Main thoughts from Harvest Grand Prix race weekend

INDIANAPOLIS — Kudos to the NTT IndyCar Series leadership. We’ve made it to the end of the 2020 season to where all 14 races have run during a pandemic. We’re 13 down with 1 to go and barring an outbreak within the paddock, the series is set to wrap up the 2020 campaign on Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Pete.

In a trying time, they got it done.

The schedule was tweaked along the way but they still managed to get through. Here are my thoughts following the penultimate weekend of the season from Indianapolis.

▪️Penske finally gets not just one win, but two on his own track now. Previously, we had two INDYCAR races and two NASCAR races at IMS. Two were on the road course and two on the oval. Penske drivers were remarkably shutout in all four of them. Scott Dixon (Ganassi) and Takuma Sato (RLL) won the GMR Grand Prix and Indy 500 respectively. Chase Briscoe (SHR) and Kevin Harvick (SHR) won the NXS race on the road course and Brickyard 400 respectively. With Penskes acquisition of these hallowed grounds this past year, he would have loved to see one of his drivers cross the Yard of Bricks first at least once before the year was over. It happened twice this past weekend with Josef Newgarden winning on Friday and Will Power on Saturday. It was a dominating weekend for them with Newgarden earning a front row qualifying spot for Friday’s race and leading a race high 39 laps that day and Power starting from the pole and leading all 75 laps on Saturday.

▪️Newgarden picked a good time to have a career weekend at IMS. He’s never had a top five finish in seven previous tries on the 2.439 mile road course layout. He had a pair of them this past weekend with a win on Friday and a fourth on Saturday. He goes from 72 points down to 32 leaving the weekend.

▪️Dixon is in a rut. I think most thought he’d take the championship early this weekend. With a 72 point lead in the standings and just needing to stay 55 points above Newgarden, the title was his. He lost 40 points in the process. He had three straight runner up finishes on this road course and a win this past July. With Newgarden scoring no top fives coming into this weekend, it was a no brainer for this to be the first season since 2005 that we’d go to the season finale with a champion known. Instead, Dixon qualified poorly and only finished ninth and eighth respectively.

▪️Herta/Rossi/Power are heating up when it matters the most. They just have to wonder what if? What if Herta took these top four finishes from now and turned them into top fours earlier this seasons. He has three straight now and told me on Friday that his main goal was turning these finishes into podiums. Two of his last three were on there. He’s had a top 10 in all but two races in 2020, both at Iowa, and he sits P3 in points. Imagine if he does this in 2020. He’d be a championship contender. He’s had seven top five finishes in 2020 compared to three a year ago. He’s also had 11 top 10’s in 13 races this year too with having 11 in 17 races a season ago. Same for his teammate in Rossi. He had one top five in the first nine races of the season but imagine if his ECU doesn’t fail at Texas or an electrical problem doesn’t occur in IMS 1. Imagine if he isn’t penalized in the Indy 500. Still, Rossi has had four straight podiums now and has things back on track at a place where Andretti typically struggles. That leaves Power who’s won two of the last four races now on the season. Power, honesty should have more than two wins in 2020 anyways. An ill advised caution and stalling on pit road in the first race on the IMS road course on July 4 is a reason to why he doesn’t have three wins. What about the wrong gearing call in Road America 1? What about the tire literally falling off his car in Iowa 1 after a stop? There was another wrong caution in St. Louis 1. A slow stop in Indy 2. He could have won all those races or at the very least landed on the podium. The other races? Two runner-ups, a third and a seventh in the other five.

