PLYMOUTH, Wisc — Josef Newgarden snookered the field on Saturday from Elkhart Lake. The Team Penske driver stayed on the Firestone primary tires for the Fast Six and while that typically would be a move done to give up a few starting spots in order to preserve a fresh set of tires for the race, Newgarden made it pay off with a pole.
“Yeah, it’s great. Our car has been quick. I definitely think we had the right strategy there,” Newgarden said. “I think Colton (Herta) was going to be a match for match. Probably would have been a really tough battle for pole. We definitely had the advantage. Happy we did that.”
Colton Herta qualified second but said he was shocked to see Newgarden be able to pull a lap off like that on Blacks.
“They are the only people that saved,” Herta said of Newgarden. “I think Josef and Will were the only ones that saved the black tires from practice. You had to save from practice. I don’t think anybody really did except for them. Maybe they were thinking about it the whole time.
“But, yeah, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like. It definitely kind of caught me by surprise that he did it on blacks and not used reds.”
For Newgarden, he said he knew early during practice on Saturday morning that this was the right path for them to go down.
“I mean, I knew that as soon as we ran the reds,” he said. “I was like, You are going to need blacks here for Fast Six, no doubt. Even in the qualifying, I’m like, it’s going to take a 6.0 on blacks, maybe a 5.9, maybe something like that. The deg has been so hot. Like on average it’s like 7/10ths, 8/10ths from first to second run on the reds and blacks. It’s a huge dropoff.
“Yeah, I mean, I saw it coming. We made an early decision on that. That’s not always worked out. There’s been other cases, even this year, where you thought maybe the blacks would be better in a Fast Six scenario, and they haven’t been. This is the first time you’ve seen it truly be better.
“Maybe some other people were hesitant of that. We had moments where that was going to be the case and it wasn’t. I felt really confident today. Just looking at everything, everybody across the board, I felt very confident that new blacks were going to be an advantage in the Fast Six.”
The Tennessee native circled the 4.014-mile road course in Road America with a time of 1:46.0186-seconds in his No. 2 Chevrolet en route to his second straight pole on the season and 13th of his career. Three of those 13 poles have come right here on the Wisconsin road course with him dominating in one of the other two poles here with 53 laps led among 55 that day in 2018.
Can he repeat that on Sunday?
“Just a lot more difficult,” he said in comparing the two. “Much higher degradation. At least twice as much, I would say. So it’s going to be a different challenge than what it was in ’18.”
Tire deg is a huge key this weekend here.
“I think you’ll see good and bad cars,” he said. “Depending on where those good and bad cars in race condition are could create a lot of excitement. On tire deg in position, he may gobble some people up right in front of him moving to top five on the stint. Same thing up front. If we’re bad on our tires up front, maybe I’m just trying to hold everybody back.
“Just like the Detroit situation. Very exciting race at the end because people were struggling to get tires up to temperature. I was running out of tire life. It just creates excitement.
“It’s not fun to drive necessarily. It’s easier when the tire is really consistent. But when you get that separation with good and bad cars on tire life, it’s exciting to watch. I think you could have that type of storyline for tomorrow.
“If you want to do a four-stop race, you could pit pretty early. I can see people starting on reds, get them out of the way. Could be like Detroit where you want to get off of them, run blacks the rest of the race. It’s very possible.
“I don’t know. I think it’s a different ballgame than last year. I haven’t really gone over the list with the team yet. I don’t think long stints is necessarily the guaranteed winner of the race. Could be a faster, shorter stint race that wins things.”
Colton Herta agreed with him in saying that tire life is going to make or break the comers and goers, if we end up having them Sunday afternoon.
“I think you could relate it most to like watching an oval race, right?” he said. “Good cars tend to go to the front, whereas on a road course sometimes you can hold guys off a little longer.
“So, yeah, it’s going to be like Josef said: I think it’s going to be a tire race. Tire deg is going to be the talk of it. Whoever has the best car that’s nailed down at the rear the most, if they can save those rear tires, especially on the reds, is going to be the best.
“It’s surprising, too, because even the black tires don’t seem to be so good with deg this weekend, too. There is deg at a similar rate of deg with the reds.”
Newgarden, has been fast all weekend in being third quickest on Friday and fastest in the morning practice on Saturday. He turned that into a pole on Saturday. Is he the favorite now?
Last weekend, he won the pole in the second race of the weekend in Belle Isle. He led the first 67 laps but was on the wrong end of strategy due to having to short pit his opening sequence due to the fear of a caution coming out for Dalton Kellett stalling at the end of pit road. The yellow never flew and his advantage was gone.
How does he and his team manage Sunday’s race to ensure that doesn’t happen this time around?
