INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Is The Fourth Of July Weekend A New Mid-Ohio Tradition?

The NTT INDYCAR Series didn’t use to race much on holiday weekend’s outside of Memorial Day. It never truly worked out well for them. There was just too much going on and for a fan base that if we’re completely honest, wasn’t very large until recently, the attendance and ratings were always taking a dip in the summer holidays.

Between family gatherings, vacations, cookouts, other sporting events, etc, hosting an INDYCAR race during the Fourth of July or even Labor Day weekend was one that would usually would flop.

But, in the last few years, that’s since changed. INDYCAR raced on the Fourth of July in 2020 on the Indianapolis road course. It was behind closed doors but it was the first time that it felt right. Last year, they ran in front of a large crowd in Mid-Ohio.

Now, they’re back. If this works, I can see Mid-Ohio becoming that new Fourth of July staple on the schedule. It’s a prime slot that could honestly succeed.

See, when NASCAR moved their annual Fourth of July race in Daytona away, it honestly opened up the door for INDYCAR. The Firecracker 400, or recently known as the Coke Zero Sugar 400, was the main race over this holiday weekend. You couldn’t compete.

When they went to Indy, then to Road America, it allowed INDYCAR to slide in and take some of the holiday thunder. It’s paid off.

With that said, is this something that both sides see fit? Does INDYCAR want to continue on this weekend and would Mid-Ohio still offer to host?

They’ve tried to make this weekend work before. Watkins Glen tried it on Fourth of July weekend between 2007 and 2010. It never really worked. In fact, it was the nail in the coffin as the final race was only July 4, 2010 before taking a five year break. When they came back, it was in September. That was a 2 year Labor Day weekend deal that never really worked either.

Maybe the holiday weekends were a fit for Watkins Glen. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a hit for INDYCAR at the time so they’ve typically skipped racing on them.

The thing is, maybe this time is the right time. In order to make a holiday weekend race work, you need a prime location and a marquee event. It’s why the Firecracker 400 in Daytona had always worked. It’s why the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend always works. It’s why the Southern 500 is the only thing that works for NASCAR on Labor Day weekend. They found that out the hard way by trying Fontana and Atlanta in that place.

INDYCAR needs that right fit for the Fourth of July to make it work. So far, Mid-Ohio seems to be the place.

Alex Palou is looking to end a winless streak Sunday at Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Alex Palou Get Going Again?

Heading into the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Alex Palou 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.

Then, the bottom has dropped out.

Despite qualifying 2nd for the GMR Grand Prix, Palou got off course and finished 18th, 1 lap down. 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?

Can Anyone Break Into The “Big 3” Here?

This race has seen a lot of parity, but for whatever reason, they’re all among the “Big 3.” The last seven 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.

2021: Penske-Ganassi-Ganassi

2020 Race 1: Penske-Penske-Andretti

2020 Race 2: Andretti-Andretti-Andretti

2019: Ganassi-Ganassi-Andretti

2018: Andretti-SPM-Penske *

2017: Penske-Penske-RLL

2016: Penske-Penske-Andretti

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.

Pato O’Ward would be a top option but he’s 0-for-3 in top fives on this track. His teammate Felix Rosenqvist may though as he won in 2020 at Road America and was runner-up here in 2019. However, those all were both with Ganassi. With AMSP, he was 23rd last year.

What about ECR? Conor Daly’s last four finishes are 22nd, 13th, 16th and 15th respectively while Rinus VeeKay was 8th, 11th and 16th himself.

RLL has Graham Rahal who has that lone win not of the “Big 3” and nine straight top 10’s, so he’s likely the top of this list. Jack Harvey has 2 top 10’s in 5 tries but none in the top five while Christian Lundgaard is a rookie.

Dale Coyne Racing has a rookie in David Malukas and Takuma Sato who’s last 5 Mid-Ohio finishes have been 17th, 19th, 17th, 18th and 10th respectively including 9 of his last 10 being 10th or worse and 7 of his last 9 being 17th or worse at that.

AJ Foyt Racing has a pair of rookies too so it’s not likely they end their drought either.

Dixon gave Ganassi just 1 win in their last 8 tries at Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Ganassi Get Going At Mid-Ohio…Again?

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?

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. Alex Palou did finish third last year and Marcus Ericsson finished well for his second straight top five, but can they move up on the podium?

Can they 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.

Whiel 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. They do have the 2nd place finisher in 2 of the 3 races but have also watched AMSP, Andretti and Penske win each.

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.

Is This Last Push For Championship As Tough As Ever?

It’s not yet full blaze ahead to the championship. In fact, action really just started picking up once we got to May. But luckily ,the teams had a couple of weeks off between Road America and Mid-Ohio. Yes, there’s a week off next week again before Toronto, but things really ramp up even more after.

How grueling is this next stretch going to be and how do you balance making adjustments?

We have a natural road course then north of the border for the first time since 2019 on a street circuit. A week after that it’s a doubleheader on a physically difficult bullring in Iowa in the heat of the day for each. Then, we go back to the Indy road course a week later only to turn around and go back to Nashville for the second annual street course race.

After a week off to breathe, it’s to Gateway for a short oval race before another week off and heading out west to end the season in Portland and Laguna Seca.

How mentally draining is this going to be?

Well, the test sessions last week proved to be valuable. 20 drivers took to the Iowa Speedway early in the week before 8 more hit the IMS road course last Thursday.

“Testing is so valuable because you don’t get to do very much of it,” Pato O’Ward told 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.

“Indy road course would translate to Portland, maybe things you can find here you could use at Mid-Ohio. I think this is a good place to have a test and especially because it’s beautiful.”

His teammate Felix Rosenqvist agreed.

“I think this is a great opportunity today,” Felix Rosenqvist told me. “If it stays like this you can definitely learn stuff. If you can do progress in this weather then you’re going to be set.”

Kyle Kirkwood was happy at the Indy test as he and AJ Foyt Racing changed their philosophy and approached this test differently.

“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.”

This Indy test was also big for Simona de Silvestro who will be making her 2nd start of the season on Sunday.

“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 at the Indy test. “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 do that 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.

That’s why that Thursday session was so big for her at Indy. July’s Gallagher Grand Prix (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) isn’t on her list of races to run this year. However, the test 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.”

These drivers are also halfway through their season. She’s making her debut. But, by the end of the Road America weekend, she was feeling more and more comfort though. 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.”

For Romain Grosjean, they 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.”

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