INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Will Long Break After This Weekend Hurt Momentum?

The NTT IndyCar Series had a condensed schedule to start things off. They raced three straight weeks to start 2021 off with at Barber, St. Pete then a doubleheader at Texas. From there, it was a week of before the GMR Grand Prix in Indianapolis, Indy 500 qualifying and the Indy 500 to close out the Month of May. That’s six weekends of action in seven weeks. Then, they got a week off before a doubleheader at Belle Isle and a race at Road America a week after that.

Now, following an off weekend last week, the drivers are back in action at Mid-Ohio. Overall, from the Barber to now, that’s nine weekend’s accounting for 10 races in a span of 12 weeks.

But, once we get to the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon, the series gets a lengthy break ahead. See, their next race isn’t until Aug. 8 on the streets of Nashville. Part of that is by design as they already had a break in the schedule to observe the Olympics.

With the series being on NBC Sports, there wasn’t any viable TV options to race during the Olympics so they made the wise move to sit this one out. Then, factor in the cancellation of Toronto which was originally slated to run next weekend, the break got even longer.

Does this hurt the momentum now?

“I think it gives everybody time to rest, be back with their families, which is really big I think for everybody’s mental state, to be more clear,” Colton Herta said. “It will be a nice break. I think by that time everybody’s going to be fired up and really want to get back into the paddock and stuff. It’s going to be like the start of the year again where people are itching to get back. Can’t wait for that.

We’ll have a nice little break and we’ll get in tune with all the data and stuff we’ve collected this year and go a little bit more in-depth into what we can do for the upcoming race weekends. A lot of sim days. I think we even have a few test days in between that time which will be nice. And we have a test day at Laguna, which will be awesome. I haven’t been there in a while. It will be nice to drive an INDYCAR around there again.”

Will We See An 8th Straight Different Winner On Sunday?

Scott Dixon is undoubtedly the man at Mid-Ohio. He’s won six times over the course of his career there. But, an odd yet fascinating trend is developing – we’ve had seven straight different winners for this track. Does that streak continue?

Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Dixon, Will Power and Colton Herta have each all won in the last seven Mid-Ohio races. Who are the favorites to keep this going?

Scott McLaughlin could in a Penske car. His three teammates have each won in the last six races. Pato O’Ward (11th, 9th last year) or his Arrow McLaren SP teammate of Felix Rosenqvist (2 top 6’s in 3 tries) are factors. Rinus VeeKay (8th, 11th last year) is a strong contender. Don’t count out his teammate Conor Daly (2 top 10’s) either.

Then you have Marcus Ericsson (5th last year), Alex Palou (Ganassi car), Ryan Hunter-Reay (5 straight top 8’s), James Hinchcliffe (4 top 10’s in last 7 tries) or Takuma Sato (2 top 10’s) as contenders.

Palou has won two of the three races on natural road courses this season and call this his second favorite track on the schedule. He’s probably the favorite to keep this trend going.

Can Ganassi Get Going At Mid-Ohio Again?

Chip Ganassi Racing is bar none the best team in the series at Mid-Ohio. But, they’ve not been so great at this track lately. They’ve won once in their last seven tries. That one though was a thrilling 1-2 photo finish in 2019 between Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist. Can they get back going again?

Dixon, does have six Mid-Ohio triumphs but he’s also had just one podium in his last seven tries there too. Alex Palou was only 12th and 23rd respectively last year as a rookie. Marcus Ericsson is 0-for-3 in Mid-Ohio podiums while Jimmie Johnson is a rookie.

Can they reclaim their ground?

If they can get qualifying down, then watch out.

Palou, was the only one of four CGR drivers to even make it out of the first round of knockout qualifying two weeks ago in Road America. 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.

Ericsson qualified his No. 8 Honda in 18th. He’s qualified 13th or worse in five of his last six series races.

Jimmie Johnson came from 23rd.

In the race, there they were again in the end. Palou, snagged the win after Josef Newgarden’s mechanical problem on the final restart while Dixon used an undercut strategy to get his 179th career top five finish. He was an 8th-12th place car all day but hit pit lane on Lap 39 for the final time. That was the first among everyone else for the final pit stop.

It paid off.

Dixon, would earn his fifth top five in his last six Road America starts.

Ericsson, brought out the second caution of the day on Lap 23 but charged back up to finish sixth in his No. 8 Honda to give CGR three cars in the top six of the final running order. This was Ericsson’s third top 10 in four tries in Elkhart Lake and 18th career top 10 finish, six of which coming this season alone.

Johnson, spun on Lap 16 and finished out the top 20.

Palou now has won two of the three natural road course races too. Also, prior to this drought, Ganassi had won six straight years and seven in eight tries before. They’re more than capable of finding dominance again at Mid-Ohio.

