Can Palou Turn Season Back Around Again?
Heading into the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Alex Palou was the toast of the town. It was looking like he was going be the first driver since Dario Franchitti (2009-2010-2011) to win back-to-back championships. He had 3 podiums in the first 4 races run including a pair of runner-ups and held the points lead as a result.
Was he not only the future of Chip Ganassi Racing but also supplanting Scott Dixon as the right now?
Then the bottom has dropped out.
Despite qualifying 2nd for the GMR Grand Prix, Palou got off course and finished 1 lap down in 18th. For the Indy 500, he qualified 2nd again but was caught out by a caution while coming to the pits. With them being closed, he had to go through without stopping. While running on fumes, he eventually had to pit for emergency service and ruined his day. He did rebound to finish 9th but it took him from 1st to 3rd in the points that month.
In Belle Isle, he qualified 18th and finished 6th. At Road America, he qualified 3rd for his 5th top 3 start in the last 6 races but had a run-in with his teammate on Lap 3 and would finish last (27th).
Palou has went from the points lead with 3 podiums in 4 races to 0 top 5’s in the last 4 to drop to 47 points out in 5th.
Can he rebound Sunday in Mid-Ohio?
By being winless in the first 8 races, this is the longest winless drought to start a championship defense season since Scott Dixon’s year in 2014.
Dixon won the 2013 title and in 2014 he didn’t reach victory lane until the 15th race at Mid-Ohio that year. Also, this would only be the 5th time since 1996 that the defending champion didn’t have at least 1 win in the next season by the completion of the 8th race run. 1 of those 5 times was Dario Franchitti going to NASCAR in 2009 instead of coming back to try to win a 2nd straight.
Last year it only took Dixon three races to win at Texas. Josef Newgarden won the 6th race of the 2020 season at Iowa. Dixon won the 8th race of the year in Belle Isle a year prior. The 2 years prior, both Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud won in their 4th races at Barber and Phoenix respectively.
Champions And How Long It Took To Win The Next Season
2022 – Alex Palou 8 races and counting
2021 – Scott Dixon – won the 3rd race at Texas
2020 – Josef Newgarden – won the 6th race at Iowa
2019 – Scott Dixon – won the 8th race in Belle Isle
2018 – Josef Newgarden won the 4th race at Barber
2017 – Simon Pagenaud – won the 4th race at Phoenix
2016 – Scott Dixon – won the 2nd race at Phoenix
2015 – Will Power – won the 5th race in the Indy Grand Prix
2014 – Scott Dixon – won the 15th race at Mid-Ohio
2013- Ryan Hunter-Reay – won the 2nd race at Barber
2012 – Dario Franchitti – won the 5th race in the Indy 500
2011 – Dario Franchitti – won the season opener at St. Pete
2010 – Dario Franchitti – won the 6th race in the Indy 500
2009 – Scott Dixon – won the 3rd race at Kansas
2008 – Dario Franchitti – went to NASCAR
2007 – Sam Hornish Jr. – won the 7th race at Texas
2006 – Dan Wheldon – won the season opener at Homestead
2005 – Tony Kanaan – won the 8th race at Kansas
2004 – Scott Dixon – winless
2003 – Sam Hornish Jr. – won the 12th race at Kentucky
2002 – Sam Hornish Jr. – won the season opener at Homestead
2001 – Buddy Lazier – won the 6th race at Pikes Peak
2000 – Greg Ray – won the 7th race at Phoenix
1999 – Kenny Brack – won the 4th race in the Indy 500
1998 – Tony Stewart – won the season opener in Disney
1997 – Scott Sharp – won the season opener in Loudon
This would almost be ironically enough, unprecedented for Palou to go this long without a win. In this same time frame, only Dixon in 2004 went winless in the season following a championship winning one. He was the 2nd longest in 2015 with Sam Hornish Jr. taking 12 races in the 2003 season to get his 1st win.
Can Palou avoid this stat by winning on Sunday?
Chip Ganassi Racing As A Whole
Chip Ganassi Racing is bar none the best team in the series at Mid-Ohio. But, they’ve not been so great at this track lately. They’ve won just once in their last eight tries. That one though was a thrilling 1-2 photo finish in 2019 between Scott Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist. Can they get back going again?
What can they do to reclaim their ground here?
Ganassi, at one point, had 7 wins in an 8 year span here by three different drivers. They’re 1-for-8 since.
Scott Dixon does have six Mid-Ohio triumphs but he’s also had just one podium in his last eight tries there too and 1 top 5 in his last 4 starts on the season at that including 1 podium all year.
Dixon also hasn’t won a race in over a year though too. His stretch is 21 races. He also has just 1 victory in the last 30 overall.
Alex Palou was finish third last year and Marcus Ericsson finished runner-up for his second straight top five. Can each of them move up on the podium and Dixon look like the Dixon of old?
