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

Can Penske Get Back To Winning Ways Here…In May?

Team Penske started the 2022 season off with 3 straight wins. After that streak being snapped two weeks ago in Barber, can they get back to victory lane this weekend in Indianapolis?

A few years ago, this race was actually dubbed the Penske Grand Prix, so I’d say, yes. 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.

However, if you take in account the two October races that same 2020 season and the one last August, they’re back to being undefeated.

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Josef 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.

Why The Disparity Between 1st Road Course Race And The 2nd?

No one has been able to sweep both road course races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since they annually started hosting two race weekend on the same track. You get the usual May date, but in 2020 with COVID wrecking havoc on this world of ours, it was deemed best to host a doubleheader weekend that season in October.

For last year, we had the May race weekend and the one in August with a split bill with NASCAR. Same is here this season with the exception of the NASCAR shared weekend moving up to the end of July.

In saying that, both weekend’s could have looked much different in all three years. No one truly knows why.

“It’s such a swing event,” Herta said. “When you look at when people are fast here, it’s very rare that you see people fast here in the spring and the fall races. It’s bizarre. I still haven’t really figured out why. We’ve been in the same situation. In May we were maybe in the top five but when we came back we were the 2nd or 3rd best car. It’s such a swing event. I’m not really sure what causes that.”

One could say weather is a factor. It’s cooler in May than it is in the summer and in 2020, the first race was pushed back to a hot Fourth of July while the Fall race was in October. We’ve yet to have similar conditions for both races.

Should We Come Here Twice?

With there being a few tracks coming to mind that most would love to seen the NTT INDYCAR Series go to, does coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course twice make sense? Wouldn’t it be wise to get a sanctioning fee from somewhere else?

In saying that, does it make sense not to come here twice too?

The May weekend was added to do just that, add to the Month of May. As field sizes dropped off with the attendance, it didn’t make dollars and sense to have four weekend’s of action on the oval here. From opening day to race day with the middle being two weekend’s of qualifying, it wasn’t needed anymore.

So, to grow the series and the month, why not show race fans that there’s more to INDYCAR can just the Indy 500. You see 300k people show up on race day for the ‘500 but no where close to that elsewhere. Well, by racing on a road course here in their home race, it shows those here in Indianapolis that an Indy Car can make left and right hand turns. It also adds value to a weekend that would normally have hosted 5-10k. Now, you get 40-50k which is a bonus.

I don’t see this race leaving the schedule any time soon.

What about the second date? I don’t see why IMS and INDYCAR would want to leave shared exposure with NASCAR. You get more eyes on your product and have the rare occurrence with the rare INDYCAR-NASCAR shared doubleheader weekend. Why would you want anyone else to host that feat?

However, is two race weekend’s for INDYCAR on the road course diluting the product now?

Can Andretti Turn Season Around And Continue IMS Road Course Improvement?

For a majority of the Indy Car road course races at IMS, a familiar name was always missing up front – Andretti Autosport. Prior to the 2020 Harvest Grand Prix, Marco Andretti struggled, Alexander Rossi had no podiums and just one top five, Ryan Hunter-Reay had two podiums but only three top 10’s while Colton Herta was 23rd in his first start back in 2019 and fourth last July.

Then in the Harvest weekend, Rossi had a pair of podiums, Herta was fourth and second respectively and James Hinchcliffe was a respectable 14th and 13th respectively in the two races.

Now, only Rossi and Herta are still around. Can they plus Romain Grosjean and rookie Devlin DeFrancesco give Andretti their first victory on the IMS road course?

Andretti has 5 Indianapolis 500 triumphs, none of a driver obviously, but all as an owner. He’s had two Indy 500 poles as an owner. The only thing truly missing for him as an owner at IMS is a road course victory.

Does that come on Saturday?

The Andretti Autosport bunch is 8th (Romain Grosjean), 11th (Colton Herta), 13th (Alexander Rossi) and 24th (Devlin DeFrancesco) in points. They’re reeling. Herta, had pit road problems plague him for St. Pete and Texas. He was pushing too hard coming to pit lane in Long Beach and crashed. Qualifying hampered him in Barber and while pushing hard in the race, he spun and went from 6th to 10th. Rossi, had a bad pit call in St. Pete, a mechanical failure in Texas, and a bad pit stop in Long Beach and Barber now. His winless streak is now to 41 races. He has just  has just 8 podiums and only 11 top fives in that span too.

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, here we are.

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 and currently 16th now following an 8th place result in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

He hasn’t won a race since Road America in 2019. He led 54 of 55 laps that day. In fact, that was the 10th race of that season. At that point, he had led in 7 of the 10 races to account for 182 laps led.

But, over the last 40 races during this winless streak, he’s led a total of 95 laps. He led 83 laps in 2020, two last year and 10 in St. Pete. That’s it.

Also during this 40 race drought, he has finished 17th or worse in 7 of his last 19 starts. He had 6 finishes of 17th or worse in his previous 47 races.

What’s The Right Strategy?

The INDYCAR race on the IMS road course is honestly a strategy play. If you can make it past the opening lap, the cautions usually are few and far between and the tire strategy in turn becomes the main focus.

In most years, the Firestone alternates are the preferred tire due to the speed of them and the fall off being minimal. Most race weekend’s, the disparity between the two is large meaning the blacks are slower initially but remain consistent over the course of a full fuel run while the reds have a great burst of initial speed but fall off more of the same period.

In Indy however, the reds just don’t fall off. So, the strategy comes on which stints do you run the reds vs. the blacks.

Last year, Conor Daly brought out the opening lap caution, but the rest of the way went green. From Lap 4 to Lap 85, it was all green flag racing. In turn, that meant this was a three stop strategy race like we all thought it would be. The difference would come down to tire selections.

Pole sitter Romain Grosjean started off on the Firestone Alternate tires. They were the quickest and lasted as long as the Firestone primaries, so the guys that started on the Blacks pit early to get on the Reds. Well, Grosjean went with two straight stints on the Reds. The second one on scuffed reds.

Eventual race winner, Rinus VeeKay, started off on the primary tires and pit for the Reds on Lap 12. Grosjean, didn’t pit for his first stop until Lap 25. VeeKay, would pit again on Lap 36 for scuffed reds. Grosjean pit on Lap 43 but had to go to Blacks.

That was the difference.

VeeKay got him and made his move for the lead among their sequence. He’d be able to go with Reds the final time but already hold the lead while Grosjean was too far back before he could do anything about it.

Third place finisher Alex Palou went on the Reds until Lap 25 then put on Blacks on Lap 40. He’d go Blacks again on Lap 62 as he was one of three guys to finish the race on the primary tires.

That’s just a prime example on how this race played out on strategy and I expect a similar debate again this time around.

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