Is Andretti In The Drivers Seat? Why qualifying matters for them?

Mid-Ohio isn’t one of Penske’s best tracks. Josef Newgarden has a win as well as a runner-up, but those are his only podiums in 10 tries there. Simon Pagenaud has 10 straight top 10’s but only two podiums in his last eight starts himself at Mid-Ohio. Will Power is their best option but he’s only scored one win despite so many poles.

Ganassi has one win in their last seven tries too. So, does this open the door for Andretti?

Colton Herta won the second race last year. James Hinchcliffe had a span of four top 10’s including three of which in the top five in-a-row a few years ago. Ryan Hunter-Reay has five straight top eights including three consecutive top fives and among those are two podiums. He’s had eight top 10’s in his last nine Mid-Ohio starts overall.

Then you have Alexander Rossi who has five straight top six results including three of his last four being on the podium.

Is this Andretti’s chance to shine and build momentum heading into the extended break?

“I’m hoping we can come with the same car and do it all again,” Herta said of his success at Mid-Ohio last year. “We had a good basis off last year. Obviously things have changed a lot since then. Really looking forward to getting back there.

“That’s kind of what I’m shooting for. This is a place that I know I can win at, the team knows we can win at. This is going to be a very exciting weekend for me.

Herta is coming off of a runner-up in the last race in Road America. He feels like with Road America and what could be success ahead for Mid-Ohio that momentum could be building for himself.

“I’ve been struggling to get on the podium when I’m not winning, so it feels nice to finally get one, or my second one in my career,” said Herta on his podium in Elkhart Lake.

The thing now is, can Herta turn these finishes into more podiums? He told me back before the season that he had hoped to turn more top five finishes into top threes and some top threes into wins. That’s the only spot he’s lacking he felt.

“We definitely have had the speed to do it everywhere that we’ve gone, which is nice, but we just haven’t executed every single part, whether that be strategy or pit stops or me making mistakes on track,” Herta continued on that topic at he midseason break. “Just it hasn’t all come together. It came together today, but we need to be doing it more consistently because we do have really fast race cars and we have the pace to be up front every single weekend.

“It’s just a matter of if we can get it done in the race and have perfect races to get it done every weekend. We’re working on it. It’s getting better.”

Herta said back in March that the “biggest setback is that we need to win more races. Can’t be winning one or two races a year and winning a championship. You need to be winning three or four races. That’s kind of my goal is to try to get to that number. That’s been the trend the last few years for guys that have won the championship, is they’re winning four races a year. When they’re not winning, they’re finishing on the podium.

“I have full faith in myself and in the team that we can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort from everybody.”

With where things sit nine races through the year, do his goals change a bit?

“Got to start winning more races,” he said. “My goal is to win two more races by the end of the year. I think if we could do that, finish on the podiums more times, that’s going to be probably the best effort that we can give.

“We got to make up the points gap and we have to jump all the guys. We just have to have really good weekends from here on out. My goal is two more race wins. That’s still the goal, to have three race wins at the end of the year. I think that should be enough if we finish on the podium a majority of the other times. It should be enough to kind of get us in the hunt.

“I’m not really sure what the championship is going to take, how many points we’re going to get to. I feel if I’m consistently on the podium, can get a few more wins, that’s going to be the best shot that we can give it.”

The thing is, we keep talking about Herta. What about the rest of the team? They’ve struggled this year. As to why Herta isn’t?

“Yeah, it’s hard to say obviously,” Herta said. “We have three other very capable drivers of winning races, getting on podiums. It just hasn’t happened for one reason or another.

“My guys have been really good in the pits. The engineers have given me great cars. That’s a big part of my success. But as far as the other guys, I think it’s a lot of luck, just weird things happening for them. Obviously I think the rest of the team is in a little bit of a slump. All it takes is one really good weekend from one of them to get out of it, kind of get back to where they need to be and where they really should be.”

Part of AA’s problem is that they’re struggling in qualifying. Herta, outqualifies his teammates almost every race and starts closer to the front than them. Is that the difference?

“Qualifying kind of shows what kind of speed you’re going to have in the race,” said Herta. “If you’re not qualifying up front, obviously you’re doing yourself a disservice already, making it harder on yourself.

“But it kind of shows that maybe you might not have the best race car that weekend, too. I think it definitely is a lot easier when you start up front. I’m not sure if that’s, like, the biggest thing because you can win from anywhere in INDYCAR races. All you need is a little luck and a really fast race car.

“It definitely helps a lot when you start on front row. There’s less aspects of the race and variables that you kind of put yourself through.

“I think it’s nice to see that we’ve had speed and our qualifying average is actually the lowest in the series and really good at the moment. It’s nice to see that we have the speed right now.

“But obviously didn’t translate at all to races, which is a little unfortunate. We are on kind of an uphill trend now, going back to where we need to be at the pointy end of the grid with two good results in Detroit and last weekend in Road America.”

