INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

How Much Does Testing Help?

While these last two weeks are on two completely separate race tracks, I do expect last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland and this Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) to have similar results.

That’s due to a testing program and who tested here.

Chip Ganassi Racing planned out their testing program flawlessly. With limited test days available now-a-days, plus a condensed weekend schedule, Ganassi elected to backload their on track time for the 2021 season. They came to Portland as well as Laguna Seca for what now looks like a brilliant move in the process.

They were quickest in both practice sessions this weekend, won the pole, won the race and put 2 cars on the 3 spot podium. For Palou, he singles out that test day as the biggest factor that won them the pole and the race as well.

“For sure that made our life easier,” Palou said of the testing process and what tracks they chose. “Especially only having one practice with the schedules we have nowadays with COVID, it’s pretty hard for a guy that doesn’t know a track to learn it in one practice..

“But yeah, that test gave us the pole and the win I would say today (Sunday). At some point we were on blacks, the last 10 we were on blacks and everybody was on reds, and we were still a tiny bit faster than Rossi. Yeah, we were really strong, and that’s because of the test we did for sure.”

Rossi got his 1st podium of the season last Sunday in Portland. Is his luck changing? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Last weeks second place finisher, Alexander Rossi, agreed. He said that by them not testing in Portland, it was the difference in the end.

“We didn’t test here like Ganassi did, so I think to get two cars in the Fast Six against them was pretty good,” he said. “I think when you have a two-day event for really no reason and you only have one practice session and an hour and a half between practice and qualifying, it makes it hard for the guys that didn’t test here.”

Palou has won 2 of the 4 races that he’s been a true rookie at this season. These test days have been very beneficial in getting him up to speed quicker.

“Yeah, it’s a team,” he told me. “Like they gave us a really good car. Got my first pole in INDYCAR. Scott finished third, as well. So having two cars on the podium shows that we had a good car today.

“I don’t know; I think we do a really good job at the simulator at HPD together with Honda, and we work really hard. Yeah, it’s working out, and it’s paying off on track, so we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing.”

That’s why he’s excited for this week too in the sense that they also tested in Laguna.

So did Andretti Autosport though. They came to Laguna Seca for the test. Rossi, says that he hopes that the testing advantage does help next week in the sense that they did test at Laguna and it went well for them there.

“Hopefully the advantage kind of comes back to us in Laguna and we can have a little bit of upper hand coming out of the box there,” Rossi continued. “But ultimately I think the team has been doing a good job as of late, and we’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”

Palou, is excited about Laguna Seca but nervous about Long Beach.

“We need to try and take some advantage of Laguna,” he said. “We know we have a good car there, and I say that because I tested there, that car. I know the track, and I know we can be strong there. So we’ll try and take it a session at a time and try and score really big points at Laguna.

“Laguna Seca next week, it’s going to be good for us. It’s a road course. I think we’ve been fighting for all the road course races this year, so feeling pretty strong about that.

“Hopefully we get another win, and then we’ll see what happens at Long Beach.

“Long Beach, that’s going to be interesting and exciting, but nothing I can do about it. Never been there, all my competitors been there and won races there, so it’s a bit scary, but hopefully I can do a good job at Laguna so I can be a bit more comfortable at Long Beach.

“This year I think we struggled a bit on the first couple of races on street courses, but we got a podium at Detroit. We qualified P3 at Nashville. Yeah, we are fast on street courses, too.”

Dixon says that it’s all about going for wins now. He’s 49 points out which may be too far. But, if it gets too wide between he and Palou, then he’s all in to help his teammate earn a championship instead.

“I think we definitely found some setup things from Friday morning to the afternoon,” Dixon said. “Hopefully we can apply that to maybe Laguna. Obviously Long Beach is very different. But good momentum for the team. I think that’s key.

“A lot of us have had good speed this weekend, which hopefully that transfers to next week and the weekend after, and ultimately trying to keep a championship at Ganassi.

“It’s definitely been a trying season for us, but ultimately if it comes down to we need to help Alex, that’s fine, too. I think for us it’s about keeping the championship at home and at the team.

“So yeah, it’s just the way it rolls sometimes. But yeah, we’ll — obviously we’ve seen it. We saw it at St. Louis how quickly it can flip. We’ve seen how quickly it can flip this weekend. Unless you’re out, you’re not out. We’ve won championships on a tiebreaker. It’s all possible.”

Herta won the last time out in Laguna Seca, can he win again? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

Can Rossi Or Herta Win At Least 1 Of The Final 2 Races?

Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi have nothing to lose. They’re not points racing anymore. In saying that, the question arises, can either of them win at least one of the final two races of the season? Can they sweep them?

Herta, won the last time out in Laguna Seca while Rossi is the two-time defending winner at Long Beach.

