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2023 IndyCar Awards: Hello Palou, Again

As 2024 approaches and we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a new NTT IndyCar Series season, it’s only right that we reflect on and salute the achievements of the Series’ best before putting 2023 on the shelf.

This past season saw Alex Palou claim his second title, Josef Newgarden claim his first Indianapolis 500, and a part-time driver claimed Rookie of the Year honors ahead of three full-time contestants. Though we missed out on IndyCar’s now-customary title-deciding season finale, 2023 gave us plenty to talk about, though some names being honored here may prefer to forget their achievements from this season.

Driver of the Year: Alex Palou

This one goes without saying. Things may have been different if Palou had come across some close competition in his pursuit of a second Astor Cup, but that simply did not happen.

The Spaniard drove a dominant season which featured five wins, 10 podium finishes, and zero finishes worse than eighth place. Consistency is key, but consistency of this caliber is a whole different story. The same consistency that brought Will Power the 2022 title brought Palou to the same result albeit faster, with more gold along the way.

Palou’s storybook 2023 season came amidst an ongoing saga of legal issues surrounding the No. 10 driver’s once-anticipated move to Arrow McLaren. Palou displayed outstanding mental and emotional resilience to put together such a season under these conditions, on top of the already notoriously physical nature of IndyCar racing.

Rookie of the Year: Marcus Armstrong

I’m not sure how many of us had this one on our cards when the season began, but in retrospect, it makes enough sense. Marcus Armstrong contested the 2023 season on a part-time basis, contesting the road and street courses in the No. 11 while Takuma Sato piloted the fourth Chip Ganassi Racing entry on ovals.

Keeping in mind that Armstrong missed five races on a 17-race calendar, the New Zealander collected five top-10 results, with a best finish of sixth in Toronto. Further more, Armstrong only finished outside of the top 20 twice. Armstrong’s ROTY competitors fared markedly worse.

Agustin Canapino managed no top 10s, but grabbed three 12th-place finishes to offset a plethora of results of 20th or lower. Sting Ray Robb took home no top 10s, but three top 20s including a 12th-place result at Laguna Seca. Benjamin Pedersen showed pace, particularly on ovals, but only managed a best result of 15th at Texas.

Moving into the No. 11 full-time for 2024, Armstrong made good use of his rookie campaign to set up a solid foundation for exponential growth next year.

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Comeback Driver of the Year: Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon isn’t a name we normally associate with comebacks. Maybe we should, given the number of titles he’s won in various season finales over the years? But, I digress.

Dixon was strong throughout the season, per his usual form. However, we had begun discussing whether his 18-year-long winning streak would meet its demise in 2023 by the time the season reached its halfway point. Dixon had managed five top-five results and eight top 10s in the first nine races of the season, but it wasn’t coming together for the six-time champion.

With four races remaining, Dixon showed up in Indianapolis and used a silent-but-deadly pit strategy to steal victory from dominant-on-the-day Graham Rahal. The streak was alive, which was all fine and well until the No. 9 crew did it again the next week. The title was Palou’s but Dixon could still wrap up a points 1-2 for Ganassi, and he topped off a mighty season-ending run with a third victory in four races at Laguna Seca.

Dixon can never be counted out, but if momentum is worth even the dust on the bottom of his Firestone tires, we may be calling him a seven-time champ this time next year.

Most Improved Driver: Kyle Kirkwood

Equipment has a role to play in this one, but don’t brush it off just yet. There’s no polite way to say this, but Andretti Global has been a mess over the past two seasons. Several high profile collisions plagued the team in 2022, and they largely looked to be chasing their own tails in 2023. At the year’s end, only Kyle Kirkwood can claim to have brought winning hardware back to the factory, in his first season with the team, no less.

Kirkwood took his maiden win in the Grand Prix of Long Beach and then followed up with a win on the streets of Nashville later in the year. Despite still needing consistency to come his way, five additional top 10s place Kirkwood’s freshman campaign with Andretti in stark contrast to his rookie year with A. J. Foyt Racing, where he took only one top 10 (at Long Beach) and averaged in the high teens and low 20s.

Most Disappointing Driver: Romain Grosjean

This year really started out looking like Romain Grosjean’s year to shine. The Frenchman had the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in his pocket until a collision with Scott McLaughlin ended his race just ever so slightly before its time.

Grosjean ran well at Texas before being caught in a late crash, and followed Texas with back-to-back runner-up-results at Long Beach and Barber. After the first four races of the season, Grosjean’s top-five pace turned into only one top-10 finish for the following 13 rounds.

Late in the season, Grosjean and his team were heard, and sometimes seen, engaging in frequent verbal jousts over the radio and on pit road, suggesting that Grosjean’s relationship with the team was in less than stellar shape. Not long after the season’s end, a legal dispute followed Grosjean’s release from the team.

Grosjean will be taking his services to Juncos Hollinger Racing for 2024, partnering with Canapino, another driver who came to IndyCar after a long career overseas. The new driver of the No. 77 will certainly be ready to put 2023 in the rear-view and focus all sights forward in his new home.

Race of the Year: Okay, now hear me out…

Even I, a known Cleveland Grand Prix extremist, will admit that IndyCar revolves around the Indy 500. It’s almost blasphemous to imagine not crowning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as the Race of the Year. The 2023 running made that even harder after watching Newgarden and Ericsson frantically duel for the win in a one-lap shootout. But, Newgarden’s awesome celebration with the fans aside, the gold is going south this year.

Race of the Year honors are going to the PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway.

As a known high manufacturer aero kit era extremist, the closing laps of Texas this year were something out of a fever dream. Close, frantic racing with multiple lanes and more passes than we could manage to count – for a moment, we were back in 2016. Despite ending under caution, we can’t deny Texas these honors in good conscience; especially after the track had produced largely underwhelming racing since its 2017 remaking.

Conveniently, it was Newgarden who took the win in Texas weeks before his Indy 500 triumph, this time battling Pato O’Ward to the finish in thrilling fashion.

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Drama of the Year: Alex Palou vs. the Rule of Law

Where to begin? Last year we called this category “Alex Palou vs. Chip Ganassi Racing.” Now, it’s getting weirder.

Palou has admitted that he breached an existing contract with Arrow McLaren and McLaren at large. The 26-year-old claims he “lost faith” in the team after determining that they would not support his ambitions to race in Formula 1, and instead decided to continue with Chip Ganassi at the end of a forgettable 2022 season.

This saga began in 2022, when Palou disputed an announcement from Ganassi that he would be staying at the team for 2023. McLaren quickly claimed that it had signed Palou for 2023, with an F1 reserve role as part of the deal, while Ganassi remained steadfast in its assertions that it had rights to Palou’s services for 2023. That one actually did age well, as it turns out.

When Palou signed with CGR through to 2026, things hit the proverbial fan. McLaren claims that Palou accepted a “significant amount” of payment toward his first year with the team, then thought to be 2024. Palou and his legal team counter that although Palou admits to having went back on the terms of his contract with McLaren by signing back on with CGR, the matter is now a question of damages for which Palou can be held responsible.

McLaren is currently seeking damages in excess of $20 million from Palou.

Now, as 2024 approaches, we put another memorable season on the shelf and wait eagerly for the green flag to fly in St. Petersburg on March 10.

About the author

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Alex is the IndyCar Content Director at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also serves as Managing Director of The Asia Cable, a publication focused on the international affairs and politics of the Asia-Pacific region which he co-founded in 2023. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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