5 things I’m watching for this weekend’s GMR Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Big Month Ahead For Penske?

Roger Penske has the ultimate flex right now at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His parking space behind the media center on those hallowed grounds? It reads No. 18. Everyone else has their initials on their spot. Doug Boles is “DB.” Mark Miles is “MM.” Penske’s?

18.

This place means so much to him. The thing is, since he’s held the keys to the grounds, he’s 0-for-2 in both the GMR Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500.

Does that change this weekend/month?

So far, they’ve been the best organization in the NTT INDYCAR Series this season. They hold 3 of the top 4 spots in the standings after earning a win in each of the first 3 races of the year.

Josef Newgarden has won twice including the prestigious Long Beach Grand Prix. Scott McLaughlin earned his first career pole and win in the season opener in St. Pete. Will Power has a top 4 finish in literally every race of the season.

Now, it’s time to capitalize in Indy. Before we get to the Indy 500, we first have the GMR Grand Prix on Saturday.

A few years ago, this race was actually 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 in July 2020 in winning by nearly 20 seconds over second place. That ended the Penske reign.

Last year, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay triumphed that day in beating Romain Grosejan and Alex Palou.

Penske went 3-7-20 that July 2020 race. Last year, they were 4-6-8-11.

The time is now. They’ve dominated the summer/fall races here on the road course just not in May.

Newgarden led 34 of 85 laps in his win during the first doubleheader race of the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend. A day later, Will Power led all 75 laps in victory.

Last August, Power led 56 of 85 laps in another win. The question now is, why are they so good outside of May here and how can they recapture that May magic back?

Power is either feast or famine. He has 5 wins but those are his only top 5’s in 11 starts on this track. Newgarden went from 0-for-6 in top 10’s in his first six starts to 5 straight top 10’s but just one podium and only three top fives, all coming in his last four races, in those same 11 races.

McLaughlin is only making his third start after being eighth and 23rd last year.


Chevrolet is 4-for-4 this season and has won each of the last 4 races on the IMS road course including this one last year – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Chevy’s Race To Lose?

The thing is, while we’ve had 3 different winners, and 3 different point leaders, all 4 races were still won by Chevrolet’s though too.

The bowties are off to an undefeated start to the 2022 season with 4 wins in 4 races by 3 different drivers. They’ve also won 3 of the 4 poles and have taken 7 of the 12 podium spots as well.

Furthermore, Chevy has led 412 out of 523 (79%).

Chevy, dominated the series when they came back in 2012. However, with the UAK coming out in 2018, Honda turned the tide to close the gap. In 2018, Honda won 11 times compared to Chevy’s 6. 2019 went back to Chevy (9-8) but the two tied in 2020 (7-7). Last year, it was 9-7 in favor of Honda with Chevy now leading 4-0 in 2022.

In the three year span of the Aerokits from 2015 through 2017, it was Chevy 34, Honda 15. With the same car this time around, it’s Honda 35, Chevrolet 32.

Now, we go to Indy to where it’s a place where the bowties are dominant.

For the 2.439-mile Indy road course, Chevy has won each of the last 4 races on it including 9 of the last 10 in general.

“They’ve been really strong, that’s for sure, stronger than last year,” Palou said of the Honda to Chevy comparisons this year. “We can see on the sector times where we’re losing.

“But yeah, unfortunately it is how it is now. We were really good at the Speedway test, which that’s like a major problem, like it’s not there. Yeah, I don’t know. They’ve been really good. They’ve been really strong.

“We were really strong at the beginning last year, I think, all the Hondas. Now maybe we’re a little bit behind. We don’t know. Yeah, we still can fight with them. We still can get to the same lap as them on mileage or even more, like I was able to get two more to Pato, one more. I think we’re not too far. Maybe we’re a bit behind.”

Taylor Kiel spoke to that fact after their Barber win.

“I don’t know where Honda is at,” he said. “All I know is that Chevy has put a tremendous amount of work into their package in the off-season. I can sit here and say they’ve given us everything that we’ve asked for. They’ve worked relentlessly to close any perceived gaps that they thought they had.

“We certainly as a team have felt a huge shift in performance from year to year. I think we did a lot in the backcourt as a team to improve car performance. Chevy has done a fantastic job as well.

“At this stage in the engine game, as far advanced as we are, for them to find the gains they have is remarkable. Kudo to everyone at Chevy, Pratt & Miller, Ilmor, all the work they’ve done.”


Rinus VeeKay enters Saturday’s race hungry for another win. He’s celebrating his 1st INDYCAR win here last year as seen in the photo above. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

VeeKay Excited To Keep Momentum Going

Rinus VeeKay is 7th in points (-38) but enters Indy with 3 top 10’s in 4 races run this season. That includes a pole last time out in Barber including leading the most laps and a podium result. Now, he comes to the Indy road course, a place of his lone INDYCAR victory which oh by the way, occurred just last year. He was also on the front row for the Indy 500 in 2021 and was runner-up in Belle Isle a race after too. This could be a big stretch for him too.

“It’s cool to come to the track and see your own photo on the tickets, which is pretty cool,” VeeKay said. “Of course you’ve got the confidence of already having won there and knowing that you can do it and the team can do it.

“It’s I think a little bit of peace you get from having won there already.”

