INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix (2 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Can Anyone Beat Penske?

A few years ago, this race was dubbed the Penske Grand Prix. Heading into last season, Penske had won this race in 5 of the 6 years that it was around including having every winner of it under their umbrella (Simon Pagenaud won the inaugural race for SPM in 2014). Then, Scott Dixon went out and whooped the field last July in winning by nearly 20 seconds over second place. That ended the Penske reign.

But, when we came back last October for the Harvest Grand Prix, it was more Penske domination. Josef Newgarden and Will Power combined to sweep the weekend and now gives Penske 7 wins in the last 8 road course races at Indy. Can they make it 8-for-9 on Saturday?

Power is probably the man to beat if so. He was runner-up on a similar track at Barber last month and has four wins in nine tries here. Simon Pagenaud is next best with three wins and seven top 10’s including four top four results in his last seven tries.

“Yeah, always a track that I thoroughly enjoy,” Power said what makes him good on the Indy road course. “The field is so tight this year you have no idea where you’ll stack up. We were pretty good at Barber. That was a road course, smooth road course. Hopefully some of that transfers over.

“But I think our baseline setup there is pretty good. The temperature matters a lot there. You can have a very different car depending on the wind, the temperature, if it’s rain or whatever.

“But, yeah, never take it for granted we’re going to turn up strong, always ready to react on the fly. Yeah, certainly looking forward to starting out there.”

Newgarden’s win last October was his first top five in eight career road course starts at Indy. In fact, he had just one top 10 prior and that came last July. But, in the three races on the 2.439-mile road course layout last year, he had three top sevens.

“It’s always been a good track for us and Team Penske without a doubt,” said Newgarden. “We’re going to try to follow up where we were at last year.

“Temperature-wise I think Will brings up a good point. We seemed almost a little stronger on the 2 car specifically in October. I’m hoping that carries over. I think the weather is going to be cool looking at it, not necessarily super hot. If the wind is not to our liking, like Will said, we have to be ready to react pretty quickly.”

They’re 0-for-4 this season in terms of visiting victory lane, but they’re 4-for-4 in runner ups. Can someone move one spot up the podium? This is the place for it to happen.

Can Andretti Turn Season Around And Continue IMS Road Course Improvement?

For a majority of the Indy Car road course races at IMS, a familiar name was always missing up front – Andretti Autosport. Prior to last October’s Harvest Grand Prix, Marco Andretti struggled, Alexander Rossi had no podiums and just one top five, Ryan Hunter-Reay had two podiums but only three top 10’s while Colton Herta was 23rd in his first start back in 2019 and fourth last July.

Then in the Harvest weekend, Rossi had a pair of podiums, Herta was fourth and second respectively and James Hinchcliffe was a respectable 14th and 13th respectively in the two races. Can they all carry this over to this weekend?

They need it. The first four races of the season was downright dreadful for the AA camp. Hinchcliffe, had a pit road problem at Barber then had a flat tire early on in St. Pete after contact with Takuma Sato. He crashed in both races at Texas the last time out. Hinch is 19th in the standings entering Indy.

Hunter-Reay was collected in a first lap crash in Barber then had a bad day at St. Pete and in the first race at Texas. He was 10th in race 2 but sits 17th in points right now too.

Rossi was on the wrong pit strategy at Barber then had contact with Graham Rahal in St. Pete. He was collected in that opening lap crash in Texas 2 and was eighth in Texas 1. He’s 15th in points.

Herta was their only bright spot in his St. Pete victory but he too was collected with Hunter-Reay in the first lap melee at Barber and had a mechanical failure in Texas 1. He finished 22nd in both occurrences. He was fifth though in Texas 2 with the youngster being seventh in points.

7-15-17-19 in points is not where Andretti expected to be heading to Indy.

Will Race Distance Help Again?

Saturday’s race is scheduled for 85 laps. But, with how last year’s 80 lap race played out and how the 85 lapper went in the first race last October, can Saturday’s race put as much action as the 85 one last year?

See, this race started off as an 82 lap event from 2014 through 2016 but they extended it by three more laps for 2017, 2018 and 2019. It went down to 80 laps last July. The second race run last October was only 75 laps.

But, it’s the 85 lap races to what makes this event great.

The 75-82 lap ranges make this more of a fuel conservation event. They can stretch the stints by saving fuel and get from the green to the checkered in two stops. But, while doing so, they can’t use much push to pass and have to just ride around hoping to hit a number to make it on two stops.

85 laps is barely out of reach for two stops and makes this in turn a three stopper. That means it’s an all our war for 85 laps because there’s no saving fuel involved. That in turn is why last year’s Friday race in the Harvest Grand Prix was one of the best races that barely anyone saw. With being on a Friday, it was aired on USA. It was a downright fist fight among the drivers in it as we were treated to a thrilling start to finish show.

