INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s XPEL 375

Is This It For INDYCAR/Texas Moving Forward?

When NASCAR and Texas officials started adding the traction compound to the race track, it has in turn greatly affected the INDYCAR stop to the Lonestar State. The track applied this prior to the NASCAR race on it in November 2019. While they tried to get it off, it created a mess of things.

The compound was put in the middle to high lanes in the corners for more grip on the 1.5 mile race track in order to create more lanes of racing for the much heavier stock cars. For the INDYCARs, the compound is like driving on ice. They weigh far less than a NASCAR and are much lighter on downforce. When getting into it, your car just wants to break loose.

That’s why the racing at Texas the last two years has been a high speed parade without much action.

“It’s pretty slippery,” said Graham Rahal. “If you enter too shallow, the car doesn’t want to turn at all. You dance on a fine line.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay agreed then too.

“They warned us about it earlier, saying that it’s more of a stain at the moment. There is no grip to it. There’s nothing there that’s going to help you. That’s fine. But any time anybody’s been on it now, it’s been super slick, even in turn three and four.

“It’s strange. I mean, it’s very dark, which usually all my years of racing you see dark, you think that’s going to be a quick side, that is going to be rubber, something to help you. Yeah, there’s no traction about it right now. It’s tricky.”

See, INDYCAR isn’t the problem here. Texas is. They repaved and reconfigured the track and added this compound to help the NASCAR show but in all honesty, it’s ruined the racing across the board in every form of motorsports there.

INDYCAR and their partners have exhausted almost every effort to get these cars to race above the low groove and to help improve the show. It’s just the compound isn’t allowing for the cars to race in certain areas of the track which in turn has stunk up the show.

Last year, they added more downforce in comparison to last and Firestone brought a new tire for the competitors too. From my vantage point, both worked in terms of closing up the action. Drivers were getting runs on one another, it’s just that they couldn’t do anything with it, because if you veered high into the stained area above the bottom lane, you were going to be a passenger at that point.

No one dared to go into that darker area of the track because once you did, you’d crash. Just ask James Hinchcliffe, Will Power and a few others.

“Yeah, it’s just slippery,” Rahal said last year after the second race. “It’s just slippery. We can’t really touch it. Obviously didn’t reapply it for the weekend. Doesn’t really matter. It’s an artificial grip, I guess, for the Cup cars they use to make it a little racier for them. It just didn’t work with us.

“Unfortunately we’re kind of dealt the hand that we’re dealt. We have to make the most of that. I know INDYCAR tried their best to do the tire dragging and everything else, not necessarily apply rubber, but peel that PJ1 off and get it out. As you can see, it is so dark, stains the surface so terribly. When you walk on it, you can feel it. It’s like ice. Roughly from Firestone numbers, 20 to 25% less grip the minute you touch the dark stuff.

“I think it got better as guys accidentally ran half a groove too high, it did get better. But still it would take a lot of running I think to get that to really peel up.

“The positive of what we saw today was there was a lot of lifting, even some braking into turn one, downshifting, all that sort of stuff. If over time they don’t reapply that PJ1, they let it slowly wear off, I think this place can become a two-plus-lane track again. Going to take a while to get there, take people that are brave enough to try it, or try it by accident. Doesn’t matter. Try to apply some rubber.

“It’s tricky, man. It’s not ideal. Not ideal for us.”

Last year’s second place finisher in the first race, Scott McLaughlin, said he didn’t dare touch that portion of the track either.

“From my perspective, you just can’t use the second lane,” he said after the Saturday night race. “It’s very difficult at three and four, and at one and two. Unfortunately that’s just how it is. That’s all I’ve experienced here, so that’s all I know. I still think you can get some reasonable runs, but it just makes you probably a little bit nervous to maybe throw down on the high side into one or into two.

“I saw firsthand what happened to (James) Hinchcliffe. He got dirty air pushed up, went up onto the PJ1 and he was gone.”

Third place finisher on Saturday and Sunday’s race winner last year, Pato O’Ward, agreed.

“From my side, same as Scott. Honestly I didn’t really try going up there,” said the Arrow McLaren SP driver. “I didn’t want to make a stupid mistake and hit the wall. But it’s still a no go zone in my book.”

