Race predictions for 2023: Scott McLaughlin's 1st title, Scott Dixon's Indy 500 redemption

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

I’m not the betting type, nor would I suggest anyone wager any serious amounts of money on my predictions before a single lap is turned in St. Pete.

But here’s a stat for you: Had you put down $10 on each of my 2022 preseason IndyCar race-winner picks, you would’ve come away more than $100 richer. Four correct picks across the 17 events (including three in-a-row from Toronto through Iowa) will do that.

Will I have the same success in 2023? Probably not, but across a 2022 season filled with bouts of team in-fighting, a surprise Indianapolis 500-winner and a dark horse season-champ, this annual preseason exercise hit on some interesting storylines. Pato O’Ward was crowned the oval champ of 2022. Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon finished frustratingly close to another title. Alex Palou fell back a bit after his surprise title run in 2021.

Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, celebrates with champagne in the Winners Circle after winning  an IndyCar auto race in Toronto, Sunday, July 17, 2022.

Of course, there were some massive misses: Will Power winning the title (rather than taking 10th), Scott McLaughlin seriously contending for the championship in 4th-place (rather than outside the top-10 in 12th), Colton Herta struggling mightily with inconsistency (rather than clinching his first Astor Cup) and Jack Harvey taking a massive step backwards in his move to RLL (rather than keeping hold of his 13th-place championship finish from 2021).

With six correct race-winner predictions in my three seasons on the IndyCar beat at IndyStar, I’ve yet to connect on a champion (Alexander Rossi, Newgarden and Herta in order) or 500-winner (Ed Carpenter, Rossi and O’Ward). In Year No. 4, I’ve added two new names to those lists, with the belief that past performance will continue to snowball into massive career achievements for a pair of Kiwis.

With a four-year extension with Andretti Autosport, Colton Herta now holds one of the longest current drivers in racing worldwide.

Race 1: Streets of St. Petersburg

Winner: Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport

Takeaway: Herta and the Andretti cars have consistently had solid speed on the streets of St. Pete in recent years, and though preseason testing times aren’t always reflective of a team’s speed against the paddock, doing well doesn’t hurt. After an up-and-down 2022 campaign, I think Andretti and Herta are in for a rebound this year. Kicking off the year with a win in the season-opener would send quite the message.

Race 2: Texas Motor Speedway

Winner: Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske

Takeaway: Through his two full-time IndyCar seasons, the three-time Supercars champ has performed his best at TMS, finishing runner-up in two of his three starts. In a year in which I see McLaughlin pulling out his first IndyCar title, it’s critical for the New Zealander to get on the board with an early win, and the year’s first oval seems the most logical spot.

Race 3: Streets of Long Beach

Winner: Romain Grosjean, Andretti Autosport

Takeaway: Outside his IMS road course runner-up as a rookie in 2021 (where he wasn’t that much of a threat in the back half of the race), Grosjean’s closest challenge for his first IndyCar victory came a year ago on the streets of Long Beach. I expect the second-year Andretti Autosport driver to breakthrough for his first motorsports victory in 12 years, and I can’t get out of my head how race-y the Swiss-born Frenchman was on Newgarden’s heels a year ago.

After spending his first seven IndyCar seasons with Andretti Autosport, Alexander Rossi moves onto a new challenge at Arrow McLaren, where he'll attempt to finally clinch his first championship.

Race 4: Barber Motorsports Park

Winner: Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren

Takeaway: Rossi’s never been shy about his lack of love for the permanent road course outside Birmingham, Ala., but qualifying 5th and other moments across his weekend (even with a ninth-place finish) hinted that answers may be there. I don’t expect his first season with Arrow McLaren to go completely smooth but there will be times when his speed show sparks, and at a track where new teammate Pato O’Ward took pole in 2021 and won in 2022, Barber could be a sneaky spot for Rossi to land his first IndyCar win outside the Andretti stable.

Race 5: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course

Winner: Will Power, Team Penske

Takeaway: Last year’s IndyCar champion carries a 16-season streak with at least one win, dating back to his second full-season campaign in Champ Car (2007). I wouldn’t expect anything to change in Power’s winning ways. The Team Penske veteran has won five times on the IMS road course, a nearly 50% win rate since the start of 2015, and has finished on the podium in four of his last five starts there. You can pretty much count on him winning here every other year, which means Power’s due.

Race 6: 107th Indianapolis 500

Winner: Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing

Takeaway: Historians will remember Dixon’s terrible luck in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing the last three years for decades to come. A pair of ill-timed cautions (2020 and 2021) and running just a tick of a mile-per-hour over the pitlane limit with fewer than 30 laps to go (2022) have robbed the driver who had the best car each race day. He is due. IMS cares little about how much someone “deserves” a win, but it’s rare that brilliance this consistent isn't rewarded sooner or later.

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden (2) stands by his pit box Friday, July 29, 2022, during practice for the Gallagher Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Race 7: Streets of Detroit

Winner: Josef Newgarden, Team Penske

Takeaway: There’s but one other driver (Dixon) I trust as much coming into a race weekend full of unknowns as I do Newgarden. And should he clear the 500 without a win in 2023, there will be no one on the grid wanting a victory in the first race on a new downtown Detroit layout more than the two-time champ.

Race 8: Road America

Winner: Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport

Takeaway: As a rookie, Herta took pole at Road America in 2019 and fell back to 8th. Since? He’s finished no worse than fifth. With the title race incredibly bunched up with seven winners in the first seven races (and no double-points at the 500), the pool of a half-dozen serious title contenders will be fighting to see who can grab that important second victory of the year. Count on a resurgent Herta to notch his ninth career win in Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

Race 9: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course

Winner: Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing

Takeaway:  The six-time winner at Mid-Ohio will tack on win No. 7 at the famed permanent road course in Lexington, Ohio. And with that, Dixon will hope to erase a stat that took me by surprise: In the 16 seasons since IndyCar returned to Mid-Ohio, Dixon has combined for six Mid-Ohio wins and five championships – but none in the same year.