Does the 80 laps mean this will go back to a two stopper and more fuel saving? If so, then the action may not be as much as we saw last October. Will Power by comparison sakes led all 75 laps in the second race of the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend. Scott Dixon won by 19.946-seconds in this race last July. Both saw fuel saving.

“I would say it certainly was the difference between the Friday race and the Saturday race, the fact that of the distance,” Power said. “It opened the windows, the strategy window, up significantly so you could try different strategies, pit on different laps, just created good racing.

“Actually I haven’t looked at the distance. I know we sent the series a lot of information on race distance, how to open the windows up, make it so it’s not a fuel race. Hopefully I did that.

Newgarden agreed.

“It’s just the fuel windows,” he said. “A much better race on Saturday because they were open windows. I think that’s the goal going back, is to try to keep those windows as open as possible. It just creates opportunity to run a completely different strategy than people around you, make it work. I think that’s the key, is providing options to people.

Once they have them, it makes the race instantly more entertaining because there’s just a lot more going on.”

How Many Winners Will We Have In 2021?

This is a question all around for racing this year. The NASCAR Cup Series has ran 12 races and 10 different drivers have already won for them. In open wheel, we’re 4-for-4 here. Alex Palou (Barber), Colton Herta (St. Pete) and Scott Dixon/Pato O’Ward (Texas) have won so far this season. How many more will we see?

Josef Newgarden has a pair of runner-ups in the last three races on the season and won on the road course here last Fall. He’s won at least three races in four straight years now and at least one race in six straight seasons. His teammate Simon Pagenaud has won at least one race in four of the last five years. He’s also won on this track three times already. Then you have Will Power. He’s won at least one race in 14 straight years now and has four wins on the IMS road course including last Fall too.

I would say all three get at least one win in 2021.

That bumps us up to seven drivers.

Then you have the Andretti Autosport group. Does Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay or James Hinchcliffe find victory lane? Rossi, is riding a 25 race winless streak but other than a winless campaign in 2020, he’s won at least one race in every other season that he’s competed in here. Hunter-Reay hasn’t won in 35 races while Hinchcliffe’s streak is a 33 race drought himself.

I do think at least one of them win though, so lets push this up to eight.

Then you have RLL. Graham Rahal has three top seven finishes in four races run this season. He’s not won in the last 61 races, but he’s inching closer and closer to ending that streak. He was runner-up in this race last year and seventh in the two last October. He was also third in last year’s Indy 500. From there, we head to Belle Isle, the spot of Rahal’s last win. I think he can win in this four race stretch (Belle Isle is a doubleheader). His teammate Takuma Sato has won at least one race in all three years that he’s been back with RLL. I believe both find victory in 2021.

That’s 10 winners.

Then, do we get any more first time winners? We’ve had two already this season. What about Scott McLaughlin, Dalton Kellett, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, Jimmie Johnson, Rinus VeeKay, Conor Daly, Ed Jones, Jack Harvey, Romain Grosjean or Pietro Fittipaldi. Do any of these 11 drivers win in 2021?

I think you can make a case for McLaughlin, Rosenqvist, Ericsson, VeeKay, Harvey and Daly. I’d give us 1-2 more first time winners this season too.

That would push us to 12 winners in 17 races.

Is The Future Of The Series Now?

We’ve said it for a while now, even this offseason that this was a big season for the NTT IndyCar Series. We knew the future was coming. There were so many good young drivers in the series today, but it was only a matter of time before they staked their claim at the top.

Well, we’re four races into the 2021 season and we’ve had four different winners. Half of them are first time winners and one of the other two is just 21 years old.

The future is now.

“I think it’s definitely a good wave,” Josef Newgarden said. “We seem to get it, I don’t know, I don’t know what’s cycle is, every four, five years. But there’s definitely a good wave at the moment.

“I think everybody has been pretty high on Colton and Pato. I’ve been definitely very high on Pato. Not surprised to see him get a win. Both him and McLaren are very strong contenders.

“Yeah, you have a little of everything. Guys in the middle, like me, middle of the road. You have some veterans and some really good young blood. It’s a good time. There’s a lot of talent.”

24 year old Alex Palou earned his first career win in the season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. 21 year old Colton Herta won last Sunday on the streets of St. Pete. Now, 21 year old Pato O’Ward wins on the Texas Motor Speedway oval.

The only other winner this season was 40 year old Scott Dixon. That came Saturday night as he’s now won at least one race in 19 straight seasons, an Indy Car record. He’s a championship favorite each year for good reason. He’s now got younger competition.

30 year old Josef Newgarden finished runner-up to O’Ward on Sunday and if you go back to count the season finale last year when he was 29, that’s four of the last five winners being in their 20’s.

Graham Rahal still has plenty of good years left in him and he’s only 32. He finished third. Herta (21) was fifth on Sunday. You also had Palou (24) finishing seventh, rookie Scott McLaughlin in eighth and 20 year old Rinus VeeKay finishing ninth on Sunday.

For VeeKay, he’s not showing any signs of a sophomore slump. He’s scored three top 10’s in four races run this season.

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