O’Ward said that he does feel like they made the racing package a little bit better, especially from very high deg to low deg tires when guys have many laps on them or brand-new. He thinks we saw more passing around, but it’s still “really, really tough. Honestly, all around I just feel more confident, this is my second time, second race here in Texas. That makes a big difference.

“But, yeah, I think it was a step in the right direction. It’s not quite there to be able to make the race as crazy and chaotic like an Iowa. I feel like it was kind of like a Gateway in a way, in a speedway version obviously. There was some passing but not quite two lanes.”

Rahal agreed.

“I mean, I thought it was decent,” said Sunday’s third place finisher. “I think there was some opportunities. At the test here we ran barge boards, like what’s available at Indianapolis. I thought the barge boards at the test really helped us run a little bit closer, helped maintain the front tire for me. Then it was determined those aren’t allowed. I understand it, but I also think something like that in the future to look at as a positive.

“I do think the series has worked hard. I don’t think we should beat everybody up on this thing. People poured a lot of time into getting this race better. I thought it was better than last year personally. Way more guys finished on the lead lap. There was more passing. I thought it was an improvement in the overall package. Is there more to come? Sure, guys. But the track is what it is. We’re trying to do our best to work around it.

“I thought the aero package, a little more improvement that could be done. The guys worked hard. I thought it was better.”

Josef Newgarden echoed their sentiments too.

“I would agree with Graham,” said Sunday’s runner-up. “You got to take the positives. Everyone has put a tremendous amount of work into this. Both the series, the track, everybody involved, the teams trying to help out with feedback.

“I think it was an improvement from last year, as well. I agree. It was racier. People followed a lot closer, less dropoff. I think it was pretty close to being good. You’re just a little hand tied here with the one-lane track, to be honest. If we could get more lanes, we could get more usage out of the track, I think you’d have a much racier race.

“A lot of what happened today was it turned into a fuel mileage situation. There’s not much you can do about that. Whenever it gets to that point, everyone is going to take it up, you saw nearly the whole field trying to fuel. You get into one of those situations with a caution at the beginning that creates it, you just can’t do much about it. Everyone is going to try to race.

“I thought at the end when it got racy again, it was definitely a good improvement.”

Saturday’s race winner Scott Dixon said that he felt like he wasn’t sure what effect the PJ1 had on the race but he does feel like it’s to a point to where “everybody tries to steer clear of it.”

He said that the only time you could even dare to use it would be earlier in the run, but once you keep going on the bottom, the marbles start to accumulate on that area of the track too and makes it even more of a problem.

“In practice I made a couple passes round the outside in one, and got maybe half the car on there,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot of us, as we went through these long green-flag runs, I didn’t really want to get up there not because of the PJ1, I think it might have been okay, what they’ve done to the application, running tires over it, taking a bit of it off has definitely helped the difference.

“But once you do get these long green runs, there’s just a lot of marbles up there. As we saw from some of the accidents, probably most of them were just getting into the dirty part of the track.”

As to how you can change it?

“Yeah, I don’t know,” said the six-time series champion. “I think it’s something that definitely a lot of us need to look at. It’s got to make sense. Maybe we do need to come here and do a two or three or four day test to try to figure it out.

“You don’t want it to be easy. The direction we went this year, I didn’t really enjoy it just because the deg didn’t seem as much. It was easier if we had qualifying, like I already said, going to be easy flat for everybody. This is meant to be difficult. It’s not meant to be easy.

“But the good cars are meant to be fast, and the other cars that maybe haven’t got their setups sorted out will struggle. You would like to see a lot more of that.

“Last year I think probably 25 laps into a stint you were onto lap traffic and passing through, whereas this year it was almost 40 laps or maybe a little bit more. The pack was a little bit tighter. But still when everybody goes the same speed, it makes it very tough to pull a move off.

“I don’t know. I don’t think there’s always an easy answer. I think this has been true for INDYCAR and CART and a lot of different formulas, Formula 1 the same thing. You have to be careful to make sure that it doesn’t become like a DRS situation where it’s too easy. It’s got to be difficult.

“I know there’s definitely some ideas in the works. Hopefully we can get to a track and actually apply them and test them. It’s too hard to show up and try to think they’re going to work.”

So, what makes us think a new date, a new time and a new year will change the outcome?

