5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

LEXINGTON, Ohio – 2 practice session and qualifying are complete to set the field for Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Here are the 5 things I’ll watch in the race.

How Much Can Ericsson, Newgarden and Power Rebound

This race is all about track position. That’s no secret. So, for the top 3 in the NTT INDYCAR Series points standings to all get eliminated in the first round, it makes you wonder how much ground can they make up in a race that’s seen 6 of the last 7 races at Mid-Ohio being won by a front row starter. 6 out of the last 7 races on natural road courses overall were also won by a front row starter too.

For Mid-Ohio in general, 5 of the 6 were from the pole. We’ve seen 3 straight winners here from the pole and 4 out of the last 5 at that.

Ericsson and Newgarden share Row 7. Power starts 21st.

Can they make up ground?

A top 10 for all 3 would be considered good days.

Pato O’Ward practicing at Mid-Ohio on Saturday. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can O’Ward Capitalize?

By virtue of having the top 3 drivers in front of him starting midpack, can Pato O’Ward capitalize on the big moment ahead. With 5 of the last 6 here being won from the pole, this is his chance to cut into that 45 point gap.

But can he?

“I’ve had very successful weekends here in junior formulas but haven’t really capitalized in a week in an INDYCAR, so this is the first step,” he says.

“I’m excited for tomorrow. I think we will have as strong a race car as we’ve had in the past. The problem is we just haven’t really had that chance to make our life a little bit easier during the race and not have to pass so many cars.

“I guess you look at it and it’s a great opportunity to capitalize, right. But there’s so many rules in INDYCAR. There’s certain rules that can really throw your race upside down if something happens that you really can’t control. Sometimes it is a lot better to actually start in the back as we saw in like Portland last year than being in the front.

“Yeah, I think we’ve definitely executed when qualifying came, and I think tomorrow we just need to take the race as it comes and just be sure that we can react to certain things to keep our position.”

His run spearheads what should be a championship type of weekend ahead.

Alex Palou is eyeing a redemption on the season Sunday in Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Can Palou/Dixon Turn The Tide?

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. In saying that, he’ll roll off fifth on Sunday.

Then you have Alex Palou who starts 7th for a 2nd straight year here. Can he get his season back going in the right direction?

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? The odds are long now but a podium would be great since the top 3 in points all had rough qualifying days.

Kyle Kirkwood is a perfect 6-for-6 in 6 starts at Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

The Rookies

Kyle Kirkwood loves this place. Like this is bar none this is his favorite race track on the schedule. The results show for it too. He’s undefeated at Mid-Ohio with 6 Road to Indy starts and 6 wins in those same races.

This weekend, he’s proving that too. In his 1st NTT INDYCAR Series start, he was 11th in practice 1, 19th in Practice 2 and qualified his No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet in 9th for his best start of the season.

On a day that saw the top 3 in points eliminated in the first round, it was the kids who shined with Kirkwood and fellow rookies David Malukas and Callum Ilott shining.

Malukas was 8th in Friday’s practice, 4th on Saturday morning and then in qualifying, he put his No. 18 Dallara-Honda in 8th as the top rookie in the 27 car field.

Ilott continued his impressive qualifying runs on natural road courses in making it out of the first round for the 4th time in 4 tries. This time, he nearly made it to the Fast 6. He was 7th at Indy back in May and this time around in Mid-Ohio, he qualified his No. 77 Dallara-Chevrolet in 10th.

Scott McLaughlin climbs into his No. 3 Chevrolet this weekend at Mid-Ohio. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Honda vs. Chevy Somewhat Even

Out of the 12 cars to make up the second round of qualifying, we had 6 Honda’s and 6 Chevy’s. It was evenly split. For the Fast 6, it was split once again. 3 Honda’s vs. 3 Chevrolet’s for the run at the pole on a place that rewards track position.

It was Chevy though who got a leg up in the final round with not only sweeping the front row but putting all 3 of their cars in the Fast 6 in the top 4.

In what’s a race titled sponsor by Honda, Chevy has a chance to win in their backyard. Honda has just 2 wins all season with both the big ones at Indy. Chevy has won the rest and continues to look like the top team in the series this season.

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