If things could go Rossi’s way though, last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland wouldn’t be his first podium of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season. He pit with Pato O’Ward from second place in the season opener at Barber but was doing so by thinking that they were covering O’Ward in pit strategy. Little did they know then, that early stop for the Arrow McLaren SP driver was an unscheduled one as O’Ward had a slow tire leak. It cost him track position and instead grabbing a podium, he finished ninth.

In St. Pete, he and Graham Rahal had contact while running in the top five and he’d finish 21st. Texas was dismal with a first lap crash in the second race of the doubleheader weekend. The Indy 500 saw him with a top five car but the badly timed first caution before he could pit hurt him. He ran out of gas under caution and had to do an emergency stop while the pits were closed. His car wouldn’t refire and he’d fall a lap down as a result.

Belle Isle 1 came another badly timed first caution while having a podium in his grasps. Belle Isle 2 saw him get front wing damage. Nashville saw another badly timed yellow. Gateway saw a crash while running third with 60 to go after his final stop.

At any one of those races, he could have had a podium. Instead, he entered Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland 12th in points. His last win came in 2019 at Road America. His last podium nearly a year ago. He qualified on the front row but he’s been in this position before. What could go wrong he was thinking?

Turn 1 did. A melee broke out again and Rossi had to avoid it. He was penalized which left him fuming. The track position was now gone. How could he make it up?

“Yeah, I mean, I’m glad it all came back to us because we all would have looked pretty silly, I guess,” Rossi said of that opening lap incident. “I thought it was pretty low grip in Turn 1 when Felix (Rosenqvist), I guess — when Scott (Dixon) and Alex (Palou) and them kind of slid through, I didn’t really have anywhere to go, and I thought if we got back to the styrofoam chicane, that was acceptable. But it was self-penalizing because we all went from like first, second, third to sixth, seventh, eighth, and then they’re like, oh, you’re going to 24th. It was like, okay, cool.

“But fortunately it all came around, and as Scott said, it put us on the two-stop, which is ultimately the strategy to be on.

“Yeah, it’s nice to get a result finally. I thought we obviously had a podium going into St. Louis, and I gave that up. It was good to rebound here in Portland.”

With Palou and Ganassi testing here and the Andretti cars not, how much of a factor did this play?

“We didn’t test here like Ganassi did, so I think to get two cars in the Fast Six against them was pretty good,” he said. “I think when you have a two-day event for really no reason and you only have one practice session and an hour and a half between practice and qualifying, it makes it hard for the guys that didn’t test here.”

Rossi, says that he hopes that the testing advantage does help next week in the sense that they did test at Laguna and it went well for them there.

“Hopefully the advantage kind of comes back to us in Laguna and we can have a little bit of upper hand coming out of the box there,” Rossi continued. “But ultimately I think the team has been doing a good job as of late, and we’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”

Following Laguna is Long Beach, a place to where he’s won in each of the last two stops to the scenic street course. He led 71 laps in 2018 and 80 in 2019.

“We’ve got two good shots at it,” he said on the final two races to end his two year winless drought. “I think we came out of the summer break with some solutions and identified some issues, and I think that’s been a positive and kind of carried forward, and yeah, we’ll do everything we can. We’ve got nothing to lose in these last two, so we’ll try our best to take some points away from those guys and see what we can get.

Still two straight podiums now in Portland is a great start to what should be a good end of the season for him. Without anything to lose, the path to a win may be a little bit easier he says.

“I think every — it’s the same every race. You’re just trying to win, and then depending on what happens in the beginning or the middle, you adapt from there,” Rossi said. “For Alex and Scott, they have a championship to look at, and they’re probably counting points a little bit, whereas for me we’re just trying to get results.

“At the end of the day everyone is here to try and win, and that doesn’t change kind of at any point throughout the whole weekend.”

This is the final natural road course race of the season and only Palou has scored more points than Rossi on these tracks this season.

What about the case for Herta?

He’s shown to have one of the fastest cars on the grid this year. The Andretti Autosport driver has led the fourth most laps out of anyone as well as earning seven front row starting spots in 14 races this year.

Despite all of that, he’s had just one win all season long. Furthermore, he’s only had three podiums to show for it. While turning top fives into podiums was a big emphasis for himself this year, he’s actually done that. He had four podiums in his 32 prior starts to 2021. He’s has three in 14 starts this season. The thing is, he’s had a car capable of more than three podiums too.

He was collected in a first lap crash in the season opener at Barber. He had a mechanical failure in Texas 1. He was a victim of the first caution for the Indy 500 and was 16th. He was the wrong end of strategy in both Belle Isle races in finishing 14th and 4th respectively. In Nashville he was the best car/driver out there all weekend. He was quickest in every practice session then dominated from the pole. He even led 39 of the 1st 74 laps before crashing while running second in a day that got away from him due to all the cautions tying up strategy.

In Gateway he broke a drive shaft while leading in the closing stages.