▪️Harvey and Rahal with underrated seasons. Harvey, scored dual top 10 finishes this weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with being sixth on Friday and eighth on Saturday in his No. 60 Honda. He was also third in his first start on the 2.439-mile circuit back in 2019 to get three top eight finishes in four tries. He’s best shot at a win though was back in July when he qualified on the front row and had race winning pace before getting caught out by an ill timed caution. Still, he’s ending 2020 strong. He’s had six top 10 finishes in 13 races run this year. He had four in his previous 19 starts of his career. He heads to St. Pete which was a place where he came home 10th in last year’s season opener. For Rahal, heads to St. Pete on the heels of a pair of seventh place finishes on the 2.439-mile IMS road course this past weekend in his No. 15 Honda. He backed that up from dual fourth place results the race weekend prior on his home track at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course last month. If you go back to the second race of the Iowa weekend, Rahal has six top seven finishes in his last seven starts on the year. He’s carrying a lot of momentum right now.

▪️Points battles leaving Indy – Newgarden trails Dixon by 32 points. These drivers will finish 1-2 in the final standings. Herta said his goal was to catch Newgarden for second but he’s now too far out to do so. He trails him by 69 points. But, the young driver now has to hold Power off for third as Power trails Herta by just 13 points. Pato O’Ward is only 25 back from reclaiming P3, but he’s also only 22 points clear of Rahal for P5. Then you have the fight for a top 10 finish. 22 points separates Alexander Rossi in ninth to Santino Ferrucci in 12th.

▪️Other points battle – Another underrated points race is the battle for 22nd in the entrant points. See, we have 23 full time teams but only 22 of them get the bonus money for the leaders circle program. With how 2020 has gone, that’s some much needed money on the line. Entering this weekend, the No. 7 with McLaren was +30. The No. 4 with Foyt was +19. The No. 26 Andretti entry was +15 with the other car (No. 98 entry) +2. The 14 car with Foyt was +1 over the No. 20 ECR entry. Leaving the weekend, its now a battle between Sebastien Bourdais in the 14 car and Marco Andretti in the 98. The 7 car was piloted by Helio Castroneves this weekend in favor of the inured Oliver Askew. They maintained with being +30 as Castroneves was an uneventful 20th and 21st respectively. Charlie Kimball finished a big 13th on Friday and 23rd on Saturday to go from +19 to +29. The biggest jumpers were James Hinchcliffe who replaces Zach Veach in the 26 for the remainder of the season finishing 14th and 13th respectively and going from +15 to +33. He did his job. So did Conor Daly who was 12th and 20th in the two races and went from one point down to 13 points up. Andretti, had a fire in his No. 98 Honda take him out of a top 10 run on Friday to 25th. He was just 22nd on Saturday and is now -7. Sebastien Bourdais struggled and was only 21st and 18th over the two days but is +7 still, so mission accomplished on that move. St. Pete is left with a big fight to be the one not left standing when the music stops.

▪️Tough sledding for part time veterans. James Hinchcliffe fared the best but he also made more starts heading into the weekend. He was 14th and 13th respectively. Helio Castroneves had never run this car on a road course before and for the first time in over 2 decades was with a new team. He finished 20th and 21st respectively. Finally, Sebastien Bourdais made his first two starts of the season with Foyt and was 21st and 18th himself. This weekend showed just how much seat time matters in this series.

