Can Penske keep streak alive for Sunday’s Honda Toronto (3 p.m. ET, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network) Toronto race preview

INDIANAPOLIS — The NTT INDYCAR Series had an early firework show in rural Ohio in the July 3 Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Andretti Autosport self destructed in a wild turn of events as the series crossed the midway mark of the 2022 season. Despite a closed door one sided meeting to where Michael Andretti did all the talking, the drivers still seemed at odds in the aftermath with Romain Grosjean calling teammate Alexander Rossi “an idiot” minutes after the sit down.

That’s nothing compared to what we’ve witnessed this week. There is some major internal drama between Alex Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing. Guess it’s lasted for most of this season in fact. That led to Ganassi exercising Palou’s option on Tuesday afternoon and by Tuesday night, McLaren Racing was also announcing Palou’s arrival for their team also.

Both released stated Palou would drive for them in 2023. This is an all out war now between Ganassi vs. Palou vs. McLaren

With all this drama in the series paddock, it’s a shame we don’t have a behind the scenes show to air it all out. However, we do have a race to show on Sunday in the Honda Indy Toronto (3 p.m. ET, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). It’s the first and only race to stream exclusively on Peacock as the new TV deal had 1 of the 17 races slated to be on this network.

While it’s not ideal to be on Peacock, especially after all these fireworks within the paddock, it had to be done. There’s not a better fitting race when this deal came about to throw on Peacock. The future of Toronto wasn’t even known as COVID was running rampant still last summer so getting 14 races on network NBC, 2 on USA and 1 on Peacock was a phenomenal deal.

Now we’re there.

It’s a race getting a lot of attention between the Andretti feud, the Ganassi vs. Palou vs. McLaren saga, the lack of female drivers this weekend and the Peacock storyline. Minus the female shortage on the grid this week, the rest are nothing but a positive sequence of events for the sport in terms of popularity and attention.

Following an off week, the NTT INDYCAR Series begins a grueling 9 week stretch to the finish. We’ve now crossed over the midway mark of the year with 9 races behind us and 8 remaining.

This weekend’s race on the Exhibition Place circuit begins a span of 5 straight races (Toronto, Iowa doubleheader, IMS road course and Nashville). Really, we have 8 races (7 race weekends) over the next 9 weeks to determine a champion on Sept. 11 in Laguna Seca.

The next 2 race weekend’s are ones that we’ve not been on in over a year. This is the first trip to Toronto since 2019. A week later, we’ll have a doubleheader in Iowa. Both races will run on consecutive days in the heat. We’ve not raced there since a nighttime doubleheader in 2020.

That’s why this stretch truly starts the championship sprint to the finish.

Right now, Marcus Ericsson leads a pair of Penske drivers in points with Will Power (-20) and Josef Newgarden (-34) lurking behind. For Ericsson he has to be grateful he won the double points Indy 500 and has had 16 top 10’s in his last 19 starts dating back to last season, because Penske boasts 6 victories this year including 3 straight and showing no signs of slowing up.

Ericsson’s consistency up front has kept his No. 8 Dallara-Honda ahead. However, over these next 7 races left ahead, they almost all favor the Penske camp. Can Ericsson keep rattling off top 10’s and stay afloat or do the Penske drivers even the ones that aren’t winning, keep getting top 5’s.

See, that’s where the difference lies right now.

Newgarden has won 3 times in 9 starts in 2022. That plus a 4th place run in Belle Isle are also his only top 5’s this season too. 4 of his 9 starts have seen him finish 13th or worse.

Scott McLaughlin is 69 points back in 7th but has won twice. He has 4 finishes of 14th or worse in 9 races including 3 of 19th or further back. However, he’s finding his groove again.

“I just never give up, but in INDYCAR things can change in a heartbeat,” McLaughlin quipped. “I’ve just got to keep building — every race I’ve got to keep making the most of the situation that I’ve got.