The thing is, getting the package right at Texas is as tough as anywhere else too. Usually you have to deal with battling the right amount of downforce levels. Too much, you get a pack race. No one wants that. Too little, well you get spread out racing that no one wants to watch either. The line between the two is a razors edge.

Then, you get the tire factor in too much degrading and you separate the field too much too. On the other end of the spectrum, too hard of a tire tightens everything up. The balance between the downforce levels and tires is hard enough.

Then throw in the usual Texas heat and now the PJ1 compound stained areas and you get a nightmare combination. INDYCAR did the best that they can and we should thank them at least for their efforts.

Now, in saying this, is this the end of Texas?

The writing is on the wall. Look at the Texas crowds a decade or so ago and look at them now. No one is showing up. No one is watching on TV. This race at Texas was arguably the second most anticipated race on the entire INDYCAR calendar outside of the Indy 500.

It was Indy-Long Beach-Texas as the ones everyone wanted to watch. Now, no one is tuning into this parade anymore.

Texas was that high speed, wheel-to-wheel, pulse pounding, edge of your seat race. But, following Dan Wheldon’s tragic death at Las Vegas in 2011, INDYCAR shifted away from that type of racing. Rightfully so too.

The problem is, as I pointed in the last topic above, getting the racing package right at Texas is on a razors edge. A little bit of change can alter the racing from a pack race to a snoozefest. There’s no a lot of room for error.

More times than not since 2012, it’s been on the edge of a snoozer. In turn, fans have gone away. Then factor into the equation the traction compound truly ruining the racing even more and you can see the writing is on the wall.

INDYCAR’s days at Texas may be numbered. In fact, this could be it.

This race has moved from June to May now to March. It’s gone from primetime on a Saturday night on network TV to a Sunday afternoon in March. With this being reportedly the final year of the contract between the two sides, is it worth coming back for more?

Texas has to be losing money here. INDYCAR would too if they continue going this route. The Texas weekend now is one that you just try to get through and move onto the next one. There’s no eagerness or excitement in it.

I can’t be the only one feeling this. The attendance, viewership and lack of buzz in the paddock prove it.

This weekend is crucial in showing that an INDYCAR race on this 1.5-mile track can work. If it’s like 2020 and both races in 2021, then forget about a renewal for 2023.

How Much Will Tires/Pit Stops Play A Role?

In 2020, Firestone limited the amount of laps per stint to 35. By comparison, the stints were around 65 laps in 2019. Last year was a little better but keep in mind both races were varying lengths. How will this weekend look? Can your tires last a full 65 lap stint under green flag conditions or is the fall off so great that you need to break the stint in half?

I’ve said it a lot here but Texas is a track that’s often been hard to figure out. The tires have played a big role in this because if you have minimal fall off over the course of a run, the cars can’t separate from one another and danger ensues. If you degrade too much, it creates single file racing without a lot of action. Throw in the Texas heat factor, the stained track from PJ1 and you never really know what you’re going to get. So, it’s anyone’s guess to how this weekend’s race is going to look.

So, while the tires are a bit of an unknown, the tire and pit strategy are going to be key. I mean, teams only get 13 sets for the entire weekend. That includes practice.

So, if you count backwards, the final pit window would take place from Lap 183 on. If that final stint stays green, the guys that pit early will have a quicker burst of speed, but fall off as the run goes on. The guys that pit later will lose time to the guys with newer tires, but gain time when it counts in the end. Pit too soon, you’re a sitting duck. Pit too late, you don’t have enough time to catch up. There’s a happy medium.

But, you have to manage your tires too. You have to lay a set at the end in case for a late race caution which changes everything.

Then, the second to last stint would be Lap 118. That doesn’t count any other yellow flags though, where it would be wise to pit under caution then having to come down on green flag sequences. You can’t afford to not pit under caution because not doing so and having to pit under green while most others don’t, well you’ll surely lose at least a lap in the process.

This is a 3 stop strategy type of race, but it’s all about timing the stints right.

That’s why with practice, you’re going to want to run a couple of sets at least to see how much fall off they have and adjust setups accordingly, but you’re also going to want to have at the very least 4-5 sets of fresh Firestone tires in your pit box for each race during race time as well.

While some don’t envy the rookies, I don’t envy the strategists either.

With track position being key, you have to be flawless in pit lane but with longer green flag runs possible, you have to figure out the best time to pit and not lose ground on either side during your stint because passing is not easy here.