Since 2017, Andretti has 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.

Expect the same for this weekend.

“Yeah, this is a very interesting race,” said Herta. “I think split strategies mostly between a three-stopper and a two-stopper in the past. You kind of need to be able to be really fast in the race to make a two-stopper work, but you also have to be really fast to make a three-stopper work.

“We need a good race car, which obviously we had last year. I think we’ve seen it’s difficult to pass at this place. Starting up near the front helps for sure. Like I said before, it’s less variables. You don’t have to pass guys. You’re not giving yourself crossovers in the pits where something might happen there. So qualifying is going to be a big key to a good race. If you can kind of start up near the front, it will make your day a whole lot easier.”

The other thing is, it’s not like Andretti’s problem is due to Honda. The manufacturer has seen three Ganassi drivers win already including Alex Palou having won twice. Herta feels like they may actually have more speed than Ganassi, it’s just they’re not getting the finishes that Ganassi is.

“No, because I think we’ve been just as quick or quicker than them every single weekend,” he said. “I think qualifying has been really good. Races have not panned out exactly the way that I would have liked everywhere that we’ve gone, but we’ve had the speed, which is the most important part.

“Now we just need to refine everything the next few weeks and really dial in, get through Mid-Ohio, then we’ll have a nice break to kind of go through everything and be more clear on what we want for the rest of the year.

“We have a really good car, a really good team. The confidence is there because of that. The results are coming now. It makes everybody want to work harder. When you’re doing well and you’re in a fight for the top positions every weekend, everybody wants to push harder. It’s always a nice thing.”

Can Penske Pick Up 1st Win Of The Season After 0-for-9 Start?

Team Penske won five of the final six races in 2020. That made everyone believe that they’re the ones to beat for this year’s championship. Instead, they’re a remarkable 0-for-9. Its not like they’ve been off though. They’ve been close in the sense that they have a runner-up in five races run this season. They just keep losing races in heartbreaking fashion.

Will Power was second to Alex Palou in the season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park. Josef Newgarden was runner-up a week later on the streets of St. Pete and a week later again in race 2 at Texas. Scott McLaughlin was runner-up between those two races in the first event at Texas.

Then came Indianapolis to where they just struggled all month in the sense they they went 4-6-8-11 in the GMR Grand Prix, then qualified 17-21-26-32 for the Indy 500 and finished 3-12-20-30.

Last month in Belle Isle, Power had the race won last Saturday before his car wouldn’t refire following a red flag late in the race. Marcus Ericsson ended up winning that day but even he said that he had nothing for Power if his No. 12 Chevrolet started up as normal and led the field to green like he should have.

On Sunday of that race weekend, Newgarden had the race won in leading the first 67 laps but he was on the wrong strategy despite that. He’d finish second and vow that he wouldn’t change anything about his approach or his team moving forward since they’ve been so close. It’s just luck keeping them out of victory lane.

After earning the pole in Road America for the second straight race and looking like a true favorite, how he would be sure that Detroit doesn’t happen again?

“Yeah, I mean, look, as soon as you go predicting a race, it just does the complete opposite,” he said on Saturday of that race weekend. “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.”

In the race, he led a race-high 32 of 55 laps. He was in control coming to the green on Lap 53 but his car quit on him in heartbreaking fashion.

“Man, you just don’t know what it is about our team right now,” Power said. “We almost have a win in the bag and something just ridiculous happens, like just something that — I don’t know what it was, but things that you couldn’t prep for, something that you couldn’t avoid. It’s like my thing was just a switch, just a weird glitch in the system in Detroit, and I don’t know what his was this time. But yeah, unbelievable. And maybe it wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t a restart, but you don’t know.

“They were all things that are not things that have been repeated, know what I mean? Like they’re not constantly the same things, so it’s really hard to — I’ve seen this through the years. It’s just one — you hate to be the pioneer of things that go wrong and then they fix it, which that was me in Detroit. Had a glitch in the system. It hadn’t happened to anyone else, but you being the one to find it really sucks.

“This team, again, a problem we fixed immediately and it won’t happen again. But I just can’t believe the luck that we’re having as a team right now. It blows my mind.”

Newgarden, was third quickest in practice on Friday, fastest on Saturday, won the pole later in the day and led the most laps on Sunday. He didn’t win.

Newgarden, goes from 42 points down at the time while leading with three to go to -84. That’s how big of an issue that was at the end.

Also, it further proves that Penske just can’t get things going right for them. Can they Sunday in Mid-Ohio? They finished 1-2 in Race 1 last year. Will Power has six straight top even finishes there including four of which on the podium.

Josef Newgarden has five top 10’s in his last six tries including a win in 2017.

Simon Pagenaud has 10 straight top 10’s.

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