The thing is, VeeKay had 6 top 10’s in the first 7 races run a year ago. Then he had a cycling injury missed Road America and his season completely changed. Over the final 7 races post injury, he had 0 top 15’s.


Parity

Pato O’Ward became the 3rd winner in the 1st 4 races run with his triumph in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. He beat Alex Palou by less than a second to his 3rd career victory. By virtue of his 3rd podium in 4 races run this season, last year’s series champion takes back over the points lead. He’s the 3rd driver in the same 4 races run to lead the standings.

We’ve also had 4 different pole winners this season and for 3 of them, it was their 1st or 2nd career top starting spot.

Scott McLaughlin scored his 1st ever pole and race win in St. Pete. His teammate Josef Newgarden topped him in a photo finish in the next race at Texas. Newgarden, then held off Romain Grosjean in a thrilling end of the race at Long Beach. O’Ward, held Palou off in Barber for 4 very good endings to the races this year.

We’ve had 12 total podium spots available between the 4 races this season with 8 different drivers scoring them. That’s why there’s only 10 points spanning 1st to 4th right now in points including the top 7 separated by just 37 points. Alex Palou leads the Penske trio by 10 points with Pato O’Ward, Scott Dixon and Rinus VeeKay right behind.

Indy features normal points for the road course races, but the ‘500 has not only double points in it, but also points for qualifying too for the drivers that make the Fast 12. This is a huge month that can really make or break some guys’ seasons.


Romain Grosjean has ruffled some feathers this year. This is him at the last race at the Barber Motorsports Park. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Drama?

Romain Grosjean may be the most popular driver in the NTT INDYCAR Series right now. The results of that poll were unveiled this past winter. However, he’s not so popular anymore among his peers.

Grosjean’s aggressive style has grown weary on the current INDYCAR paddock and after some run-ins already this season, it’s starting to leak out further.

Grosjean, had a war or words with Takuma Sato back in February following their practice incident in St. Pete. Now, he’s found a new spat with Sato’s former Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing teammate of Graham Rahal.

Towards the closing laps of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, Grosjean was battling Rahal for 7th. With 3 laps left, the two made contact on track.

Grosjean, got into Rahal but luckily for the second generation driver, he didn’t lose control of his No. 15 Dallara-Honda. Rahal, would stay ahead of Grosjean until the final lap for when his fuel was low and he had to tip toe around the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park facility to ensure he doesn’t run out of gas and can still come away with a top 10.

That just further added to the Ohio native’s frustrations as he was already to his boiling point with the second year Frenchman.

“I just think it’s clear when you watch the in-car camera, and look at the angle of his head,” Rahal said to the TV broadcast. “When I can see in the mirror his head is directed this way, and the track is the other way, it’s pretty self-explanatory.”

Rahal, said that he felt like he gave Grosjean plenty of room. He knew he had to. Over the radio, his team told him that Grosjean was planning to dive-bomb him.

“But look where he scraped me, why are you turning into me?” Rahal continued. “Your right front is at my left rear. There’s no excuse for that here. Look, he just releases the car to hit me. And here again. Look at how much room he has.

“I’m just frustrated because this isn’t the first time. At St. Pete, he hit everyone he could hit. We come here, he hit Rossi, hit Herta, hit me. At some point, we have to clean up our act.”

Earlier in the race, Grosjean made a bold move to block his teammate Colton Herta on the front stretch. Grosjean, squeezed Herta low and while Herta had to drive into Turn 1 harder than he wanted it, it pushed his No. 26 Dallara-Honda wide off the track as a result.

“Good racing with [Rossi], Colton, Scotty [McLaughlin],” Rahal told IndyCar Radio too. “Good racing with a lot of drivers Just one particular guy not so clean. We’re gonna have to have a little sit down; a little conversation, about what the hell is going on here.

“I think the drivers need to get together. All of us because I’m not the only one with a problem. It’s quite a significant number of drivers that have had run-ins with this guy. As I said on TV, when the roles are reversed, officiating had better be consistent because it’s gonna be reversed at some stage. I’m not gonna play nice. This guy has overstayed his welcome.”

As to what needs to be done from INDYCAR?

“I’ll let you guys decide,” Rahal said. “You guys know. As another driver in the series told me, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and he’s had that reputation over his whole career in Europe, and we’re learning his reputation quickly here.

“If race control doesn’t want to do anything, they’re not going to do anything. But when we go and punt him, they better not do anything to me. Which in the past, I’ve been penalized for a lot less than that.”

So what about Grosjean’s side. Was it intentional?

“We touched a couple of times, but it was good racing,” Grosjean said. “It was tough out there. Barber is a very good track but very tough to pass, especially when you’re in a train. If the guy in front of you doesn’t have anyone in front of them, you can try to defend a different line, but they’re all in line, so it was quite tricky. It’s good racing. It’s IndyCar. Wheel to wheel action. We didn’t have the right strategy; the three-stop didn’t work, and we were better than others on tires. On to the next one.”

Key Stat

10 of the previous 11 races held on this circuit have been won by drivers who had either won an INDYCAR championship or soon would. Those include five wins by Will Power (No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet), three by Simon Pagenaud (No. 60 Dallara-Honda and one each by Scott Dixon (No. 9 Dallara-Honda) and Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet). VeeKay, who will drive the No. 21 Dallara-Chevrolet, is the lone non-champion to have won one of the non-oval events.

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