What does he have to do to turn this around? For starters, this weekend may be the place. Laguna Seca is Herta country. He won the last race here in 2019. His dad won back-to-back years in 1998 and again in 1999.

Herta also won the pole in 2019 while his dad won the pole in 1997, 1998 and again in 1999.

If luck can finally go his way, this is the place.

Them testing could help as I sense they could win out.

Graham Rahal last weekend in Portland – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

How Big Is Momentum For Next Year?

We’re down to two races remaining and out of a 27 car field this weekend, only five of them have any real shot at winning a championship next Sunday in Long Beach. That means for the 23 other drivers, they’re just there to race. It’s win or go home for them.

But, in saying that, to further the point above, how much does the momentum factor play into things too? At what point do you start looking ahead to next season and at what cost do you do so in terms of momentum?

See, momentum is sports is always a debated topic. How big of a role does it play, especially in racing? It’s not like you can go to your local supermarket and buy a case of momentum so when you have it, you want to keep it and when you don’t have it, you want to gain it.

With being in a weird position for the drivers not going for a championship anymore this weekend, does that change the way you approach things? I mean all year you race with an end goal of a title in the back of your mind. Now that there’s no shot, does that change your outlook and approach to a race weekend?

How does that affect momentum?

Also, how much does momentum carry over from one season to the next?

Is Penske In Trouble?

Heading into this west coast swing, I wondered if Team Penske would win out. Now, I wonder if they’ll win again. Chip Ganassi Racing had a leg up on the field in Portland. That’s due to their testing program there and what they learned from it. Andretti Autosport was a close second but heading to Laguna Seca this weekend, this is a place where they tested out and feel like they made some big gains. They’re expecting strong results on Sunday.

Ganassi also tested here too. So, does this lead Penske to troubles?

Penske had a rough weekend in Portland by starting 14th, 15th, 18th and 23rd. They only finished 5th, 9th, 13th and 21st. If Andretti gains on the field for this week and Ganassi being the same, doesn’t this put Penske even further behind?

That doesn’t bode well for them then if so.

Josef Newgarden has only scored the seventh most points on natural road courses this year. Will Power is fourth while Scott McLaughlin (14th) and Simon Pagenaud (16th).

Honda’s just seem that much better on these types of tracks with 5 of the top 6 point scorers on these tracks being from the Honda camp. Why do they have such an advantage and will this cost Newgarden and/or Pato O’Ward the championship?

Palou has taken over the lead again and with O’Ward being 25 points back and Newgarden 34, is it too little too late by time we get to Long Beach?

Palou says this is a big weekend for them because they’re confident on these tracks. Long Beach not so much. But, if Newgarden is still over 30 points arrears leaving Laguna on Sunday and O’Ward not having gained much if anything at all, can they really gain what they need to next week?

Can Pato O’Ward Respond?

Heading into last Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland, Pato O’Ward looked to be the clear cut championship front runner. Yes, his lead was only 10, but in each of the last five years, the driver to have been leading the standings at the three race-to-go mark of the season had hoisted the Astor Cup each time. Plus, Alex Palou was reeling while O’Ward was once again ascending.

Was it a perfect storm?

Sunday’s race started out like one. Palou may have earned the pole, but he was in jeopardy of falling even further behind when he went off course to avoid the Turn 1 melee at the start. That penalized him as he went from being in sixth by time he blended back in, to outside the top 20 due to rules. They’d pit under that opening caution and would restart well outside the top 10.

Meanwhile, O’Ward went from seventh to first during that first lap mishap and was in the catbirds seat. His points lead now was over 40 and would remain that way all the way through the first stint. Then, that Lap 51 caution fell and flipped the standings back around again.

That Lap 10 pit stop from Palou, it indirectly helped him. He now was in the top spot to win while O’Ward was going to struggle to get a top 10 when it was all said and done. That’s exactly what happened. Palou won. O’Ward finished 14th.

Instead of being 10 points up entering, to over 40 points ahead during the race, O’Ward slipped to 25 points back with two races left. The question now is, can they bounce back this weekend in Laguna Seca?

Both he and Palou are rookies at the track but Palou tested there. O’Ward’s natural road course program has improved since their Portland test during the summer break, but so did Ganassi’s. They Honda’s are the top manufacturer on these tracks and like last week in Portland, I expect Ganassi and Andretti to dominate as a result.

That could hinder O’Ward and even the Penske’s this weekend. How much can he bounce back because of that? It may come down to the luck of the draw for cautions or bad luck for Palou in order to keep O’Ward in the hunt heading to Long Beach next week.

If O’Ward loses any ground on Palou, and there’s a good chance he will, then the title may be all but wrapped up this weekend. 25 points isn’t too much to make up in a two race span, but 25 points is for a one race opportunity. How much can O’Ward bounce back from and cut that deficit down to? Or, on the flip side, does that deficit grow larger?

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