INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) race preview

Josef Newgarden has gotten hot again. The Team Penske driver finally put the storied organization in victory lane last month in the last race run for the NTT IndyCar Series at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Now though, can Newgarden mount a hell of an end of season comeback and win his third Astor Cup championship trophy in the last five years?

Right now, Newgarden sits fourth in points and trails championship points leader Alex Palou by 69 in the process. He has led the most laps in each of the last three races to go along with three straight poles as well. He led the first 67 laps in Belle Isle 2 but was on the wrong end of tire strategy and passed with three laps-to-go. He led 32 of 55 laps in Road America but his car had a mechanical malfunction while leading on the final restart with two laps left. In Mid-Ohio, he put it all together for his first win of 2021 after leading 73 of 80 laps that day.

He’s led 172 of the last 205 laps (84%) on the season and could stage a fight for the title come September. It continues on his home race in an inaugural street event on the streets of Nashville. Out of the last nine street races, only Newgarden has won on them multiple times.

He then goes from there to the Indy road course next week in a track that he won at just last year. Then, it’s to World Wide Technology Raceway to where he’s the only driver to win multiple times on that 1.25-mile track including last year too.Josef Newgarden at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past May - INDYCAR Media Site photo credit

If there’s a time for a comeback, it’s this month. He made up 117 points this time last year and nearly won a second title. This is his opportunity to do so again for what could be a second straight magical end of the year run.

He also has a lot of company up front from Chip Ganassi Racing who has 1-3-5 in points right now too. Palou, has five podiums in his last six races on the season and seven top fives in 10 races run this year. That’s going to be a hard guy to catch if he keeps that up which is why Newgarden has to be damn near flawless over the final six race stretch. The thing is though, out of the final six races, Palou has never raced at four of the tracks before. How much does that factor weigh in here?

Scott Dixon has two podiums all year but also six top fives to his credit too. He won on the Indy road course a year ago too and also won in Gateway as well so he too can have a big month ahead to propel him back in the mix. You’ve got to think if that ill timed first caution in the Indy 500 doesn’t happen, Dixon would be well within striking distance right now and he’s not even gotten hot yet. Imagine when he does.

Marcus Ericsson is the one really coming on hot as of late as he has finishes of first, ninth, sixth and second respectively in his last four starts on the season to move all the way up to fifth in points. He’s been to all these tracks coming up with the exception of obviously Nashville. This is a sleeper to watch moving forward too.

A guy that’s cooled is Pato O’Ward. He’s second in points but has not finished on the podium in four of his last six starts. He was ninth in Road America and eight in Mid-Ohio. Natural road courses aren’t their strength right now and three of the next five races are on them.

Can Newgarden hold them off and keep his streak going on Sunday?

He could also have company from other drivers too in the sense that we’ve had eight winners in 10 races run this season. Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing hasn’t won yet this year but they’re surging. Graham Rahal hasn’t won since 2017 but he’s had a top seven finish in all but three races this season. In two of those three, he had a top five car in both. Takuma Sato has two top 10’s in his first six races of the season but three in the last four since. Santino Ferrucci has four top 10’s in as many tries himself.

What about Andretti Autosport? Can they find their groove?

Colton Herta has four top 10’s this season, all are top fives. But, while he’s shown speed, four of his last six finishes on the season have also been 13th or worse. Alexander Rossi scored his first top five of the season in Mid-Ohio and he’s had three top sevens in his last four starts of the year, but he’s also not won a race since June 2019. Ryan Hunter-Reay has one top 10 all year, a 10th place run in Texas 2 with nine of his 10 starts being 11th or worse. Three of his last five has seen him finish 21st or worst. James Hinchcliffe had no top 10’s all year and surprisingly his best finish entering the weekend is 14th.

Hunter-Reay and Hinchcliffe are worrying about their futures with the team as AA is possibly looking to retool their driver lineup for 2022. You have to think if results don’t start improving, one or both of them could be out.

Has Arrow McLaren SP as well as RLL passed Andretti up now in the pecking order? Does it go Ganassi-Penske-AMSP-RLL-AA now?

What about Will Power for Penske? He’s not won yet this year but has won each season since 2007. Simon Pagenaud also hasn’t won and is negotiating his future with the team too. Three of his last four results have been 12th or worse. Can he find his groove again too?

Sebastien Bourdais is always a threat for a win each season and could play into this too. Romain Grosjean is showing bright signs too.

How many more winners do we end up with? That’s 10 more realistic contenders who could find victory with only six races left. Does Newgarden, Palou and Ericsson keep their hot streaks up and win again over the final six races? Does Dixon and O’Ward improve again to find another victory?

The final push to the championship is going to be a good one.

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