Top 10: Ranking the best IndyCar race drives of 2023
America’s premier open-wheel series produced some brilliant racing across 16 race weekends, with some fine performances up and down its bumper grid. But which drives truly stood out?
The 2023 IndyCar Series season was dominated by Chip Ganassi Racing's Alex Palou, but the Spaniard didn't have a monopoly on top-drawer performances on his way to sealing a second title.
It was Palou who topped our ranking of the year's 10 best performers, which you can read here, but for this list, we've collated the best individual drives from the season.
Our experts Charles Bradley and Joey Barnes pick out their favourites from a crowded field – and the same superstar scooped positions one and two...
10. Graham Rahal hosed only by Dixon at the IMS Road Course for Brickyard Weekend
Photo by: Gavin Baker
Rahal was on superb form at the Indy road course, but was denied victory by an on-form Dixon
When it comes to the best runner-up drive of the season, Graham Rahal at the Indianapolis Road Course is a strong contender. The guy started from pole position, barely put a foot wrong, and yet got hosed for victory by Scott Dixon’s jaw-dropping, alternate-strategy comeback drive.
The opening lap was wild, as Devlin DeFrancesco pulled the outbraking move of the season to lead at Turn 1 from fifth on the grid. Polewinner Rahal did the right thing and let him go.
Under caution moments later, after a multi-car opening lap pileup that he got caught up in, Dixon escaped from his spin swiftly and led a pack of cars into the pitlane on lap five, losing a couple more spots as Ganassi swapped his primary tyres for alternates and brimmed his fuel tank. He was 20th when the race restarted on lap eight (a delayed restart absolutely helping his fuel mileage) but the silver lining to his cloud was having fresh alternates available after he’d failed to progress from Q1 in qualifying.
Rahal quickly repassed DeFrancesco to take the lead a lap after the restart and was chasing his own redemption arc after a traumatic Indy 500 in May, leading by 1.2s from Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi and 25s clear of Dixon – who would have one less pitstop to make should the race run green from here with over three-quarters of it remaining.
No more cautions occurred, so Rahal found himself in a flat-out sprint against an enemy he couldn’t see on the track. After his first stop, Rahal rejoined 12s behind the off-sequence Dixon, with the Kiwi producing his fuel-saving magic while still driving at a rapid pace.
Rahal’s task was hampered by losing a set of alternate tyres after a blister was discovered after qualifying. That consigned him to two primary stints, while Dixon enjoyed his copious alternates – which he revealed were a compound that ran as primaries at Barber in 2019, so he knew they’d last.
Rahal brought the gap down to 8s before Dixon’s penultimate stop and led him (again) by 25s at half distance. After his own penultimate stop, Rahal trailed Dixon by 6s, and when the six-time champion made his last pit visit with 26 laps to go he rejoined on spanking-new alternates.
Rahal made his third stop and took scrubbed alternates for the run to the finish, Dixon blasting past to lead by 6s with 20 to go. But Dixon had leant hard on his tyres, which allowed Rahal to carve into his lead in the dash to the finish. In a thrilling finale, Rahal chased him down but Dixon’s fuel-saving strategy ironically meant he had plenty of push-to-pass left to defend. Although Rahal spent the final three laps glued to Dixon’s gearbox, he agonisingly couldn’t find a way past. CB
9. Palou terrorises his championship rivals at Mid-Ohio
Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images
After a robust move on Kirkwood, Palou overcut Herta and pulled away in devastating fashion
Alex Palou’s title charge was personified by his performance at Mid-Ohio, a race that seemed to truly crush his opposition. He only started fourth on the grid, after failing to match Colton Herta’s pace on the same primary-tyred strategy in Fast Six qualifying. But that just made his drive more sparkling.
He battled his way past Long Beach GP winner Kyle Kirkwood just before one-quarter distance, Kirkwood spinning as Palou didn’t give him an inch at the apex of Turn 4, in a move that shows he can be ruthless as well as charming. He knew that Herta was escaping out front and had to keep him in reach of the overcut he was planning.
Palou – who started on the harder primary tyres compared to his rivals – reeled in race leader Herta and Graham Rahal, who was also strong that weekend. Palou smartly switched to fuel-saving mode in their wake, to not only run longer than them before making his first pitstop but also require less gas when he pitted.