Colton Herta, of the United States, drives to a second place finish during an IndyCar auto race in Toronto, Sunday, July 17, 2022.

Race 10: Streets of Toronto

Winner: Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport

Takeaway:A year after starting on pole, losing his lead on Dixon in his first pitstop and racing looking at the back of the No. 9 Honda for the remainder of the 80-lap race, I expect a championship-hunting Herta to take hold of the title race with his third win of the year, while just one driver (Dixon) will have more than one. After four IndyCar seasons of flirting with title-contention, Herta ensures he’ll firmly be in the picture until the checkered flag in Laguna Seca.

Race 11: Iowa Speedway

Winner: Josef Newgarden, Team Penske

Takeaway: If you take away his freak accident from a year ago in Race 2 that, in all likelihood, stole what would’ve been a weekend sweep, Newgarden would be the winner of four of the last five IndyCar races on the Newton, Iowa short-oval. In the midst of a doubleheader weekend, it seems almost too easy to assume Newgarden snags victory in at least one.

Race 12: Iowa Speedway

Winner: Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren

Takeaway:  Though Newgarden’s crash helped O'Ward take control of last year’s second race of the weekend, there’s no doubting his speed and skill at Iowa – and on ovals at-large. In yet another frustrating season that will ultimately leave him just outside the small group of serious title contenders entering the final five races of 2023, O’Ward will finally breakthrough for his first win of the year at a track he’s excelled at during his young career.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Álex Palou (10) of Spain celebrates finishing third in the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, Aug. 7, 2022.

Race 13: Streets of Nashville

Winner: Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing

Takeaway: In the first two years of this race, CGR drivers have taken up four of the six spots on the podium (as well as both victories with Dixon and Marcus Ericsson). With so much attrition (including 69 of the 160 laps run under caution), the race’s early days seems to favor drivers that consistently run up-front, which Palou has overwhelmingly done. Even if he’s not winning a championship, the Spaniard’s title run in 2021 and resilience against off-track noise in 2022 has pointed to him becoming an annual race-winner for years to come.

Race 14: Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course

Winner: Christian Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

Takeaway: Breakouts in drivers’ second seasons (whether it be in the sport or with a new team) seem to be the trend of late, and the young Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver seems primed for one. Even if he’s unable to crack the top-10 in points this year (there are nearly a dozen drivers with outside shots at title contention), the 21-year-old Danish driver knocked on the door enough times as a rookie to have a real shot for a win in 2023. And there’s no more likely track for it to happen at than the IMS road course, where Lundgaard has made two Fast Six appearances (in three starts) and finished runner-up in Race No. 2 a year ago. Say goodbye to the mustache.

Race 15: World Wide Technology Raceway

Winner: Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske

Takeaway: Beware the Team Penske driver’s late-season surge. We’ve seen it with Newgarden, where the two-time champ has won multiple races in the back-half of all but one season since joining Roger Penske’s squad. McLaughlin’s end to 2022 was no less stunning, including five consecutive top-4 finishes and just two outside the top-7 in the final 10 races. McLaughlin had nothing for Newgarden’s late-race pace at WWT Raceway a year ago, but special drivers in the midst of special seasons typically find another gear.

Scott McLaughlin competing at Mid-Ohio in July 2022.

Race 16: Portland International Raceway

Winner: Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske

Takeaway: With this win, McLaughlin snags what will now have been a lengthy time atop the title battle from Herta, joining the Andretti driver with three wins apiece with one race to go. Herta’s three wins in the first 10 races created a comfortable pad, not unlike Marcus Ericsson’s mid-season journey a year ago following his 500 victory. But McLaughlin’s consistency in rattling off top-5s over the course of the season will have kept him within striking distance, allowing wins in two of the final three races to push him into the lead.

Race 17: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca

Winner: Josef Newgarden, Team Penske

Takeaway: Newgarden’s third win of the year will propel him into rarified air: never in American open-wheel championships has a driver finished runner-up in four consecutive seasons. Newgarden became just the fourth to do so across three consecutive seasons a year ago. His trio of wins in 2023 will create an enticing title battle with his good friend/teammate/YouTube show cohost McLaughlin and Herta, but it will be McLaughlin’s steadiness across a whole season that prevails in yet another season-finale title clash. With his three wins, the 2023 champ will continue to inch closer to becoming Team Penske’s all-time leader in wins, trailing only Brad Keselowski (66) and Mark Donohue (59) with 56 by the end of 2023.

Here’s how I see the top-10 in points shaping up:

1. Scott McLaughlin (three wins)

2. Josef Newgarden (three wins)

3. Scott Dixon (two wins including the 500)

4. Colton Herta (three wins)

5. Will Power (one win)

6. Pato O’Ward (one win)

7. Alex Palou (one win)

8. Alexander Rossi (one win)

9. Romain Grosjean (one win)

10. Marcus Ericsson

And here’s how I see the rest of the field shaking out:

11. Felix Rosenqvist

12. Christian Lundgaard (one win)

13. Graham Rahal

14. Kyle Kirkwood

15. Simon Pagenaud

16. Rinus VeeKay

17. Callum Ilott

18. David Malukas

19. Jack Harvey

20. Conor Daly

21. Devlin DeFrancesco

22. Helio Castroneves

23. Marcus Armstrong

24. Santino Ferrucci

25. Sting Ray Robb

26. Agustin Canapino

27. Benjamin Pedersen