Can Power Get Finish He Needs Sunday?

Will Power has always said that if he can start the seasons off better, then watch out. He’s consistently ended the years strong, it’s just the beginning of them that have been his Achilles heel.

Well, Power got the finish that he needed in the season opener in St. Pete. While it wasn’t a win, a third place result was just what the doctor ordered. Well, a runner-up last year in Barber to kick off 2021 was too but bad luck got in the way again.

Power’s podium that day in Barber as his only top five in the first eight races. Furthermore, half of those eight saw him finish 13th or worse. He’d then score three podiums in a five race span after before cooling off in the final three races of that season.

Heading into this season, if you combine the first two races over the last six years (12 starts), he’s had just three top fives and five top 10’s.

To get a podium this early is saying something.

“I’m really, really happy to start out this way,” Power said last month. “When I think about the day, just a really, really solid day for us. Got that yellow and then made the reds last in that middle stint. To finish on the podium, I was really, really happy with that. I didn’t expect — I expected us to be maybe in the top 10 after all of that. Great result. Happy with my performance.

“I couldn’t have done any more, and also with the team, we did everything that we could in the situation that we had. Really nice day and a great start to the season.

“I think we had a really fast car. The yellow was unfortunate, but still to get back to third, I was really happy with it. I think anytime you’re on the podium, anytime you have a top 5 that’s not the day you’re going to look back and go, oh, that cost me the championship. If you can keep rattling off those top 5s you’re going to be in the game. Definitely happy with the result.”

In saying this, the first race he’s getting down. This was the 3rd podium in the last 4 years of the season opener, it’s the second race that he’s had the problem. The finishes of the second race in the past three years?

24th, 20th and 8th respectively. He was 13th and 22nd respectively in the two years prior to that.

We go to Texas next this weekend. He was 18th in 2018, 9th in 2019, 13th in 2020 and 14th and 13th respectively in the doubleheader weekend last year. That race is circled for him now in order to be a championship contender.

A day like he’s had recently at Texas and it could pose problems for the rest of the year. A good good result helps him turn the corner.

As to what he needs to do for this season now to turn this into a potential championship one?

“Finish really well in the double points race at Indy like we didn’t last year, and have my car start when I’m leading in Detroit,” he jokes. “That group of points right there probably would have put me in the game. So there’s a big chunk right there.

“But honestly, it’s those days that really got us. Like we were in — we were going to be a top 5 at Indy and then the brakes went to the floor and I had no brakes and then couldn’t pit really, and then in Detroit obviously the thing didn’t start.

“But those little gremlins, those little things are the things we look back as things that really cost us, kind of things out of my control, but I also reflect and look at where I can be better, as well. If that all comes together, I really believe we can win the championship and be right there, at least a contender right until the end.”

Can Andretti Autosport Fix The Problems With Star Drivers?

Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi are now the faces of Andretti Autosport but both had problems entering the season and both have the same issues following the first race of the year too.

In the case for Herta, he’s been open about his goals. Herta’s main focus was to turn top fives into podiums. That was the difference in being a championship contender or not.

He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.

Last season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda in 16 races run. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races last season than in 32 starts prior.

Still, he needs to do so on a more consistent basis. Alex Palou had eight podiums. Josef Newgarden had six. They were 1-2 in the championship. Sine 2016, all but one champion had a podium finish in 50% or more of their starts throughout a season. Josef Newgarden had a 41% podium rate in 2019. Other than that, everyone else has been around the 50% mark.

That’s what Herta is missing is turning those solid days into podiums.

In St. Pete, Herta had a car for a podium. He was second in both practice sessions and qualified in third. He led 97 of 100 laps in a win in this very race last year. Unfortunately, not having his car fueled all the way during his first stop cost him dearly. He had to pit a little earlier in the final window which forced him to have to fuel save. That dropped him from a podium to fourth. That’s exactly what he was talking about the last two years. Days like Sunday cost him championships.

In Rossi’s case, it wasn’t a great start at St. Pete to show that he’d want to come back on a contract extension. Neither side are saying much of anything other than Andretti Autosport and Rossi don’t have a contract together past this season. While AA wants to keep him, it seems like Rossi is wanting to test the free agent market and days like St. Pete are why.

He’s not necessarily shutting the door on Andretti either, but rather seeing what he could be worth on the open market as well as seeing if Andretti can improve their performance in order to make him a championship contender.