Thanks to that short-fill, Palou assumed his accustomed lead after the pitstop cycle, and now on the softer alternate rubber, he tore away from Herta to an 8.4s advantage – utterly demoralising his pursuer. Palou’s only hindrance from here was AJ Foyt’s rookie driver Benjamin Pedersen, who not only refused to be lapped but seemed willing to take Palou to the margins to keep him behind. Palou finally had to bundle his way past around the outside of Turn 5 and force the issue at Turn 6, but his lead was slashed by 5s.
Once released, he absolutely flew in clear air, extending his advantage over Herta to 8.5s before making his final stop on lap 54. That’s when Herta’s race came undone, as he was caught speeding in the pitlane, and that allowed Palou to cruise home.
A shout-out here too for Pato O’Ward, who bounced back from a disastrous qualifying with a barnstorming charge from last to eighth on a three-stop strategy for Arrow McLaren. CB
8. O’Ward’s dominant performance ends with bittersweet runner-up at Texas
Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images
O'Ward was brilliant at Texas, but was unfortunate to come away second
Imagine a race where the driver laps the majority of the field into the top five but fails to win the race. That was the twist in the tale that could summarise Pato O’Ward’s 2023 season.
The Mexican started fifth and was the only real threat to a dominant Josef Newgarden. After finding the lead on lap 109 of 250, O’Ward’s #5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet looked poised for victory. By lap 160, he had lapped the entire 28-car field except for Newgarden, who was nearly six seconds behind in second.
However, cautions negated a pleasant drive, the most damning of which came after team-mate Felix Rosenqvist crashed in Turn 4 on lap 179. The incident allowed six cars that were one lap down to take the wave-around and return to the lead lap once O’Ward and Newgarden pitted with 68 laps remaining.
Then, it was game-on in wild side-by-side action after the restart on lap 193, which featured 14 lead changes between five drivers. O’Ward and Newgarden swapped the lead five times in the last eight laps before Romain Grosjean’s accident in Turn 1 put a premature halt on a likely memorable finish, which saw Newgarden out front moments before on lap 249.
The race featured 26 lead changes, which was the most in Texas since 2001. There were also 439 passes for position, the most in six years at the 1.5-mile oval. O’Ward made 93 on-track passes, the most of any driver in the race. JB
7. Newgarden underlines his oval dominance at Iowa
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
Newgarden won both races at Iowa in brilliant fashion, though had to work harder for his second one
Picking between Josef Newgarden’s performances at the Iowa double-header is a tough choice, as he extended his amazing streak of oval victories to five, adding this pair to his 2023 Texas and Indy 500 wins and Gateway last year (he also won the first race at Iowa 12 months ago, but crashed out of the second with suspension failure while leading).
Newgarden led 341 laps across the two 250-lap races, despite only qualifying third and seventh on the grids respectively. His main opposition came from team-mates Will Power and Scott McLaughlin. Power aced qualifying with two huge laps of over 181mph on the bumpy short track. But come the races, Newgarden was almost untouchable.
After a set-up tweak at his first pitstop in Race 1, he passed McLaughlin on lap 95 and Power on lap 121. From there, he vanished into the distance – despite late issues with some backmarkers who were racing him “like it was literally to the death at the end of the Indy 500”.
Newgarden had more work to do from seventh on the grid in Sunday’s second race. After settling an early duel with O’Ward, he made metronomic progress in the opening stint – his hardest pass being Marcus Ericsson, with whom he banged wheels off Turn 2. As Power and McLaughlin battled up front, Newgarden cruised up to them and pulled off a ridiculously easy-looking pass on both – staying low off Turn 2 as they both slid up the track on lap 31.
A real scare came when Sting Ray Robb’s car was inexplicably allowed to leave the pits with no wheelnut attached to its right-rear corner. The wheel came off at Turn 3 and rolled onto the track across the apex, forcing Newgarden into evasive action. Late yellows put Arrow McLaren’s Rosenqvist briefly in the hunt, but nobody had an answer for Newgarden that weekend. CB
6. Palou hangs on by a nose in Toronto
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
Despite a distinctly wobbly nose, Palou was not to be denied a superb second place behind Lundgaard in Toronto
Ganassi's Spanish leading man had several dominant performances en route to claiming his second IndyCar Series championship. However, nothing showcased Palou's desire and perseverance quite like his resounding runner-up result on the streets of Toronto.