“I’m excited for what’s ahead. A win is a big thing for us, moved us forward a little bit. I fell like Toronto is going to be a track that’s going to suit me. I haven’t been there but I’m excited for it, and then Iowa I felt really strong at the test and it’s two races there. If we can have a solid next three races, who knows where it puts us.

“Yeah, really proud of where I’m at, where my development has gone, and I think I’m just enjoying it more,” he said. “I’m having a ball. It’s just so much fun here, living in the States and just having a lot of fun.”

Will Power came from 16th to win last month’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in Belle Isle. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Power has been the most consistent. He has 7 top 4’s in 9 races run in his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet. It’s just that 15th in the Indy 500 and 19th in Road America to what’s put him behind Ericsson.

“Having been around so long, I understand the tracks that I’m good at and what I’m — Toronto is always one that I struggle in qualifying for whatever reason. Usually good in the race,” Power said.

“After that they’re all — you’ve got to be good at all of them, and some that you think you’ll be really good at you may have a bad day, so you’ve got to make the most of everything. But there are some tracks your car is better, you’re stronger at, some click with you very well. That’s a path that you’ve got to keep working on, so be strong everywhere.”

Penske is 3-for-3 on street course races in 2022. They’ve won 7 of the last 10 short oval races. They’ve also won each of the last 3 return trips to the Indy road course in dominating fashion. These types of tracks make up the next 6 races.

No one has also won as many street course races over the last 4 seasons than Newgarden himself. His 4 wins are double the next best. He has 2 wins in his last 5 Toronto starts and 4 top 10’s in that same span. Prior to that, his best finish was 11th in 5 tries. For Iowa, he’s won 2 of the last 3 there. For Gateway, he’s won each of the last 2. This stretch could favor him the most.

Power has been feast or famine in Toronto, Iowa and Gateway. He’s won the last 2 return trips races to Indy though and was runner-up in Iowa and 3rd Gateway his last time out. He too could be a player.

Ericsson has finished 9th, 22nd and 7th on street courses this season. He was 20th in his lone Toronto start and did win his lone Nashville race. On short ovals, he has finished 16th, 5th, 23rd and 9th at Gateway and is still new to Iowa.

Can he get any help from his teammates? Does the drama surrounding the Palou and Ganassi situation muddy the waters for Ericsson and Dixon’s pursuit at a title?

“Well, I think that’s been a distraction all year for those guys because this whole thing has been going on behind the scenes,” Power said. “Yeah, not ideal if you’re fighting for a championship within a team. Definitely not ideal.

Palou is winless this season and has only made 2 Iowa starts and finished just 11th, 8th, 7th and 20th in Gateway. Dixon is winless in his career at Iowa (0-for-15), has a win (2020) in Gateway but was 15th, 2nd, 3rd, 20th, 5th and 19th in his other starts there too. On street courses, Chip Ganassi Racing has been next best in class on these circuits in 2022 with finishes of 2-8-9-23 at St. Pete, 3-6-20-22 in Long Beach and 3-6-7-22 in Detroit. On the Indy road course, they’ve struggled lately too. So it’s Toronto and Nashville as their places to pounce but they have to hope Penske opens the door though too.

“It’s going to be tough in my situation with like Toronto,” Palou says. “I’ve never been there. Iowa, we did a test there. We were not super good, but we have enough time to prepare for that. But yeah, I think every race you need to try and do the best you can and try and be top 5 to win the championship at the end.

“I think here in INDYCAR it’s all the races. You have to be up there all the races and you have to get the best you have all the races. We saw it last year. We are seeing it this year. Yeah, had some races where we had almost no points, and that’s why we’re down there. But we’re getting there.”

Andretti Autosport also appears to be unraveling at the seams while Arrow McLaren SP is trying to rebound from some engine issues that’s plagued them the last 2 weeks. Plus, these street races have been their worst tracks in 2022. They were 12-17 in St. Pete, 5-11 in Long Beach and 5-10 in Belle Isle. Short ovals are where they can make their gains most known since Ganassi and Andretti have struggled on them lately.

