IndyCar | An Honorable Harvest

Which drivers have risen to the occasion and solidified their positions for next season?

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IndyCar | An Honorable Harvest
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Like the finite elasticity of a rubber band, the exertive forces of pressure on a professional racing driver from his/her team and sponsors, plus the weighty expectations of those who consistently cheer for them, can stretch even the most strong-willed individual to their mental and emotional limits.

The most commonly recited adage in motorsport, besides "second place is the first loser," is that the greatest pressure racers feel is the pressure they put upon themselves. Whether the pressure to perform is on a regional, national, or global level, every driver feels pressure within themselves to do their absolute best.

The only relief for the fever of competition is victory. That relief usually lasts for one race weekend. The time in-between that sweet success and the next race is spent preparing your mind, body, and machine to replicate that result.

Over a 17-race season, in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the fever grows stronger with each momentous victory or heartbreaking defeat. What about the drivers who don't manage to win a race during the campaign? There can be even more pressure on them because their coveted seats are not as secure as some others. It is the summation of their efforts (thus far) that can mean the difference between participating again next year or watching from the sidelines.

Which full-time drivers have done enough to return and compete for IndyCar glory in 2019, and who should be looking warily over their shoulders?

Being partnered with a 4-time IndyCar champion would be a daunting task for any seasoned veteran, but starting your second season alongside Scott Dixon is what Ed Jones has had to contend with for the past eight months. The numbers aren't as disastrous as you might think. The British driver has the same number of top ten finishes as Marco Andretti (7). He also has two podium finishes that he achieved in Long Beach and race two in Detroit. It could have easily been three, if not for a late race crash in Phoenix. While Dixon is competing for his fifth title, the lack of consistency and inability to take points away from the Kiwi's closest rivals has increased the chances of Jones not being retained by Chip Ganassi Racing for next season. The latest rumor is that Felix Rosenqvist could leave Formula E and take his place.

Speaking of Marco Andretti, the efforts for a rejuvenated campaign have brought more of the same results in 2018. After a car swap with Alexander Rossi, who's only 26 points away from Dixon in the title race, the fourth generation driver has not achieved a podium finish in over three years. Andretti Autosport stablemate and rookie Zach Veach has more top five finishes than Marco, and is looking to add to that tally after qualifying in 6th place for tomorrow's Grand Prix of Portland. Veach has just started a multi-year contract, and is looking more and more comfortable within the team, while Andretti is still struggling to get the most out of his car in qualifying which then hampers his race efforts. A standout pole position for race one in Detroit seems so long ago.

I remember watching him drive the Andretti Green Racing Acura LMP2 car at Sebring, over ten years ago, in what was then called the American Le Mans Series (now IMSA after the merger with the Rolex Grand Am Series). He was spectacular behind the wheel and his co-drivers, Bryan Herta and Christian Fittipaldi, could not match his times!

The pressure of winning the Indy 500, after coming so close in his rookie year, and carrying the weight of expectation on his shoulders as the son of the team's owner may be too great for one man to carry. With Michael Andretti searching for a way to place the potentially inbound Fernando Alonso in his team, with McLaren support, it would be the perfect time for Marco Andretti to leave the only home he's known in his IndyCar career. Maybe a move down the block, pairing the veteran with a rookie driver like Colton Herta or recently crowned Indy Lights Champion Patricio O'Ward in a Harding Racing competitive collaboration. Maybe even a return to racing prototypes. Juan Pablo Montoya competed in NASCAR and the top tier of sports car racing for several years, before returning to open-wheel racing, and nearly won the championship in his late thirties. At the age of 31, Marco still has plenty of time if he wants to hit the reset button on his IndyCar career.

With the increasingly unpredictable silly season in Formula 1, and the rising talent that's coming out of the junior categories in Europe, it's safe to say that Spencer Pigot's seat is not 100% safe at Ed Carpenter Racing. He helped his cause greatly by finishing 6th at the most recent round in Illinois and getting a podium finish at Iowa a couple of months ago. Jordan King has been fast but frenetic. Nevertheless, the pressure to retain his seat will still be on the American until the last lap at Sonoma.

The only driver with season results that are worse than rookie Matheus Leist is Max Chilton. It appears that Leist will get another season to learn and grow alongside Tony Kanaan, but many people expected a lot more than what we've seen so far. Chilton, on the other hand, has had a very disappointing third season in the series, after nearly finishing in the overall top ten last year with CGR. Carlin Racing anticipated a struggle for their debut season, but Charlie Kimball's results have shown the team what is achievable. With 5 top ten finishes, including a well-earned fifth place in Toronto, I believe that Kimball has responded well to the pressure and assured the team that he should be their lead driver in 2019.

There are so many talented drivers who are chomping at the bit to get a full-time opportunity next year in the IndyCar Series. There are two races left for drivers like Carlos Munoz, Jack Harvey, Pietro Fittipaldi, and Santino Ferrucci to handle the pressure of jumping into the car and getting up to speed quickly. Impressing the team, rewarding your sponsor's investment, and entertaining the fans all while pursuing your personal ambitions is a difficult juggling act, but one that is worth the time, energy, and effort.

I would be remiss if I didn't include Robert Wickens in this speculative piece. Although he will miss the last three rounds of the season, he is still likely to finish in the top ten for driver's points. That shows just how successful the Canadian's debut season had been, up until his unfortunate accident at Pocono Raceway. We all hope to see Robert fully recovered from his injuries and racing again in 2019, when he can hopefully reap the rewards of a full harvest.

The Grand Prix of Portland can be seen today on the NBC Sports Network at 3pm ET.

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