This probably won’t come as much of a consolation for David Malukas, but the incomprehensible decision to nominate Jimmie Johnson as 2022’s Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year does have a fairly recent precedent.
In 2017, Fernando Alonso – like Johnson, a superstar who arrived at the Speedway after having amassed an extraordinary resume elsewhere – was granted the honors after a race that came to an early end when his engine expired. OK, the Spaniard had performed beyond expectations, qualifying on the second row and leading 29 laps. But fellow rookie Ed Jones defined expectations too, narrowly missing the Fast 9 in his Dale Coyne Racing Honda, and then leaning on a combination of smart driving and an aggressive strategy on race day to finish third behind Takuma Sato and Helio Castroneves.
But at least on that occasion there was a case to be made for Alonso. The ROY is not determined by finishing position alone. Some of the voting panel don’t focus entirely on race day either, but instead take the entire Month of May into account. So, sure, Jones beat Alonso in the race, but Alonso qualified a couple of rows ahead of the Coyne driver, and led a bunch of laps.
Johnson’s qualifying performance was absolutely worthy of praise. Yes, Ganassi clearly had its cars well-sorted but you still need the biological component to do its part of the job, and after the first day of qualifying the No.48 was third-best of the five CGR cars, tucked in immediately behind teammates Alex Palou and Tony Kanaan in P6.
Johnson dropped a few spots in the Fast 12 and lined up 12th – still a very respectable result, and second-best of the rookies behind Romain Grosjean. But Malukas was just one place behind him on the grid. Every spot counts, but if qualifying did factor into Rookie of the Year considerations, this was in the realm of splitting hairs.
Then, Malukas found himself on the wrong end of a mistimed Santino Ferrucci move on Carb Day, which did enough damage to the No.18 Honda to necessitate a switch to a back-up car for race day. It’s worth noting that a similar scenario derailed Colton Herta on Sunday. Are Coyne’s backup cars way better than Andretti’s? Who knows, but whatever the team gave Malukas on Sunday, he was able to work with it.
How significant is it that Malukas was the highest-finishing rookie? It has to count for something that he finished at all, considering the general attrition rate among the first-timers: in addition to Johnson, Grosjean and Callum Ilott both checked out early in single-car accidents. So Johnson was the best of the rookies who crashed, by virtue of the fact that he lasted longer before doing so. But you’d think he’d still have traded places with Malukas, Kyle Kirkwood or Christian Lundgaard, who served up an all-rookie 16-17-18 at the finish. Same with Devlin DeFrancesco who was 20th, right behind Ed Carpenter.
And while Alonso could point to laps led in 2017, Johnson’s afternoon was characterized mostly by a slow regression through the pack. Granted, he was the only rookie to lead laps, but those two tours in front were during the pitstop cycles, while Alonso had led five years earlier while running with the lead group. That aside, Johnson had Malukas soundly beaten in the name recognition stakes, but that was about it.
None of this is intended as an attack on Johnson himself. His entire IndyCar adventure has been underscored with genuine humility and respect for the series and his rivals, and one suspects he was probably as mortified as everyone else when the ROY was announced. But the ROY decision-making process is an entirely subjective one, and on this occasion, the mind hive went to a strange place.