Back to this weekend. With Toronto being the first visit here since 2019, it may also open up the door of victory lane to the veterans of the sport too.

O’Ward has never raced here before. Neither has Palou. Neither has Rinus VeeKay. Neither has McLaughlin. Colton Herta has only been here once. How much of a factor will this play for these drivers or does the addition of the Aeroscreen take what could be a detriment away?

Sounds like while the Aeroscreen could actually not change much at Toronto, the way these new kids are learning will.

“Definitely simulator work,” Power continued as to why the younger guys get up to speed quicker than they ever have before. “You know the braking points, you know the gears, you know the track. You don’t know the track condition. But, yeah, that’s a pretty big chunk of time you cut off trying to understand where a track goes by being on a sim the week before. That is a big, big help.

“Obviously video these days, so much on-board footage, there’s so much information to take in before you get there. You turn up, you’re going out first session knowing the track.”

By comparison, this will be Scott Dixon and Will Power’s 14th Toronto start each. Josef Newgarden has been here 10 times prior. Does that give them an advantage over O’Ward, Palou, McLaughlin and VeeKay?

 “I think it will be different,” said Power. “The tire’s probably a little different. It’s so tight these years. The little tiny things do make a big difference.

“Yeah, the field is so good now, there’s so many good drivers, it really doesn’t matter if someone has been there or not because they seem to get up to speed so quickly. Yeah, you can’t feel like you ever have an advantage in this game.”

Dixon and someone like Simon Pagenaud are the ones I’m watching as a result. They’ve finished 1-2 in each of the last 2 Toronto races and should also qualify well too on a place that rewards starting position. 7 of the 9 races this season were won by a top 7 starter including 6 of which in the top 5. 2 of the 3 street course races this year were won by a front row starter. 17 of the last 19 races on the Exhibition Place circuit were won by a top 7 starter too.

Dixon won this race in 2018 and was runner-up in 2019. He has 9 straight Toronto top 10’s including three wins and a runner-up in that span. Does his 22 race winless drought end here? He enters having scored 8 top 10’s in 9 races run this season as well as qualifying in the top 10 in all 13 Toronto starts including 10 of the 13 in the Fast 6. His last 5 qualifying efforts here are 4th, 1st, 5th, 2nd and 2nd respectively.

Pagenaud has alternated with Dixon for wins the last two years. Dixon was first and Pagenaud second in 2018 and Pagenaud first and Dixon second in 2019. Pagenaud has four straight top 10’s and three consecutive top fives. He looked great in Belle Isle with a lot of speed in his No. 60 Dallara-Honda too. He has 4 top 10’s in his last 5 races run on the season. Like Dixon too, he has had great qualifying pace here and on street circuits in general as well. Pagenaud has made it to at least the 2nd round in all 10 Toronto starts including 7 straight qualifying efforts on the track being in the top 2 Rows. He’s made the Fast 6 in 2 of the 3 street course races run in 2022 as well including being 10th as his worst qualifying effort this year on them.

By comparison, Power has qualified 15th or worse in 4 out of his last 5 starts on the season and was 15th in Toronto last year. He qualified 16th in Belle Isle. McLaughlin is a rookie. For Penske, it’s really down to Newgarden (2 straight front row starting spots on the season) vs. Dixon and Pagenaud I feel for the pole on Saturday and the win on Sunday since 7 of the 9 races this season were won by a top 7 starter including 6 of which in the top 5. 17 of the last 19 races run on the Exhibition Place circuit were also won by a top 7 starter. 

“It looks like that way just reviewing the race,” Power said of track position for Toronto being crucial. “I’ve thought that a few times this year. Obviously tracks I feel like are tough to pass. We’ve actually made some hay. Like who knows, it could be a straightforward race, it can be pretty green, not much chance to make passes.

“But INDYCAR at the moment is so competitive that who knows. Like, at the end of the day you can never give up. Don’t be too down in the mouth if you don’t qualify well.

“But it matters, though. Qualifying up front, if you execute well, you’re certainly going to finish up front.”

These are your guys to watch.

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