Rookie Fight Still Strong at Season’s End

Felix Rosenqvist laps Grand Prix of Portland IndyCar track
Felix Rosenqvist has the best chance of winning the 2019 NTT Rookie of the Year award. | Photo: Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media

Like the battle for the Astor Cup, the contest for NTT Rookie of the Year honors remains in play as the NTT IndyCar Series embarks on its final race weekend of 2019. Also like the overall championship, the rookie points leader enters WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca with a sizable but not unbeatable lead.

Overall points leader Josef Newgarden owns a 42-point advantage over his closest competitor. One of his rookie competitors, Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing has less of a buffer to work with as he learns the vagaries of Laguna Seca’s 12 turns, including the famed corkscrew.

Idiosyncratic as the track may be, Rosenqvist ended Thursday’s Open Test at the picturesque racetrack on California’s Central Coast with the third-fastest lap on the combined timesheet. His performance certainly points to a chance of success in the ensuing race weekend, but one of his Rosenqvist’s competitors went even quicker during testing.

Of the three drivers still in the hunt for rookie honors — Rosenqvist, Santino Ferrucci and Colton Herta — Herta has the steepest hill to climb. That’s why his performance in the second session of the Open Test may prove instructive as the trio look to score as many points as possible without getting mixed up in the overall fight for the series championship that’s raging primarily between Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud.

Herta’s best Open Test lap of 1:10.0720 was not only the fastest of the day, it was more than four-tenths of a second quicker than both rookie points leader Rosenqvist and overall points leader Newgarden. While speed during a test doesn’t count for anything, Herta’s pace indicates that the Harding Steinbrenner Racing team has rolled out strong at Laguna Seca and is ready make a longshot a reality.

Colton Herta drops down Laguna Seca corkscrew
Colton Herta led the Open Test at Laguna Seca and the opening Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey practice. | Photo: Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media

Rosenqvist, who’s had two runner-up finishes during his maiden IndyCar season, needs to finish first or second in Sunday’s 90-lap race to clinch rookie honors, without factoring in any bonus points. Should he earn the pole position and lead the most laps, the Swedish driver could finish third and win Rookie of the Year on a tiebreaker with Ferrucci.

For Herta to unseat Rosenqvist, a victory is the surest path to success. With a win, Herta would need Rosenqvist to finish eighth or worse and Ferrucci to finish third or worse to take the lead in the rookie standings, irrespective of bonus points.

A second-place finish for Herta makes the task considerably more difficult, requiring a result of 15th or worse for Rosenqvist and sixth or worse for Ferrucci. A third for Herta puts Rookie of the Year in near-impossible territory with Rosenqvist needing to end the race in 20th position or worse for the only rookie race winner of 2019 to earn the title.

The task is slightly easier for Ferrucci, whose 26-point deficit can be overcome in a more straightforward way than Herta’s 49-point hole. A win for Ferrucci equates to a Rookie of the Year win for the young native of Connecticut if Rosenqvist ends the race third or worse. Second place for Ferrucci would require Rosenqvist to be seventh or worse and a third pushes the Ganassi driver back to 10th in order for Ferrucci to come out on top. After that, for each position Ferrucci loses, Rosenqvist needs to be two positions further back for the Dale Coyne Racing pilot to stay ahead in points.

Adding to the intrigue of the in-progress rookie battle are the results of Practice 1 for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey: Herta, Rosenqvist and Ferrucci landed first, second and third.

Extra track time thanks to the additional set of tires afforded to rookies — the three drivers averaged 15.7 laps while the full field averaged 10.7 laps — gave them the opportunity to find speed, while the newness of the track for essentially every driver means no one has a distinct advantage.

The drivers’ speed reflects the seriousness of their approach, elucidated by Ferrucci after practice.

“I think of the championship contenders and of the rookies, the three of us are really hungry for the title win in the rookie class and I think we’re really putting in a lot of extra work to be up front to try and win this battle,” said Ferrucci. “I think it’s really showing — especially in the results — that to us it’s our championship and it’s just as important to us as if we were racing for the Astor Cup.”

Santino Ferrucci at full speed around Laguna Seca
Colton Herta was competitive during Friday’s Laguna Seca practices. | Photo: Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media

While it’s likely the four series championship contenders — Dixon is eligible like the aforementioned trio — will garner the most attention as the weekend approaches Saturday’s afternoon’s qualifying session for Sunday’s season-ending race, the three youngsters looking for recognition shouldn’t be counted out with future championships a real possibility for all of them.

In particular, Herta thinks a shot at the series championship could come as soon as next year for all three of the current Rookie of the Year contenders.

“Everyone has become a lot more consistent, and a championship run next year, yeah, might be a big ask, but I think we could definitely try and be in the top five for the championship next year,” Herta said. “And if you’re in the top five, you usually have a championship title hope coming into the last round.”

“But it’s a long season. It’s really grueling and to be like Newgarden or Rossi and be on it everywhere and consistently right there in the race and have a shot at a podium pretty much any time you’re on track is really difficult. So yeah, it might take a little bit of time, but I’m hoping it’s next year.”

For Herta and his rookie compatriots, the immediate task is to finish out the season with the best result possible. Practice 1 certainly set them on the path to doing just that and was backed up when the Rookie of the Year-contending drivers each landed in the top five again in Friday’s second practice.

Regardless of where each of the drivers end up, it’s quite possible that this year’s rookie class represents the future of Indy car racing. With 2019 as an indicator, the future looks extraordinarily bright.