“Yeah, I mean, look, as soon as you go predicting a race, it just does the complete opposite,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been like, Man, today is going to be filled with yellows. We just go green flag to green flag. Then vice versa. I think we’re going to have a green race, it’s just filled with yellows. It’s impossible to predict.
“I think you try and play averages. If you’re up front, you’re going to play probably the most conservative race as far as running it, trying to protect yourself from yellows. One of these races, if you get caught out by one, someone wins in an off sequence, that’s just INDYCAR racing. It sucks, but you can’t do anything about it. It’s just part of the game here.
“Yeah, I don’t know that you can play the prediction game. It’s too hard. You can’t go, Hey, we’re definitely going to have a yellow, it’s going to be at this point, so this is the strategy we’re going to run.”
Herta, qualified on the front row for the third time in four tries in Road America. Can he turn this year’s second place starting spot and turn it into a victory?
His previous finishes here were eighth in 2019 and a pair of fifth place runs a year ago. This season, he now has a front row starting spot in four of his nine qualifying tries. He reached victory lane in one of them.
Jack Harvey (1:46.7206-seconds) will roll off third in his No. 60 Honda for his fifth Fast Six starting spot in his last eight tries. The only three times he didn’t qualify in the top 3 Rows was the Indy 500 and both races last weekend in Detroit.
Will Power (1:46.8237-seconds) will start fourth for his seventh Fast Six in his last eight Road America tries while Alex Palou (1:46.8633-seconds) rounded out the top five in qualifying in his No. 10 Honda.
Simon Pagenaud (1:47.1274-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six.
Penske Looks The Best So Far
Team Penske put three of their four cars in the Fast Six on Saturday. They’re showing their best in both tire compounds, which could be a problem for the field on Sunday afternoon’s race. They won five of the last six races last year but 0-for-8 in 2021. They do have five runner-ups in eight races run this season though, so can they get their first victory of the season in Road America?
Andretti Cars Close
Josef Newgarden said that tire deg is going to be the key to winning Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix. He feels like his car is in the window. But, he says that Penske has always done a great job of managing tire life. That’s one thing that he feels Andretti Autosport over the years hasn’t always done the best job at doing so. Now though, he feels like they’ve made some major gains and that Colton Herta will definitely be a threat to him on Sunday.
“Some of it’s inherent to your setup,” Newgarden said. “Everyone has kind of different philosophies with the way they build the car mechanically, whether that’s the dampers or mechanical setup philosophy of the car. All this stuff plays into it.
“I think you’re definitely hoping on a weekend like this that you tend to lean better on the tire life side of things. I think that’s traditionally been a strength of ours, but it’s gotten tougher.
“As tire degradation has become more of an issue in this series, not an issue, but more of a predominant player in how you win a race, I think people are getting better at it. Even I would say Colton is a good example. I thought Andretti used to not be the best on tire life, and I think they’ve gotten much better over the last couple years.
“It’s hard to have a huge advantage on tire life. But everything plays into it. A lot of it’s set in. You want to take a huge risk right now and change the whole car to try to make it better in one 30-minute session for tomorrow, you may just make things worse.
“Your inherent philosophy setup-wise, you’re kind of hoping at this point that it leads to good durability of the tire. You’re not going to be able to change much. Little tweaks here and there. Downforce is one of them.
“I think a lot of the car philosophies just play into who survives better on tires versus who does not.
“I mean, some guys are easier on tires versus not. He (Herta) was someone that was sort of more aggressive. I think some guys are more aggressive on their tires versus others. Colton is certainly one that you’d see him be strong in the beginning, fade pretty aggressively a couple years ago. He’s better at that now. It all plays into that.
“You’re trying to find the balance of a right pace throughout a stint by pushing enough to be quicker than everybody, but not so much that your average falls down. It’s really just about average. You have to find out what’s that medium, how aggressively do you want to push the tire.
“Most of that is laterally. Longitudinally and laterally is how you’re wearing the tire out, how much you’re sliding it. There’s a of long-duration lateral corners here where you are constantly loaded for five, ten seconds, like the carrousel.
“You can do a lot of damage to tires if you’re too aggressive in those types of corners. There’s all kind of sorts of stuff you can do to dial out the wear, but you’re sacrificing speed if you do.”
“I think we’re getting there,” he said. “I think Josef kind of nailed it, that tire life wasn’t a strength of I don’t know about the team but definitely mine. I’ve worked a lot in the last two years to kind of get better at it. So I’ll be trying a lot of different things driving-wise in warmup here in a little bit. We’ll do some tweaks on the setup for the race and see what we have.
“But, yeah, I think there’s a really good chance that we could win tomorrow. We seem to have a really good car. Confidence is high. We’ve had really good pace the last few weekends. Yeah, I’m really excited for it.”
