Race Weekend Central

Inside IndyCar: 5 Potential First-Time Winners in 2024

The 27-car field taking the green flag on March 10 at the Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg includes 14 drivers with at least one NTT IndyCar Series win. Using the ole brain to calculate the numbers, the math shows that’s more than half of the current lineup. Add in the one-offs trying to make this year’s 108th Indianapolis 500, 19 of the 33 confirmed cars have visited victory lane. 

If evidence was ever needed to prove how competitive the series was, then that’s exhibit A. 

Last year two drivers joined this esteemed tier in the series. Kyle Kirkwood proved his dominance in the Road to Indy ladder to IndyCar was no fluke when he took his inaugural win at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and later held off a Team Penske charge by Scott McLaughlin, no easy feat, at the Music City Grand Prix for his second win. Christian Lundgaard didn’t let his fellow sophomore outshine him, taking the checkered at the Honda Indy Toronto for his first victory in IndyCar. 

Incredibly, if not for some sort of mischief by the racing gods, hard-luck Romain Grosjean might have made a third first timer at either St. Pete, Long Beach or the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix. The tightness in competition across the paddock and skill of incoming rookies, regardless if Indy ladder-bred or European-tested, has created a factory of parity in the series.

For 2024, who is on the cusp of claiming their first victory? Will it be a veteran like Grosjean or an eager young gun who has no idea what Y2K was except what they read in social studies books? Let’s find out.

Reigning Rookie of the Year

The 2023 Rookie of the Year Marcus Armstrong will return for his first full-time season. Wait. He won the rookie award without doing the full schedule? Check the stats, and yes, as a matter of fact, he did. The remarkable achievement adds to the reassuring thought that he will find victory lane because he ran so well on his road and street course lineup. In twelve races, he notched five top-10s and finished ahead of four full-time drivers in the final championship standings, even though he was in five less events. Impressive. 

Now he will hit the tracks a second time with a flaming hot Chip Ganassi Racing operation, who rewarded his initial foray into the series with the full-time gig in the No. 11 car. He will have to figure out how to start further up the grid – he qualified no better than seventh all year – to put him in a position to fight for top-fives, podiums and the lead. But once that is figured out, nailing a win is completely foreseeable. 

Former Indy NXT Champion

How good of a situation is CGR in, with two champions driving for them, and two young, hungry and skilled pilots as their wingmen? Besides Armstrong, Ganassi added Linus Lundqvist to their lineup and like his New Zealand teammate the year before, will be fighting for rookie of the year. The Swede is just another example of the great motorsports drivers coming out of Northern Europe. 

His results weren’t shattering when he drove for Meyer Shank Racing as a replacement for Simon Pagenaud but Ganassi doesn’t bring on a rookie who only brings his helmet and buzz cut to the team without seeing something worth investing in this year. Still, Lundqvist is hitting some of these tracks for the first time as well as recovering from significant time off – besides those three races mid-year he tested with Ed Carpenter Racing – since winning the 2022 Indy NXT title.

His inclusion on this list is more about where he has landed and the team’s run of good luck with raw talent like two-time champion Alex Palou than what some writer saw in three races on television. But it’s also gotten to the point that the drivers who win consistently in Indy NXT are proving their potential in the bigger cars, so if he was good enough to win the junior level title, he’s good enough to win a race for sure. 

See also
Marco Andretti's Up-and-Down Day in His 1st Start at Daytona

Don’t Forget About the Phoenix

Grosjean is going to win. Right? Come on, he has to. An ex-Formula 1 driver that has submitted a change of address form to the U.S. and finished on the penultimate step of a podium five times will surely land in victory lane in IndyCar. If he is going to quiet any doubts about his ability to cruise to triumph and wipe off the cobwebs in his memory bank for how to celebrate a win, then he will do it with a team that in college basketball terms is a mid-major fighting for March Madness success in Juncos Hollinger Racing.

After two years with Andretti Global, and an obviously volatile final one last season, Grosjean jumps in a seat vacated by Callum Ilott, who gave Juncos their first top fives a year ago, including the season finale, but turmoil in team chemistry led to a shake up. Grosjean and Juncos need each other. The driver wants to win. The team wants to show that they aren’t missing a beat after letting go of their first full-time hire. Both are out to prove they are capable front runners. 

What will help them advance further on the grid will be the technical support contract signed with Arrow McLaren Racing. These are starting to pop up in the IndyCar paddock, a priority checklist item to receive the critical engineering and setup information that could close the racing gap by thousandths of a second. A new driver and new support system is a recipe for a new winner. 

The Chicagoan 

If the IndyCar series ran at World Wide Technology Raceway for all 18 events, David Malukas would have multiple wins by now. But a quick Google scan on the internet shows no online petition submitted by anyone named D. Malukas to make that a reality. He may not have to rely on Gateway, where he has finished on the podium both times he’s raced, to get his first win. After signing with Arrow McLaren, he will be in equipment that is somewhere between third or fourth-best on the grid. With two seasons under his belt at Dale Coyne Racing, last year the Chicago native increased his top 10s over his rookie effort from two to six, but dropped one spot in the standings because of a terrible summer run of five DNFs.

The new ride makes for a great deal of promise for Malukas. While labeled an oval master, he still showed good results on road and street circuits, finishing sixth at Mid-Ohio in the middle of his bad-luck streak. Unfortunately the whole Arrow McLaren operation will be looking to get to victory lane as much as Malukas, as they went winless in 2023. He just has to hope that the recent wrist injury he sustained that will keep him out of the season opener won’t be a lingering issue.

See also
Inside IndyCar: 5 Drivers With Something to Prove in 2024

Pick One From the Field

That leaves six confirmed drivers in the full-time field that are winless in their careers: rookie Tom Blomqvist, sophomore Agustin Canapino, Santino Ferrucci, Pietro Fittipaldi, sophomore Sting Ray Robb and rookie Kyffin Simpson. There could potentially be two more added to this list once Dale Coyne announces who will replace the TBD entries for his team.

Out of those six though, who could be a first-time winner to make this ‘Top 5 List’ story complete? Picking an AJ Foyt Enterprises entry is tough, as they have shown speed at one track recently and that’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Blomqvist is making a return to a full-season effort in single seat open wheelers since a Formula E run in 2020-21. His Meyer Shank Racing team didn’t perform well last year, so they need to show improvement early in the year. Canapino had some good moments in 2023, but he is just heading into his second season ever in open wheel cars. Simpson didn’t have outstanding results in his time in Indy NXT.

The last remaining choice is just too nostalgic to overlook. A Fittipaldi back in victory lane in IndyCar is a great story.

The Brazilian was a surprise addition to the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, but with nine IndyCar starts to his credit he’s no stranger to the series. Last year he ran full-time in the FIA World Endurance Championship, and has been finding good shade in the F1 paddock as a reserve driver, but now gets back into a seat for a full go at the IndyCar series. Rahal’s team is theoretically better resourced than his previous stop at Coyne, so he might have some great opportunities to put on a show in the early part of the year. And it will be pretty entertaining to see a Fittipaldi, Rahal, and Andretti on track again at the Indy 500.

If these five drivers are truly going to break into the win column, they will have to prove themselves against a stacked field of veterans and rising stars of IndyCar. However, if two were able to do it last year, there’s no question it can happen again, making the series one of the most competitive on the planet.

Watch all the IndyCar drivers battle it out on the streets of St. Petersburg, March 10 on NBC.

About the author

Tom is an IndyCar writer at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991 and calls Fort Wayne home. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.

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