IndyCar’s ’21 Rookie Class Sure Doesn’t Act Like One in IndyCar Opener

IndyCar’s ’21 Rookie Class Sure Doesn’t Act Like One in IndyCar Opener

04/19/2021

No, this is not a political column, so let’s get the first thing quickly out of the way before we get to the main point:

Republicans who sometimes don’t vote along party lines enough for some party faithful are often tagged by some critcs as RINO—Republicans In Name Only.

OK, that’s out of the way. Now the main point:

After Sunday’s NTT IndyCar season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, America’s premier open-wheel series now has its own form of RINOs—Rookies In Name Only.

And if their individual and collective performance Sunday is any indication of what’s to come this season, Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin and Jimmie Johnson will definitely be forces to be reckoned with.

While much attention was on Johnson, making his first career open-wheel start – we’ll get to him in a bit—Grosjean stole the show of the three RINOs in my opinion.

Here’s a guy who suffered very serious injuries in a horrific and fiery crash last fall in Bahrain, while he was in Formula One. His hands suffered second- and third-degree burns and for a while there, it was questionable whether he’d ever recover full use of his appendages, let alone race again.

But when the bandages finally came off and Grosjean realized he could still wheel a race car, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Sunday, Grosjean immediately began to pay back the faith Coyne and Ware had in him.

He qualified an impressive seventh, avoided the big wreck in Turn 5 on the opening lap, drove as high as fifth during the 90-lap event on the Barber Motorsports road course, and ultimately finished a very respectable 10th in his first-ever IndyCar outing.

Even though it was anything but, Grosjean made it look easy two days after his 35th birthday.

“What a day! My first race in IndyCar and my first

top-10 result,” Grosjean said after the race. “We can be very happy with that. We fought for a long time with the top four, and we did our best.

“There’s a lot that we learned today, so we’ll move on to St. Pete and keep working to improve. I still need to get used to rolling starts [as used in IndyCar, Formula One uses a standing start], but it was a lot of fun!”

The French native looked so strong at Barber that it would not be a surprise if he earns a podium finish—even a win—in the next race, this coming Sunday in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Grosjean clearly showed Sunday that he will take to IndyCar racing as easily as a duck takes to water.

As for Australian Scott McLaughlin, whose acquisition has brought Team Penske back to four cars in the NTT IndyCar Series for the first time since 2017, he also showed he has what it takes to succeed.

Remember, the 27-year-old McLaughlin came to America after winning the last three Australian Supercar championships.

Although he crashed out in his first IndyCar effort, last year’s season-ending race at St. Petersburg, McLaughlin—like Grosjean—showed he also has what it takes to go head-to-head with IndyCar’s biggest stars including defending and six-time champion Scott Dixon, Team Penske teammates Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud and other IndyCar veterans.

McLaughlin was the third-highest finishing Penske driver. Power was runner-up to race winner Alex Palou, Pagenaud finished 12th and McLaughlin was 14th after qualifying 12th. Newgarden started the multi-car crash on the opening lap and was relegated to a 23rd-place finish in the 24-car field.

Like Grosjean, McLaughlin flirted with the top-5 several times during the race. But he drove smartly and gave his team, his rivals and fans plenty of signs that he is slated for success in American open-wheel racing.

And then there’s Johnson. For a first effort in an IndyCar ride, he did a decent job. He stayed out of trouble, avoiding the big first lap wreck (although he did hit some debris that did not do any harm to his Honda). He also was content to stay near the back of the pack to log laps, finishing 19th, three laps down to the winner.

“I’m very happy to have finished,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “There were two pretty scary moments in the race. One, the original start, going into Turn 5, there was chaos. I bounced off two cars but nothing happened to mine, evidently. So we’re very fortunate there. Then, I spun in traffic over the hill on (turn) 13 and lost a lap at that point. But just a ton of learning experiences throughout the day.

“I could have gone a few more laps. Not totally taxed and the training has been working well so I’ll heal up and get ready for next week (at St. Petersburg). I can’t say too many times how different this is and how specialized this craft is and how good the drivers are in this series.”

Even though Johnson was the only one of the four Chip Ganassi Racing drivers not to finish in the top-10, team owner Chip Ganassi was quite pleased with his “rookie’s” effort.

“What a great leader he is, what a great guy,” Ganassi said of Johnson to NBC. “Really makes me mad to know what I was up against in NASCAR all of these years. Now I understand why he won seven championships. The guy is the hardest worker I know and he never stops. He’s got a hill to climb, but he’s going to do it.”

All three RINOs will continue to have a hill to climb, but they definitely got off on the right foot Sunday.

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