Herta, now has three front row starting spots in four tries at Road America and four in nine tries this season. He’s just not getting enough help from his teammates up front though. Ryan Hunter-Reay qualified eight. Alexander Rossi is ninth while James Hinchcliffe rolls off 19th.
For Hunter-Reay, this is his third Row 4 starting spot in his last four races on the season. Rossi, has four straight top 10 starting spots while having just one in his first five races run this season. Hinchcliffe, has been 12th or worse in all nine races.
The problem for AA is, one major trend spells troubles for Sunday.
Since 2017, they’ve won 13 times in Indy Car competition. That’s counting their alliance with Harding Steinbrenner Racing too. Nine of those 13 wins though have come from the pole including six of the last seven. 12 of the 13 in general came from the top 2 Rows in the starting lineup.
Herta, gives them their best shot at victory on Sunday according to those stats. That’s the main glaring problem that AA needs to fix moving forward. Its either they need to get better qualifying setups or figure out a way to get to the front if they don’t.
CGR Struggles In Qualifying Again
Chip Ganassi Racing is struggling as of late in qualifying. They didn’t have it last weekend in either race at Belle Isle and once again, they struggled again.
With how Colton Herta is leading the charge for the Andretti group, Alex Palou is doing the same for CGR. He qualified his No. 10 Honda in fifth. It’s his eighth top 10 starting spot in nine tries this season. His other teammates will all come from 13th on back.
Palou, was the only one of four CGR drivers to even make it out of the first round of knockout qualifying. Scott Dixon was on 13th in his No. 9 Honda for his worst career starting spot in Road America. It was his third time in the last five races that he failed to get inside the top 10 of the starting lineup though too.
Dixon’s problem is that they’re having issues in every practice. He only completed eight laps in each session this weekend as Dixon said post qualifying that it’s hard to be chasing a car with so few laps on track to get it right.
Marcus Ericsson qualified his No. 8 Honda in 18th. He’s qualified 13th or worse in five of his last six series races.
Jimmie Johnson will roll off 23rd.
Grosjean Getting Up To Speed, Other New Guys Not
Romain Grosjean has a bit of an advantage in that he’s a rookie but has had plenty of open wheel experience. That’s why him qualifying seventh isn’t too shocking in the sense that he’s had a top seven qualifying spot in all but one race this season. Plus, he was first and fourth respectively in practice too.
Jimmie Johnson is competing in the same races as Grosjean but he had no open wheel experience prior to this season. That’s why it’s also not shocking to see him be 21st and 24th respectively in the two practice sessions and qualifying in 23rd.
Cody Ware is another NASCAR driver but he’s making his first career series start on Sunday. He was 22nd and 25th in practice and will start in 25th too.
Kevin Magnussen has plenty of open wheel experience but none in INDYCAR. He has a lot to learn this weekend and is showing promise. Still, this series is tough and he was just 23rd and 20th in practice and will roll off 21st.
The other new guy is Scott McLaughlin. He was eighth and 16th in practice but only 17th in qualifying.
RLL, Like CGR, Struggling In Qualifying Pace
Chip Ganassi Racing and Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing are showing equal footing this year. They’re struggling in qualifying but showing great race pace though a day later.
Ganassi and RLL each qualified bad for a third straight race. Can both charge forward on Sunday?
In RLL’s case, Graham Rahal was looking great so far this weekend until qualifying. He was P3 in practice on Saturday morning and fifth on Friday afternoon but will only start 14th. That’s his worst qualifying position ever in Road America. Unfortunately for him, its been par for the course this season. He was 18th in Barber, ninth in St. Pete, 13th in Texas 1, ninth in Texas 2, 11th and 18th respectively in Indianapolis and 20th and ninth in Belle Isle.
To have his best start being ninth is eye opening. So is the fact that Rahal could have a top seven finish in literally every race run this season too. Imagine if they could get their qualifying setups to his liking to what he could be doing.
Same for Takuma Sato. He qualified 20th. He’s yet to have a top 10 starting spot this season with his last five being 17th, 15th, 16th, 19th and 20th respectively.
Potential For A Good Points Day For Palou, Newgarden/Pagenaud/Herta
Alex Palou, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Colton Herta enter 2-4-5-9 in the NTT IndyCar Series points standings this weekend. All four will start in the top six on Sunday. This could be a big points day for them with Pato O’Ward (10th) and Scott Dixon (13th) each starting behind them.
Plus, Rinus VeeKay (not racing this weekend), Marcus Ericsson (18th), Graham Rahal (14th) and Takuma Sato (20th) all way behind them, they not only could close the gap to O’Ward/Dixon but also separate themselves from the guys behind them too.