▪️Tires mattered – On Friday with a three stop strategy, tire selection was the deciding factor. Take Colton Herta as a prime example if this. See, he was the only driver in the top five of the starting lineup electing to begin the race on the Firestone Black’s. With strategy going to be key in terms of the Reds being faster and lasting longer than normal too, the tire strategy would be flipped here in the cooler conditions to where you’d want to pit earlier when starting on the Black’s and be able to go the rest of the way on the Red’s. That’s why he felt like if he could keep the guys behind him at bay, he could settle in and really be in a good spot for the rest of the 85 Lap race. “For me, it’s going to be less aggressive because I’m starting on the black tires where everyone in front of me is on reds,” Herta said to me on Friday morning about Friday’s start. “I even think two guys behind me are on reds also. For me, it’s going to be trying to keep those guys behind me, then after the first 2 or 3 laps hopefully it balances out and I can drive normally at that point and not worry about them and just focus on my own race.” It worked too. Herta went from third to second on the opening lap. He had a very intense battle with pole sitter Rinus VeeKay for the lead for a while, but VeeKay on Red tires pulled away with Herta settling in for second. That was his race to lose at that point. Herta, went with the Reds on the second stop while VeeKay would go to the Black’s. It didn’t take long for Herta to find the lead with the quicker tire. The problem from then on was, Herta was also trying to stretch a fuel number and his rear tires were going away. Running the Red’s long because he pit early on the first stint on the Black’s hurt him. That allowed Josef Newgarden to close him and force Herta into a rare mistake in running in hot into Turn 1 while leading on Lap 59 and running through the corner. His rear tires were gone. He’d come out second while running on scuffed Red Tires. So, they decided to go conservative with the Black tires for the final stint and it was over. Everyone else up front was on Red’s and he went from second to fourth in the end. “The start and overall of the race was kind of what I was expecting because of the switch-up of tire choices and how a lot of people were starting on blacks and not so many on reds. I thought it would give a good chance in the second stint to move forward. In the end, we were just too loose. We wore out the rear tires and just didn’t have the pace to make the strategy work. We tried to do all we could and ended on blacks. “Unfortunately, we just didn’t have the pace at the end.”

On Saturday, it was the exactly opposite.

Will Power led all 75 laps in Saturday’s Harvest Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Despite leading from Flag-to-flag, the end of the race bout with Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi was closer than most thought it would be. 

Power and Herta were on Firestone Reds. That tire is faster for a shorter period of time while the Firestone Blacks are slower at the start but last longer. Alexander Rossi was on blacks. 

Coming off the final pit stops, the running order read Power-Rossi-Herta. 

Rossi, was catching Power lap after lap. Was he the best option at victory? The blacks should last longer right?

Well, Saturday they didn’t. The reds were faster and for longer. 

“I think me, Will (Power) and Colton (Herta) were kind of in our own league, and it was kind of whoever could make the best last stint happen,” Rossi said. “We went with blacks (primary tire) because we thought it was a good option. We were the only car that did blacks on the last stint. Ultimately, we tried something different – I’m not mad about it – but it was the wrong tire choice. Did it cost us the win? Maybe not. Did it cost us second? Probably. But, ultimately, four races, four podiums, and we’re pretty happy.”

Rossi cut Power’s lead below a second. Then he faded. Herta, caught as passed him with 11 to go and had more push to passes left than Power. Was it now his race to lose? A day after being on the wrong tire strategy himself, he was now on the right one. 

He chopped into Power’s lead but could do nothing with it. Power prevailed for his 39th career Indy Car win which ranks him fifth all time with Al Unser. Despite leading for more than five seconds for much of the day, the final margin of victory was .8932-seconds (3rd closest of the season).

“I think I kind of left everything out there,” said Herta. “I used up a lot of my tires trying to catch back up to those guys. We just didn’t really have it at the end. I think I burned up the rears a little bit too much to the point where Will (Power) could hold me back. I do think we were a little bit faster than him, but, unfortunately, we just didn’t put it together in the first stint until too far back, and that kind of hurt us going into the next two stints.”

Power, admitted that he had nothing left himself. 

“Obviously we had to save fuel, but we were pushing really hard every lap to pull a gap enough to be covered if someone went one lap longer in the pit stop sequence,” said Power.

“There was a lot of pressure from Alex in the second stint, then a lot of pressure from Alex at the beginning of the third stint, then Colton put a lot of pressure on all the way to the end.

“I really had nothing left. That was everything I had there at the end. Fortunately I could hold them off.”

Power also noted that the reason push to passes weren’t working and why Herta could capitalize on his more left was that no one could use them very long because they were saving so much fuel. You couldn’t use it like normal or you’d run out and have to pit a third time. They couldn’t risk doing so and running out of gas before the checkered flag flew. 

“No one could use push-to-pass because unfortunately we had to get a fuel number. Everyone really had to save fuel, lifting. No one could attack.