He entered the weekend having won four of the previous five rounds, including the last three on the trot, which had catapulted Palou into a 110-point lead in the overall standings. Despite qualifying a season-worst 15th, Palou battled through the field to seventh by lap 20 of 85. He found the top five a few laps prior to pitting on lap 44 and was set to restart 16th until chaos struck the midfield and delayed the green flag.
The incident happened when Kirkwood, on a similar strategy to Palou, rear-ended Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves and sent him into a spin. Palou clipped the outside wall while moving past Castroneves, which cracked the nose and left the front wing dangling on Palou’s machine.
Instead of pitting for a front wing change, Palou stayed out and cycled up to second as the majority of the field pitted. Only the vinyl wrap preserved the front wing’s ability to remain in place despite every bump of the 11-turn, 1.786-mile temporary street circuit threatening to dislodge it.
In the end, Palou managed to capture his sixth podium finish of the year and finish second to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard, who scored his first IndyCar win by 11.7893s. JB
5. McLaughlin snips past Romain Grosjean in Barber thriller
Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images
McLaughlin only won once in 2023, but did so in fighting style after defeating Grosjean
This proved to be Scott McLaughlin’s only win, despite his incredibly strong end to the season, and it centred on a renewed battle with his St Petersburg nemesis Romain Grosjean, a duel for victory that had very much ended in tears there. It was also a classic strategic scenario of McLaughlin’s three-stopper versus Grosjean on a two-stop.
Grosjean started from pole, with McLaughlin fourth. Having started on the harder primary tyres, McLaughlin lost a spot almost immediately, as Dixon drove around the outside of him at Turn 2. Then he was undercut by team-mate Newgarden during the first round of pitstops – so far, so bad!
But McLaughlin repassed Newgarden on lap 37, just before Newgarden pitted again. He escaped a scare when Robb caused a caution, McLaughlin just getting into the lane before the yellow came out.
At the restart just before half distance, Grosjean led McLaughlin – each with a final pitstop remaining. Grosjean made his final pit visit with one-third of the race to go and McLaughlin stopped four laps later. McLaughlin used to overcut to rejoin ahead, but as he was on cold tyres, Grosjean barged his way past at the final corner of his out lap.
Alas for Grosjean, he’d run out of push to pass with 21 laps to go. Two laps later, he made a tiny error and ran wide at Turn 5, and was thus defenceless against McLaughlin, who powered past and pulled away to a comfortable win. CB
4. Kirkwood’s breakthrough win at Long Beach
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
The breakthrough win for Kirkwood underlined his potential as a future star
“He’s the real deal.” Those were the words spoken by Andretti Global team owner Michael Andretti after Kyle Kirkwood scored a breakthrough maiden IndyCar victory in the Grand Prix of Long Beach on 16 April.
A day after earning his first-ever pole, Kirkwood went on to lead 53 of 85 laps around the sun-splashed 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit to claim victory in only his 20th start. Even more impressively, he was forced to fend off team-mate and ex-Formula 1 driver Grosjean, who applied relentless pressure in the closing laps before accepting defeat and finishing 0.9907s in arrears.
After 2022 Long Beach winner Newgarden pitted from the lead on lap 52, he was followed in by Grosjean on lap 53. A surging in-lap combined with a slight bog by rivals allowed Kirkwood, who pitted on lap 54, to inherit the top spot which he held to the end.
It was the first 1-2 finish for Andretti since Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay swept the podium in the second race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in September 2020. And for Kirkwood, it was the realisation of the promise he'd shown throughout his junior formula career, where he became the first driver ever to claim titles in USF 2000, USF Pro 2000 and Indy NXT – formerly recognised as the Road to Indy – and do so in successive seasons. JB
3. Ericsson’s heartbreaking runner-up in the Indianapolis 500
Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images
Ericsson thought he had the Indy 500 won for a second time until race control elected to restart with one lap to go
There wasn’t another runner-up result more difficult to endure during the 2023 season than what Marcus Ericsson experienced in the Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The Swede came in as the defending winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and by all accounts, surpassed that performance with one that was worthy of a repeat trip to Victory Lane. However, that’s not how it went down.
