Indy 500.

2019 champion Oliver Askew competed full-time in 2020. The 2020 Indy Lights season was canceled due to COVID-19-related restrictions, but 2021 champion Kyle Kirkwood landed a full-time ride for 2022.

There used to be a scholarship guaranteeing the champion $1 million to compete in the Indy 500 and at least two other races on the IndyCar schedule, but that was axed after 2022.

The fact that the effects of this cut were immediately felt, with Lundqvist becoming the first Indy Lights champion not to at least have the chance to qualify for the following year’s Indy 500 in 12 years, was alarming.

The ride to which many had linked him at Dale Coyne Racing ended up going to Indy Lights runner-up Sting Ray Robb due to funding, and Robb’s best result of the year unfortunately remains his season-opening DNF.

Fortunately, Lundqvist won’t become the first champion since 2010 not to compete in any races on the following year’s IndyCar schedule, though it is unfortunate that it took another driver’s injury to make that true.

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Tune in to NBC at 12:00 p.m. ET this Sunday, August 6 for the live broadcast of the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix from Nashville Street Circuit, where Lundqvist won from the pole position in Indy Lights a year ago. If you have not yet started a free trial of FuboTV, do so now!