While they’re tied with Team Penske since the start of the 2020 season with wins (6) on natural road courses, they’ve actually struggled a bit on them as a collective group this season though too. They do have the 2nd place finisher in 2 of the 3 races but have also watched AMSP, Andretti and Penske win each though too.
They had 2 cars in the top 5 at Barber in going 2-5-12-24 as a collective group. For the Indy road course, they were only 4-10-18-22. At Road America, they finished 2-9-24-27.
While they’ve been solid, they’ve not been great either.
Will Last Week’s Testing Pay Off For Andretti, AMSP, Hurt Penske/Ganassi?
We’re 8 races into the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season with 9 races left. Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio starts the final push for the championship. However, how much of a role did the 2 test days last week play?
You had 20 cars at Iowa early in the week and 8 more on the Indy road course last Thursday. While Iowa won’t translate over to Mid-Ohio, it can for Gateway. Indy though, well you can take a lot from the Indy road course and apply it over to Mid-Ohio. You can also bring what you learned from the 2.439-mile Indy road course and apply it to Portland and maybe even Laguna Seca too.
Why this is relevant?
Penske and Ganassi have 6 of the top 9 in points including 5 of the top 6 in general. They’ve won 13 out of the last 14 series titles including 9 straight.
Plus, during the Aeroscreen era (17 races) on natural road courses, both Penske and Ganassi have each won 6 times on them accounting for a 71% win rate.
However, Ganassi has been pedestrian on natural road courses this season and both them and Penske elected not to test at Indy last week. That could open the door for Andretti and AMSP now.
That’s big because this race has seen a lot of parity, but for whatever reason, they’re all among the “Big 3.” The last seven Mid-Ohio races have been won by either Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. In fact, though, the podiums have been dominated by them too.
The last time someone not of these three organizations got a trophy here was SPM in 2018.
2020 Race 1: Penske-Penske-Andretti
2020 Race 2: Andretti-Andretti-Andretti
2018: Andretti-SPM-Penske *
It’s been since 2015 since someone not of them won the race but that’s the only time in the last 16 years that it’s occurred.
Can anyone new break into their stranglehold on Sunday? This grouping has won 7 of the 8 races run this season too. Maybe that Indy test will help AMSP and Andretti.
“Testing is so valuable because you don’t get to do very much of it,” said Pato O’Ward to me. “Before St. Pete we had just 1 day in Sebring. Yeah this is huge. To have it right before the 2nd half of the season is really good for us. It just gets us into the groove of what’s coming up which is Mid-Ohio, then Toronto, then so forth. It’s going to be intense.”
Alexander Rossi felt good about the Indy test and hopes to continue this new found momentum and ride it to victory lane on Sunday. He went from 20th to 5th in the Indy 500 and 11th to 2nd just a week later in Belle Isle. Then he was on the pole to end a 3 year drought of top starting spots in Road America. His last pole came in Belle Isle during the 2019 season. He’d finish 3rd a day after that.
Now, can he snap his 45 race winless drought next?
Rossi has 6 straight top 6 results at Mid-Ohio including 3 podiums in his last 5 tries. After that we go to Toronto to where he has 2 podiums in his last 3 efforts there too.
Having data from MSR at Iowa, having a test at Gateway last year and a fast race car that race weekend, plus having the Indy road course test and 2 more available, this could be a final push that propels Rossi into the top 3 in points by seasons end.
His teammates hope so too. They feel like they’ve had a very underwhelming season thus far.
For Romain Grosjean, he showed up to Indy to test but he wishes they used more of their test dates earlier in the season. See, this is his 1st year with Andretti Autosport and having more laps early would have helped him get up to speed with them quicker.
“Honestly I wish we had more tests early in the season especially in joining a new team,” he told me. “It would have been nice to get some early laps.”
That plus bad luck has cost him. He sits 12th in the points standings after 8 races run. He was 23rd at this time a year ago but that’s also partially because he didn’t run in the Indianapolis 500 (double points) too.
“Oh no. No way yet,” Grosjean told me on if he’s met expectations yet for 2022. “We’ve had rough luck. Texas and here in the GMR Grand Prix. The Indy 500 didn’t come out way. The Detroit weekend you can put on me. So no really not where we really wanted. But there’s a second half left.”
Colton Herta also says that they’ve failed to deliver too he feels.
“I think the year so far has been pretty underwhelming for me,” he told me. “I was expecting obviously a race win which we have but a little more consistent finishes which we don’t have. It’s kind of something that we’re trying to get together for the 2nd half of the season. Obviously we haven’t had the best of luck so it’s a group effort that we need to come together and make it happen.”
Now, they’ve got a great opportunity at hand.
