BELLE ISLE, Mich — Saturday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix was as wild as they come. From varying strategies, to a late race caution/red flag scenario to Will Power’s car not refiring after, to another first time winner in the NTT IndyCar Series, to the second most on track passes in the races’ long history, the first of two 70 lap races on Belle Isle gave us everything and more.
Now, what does Sunday have in store for us?
If its anything like we’ve seen in the past — buckle up. The second race of the doubleheader race weekends are usually a little more aggressive. That’s because drivers try to take care of their equipment a little more in the first race so that their cars aren’t damaged for overnight repairs.
Then, you have 70 full laps of racing a day before. That’s about as good of a practice session as one could get. You make adjustments and dial your car in accordingly. That means the cars are better on Sunday than on Saturday in general.
Plus, you factor in all of this with the fatigue factor in the sense that these races and these cars are so physical to drive in and mix all of that with the heat and potential issues from the Aeroscreen and you get what will be a treacherous race on Sunday.
So, who are the main contenders for the win?
Well, only twice in the history of the doubleheader formats has someone swept the weekend. Scott Dixon did it in Toronto in 2013 and Graham Rahal right here in this very spot in 2017. That’s it. That’s the list. That’s 2-for-17. Do we really think we’re going to make it happen a third time on Sunday?
Marcus Ericsson is a strong contender. He has two podiums in his career – both on Belle Isle, both coming in his last two Belle Isle starts at that. He was runner-up to Scott Dixon in Race 2 of the 2019 weekend and he ended up in victory lane on Saturday.
The thing is, the odds are stacked against him. He was 0-for-36 to start his INDYCAR career. Does he go 2-for-2 after?
Ericsson, had led 10 total laps in those first 36 races of his career, none of which occurring in 2021. He led the final five laps on Saturday. Do we expect him to back it up again a day later?
“Yeah, I mean, I think it’s probably less likely,” Rahal said of a sweep this weekend. “The depth of the field is incredible right now. It’s very hard for somebody to get an advantage. That weekend, we were first or second in every single practice, every single qualifying, then obviously swept the race. To do that again, I think it’s a big challenge.
“It was a big challenge then, but I think you look top to bottom at the quality of the field now, there’s not really many guys that are going to go miss, you know what I mean? There’s going to be different opportunities.
“Plus, Detroit, what I got very fortunate with there was we started up front with both those races. There was nothing abnormal. There was the red flag with two to go in the one race. The races were pretty green. I think in one we were able to get to a 30-second lead or something. There was nothing that really strategy-wise could have hurt me, no closed pits under yellow, none of that sort of stuff. It kind of stayed.
“That’s traditionally not Detroit. There’s a lot of alternate strategies that play a role. All it takes is you get one slow guy in the midfield that backs everybody up so much that all of a sudden an alternate strategy, a two stop or something like that, or a three stop I should say, can suddenly work.
“I think it’s harder to do today. I feel like it would be harder to see somebody sweep now.”
Plus you have to look at the fact that both races usually see a vastly different podium and top five between the two days of competition.
Four of the seven years that we’ve been having doubleheaders in Belle Isle, only one driver in those years finished on the podium both days. The three years it didn’t happen was 2015, 2016 and 2019. That’s three in the last five tries we had a different podium each day.
Then, if you go a little further back to the top five, we’ve had at least eight different drivers score a top five over the course of the doubleheader weekend in all seven years. In fact, twice we’ve had just one driver score a top five in both races and once (2016) had a different top five for both races.
Odds and trends are showing that we may have different podium finishers each day and just 1-2 drivers that finished in the top five on Saturday will do so on Sunday.
Ericsson, Rinus VeeKay and Pato O’Ward were your podium drivers on Saturday.
Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal joined them in the top five.
If trends say that we may have a different podium and only 1-2 of those five may get a top five on Sunday, which ones are they?
VeeKay only has one start on this track. Can he get a podium, let alone a top five two days in-a-row? He’s had three podiums for his young career and two of which are on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. His only two top fives this year are at Indy (RC) and Belle Isle. Trends say he won’t get a top five on Sunday but maybe a top 10 with five top 10’s in seven tries this season.
Sato may be another driver we can eliminate. Saturday was his first top five of the season. But, he’s had three straight top five’s in the first race of the doubleheader weekend in Detroit. The second race result in the other two years? 17th and 13th respectively.
Rahal, had a pair of seventh place runs last time out in Belle Isle and could have had a top seven in all seven races thus far this season. He’s a top seven contender for Sunday and maybe even a guy that can get in the top five both days.
That leaves Ericsson and O’Ward for podiums or top fives. O’Ward has a fast car and even won the pole for Saturday’s race. Trends may favor him for the win in the sense that he finished third in the first doubleheader at Texas last month with a Ganassi driver (Scott Dixon) winning. He won the second race. A Ganassi driver (Ericsson) won on Saturday and O’Ward finished third.
He’s one to watch.
So is Alexander Rossi who also had a fast car on Saturday and was hurt from the Lap 25 caution. He has six top seven finishes in his last seven Belle Isle starts.
Will Power is surely going to be angry as he had a win taken away from him on Sunday in heartbreaking fashion. But, the second day is where he does his damage. His last four Race 2 finishes in Belle Isle have all resulted in a podium including a win in 2016.
Ryan Hunter-Reay could make a rebound too. He had four straight top fives entering Saturday and had a good car before he found the wall early. He’s improved his finish from Race 1 to Race 2 in four of the last five years with three of those results being in the top four on the second day.
Ed Jones had a fast car too. He qualified fourth. He finished ninth. He was sixth in Race 1 in 2018 and third in race 2 of that year.
What about Josef Newgarden or Simon Pagenaud?
Newgarden, like Hunter-Reay, had a fast car but found troubles early. He still drove his way back to the top 10 with the Tennessee native scoring two top four finishes in his last four second day starts.
Pagenaud, won Race 2 in 2013 and has improved from Race 1 to Race 2 in five of his seven tries including three of the last four years. He finished 13th in 2016 and finished runner-up the next day. Pagenaud, was 12th on Saturday.
That’s six drivers that could easily bump their ways forward and I didn’t even mention Scott Dixon who won Race 2 in 2019, was fourth in 2018, sixth in 2017 and fifth in 2016.