We witnessing history in the making in the ever evolving NTT INDYCAR Series. Fans have witnessed this much qualifying parity since 1961 to be exact. 8 qualifying sessions down, 8 different pole winners.
On Saturday afternoon, it was Alexander Rossi’s turn to top qualifying with the Andretti Autosport driver circling the scenic 4.048-mile Road America road course with a time of 1:44.8656-seconds in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda to score his 1st pole since Belle Isle in 2019. It was also his 7th career pole award as the California native is well on his way to ending his 44 race winless drought too.
“Yeah, it’s pretty crazy to just think it’s been so long,” Rossi said of his pole drought. “Yeah, it just shows the belief of the whole organization. The 27 NAPA Auto Parts AutoNation Honda guys have been good for a month, and it’s continuing on. We rolled off strong. It’s a pretty cool thing to be a part of right now.”
2019 was not only the last time he was on the pole, but also the last time he won a race too. That feat occurred in Road America of htat season. Can he snap that 3 year long drought in Sunday’s Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)?
Rossi was 1st and 4th respectively in practice too and enters with his mojo back. He went from 20th to 5th in the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29. A week later, he went from 11th to 2nd in Belle Isle last Sunday. Now that he’s on the pole, can he dominate the way he did that fateful day in June 2019?
He led all but 1 lap that afternoon and by qualifying in the Fast 6 on blacks and not reds, he has a shot like Josef Newgarden did last year with being setup via a similar strategy heading into race day.
“I think the Firestone blacks, the primaries, were a pretty easy decision based on what Josef did last year,” Rossi said. “I think you saw quite a few guys besides myself on them as well.
“It’s just with the nature of the track, it being so long, a new black is usually a little bit better than a used red. That being said it was still a lot of work to get it done. Happy we were able to achieve it.”
He’ll be joined on the front row by Newgarden in fact. The Tennessee native set a time of 1:44.9371-seconds on reds this time in his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet for his 3rd front row starting spot of the season. It’s also the 4th time in the last 6 times at Road America he’s started on the front row at that.
This has a feel of a few years ago when Rossi and Newgarden were on their ways to a heavyweight clash among young American drivers. Newgarden led 53 of 55 laps in 2018. Between he and Rossi, they led all but 3 laps in a 2 year span here.
Now they share the front row.
“I think we’re doing all we can,” said Rossi. “It’s hard. There’s no guarantees. I think we had a pretty decent margin yesterday and everyone closed the gap overnight. That’s going to happen again tonight. Going into tomorrow, we got to still improve.
“It’s not going to be an easy road, but obviously we’re starting from the best spot and hopefully can control our destiny.”
Newgarden agreed but also says nothing is guaranteed either.
“I think it’s helpful here for sure,” he said of the starting position. “You want to be up front. Ideally it’s a long track, it’s a lot of ground to make up. You get pretty spread out. When you start at the back, it puts you on even more of a back foot here versus a smaller track.
“Yeah, hopefully it’s good. The race is very different than qualifying. We’ll have to see how that works out. Tires, in my opinion, are quite different this year. So it will be interesting to see some guys that didn’t transfer, like a Will Power, for instance, it will be interesting to see how they utilize their reds and things like that.
“There’s no gimmes this day. I thought Detroit was going to be pretty straightforward last weekend and it was anything but that. Don’t hold your breath.”
Alex Palou (1:45.3822-seconds) gave us 3 different teams represented in the top 3 by qualifying his No. 10 Dallara-Honda in 3rd. The defending race winner was 5th and 3rd respectively in practice this weekend qualified 2nd at Barber back in May as well as qualifying 3rd and 5th in his last 2 Road America starts prior to this weekend too.
He’ll be joined on Row 2 by his teammate Marcus Ericsson (1:45.4240-seconds) who’ll start 4th in his No. 8 Dallara-Honda while Colton Herta (1:45.5388-seconds) and Pato O’Ward (1:45.6826-seconds) rounded out the Fast 6.
For Herta, he’s qualified on the front row in 3 of his 5 starts here and was 7th and 5th respectively in the other 2. O’Ward has been in the Fast 6 in all 3 natural road courses run this season.
“Big 3” the ones to beat again?
Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing have combined to have won six of the last seven races here with Andretti taking the other. They all three combined to go 1-2-3-4 last year and have taken wins in 6 of the 7 races run in 2022 in general.
On Friday, the trio swept the entire top 8 of the speed chart. On Saturday, they had 9 cars in the top 10 in session 2. For qualifying, they swept the entire top 5 and took 8 of the top 10 starting spots.
Other than 2020, the previous four races and last year’s here were won by a top five starter including three of which from the front row. 95% of the last 41 series races on natural race courses were won by a top 10 starter including every race with the exception of the wet one in Indy since the 2018 season finale.
If you break it down, 78% of the same races were won by a driver in the Fast 6 including 16 of the last 18 coming from 7th or better.
6 of the 7 races at Road America (86%) since 2016 were won by a top 7 starter.
That means it’s basically down to Pato O’Ward (6th) and his AMSP teammate of Felix Rosenqvist (8th) as the only ones who could knock them off.
