Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year Could Be a Part-Time Driver

In 2022, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series featured five rookies competing for the Rookie of the Year award. For the most part, it was a tight battle throughout the season.

That is, until a driver who only ran 16 of the 23 races ran away with the award. Corey Heim, competing for powerhouse Truck Series team Kyle Busch Motorsports, didn’t compete in seven races in 2022, as team owner Kyle Busch competed in his allotted five and dirt ringer Buddy Kofoid ran both of the series’ dirt races.

Even still, Heim grabbed two wins and won Rookie of the Year by a whopping 211 points over the second-highest finishing rookie, Lawless Alan. In NASCAR, the maximum amount of points you can score is 60, so Heim won the award by the equivalent of three and a half races — and he missed almost one-third of the season.

The Truck Series rookie field in 2022 was rather light. Alan, Dean Thompson, Jack Wood and Blaine Perkins, the other four rookies, were either in underfunded equipment or underperformed in the rides they were given. Combine that with the fact that Heim was driving for a powerhouse team that is a regular driver’s and owner’s championship contender, and it was evident that Heim would win the award before the halfway point of the season.

While Heim finished 14th in the final overall point standings, outrunning several full-time truck drivers, Alan, Thompson, and Wood finished 22nd-24th, respectively, while Perkins was a distant 29th.

So what does this story have to do with IndyCar? Because this same exact scenario is shaping up to play out in the NTT IndyCar Series this season.

Heading into the 2023 season, the rookie battle was centered around Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Agustin Canapino of Argentina, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Benjamin Pedersen of Denmark and Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing’s Sting Ray Robb of the United States.

Also in the mix is Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand. Armstrong, who defected to IndyCar this season from Formula 2, was largely expected to be a non-factor in the rookie race, as he was only running 12 of the 17 race schedule. The No. 11 is being split this season between Armstrong and Takuma Sato, who is competing in the five oval races in what may very well be an unannounced farewell tour.

However, Armstrong is currently the top rookie, and is on pace to take Rookie of the Year in Heim-like fashion.

Currently, Armstrong is 17th in the point standings, and is running higher in points than 10, count ‘em, 10 full-time drivers. He’s already missed two races, as Sato has already been behind the wheel for Texas Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500. It’s impressive to be as high in the standings as he is.

What’s more impressive is that not only does Armstrong have two top 10s so far on the season, he also has been the highest finishing rookie in every race he’s competed in. Canapino, Pedersen and Robb have a combined goose egg in top 10s, and of the three, Canapino has the best finish, a pair of 12th-places in the first two races of the season.

Armstrong has just one finish outside the top 12, a 15th at the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Even in that race, he was the highest finishing rookie — Canapino finished a distant six spots behind him.

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The other three rookies have found success at one point or another this season, though. Canapino and Robb have both gotten bonus points for leading laps, Canapino at the Streets of Long Beach and Robb at Texas, while Pedersen made headlines at the Indy 500 for making the Firestone Fast 12 in qualifying, ultimately starting the race from the 11th spot and earning two additional bonus points.

However, Armstrong is running away with the Rookie of the Year award, despite not competing on the ovals. He has a 24-point lead over Canapino heading into Road America on Sunday, June 18, and can continue to build on it for the next three races before the next oval race.

Much like Alan, Thompson, Wood and Perkins, it’s almost as if Canapino, Pedersen and Robb are at a disadvantage by competing for teams that are generally underfunded or underperforming teams, while Armstrong’s CGR ride allowed him to become the ROTY frontrunner quickly.

With five oval races on the schedule, Armstrong will miss three more races this season: the doubleheader weekend at Iowa Speedway on July 22-23, and World Wide Technology Raceway on August 27.

Or will he?

Reports and rumors have swirled in the last few weeks that Armstrong has shown a growing interest in running the remaining ovals this season. This is compounded by a statement by team owner Chip Ganassi during a press conference in March, who said that Sato’s oval-only deal was confirmed for Texas and the Indy 500, while the rest of the ovals were to be determined.

There are other questions that need to be answered to make Armstrong’s thought become reality. Can funding be found to run those races? If so, what if Sato does run the rest of the oval races? Does CGR open a fifth entry for those races to accommodate Armstrong? Does Ganassi even want Armstrong to run ovals this season?

Regardless of whether or not he runs the remaining ovals, Armstrong might just be the favorite to be the 2023 Rookie of the Year. To do it as a part-timer would be an incredibly rare feat. Since the series officially adopted the INDYCAR name in 2011, only two drivers have won Rookie of the Year despite not competing in all the races.

James Hinchcliffe missed the first race of the season in 2011 but still won ROTY, and Robert Wickens‘ stellar 2018 season landed him ROTY despite missing the last three races of the 2018 season after his devastating crash at Pocono Raceway that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Romain Grosjean nearly did it in 2021 despite missing three races, but just barely lost out by 33 points to Scott McLaughlin.

Another question worth asking is whether or not the 22-year-old could reach the podium, or even victory lane. While expectations likely aren’t too high in his rookie season, Armstrong’s 10.6 average finish leads to believe that a win isn’t coming this season. But if Marcus Ericsson and Grosjean are any indication of former formula racing success in IndyCar, Armstrong should be excited for the rest of this season and beyond.

As for Canapino, Pedersen and Robb, they better either pick up the pace or start playing more strategy. Alternatively, they better hope that Armstrong has a total collapse if they want a shot at Rookie of the Year.

But at this rate, both options seem highly unlikely.

About the author

Anthony Damcott joined Frontstretch in March 2022. Currently, he is an editor and co-authors Fire on Fridays (Fridays); he is also the primary Truck Series reporter/writer. A proud West Virginia Wesleyan College alum from Akron, Ohio, Anthony is now a grad student. He is a theatre actor and fight-choreographer-in-training in his free time. He is a loyal fan of the Cincinnati Reds and Carolina Panthers, still hopeful for a championship at some point in his lifetime.

You can keep up with Anthony by following @AnthonyDamcott on Twitter.

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