“It certainly made for, yeah, a more boring race. I liked that, but…”

▪️Distance matters – The better race of the two this weekend was on Friday. That’s because it was 85 laps of all out racing. No one could make it on 2 stops so fuel saving was out of the question. Saturday’s race was 10 laps shorter which meant if you saved enough fuel each stint, you can make it on two stops. That’s why Saturday’s race was tamer compared to Friday’s. With cooler temperatures, the engines would produce more horsepower. That meant saving fuel was even more so important. In turn, you had to be conservative with the added boost from push to passes because that could burn too much fuel. In turn, every race needs to be an easy three stopper but too long for two stops and let them have at it. Friday’s race was as good as it gets. The thing is though, adjusting race lengths though over a doubleheader weekend is warranted because if you use the same, then everyone takes what they’ve learned from the first race and applies it, meaning the action dwindles even more because it’s hard to pass with everyone on the same strategy too.

▪️Qualifying so important – The last five winners have come from the front row. Seven of the last eight have won from the top 4 Rows. Furthermore, since the start of 2019, only Simon Pagenaud’s last to first win this past July is the only occurrence that any one has came from outside the top 10 at the start to win.

▪️Silly season – I spoke to a number of drivers about next season and by my count, 14 current rides are open for the taking. How this plays out this offseason will be interesting. Several teams have talked expansion too, which could lead to upwards of 15–18 rides available. How many drivers come back into their roles? How many leave? Silly season is going to be wild again so buckle up.

▪️Future set – On Saturday morning, NDYCAR wrapped a deal with their current two engine manufacturers for the foreseeable future. Both Honda and Chevrolet will remain in the series through almost the end of the decade. They will still pursue a third OEM and have time now with the new engine regulations being pushed back to 2023. They will be faster (900 horsepower) and louder (hybrid technology). The future drivers driving those cars are bright too.

I wrote on Friday how the future of the NTT INDYCAR Series was on full display in the first race of the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend.

Josef Newgarden has not yet turned 30 still. He won’t do that until Dec. 22. He’s won two championships in the last three years and closing in on a third in the last four in making up 85 points on Scott Dixon in the last five races. He won Friday’s Harvest Grand Prix and was fourth on Saturday.

Alexander Rossi just turned 29 on Sept. 25. He’s won seven times in five seasons including the Indianapolis 500. He finished second on an unseasonably cool Fall day in Indianapolis on Friday and third on Saturday. He has 51 top 10 finishes already in his career too.

Rinus VeeKay just turned 20 himself on Sept. 11. He earned his first career pole on Thursday, led his first career laps (15) on Friday and scored his first career podium as well.

Another 20 year old in Colton Herta earned his ninth top five of his career in finishing fourth on Friday and his 10th top five on Saturday in a runner-up.. 28 year old Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the top five in fifth on Friday.

Two young veterans followed by a rookie and two second year drivers.

The youth movement is on full display in INDYCAR and it was never more evident on Friday afternoon. The future is bright. But, lets not push out the veterans yet either.

Scott Dixon is 32 points and one race away from his sixth career championship. Only AJ Foyt (7) has more.

Dixon, ranks third in career wins (50), two shy of Mario Andretti’s 52 and 17 shy of AJ Foyt’s 67. He has 48 runner-ups, which is second most. He trails Andretti by eight in that category. His 122 podiums are 22 shy of Andretti for most ever. His 173 top five finishes are 21 shy of Andretti for most ever there too.

Then you have Will Power. He earned his 61st career pole on Friday morning which moves him shy of tying Andretti for most ever. He also won his 39th career race which ties him with Bobby Unser for fifth most ever too. He’s four wins shy of eclipsing Michael Andretti (42) for fourth most ever and only Dixon’s 50 would be next up.

These two are generational drivers with some generational drivers coming up behind them. It’s no wonder why INDYCAR is so competitive right now.

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