For the other 2 teams that tested in Indy, they have a different program. AJ Foyt Racing brought 1 of their 3 cars and used Kyle Kirkwood in it. He says this track is as comfortable for him as any due to how many laps he’s logged here in the Road to Indy and other series’ as well.
“It’s very comfortable. It’s also one of the tracks that’s not as punishing if you make a mistake,” he says. “It gives you a comfort of that as well and you learn things fast. Tires come in quick here. Do 2 laps and you’re in. That’s always nice for testing.”
He also says that they went at the test with a different plan than usual too.
“We’ve kind of gone about today kind of with a different philosophy,” he noted. “We’ve made some pretty big changes that we normally wouldn’t do on a race weekend. I feel like we’ve learned stuff that we can carry through to a lot of tracks. I think already we’ve found some things to carry over to road courses and street courses.”
For Paretta Autosport and Simona de Silvestro, they’re not even looking at the speed chart. Well, they are, but they’re not basing their success off of it. That’s because they’re not racing here next month. They’re doing 3 races this season and 1 of which was the last time out in Road America. They’ll compete at Mid-Ohio this weekend then Nashville in August.
So last Thursday was more about this weekend than Indy itself.
“I think it’s in a sense good to be here because right now we can test a few things like brake pedal settings where you wouldn’t be able to do in Mid-Ohio because you’re in race mode,” she told me. “That’s good that we can do that. At the end of the day, we’re not trying to be the fastest. I’m still trying to iron out some things to get comfortable in the car heading to Mid-Ohio and go from there. It’s good. I’m really happy. The team is also willing to let me try some different things to help me get up to speed.
“I feel like we tried a few things on setup that I kind of liked and somethings that I didn’t. So that was good.”
What was also good was that she was much quicker to the other 7 drivers than she was in Road America to where she spent most of her weekend 3 seconds off pace. That’s expected though. She hadn’t been in an INDYCAR on a road course since 2015.
“I didn’t expect it to be such a big difference but 7 years is such a long time without driving an open wheel car,” she said. “I didn’t drive any prototypes either so really I was driving a lot of things without much downforce.”
She says that the GT cars that she drove had less downforce and you can slide it around. You can’t in an INDYCAR. So she had to break new habits formed and try to bring back old habits and only had a pair of 45 minute practices, a 30 minute session, qualifying and then race in Road America.
These drivers are halfway through their season. She’s making her debut. But, by the end of the weekend, she was feeling more comfort. This test was just to get her comfort even further ahead too.
“I felt in the race I was more comfortable and especially now,” she continued. “We’re in the ballpark now and we can really start working on things where I like in the car and where we should be. I think that’s definitely a positive step here. “In the race I felt like everything became really normal. Friday and Saturday felt really fast. When you’re not used to it, you feel the car drives you a little bit. Today I feel very normal and I can give a little more input in it now.
“I think the car as a baseline is really solid here. It’s about pushing myself to get out of the comfort zone. “Now when you get within a second, that’s always the hard second to find.”
It’s even harder when you have a 2nd engineer in as many races. Her engineer from Road America isn’t the same one at Mid-Ohio so she’s getting acclimated with another new voice on Thursday too.
“My engineer as well, I didn’t work with him in Road America so I’m once again with a new one,” she said. “We were actually just talking lets try and find a few tools in a sense that I like.”
We’re 8 races into the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season with 6 different drivers tasting the sweet palate of victory lane. While Josef Newgarden has won 3 times and on 3 different types of tracks (oval, street course, road course), he’s still 32 points down in the standings in 3rd.
We’ve seen 8 different pole winners in the same 8 races.
That’s Indy Car racing over this last decade. It’s unpredictable. I mean you have last weeks winner in Belle Isle come from 16th that day and follow that up with a 15th place starting spot this time around.
“It has become incredibly hard to get poles,” said Power back in May. “It’s just a different guy each week who gets it all together, so it is hard.”
We have 3 different organizations represented in the top 4 in points. The thing is, we’ve had a change of the points lead after every race since Long Beach. No one wants to take the lead and keep it. Does it change again on Sunday?
Scott McLaughlin was the championship leader following his season opening win on the streets of St. Pete. He’d lead the standings after his runner-up in Race 2 at Texas. However, after Josef Newgarden won in Long Beach, he supplanted his Team Penske teammate for the top spot heading to Barber as McLaughlin was 14th.
We’ve had a new leader ever since that mark.
Newgarden would finish 14th in Barber with last year’s champion Alex Palou coming home 2nd for his 3rd podium in 4 races run at that time of the season. Palou would now inherit the lead going to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Palou finished 18th in the rain soaked GMR Grand Prix which allowed Power who finished 3rd for his 5th straight top 4 to start 2022 off with to take over the points lead going into the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500.
Power qualified 11th and finished 15th for that race. Ericsson went from 5th to 1st to become the new points leader after the double points event following his Indy 500 triumph.
