INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix (12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network)?

Can Penske Get Back To Winning Ways Here?

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 heading into May gave Penske 7 wins in the last 8 road course races at Indy.

Then, they struggled again. They qualified 2-5-10-12 and finished 4-6-8-11. No podiums. Can they recapture their Indy road course magic?

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

“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.”

Newgarden won the last natural road course race in Mid-Ohio and should have won the one before that in Road America too. But, his teammates are also reeling.

Power, has came home 11th or worse in seven of his last nine races. Furthermore, four of his last six have been 14th or worse at that.

Pagenaud has three finishes in the last four races of 12th or worse. McLaughlin, has started going backwards too.

Can Jimmie Johnson Have Best Weekend Of The Season?

Jimmie Johnson has always been at a disadvantage this year. Not only is he embarking in the most difficult racing series in the world to compete in, he’s doing so having never seen most of these tracks before. This weekend though, he has a rare opportunity of showing up at the race track for a second time.

He has all the data from May to decipher through. While he wasn’t blazing quick, he had a lot to learn.

Johnson, well he was no stranger to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The California native made 18 starts here in a NASCAR. He was able to pucker up and kiss the bricks four times in those 18 annual visits. In May time, he returned to the famed track for the first time since the 2019 season. Last year, he missed the Brickyard 400 due to COVID. This time, he’s doing so in a vastly different discipline of motorsports. He’s doing so in an NTT IndyCar Series machine.

He previously tested here last summer and last fall, decided that this was the route he wanted to go post NASCAR. In May, he had two practice sessions then qualifying. Johnson, qualified his No. 48 Honda 23rd for Chip Ganassi Racing on late Friday afternoon of that race weekend. He says that while the success in the past was nice, the pressure to success right now is still minimal.

“I’m not in the game yet, so at least right now there’s less pressure on me than I’ve had in years past, really kind of ever here,” he told me on Friday afternoon from his garage inside of Gasoline Alley. “Because I always kind of came here with the thought of winning. That kind of pressure is the highest of pressures. Right now, it’s my rookie year. There’s very little testing. People kind of understand that’s the environment that I’m in, the situation that I’m in. The change of pace. I don’t feel like there’s a lot of pressure now but as the year goes on it really ramps up.”

But, to be in an open wheel car in Indianapolis no matter what layout they’re running in special to Johnson. See, he grew up wanting to race here in the Indy 500. He idolized Rick Mears. He felt like his future would be best suited here. Instead, his path went to NASCAR and it’s not like it was a bad thing. He won 83 times and took home seven championships. That path was best for him.

Now, he can carve his own path to wind down his career in making his childhood dreams come true.

“This is their native environment. This is what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s cool,” Johnson said of being an Indy Car driver at Indianapolis during the Month of May. “I can’t wait to be here for the oval practice and qualifying and see the race and soak all of that in. An Indy Car on this track is pretty darn special.”

Johnson said then he was just starting to feel comfortable to where he can attack. Imagine what he can do now that he’s actually had race action here before now too.

Can Grosjean or McLaughlin Win?

We just talked above about one rookie, but what about the other two first year drivers. Can they realistically win on Saturday? Both made the Fast Six in May. In fact, Romain Grosjean won the pole and finished second. Scott McLaughlin qualified fifth and finished eighth. They now have experience on this track and looked good then, can they win now?

I don’t see why not.

Grosjean has accumulated the third most points scored out of everyone on the four natural road courses this season and looks the part to contend for the victory on Saturday.

Will INDYCAR/NASCAR Doubleheader Weekend Stay?

There were always rumors of an INDYCAR/NASCAR doubleheader weekend. With a similar network airing both series’ on NBC Sports, INDYCAR full time, NASCAR during the 2nd half of the season, when and where could this happen? Well, COVID helped speed along the process. It happened last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The only problem was, it was held behind closed doors.

Now, it’s back. This time fans are here. This time, both series are using the same track going in the same direction. Last year, the INDYCAR drivers ran the 2.439-mile road course on Saturday with the NASCAR Xfinity Series teams doing the same a little while later. A day after, the Brickyard 400 was ran by the Cup Series drivers on the oval.

Now, everyone is using the road course. It’s a true doubleheader on the same track going the same direction. The question now is, what’s the future of this doubleheader? Does INDYCAR/NASCAR keep it going? If they do keep it going, does it stay at Indy or move around? If it stays here, does that mean the Brickyard for the foreseeable future runs on the road course?

“It’s not just important but it’s unique and fun and worked out really well,” NBC Sports President, Jon Miller told me. “Both the INDYCAR teams and NASCAR operational teams worked very well together.

“Obviously being at a showcase venue like Brickyard made it a lot easier logistically. So when those opportunities present themselves, we are certainly going to do everything we can to take advantage of them.”

Does he see that going past this year for 2022 or 2023?

“I’m hopeful that we can find ways to keep doing it.”

There’s a lot of eagerness and anticipation for this weekend from everyone between fans, drivers, teams, crews and the media. See, with COVID last year, the NASCAR teams and INDYCAR teams couldn’t mingle. It was one series in and out before the next comes in. Now, they can all watch each other.

It seems like it’s a no brainer for these two sides to have this weekend keep going. The question is, does the future of this remain in Indianapolis?

Will We See A 6th Straight Different Winner On Saturday?

Simon Pagenaud won the road course race in May of 2019. COVID moved the race back to July last year and Scott Dixon won it. Then, the Harvest Grand Prix was brought out last October with Josef Newgarden and Will Power winning the doubleheader weekend. Rinus VeeKay won this past May. That’s five different drivers. Do we see a sixth different winner on Saturday?

If so, Graham Rahal, Alex Palou, Colton Herta, Alexander Rossi, Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin or Jack Harvey makes the most sense.

Also, we’ve had 11 races run this season with eight different winners as well. Only Palou on that list has won a race this year, so two trends can keep going through Saturday’s race too.

Nine of the previous 10 races held on this circuit have been won by drivers who had either won an INDYCAR championship or soon would. Those include four wins by Will Power (No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet), three by Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet) and one each by Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) and Josef Newgarden (No. 2 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet). VeeKay, who will drive the No. 21 Sonax/Autogeek Chevrolet, is the lone non-champion to have won one of the non-oval events.

Power has easily been the circuit’s most dominant driver, capturing five poles and leading 285 laps. In all, 28 drivers have led laps in these INDYCAR races, with Pagenaud and Dixon tied for the second-most laps led with 68 each. Newgarden has led 59 laps, VeeKay 48, Castroneves 46, rookie Romain Grosjean (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) 44 and Graham Rahal (No. 15 One Cure Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) 41.

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