Honda vs. Chevy
Honda went 1-2 in practice on Friday. Chevy went 1-2 on Saturday. They split the difference in qualifying with each having a representative on the front row. So, who wins on Sunday?
Honda has won each of the last 4 races at Road America but are 0-for-5 outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this season.
However, they’ll have 4 of the top 5 starters on Sunday with Josef Newgarden being the lone Chevrolet representative in the top 5 of the lineup. Can he hold the Honda’s off?
Chevrolet went 4-for-4 to start the 2022 season off with. Then they went 0-for-2 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May. Last week the visited the victory circle again in Belle Isle. They’re 5-for-5 away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but 0-for-2 on it.
Will Power struggling in qualifying, only 1 in top 11 in points eliminated in Round 1
At one point, it was almost a shoo-in to put Will Power in the Firestone Fast 6. It was just a matter of if anyone could beat him for the pole. Now though, he’s struggling to even get out of the 1st round in qualifying.
When he won the pole for last month’s GMR Grand Prix, it was only his 8th in his last 50 starts. He had 13 in his previous 50 and 36 total in his first 7 years in the sport.
That’s why he’s so close to passing Mario Andretti for most poles all-time even though his poles have tapered down over the years.
“It has become incredibly hard to get poles,” said Power that day back in May. “It’s just a different guy each week who gets it all together, so it is hard.
“It’s hard to get more than two a year. Two or three you would be doing a good job. Yep, we’ll keep chipping away. Don’t really think about it all that much. I just try to do the best I can, and I know it’s there. I know there’s that record there, but honestly, I feel pretty blessed to have got so close. I never expected to get that close, but, yeah. To be amongst Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt in pole records is something I never expected.
“I’m going to say to put a really good lap together in this series there is just so much that goes into it before you even get in the car or just throughout practice and everything before you even get to qualifying, and then it’s up to you to really dig deep and put it together.
“But, yeah, I mean, I originally early in my days I used to say anyone can learn to do this, but after 20 years of high-level driving or more, I don’t believe that anymore. I think you have to have some sort of fire in the belly, which you see so many drivers have that in this series now. You see it in Formula 1 and in every series. Just some guys have that whatever it is in them and some don’t.
“The people that don’t may be exceptional in another area, but, yeah, it’s everything about looking at data and the video and putting all that in your mind, but then when it comes down to the nitty gritty, you’ve got to put it together, and it takes a lot of everything to do that.”
He said following his win from the 16th starting spot last Sunday that he’s had to alter his racing craft the last few years due to not being able to start up front on a regular basis anymore. It’s actually helped him inside the race car as weird as that sounds. He enters this weekend with the points lead after scoring 6 top 4 finishes in the 1st 7 races run.
But, to get there on Sunday, he’ll have to do so from 15th. He didn’t make it out of the 1st round again.
“Gotta get ahold of this qualifying thing,” Power said on Saturday. “We’re either on or off.”
He’s also got to figure out how to make up spots or we’re going to see the 7th straight race someone wrangles the points lead away. 10 of the top 11 in points entering the day all advanced to the 2nd round. Power was the only one who didn’t.
Luckily for him though, Rossi is on pole and 7th in points. Newgarden starts next to him and is 5th. Herta starts 5th and is 11th.
Ilott furthers strength on natural road courses
This is the first weekend back for the injured Callum Ilott. He hurt his wrist in a crash in the May 29 Indianapolis 500. So much so, he was forced to miss last Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle. Now he’s cleared to return and he’s done a great job back in his No. 77 Dallara-Chevrolet.
Ilott qualified in 12th after having an incident in the final turn early on in the second round. However, it’s the 3rd time in as many natural road course races this season that he’s advanced out of the opening round of qualifying as he was 11th in Barber, 7th in Indy and now 12th in Road America.
Foyt/RLL struggling this weekend
I wondered how Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing would respond this week. Following a quiet Month of May and a dismal weekend last time out in Belle Isle, how would they look at one of their favorite tracks?
Not much different.
All 3 drivers were eliminated in the first of the three round knockout qualifying format. Christian Lundgaard will start 13th in his No. 30 Dallara-Honda. He’s been decent on these types of tracks in starting 14th, 8th and 13th now respectively on them.
However, with Jack Harvey (20th) and Graham Rahal (22nd) coming from the back, that’s the most eye opening for them.
Rahal told me in April that they’re struggling figuring out this qualifying deficit. He pointed to how good of a qualifier Harvey was with Meyer Shank Racing and that once he came over to RLL this season, even he is struggling.
Harvey had qualified in the top 10 in each of his last 3 Road America starts entering the weekend including 2 of which being in the top 3 at that. This will mark his worst career start here.
Rahal was 14th last year but he also qualified 6th, 6th, 9th, 5th, 4th and 5th respectively prior. To be 22nd after being 23rd last week and 21st for the Indy 500 is showing he too is struggling with qualifying pace.
So is AJ Foyt Racing. They were 21-24-26 in practice 1, 24-25-26 in session 2 and will start 23-24-25 on Sunday. Between these 6 drivers, 5 of the bottom 7 spots belong to them.