In Belle Isle, Power rebounded to win with Ericsson finishing in 7th. Power now led Ericsson by those 3 points coming into this weekend. Ericsson takes the lead back from Power after a runner-up in Road America and a 19th place run out of Power.
“Yeah, I would like to stop that,” Ericsson joked on Sunday.
“I think, no, yesterday was the eighth different polesitter in eight races I think, if I’m correct. I think that says a lot about INDYCAR at the moment. It’s the most competitive series in the world. We have 27 cars this weekend. I think that’s incredible. Out of those 27 cars, it feels like at least 15 of them cars can win the race if they have their day.
“It’s really fun to be part of that. Yeah, I think it’s going to be tough all year. Miss a little bit one weekend, you’re P10 or P15. It means you need to be on top of things all the time.
“Last weekend was a good example. A bit off on strategy, didn’t work our way. We managed to finish seventh. That’s the results we need to if we want to win the championship.
“Any given weekend can be a new winner. It’s hard to be even in the top 10 if you don’t get everything right.
“I think it’s going to be a tough season, a long season. We put ourselves in a really good position now, leading. So we just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing. The last 12 months we were the top scorer in the championship. I think that says something about where we’ve been performing since Detroit actually last year, it was actually 12 months ago today.
“Yeah, I think we’re in a strong position, but it’s going to require a lot of hard work, keep doing what we’ve been doing.”
Next up is Mid-Ohio for what should be another thrilling show.
Crowded Pit Lane
A few years ago in the midst of the growth inside of the NTT INDYCAR Series paddock was the concern that some pit lanes may not be constructed right to hold an expanding grid. Mid-Ohio was one of those tracks that some felt couldn’t hold many more cars.
Well, that’s going to be put to the limits this weekend when 27 cars show up to race in the Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). It’s the largest field in over a decade (2011 the last time we had this many cars) and ties the largest amount (27) of cars to race on the 2.258-mile Ohio road course since 1999.
Last year we saw 26 cars here. The doubleheader weekend in 2020 had 23 vying for the win. That equaled the number here in 2019.
We saw 27 cars in back-to-back years of 2010 and 2011 but it wasn’t until 1998 that has seen more than 27 cars show up when 28 were here that year. That’s the most to ever start an INDYCAR Race at Mid-Ohio and it happened 8 times (1984, 1985, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998). That’s a far cry from 18 cars to show up in 2002 or 19 a year later. In 2007 we only saw 18 cars too. The unification in 2008 brought that car count up to 26 and it’s hovered 21-27 ever since.
Honorable Mention – Will RLL Qualify Better?
I wondered how Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing would respond the last time out in Road America. Following a quiet Month of May and a dismal weekend in Belle Isle, how would they look at one of their favorite tracks?
Not much different, honestly. That weekend looked a lot like the recent ones. They lacked pace in practice as well as qualifying but when it came to race day, there they were rallying from behind for another solid outing.
In qualifying, all 3 drivers were eliminated in the first of the three round knockout qualifying format. Christian Lundgaard would 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) were coming from the back. That’s more eye opening.
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 would 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.
In the race, they’d get all 3 cars in the top 13 with 2 of the 3 in the top 10 at the checkered flag. That’s a hell of a showing with 2 of the 3 starting 20th or worse.
They did so on varying strategies. Lundgaard and Harvey would run their stints long while Rahal went short. All 3 though would end up on reds at the end and would finish 8th (Rahal), 10th (Lundgaard) and 13th (Harvey).
The 2 late cautions helped preserve the reds and allow that decision to be the right one.
Rahal pit on the 3rd caution of the day for primary tires on Lap 9. Lundgaard and Harvey stretched their tires to Lap 17, the longest first stint of anyone in the field. Their 2nd stops occurred on Lap 25 for Rahal, Lap 29 for Harvey and Lap 31 for Lundgaard. Harvey would go on reds for this stint. Lundgaard just ran reds for 14 laps with Rahal back on blacks.
That meant Rahal had to run reds for the final stint and do so while saving fuel too so he had to go the final 15 laps on reds. Lundgaard pit for the final time on Lap 42 and went reds again. Harvey also pit on Lap 42 as well.
Rahal scored his 130th career top 10 finish in 249 career starts. Lundgaard picked up his 2nd career top 10 with the other being on the IMS road course last month too.
Now, can they keep this momentum for their “home race” and qualify better? Mid-Ohio is a place that’s hard to pass and rewards track position. Can RLL make their race easier on themselves and qualify better?
6 of the last 7 races at Mid-Ohio were won by a front row starter including 5 of which from the pole. We’ve seen 3 straight winners here from the pole and 4 out of the last 5 at that. 40 of the last 42 natural road course races in the series in general saw the winner come from a top 10 (95%) starting spot.