After Ericsson’s #8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda took the lead from Newgarden on the next-to-last restart, the caution came out for a crash on the front straightaway with four laps to go. Instead of finishing under caution with so few laps remaining, Race Control opted for a red flag that was followed by an unprecedented one-lap shootout with cars rolling from pit lane to take the green flag.
Ericsson was a sitting duck as Newgarden’s #2 Team Penske Chevrolet charged to the lead entering Turn 3 and finished 0.974s ahead for the fourth-closest finish in Indy 500 history.
"I feel like we did everything right,” said Ericsson, who led 30 laps. “I feel like we won that race, and then it sort of got taken away from us.” JB
2. Scott Dixon’s three stops of heaven in St Louis
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Pitting only three times was the key to Dixon's win at the former Gateway track
Between IndyCar’s two engine manufacturers, Honda has the edge on Chevrolet in terms of fuel mileage. But to unlock that, you need a driver with patience and a cool head that can overrule his heart rate. Step forward, IndyCar’s very own ‘Iceman’.
Scott Dixon unleashed his monastic fuel-saving skills at St Louis with a mind-blowing comeback drive from a nine-place grid penalty at the 1.25-mile oval. His strategist spotted the opportunity, but it depended on Dixon keeping up the pace while making the tyres last. From 16th on the grid, he committed to an alternate strategy from the first wave of the green flag.
A lengthy yellow, after Ed Carpenter fired Benjamin Pedersen into the wall at the first corner, helped Dixon extend his first stint until lap 65, which was only matched by Team Penske’s Will Power. As rivals shot for a four-stop strategy, which was favoured given the first-time use of a softer, alternate tyre compound from Firestone that had to be used by all drivers, Dixon’s commitment to a three-stopper was confirmed when he made the red-walled rubber last until the race’s second caution on lap 125, as his Ganassi team-mate Takuma Sato shunted at Turn 2.
That cycled him to the race lead proper and it was the point of the race where his rivals could’ve aped his strategy. But they didn’t, which cemented Dixon’s rivals into making five or six stops; he managed it in just three!
The only driver who didn’t quite wave the white flag in Dixon’s direction was Power. The outgoing champion pushed Dixon hard in the closing stages in what appeared to be an attempt to force the Kiwi to turn up his engine and make an extra stop. But Dixon wasn’t for turning, and Power was forced to pit with 13 to go – which was extra galling as he’d bailed out on matching Dixon’s strategy during his second stint.
Dixon led 123 laps and cruised to victory by over 22s, with only Arrow McLaren’s O’Ward and Dale Coyne Racing’s David Malukas on the lead lap. CB
1. Dixon does Dixon things at the IMS Road Course for Brickyard Weekend
Photo by: Jake Galstad
Dixon didn't appear to have much of a chance after being embroiled in a first lap incident, but produced a miraculous recovery drive to beat Rahal
When talking about a drive of pure brilliance, just roll the tape of Scott Dixon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course during the Brickyard weekend.
He rallied from being collected in an opening lap accident and turned the cards on the field with pit strategy and vaulted to the front. This “spin to win” didn’t have the same high stakes as Danny Sullivan’s famous manoeuvre in the 1985 Indianapolis 500, but had its own share of obstacles to overcome.
The opening lap incident happened when Palou made contact with his rookie Ganassi team-mate Marcus Armstrong in Turn 7, which spun the latter and created mayhem that also caused Grosjean to collide and spin Dixon. Newgarden also ended up in the mix with front wing damage after climbing over the nose of Armstrong’s car.
Despite the incident, Dixon was able to continue on and pitted on lap five to set up the alternate strategy that aided the win. Pole-sitter Rahal, who delivered a stout performance of his own that on any other day would have led to victory, was left with the runner-up spot, 0.4779s behind Dixon.
His triumph at the 14-turn, 2.439-mile circuit extended Dixon’s record streak to 19 consecutive seasons with at least one victory in IndyCar, on the same day he also set the series record with his 319th consecutive start. JB
Photo by: IndyCar Series
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