After how Saturday-Sunday in St. Pete went, it’s not off to a great start.

Rossi, was sixth and fourth respectively in practice that weekend but only qualified 13th. The team elected to not pit with everyone else that hadn’t already done so on Lap 27. They were desperate to stay in the front. So, he’d lead 10 laps but have to pit on Lap 37. Without a yellow the rest of the way, that move pushed him further down.

Rossi, had to settle for 20th and put himself in another hole to start the 2022 season off with. He’s 43 points out of the lead now. Every other car on the 2 stop strategy finished in the top 10 with the exception of one, so I have to think that if Rossi pit with the others on Lap 27, he’d cut his finish in at least half.

See, Rossi is frustrated. He was frustrated entering 2022 and has to be even more now. The prime of his INDYCAR career is being wasted and he’s not anywhere near to where he expected to be in his career path in terms of success yet.

The Andretti Autosport driver seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. But, over the last 3 races, he’s yet to win, has just 8 podiums and only 11 top fives.

He was second in the championship in 2018 and third in 2019. But, this dip started during the middle of that ’19 season which is why he didn’t hoist the Astor Cup championship trophy that season and why he’s hasn’t yet overall. He was 10th in the final standings last year.

That’s why with him being in the final year of his contract, he’s not just running to the negotiating table with Andretti Autosport to reup. He feels like the results could be better for both sides.

Texas is a place to get it back on track.

Does St. Pete and Now Texas Create More Pressure On Johnson?

This was one of my 5 burning questions entering the season. The yellow rookie stickers are off Romain Grosjean, Jimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin’s cars. Now, who has the most pressure going into the 2022 season?

They each had a built in excuse last year. They’ve never seen most of these tracks before. Now, they have. Plus, all three are with the top teams.

Grosjean is with Andretti. Johnson is back with Ganassi and McLaughlin Penske. While Johnson has a little more of a leash since this is really only his second season in these types of cars, McLaughlin and Grosjean need to perform.

So, who had the most pressure among them?

Well, Grosjean was quickest in the opening Friday practice from St. Pete. McLaughlin was fastest on Saturday and took the pole later. He’d wind up winning the season opener with Grosjean in fifth. Johnson, struggled mightily in qualifying last, spinning several times and finishing in 23rd.

That adds to the pressure for the 7-time Cup Series champion I think when the other two got top fives.

“I looked at my rookie class coming in, Romain’s single seater experience certainly shined last year,” he told me. “Wow, another example of how when you grow up in a certain car, certain tracks, you’re more refined, you’re on point. He did a phenomenal job last year.

“I thought Scott did a great job, although I know he publicly mentioned he was frustrated with different elements of it. Certainly this year he’s come out and nailed it.

“I do have a chance obviously to look at the data from my teammates. For myself, living day to day with this journey and challenge I have of being an INDYCAR driver, that’s who I look at the most and study the most, try to close the gap to. I talk to my other three teammates, their engineers, try to refine my craft and be as good as I can.

“I do look around at others, but it’s easiest to look inside the team with the data, friendships and relationships I have with my teammates.

“Certainly I’m a racer. I want to win. That’s ultimately why I’m out there. I’m just trying to be realistic with this journey, how different it is, how tough the competition is, all those elements that play into it.

“Ultimately that’s why I want to do this, I want to win. I want to be on the podium at a minimum, if not win. Know that ovals are the best opportunity for myself.”

But, now we come to Texas, a place where Johnson has plenty of experience. This isn’t the first time he’s seen this track before. He has 35 Cup Series starts here with 7 wins in them. In fact, he’s also seen Texas in an INDYCAR too. This was his first oval test last summer. He liked it so much he tested at Indy in October which played the key roles in him being a full-time driver now.

Johnson, admitted that he expects to be stronger on ovals. Now is the time to show it. Plus, McLaughlin came home runner-up in his first Texas starts last May.

“I really feel like I need to be further up in the field or would like to be further up in the field,” Johnson said of this weekend’s goals. “I certainly feel like qualifying, having the opportunity to qualify on the oval this weekend, in the equipment I’ll be in, I should be able to have a career-best starting position, then look forward from there, try to understand traffic, race my way into the top 10, top 5 if possible.”

The pressure is high on Johnson this weekend to perform.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s