INDIANAPOLIS — Three races remain in the NTT IndyCar Series season. This weekend’s Harvest Grand Prix will mark the second and third races run this year on the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course layout for the stars of the series. All of which coming since July 4.
Scott Dixon can wrap up the season championship so long as his points lead doesn’t shrink to below 55. It’s currently at 72. He has four straight top two finishes on this track (road course) including a win this past summer. Meanwhile, Josef Newgarden, the only one chasing him for the title that has a realistic shot of winning a championship, has never had a podium on this layout with a career best finish of seventh coming back on July 4. That was his only top 10 in seven tries.
See why this is Dixon’s race to lose in terms of a championship?
That means Newgarden has to swing for the fences right?
“I think this year is probably the least pressure-packed for us,” Newgarden said of this weekend. “We’re certainly in the chase position. We’re not being chased. We don’t really have much to lose. We could slip backwards in the championship from our second-place position. If you’re not winning the championship, I don’t know how much you weight that. You really don’t. From our side, we don’t weight it that much. The championship is really all that matters.
“There’s not a lot of pressure to take risk. But like I was saying before, we don’t ever really stray away from our normal plan. We’re always trying to maximize points. If that means taking a little bit of risk at one point in the race to maximize the points, we’ll do that. Maybe it’s dialing back the risk to maximize the points.
“We really don’t approach weekends differently. It’s always the same goal. I think that part doesn’t change. If you are going to say is it easier or harder, I’d say it’s a little bit easier to go out there and try to make the most of the weekend. We don’t have a lot to protect at this point.”
Dixon has the same approach despite having such a big lead and just needing to maintain.
“For us, we just have to treat it like any other race weekend and try to get maximum points,” Dixon said. “The obvious goal is to go out there and try to win, but unfortunately there’s 23, 24 others that have the same goal. Try to do better than we did at the last doubleheader at Mid-Ohio where I definitely made a very large mistake, that gave away some pretty easy points there.”
Everyone else is cautiously swinging for the fences. They have to. If it’s not a championship or an Indy 500 triumph, it’s just all about collecting trophies.
While Newgarden said that he’s willing to risk falling out of the second spot in the championship standings, Colton Herta is willing to take it. He would love to finish runner-up to Dixon in the title race in just his second full time season at the helm.
“I mean, I think if you’re not going for the championship, you’re kind of mindset is to win races,” Herta continued. “That’s really the mindset. Obviously don’t overextend it and throw a good result away. I have a little bit to lose.
“Obviously we need to do well. If we really do want to get second place in the championship, we need to win another race. I think we do need a little bit of help from Josef on this weekend.
“But, yeah, like I said, if you’re not really in the championship, I think the goal for everyone should be to win races. That’s what we’re going to try and do. Try to get on pole, just like Mid-Ohio, then be able to lead the whole thing.”
Graham Rahal wants a spot in the top five of the standings and trails Will Power by five points of making that happen. He’s swinging for the fence though for a win.
Power is just going to do the same routine that he’s always done. He notes that if you try and swing too hard, that it never works out for you. There’s a reason that he’s won on this track three times. Simon Pagenaud has also won here three times, but he’s focusing on 2021 setups instead. He’s doing so due to the lack of practice and testing and isn’t sure that any of that extra track time is necessarily coming back next season.
So, their focus is ahead.
That’s why I expect this race to be aggressive.
This track is going to be vastly cooler than we’ve had it this past July as Dixon notes the conditions are going to be more favorable to what you’d see for the May race.
“Yeah, I think the track will be a lot faster,” Power said of the two races this weekend when temperatures are supposed to be in the high 50’s and low 60’s both days. “There will be less deg, more horsepower basically. It’s really difficult to actually say what effect it will have on racing. Maybe the racing will be similar, honestly. I think the cars will just be a little easier to drive, more downforce in the cool temps.”
“Yeah, definitely be less physical, as well,” said the Indy GP winner of 2019. “The heat personally was excruciating in the first Indy Grand Prix. The Harvest one should be a lot easier physically speaking. Should allow the driver to be 100% as well, all of us. I expect that to be a bit different.
“Now, I don’t know about the race, if it’s going to change anything, like Will said. Might make the out lap more exciting because tires are colder. Something to watch there, yeah. Less degradation on the tires, for sure, faster cars, faster pace.”
Second year driver Colton Herta expects teams to experiment more with downforce levels with the cooler temperatures.
“I’m not really sure what it will do for the racing,” Herta said. “I think there’s a possibility that guys will try different downforce options if it’s that much cooler. This is a place you can sometimes get away with trimming if it’s a little bit cooler because how long the straights are, no major high-speed corners. It might be interesting in the race to see what people go for with downforce options that might open up the passing a little bit.”
Another thing that will be different are the race lengths. Saturday’s race will be 10 laps shorter than Friday’s. That in turn will create different strategies too.
Friday you can go with a three stop strategy and try and save enough to make it on two. Saturday’s will definitely be a two stop race.
“I think it’s going to be pretty straightforward honestly,” Power said of the two varying race distances. “I think the longer race will be a three-stop and the shorter will be a two-stop. Yeah, kind of mixes things up. I guess it’s good because everyone learns on the first day what the best strategy is. So having two different race lengths keeps everyone guessing. Might make the racing a little better.”
Pagenaud, yet agreed again with his teammate.
“I join Will on that. It’s a really great point. In Iowa, for example, on our team we had a strategy starting from the back. Even before the yellow came out, we were already back to the front.
“On the second day, actually use that strategy, so we can come back as quickly to the front. We ended up being more in traffic. I thought that was super interesting to see. Obviously everybody is paying attention to strategies. But that could be changing the format for the second race, probably (indiscernible). I think it’s good for racing.
“Any time something unexpected happens, makes the racing more exciting in some ways. Yeah, I would agree with Will 100%.”
These drivers would all next year like to see the course adjusted for a doubleheader here anyways. Not that a doubleheader would necessarily ensue here again, but a change between course layouts on the two days would be wanted.
“I think I would love to maybe see — I think you could do it each day, do a different track each day where you can have the turn one like the Formula 1 cars used to use, I think that might make overtaking a little bit better,” Herta said. “The other day you can do the normal track. You can practice on the normal track, run it Sunday, shouldn’t be a huge adjustment to run the track Sunday. It should be easy flat out for these cars.”
Power liked it. He said he was going to talk to his boss about the potential idea of that.
“Actually, I agree,” said the three-time winner on the road course. “I actually was going to suggest it to Roger (Penske). You change the track from one day to the next, do exactly what Colton said, which is open up turn one of the oval. I think that would create actually a lot more passing.
“I don’t know with Firestone, we have to change the tire, like they had issues in Formula 1 for the long-loaded banked corner. But, yeah, I think that would be quite interesting.”
Also, will starting position matter? Four of the last five years have seen the pole winner win this race. Five of the six races run saw the winner come from the top 2 Rows. Pagenaud, started eighth last year in his win.
Want to win both days too? Better at least make the Fast Six.
The big reason to that is, we’ve seen chaos on the opening lap in almost every year. The only year we didn’t was in 2017 and again in July.
Another big reason to that is how tight Turn 1 is and how moves are being made into it to gain spots on track.
If you made it past Lap 1, pit strategy follows.
This race overall has seen three or fewer cautions in the last five years. When four of those five races had a first lap incident, you can see that this race has been run clean for a majority of the way.