INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Saturday’s Gallagher Grand Prix (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Why The Disparity Between 1st Road Course Race And The 2nd?

No one has been able to sweep both road course races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since they annually started hosting two race weekend on the same track. You get the usual May date, but in 2020 with COVID wrecking havoc on this world of ours, it was deemed best to host a doubleheader weekend that season in October.

For last year, we had the May race weekend and the one in August with a split bill with NASCAR. Same is here this season with the exception of the NASCAR shared weekend moving up to the end of July.

In saying that, both weekend’s could have looked much different in all three years. No one truly knows why.

“It’s such a swing event,” Herta said. “When you look at when people are fast here, it’s very rare that you see people fast here in the spring and the fall races. It’s bizarre. I still haven’t really figured out why. We’ve been in the same situation. In May we were maybe in the top five but when we came back we were the 2nd or 3rd best car. It’s such a swing event. I’m not really sure what causes that.”

One could say weather is a determining factor. It’s cooler in May than it is in the summer and in 2020, the first race was pushed back to a hot Fourth of July while the Fall race was in October. We’ve yet to have similar conditions for both races.

So in saying that, will Saturday’s race look a lot different at the top than what the one did 2 1/2 months ago?

I think naturally it would right? There’s no rain to deal with like we had in May. But, does the practice and qualifying look different?

The thing is it has affected Penske’s car ironically. They’ve not won the spring race since 2019. However, they dominated the two Harvest Grand Prix’s in 2020 with Josef Newgarden leading 34 of 85 laps in his win during the first doubleheader race of the race weekend. A day later, Will Power led all 75 laps in victory.

Last August, Power led 56 of 85 laps in another win.

In saying that, one could make a case that Herta won’t win on Saturday afternoon and someone from Team Penske will.

Colton Herta celebrates his May win this year in the GMR Grand Prix – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Should We Come Here Twice?

With there being a few tracks coming to mind that most would love to seen the NTT INDYCAR Series go to, does coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course twice make sense? Wouldn’t it be wise to get a sanctioning fee from somewhere else?

In saying that, does it make sense not to come here twice too?

The May weekend was added to do just that, add to the Month of May. As field sizes dropped off with the attendance, it didn’t make dollars and sense to have four weekend’s of action on the oval here. From opening day to race day with the middle being two weekend’s of qualifying, it wasn’t needed anymore.

So, to grow the series and the month, why not show race fans that there’s more to INDYCAR can just the Indy 500. You see 300k people show up on race day for the ‘500 but no where close to that elsewhere. Well, by racing on a road course here in their home race, it shows those here in Indianapolis that an Indy Car can make left and right hand turns. It also adds value to a weekend that would normally have hosted 5-10k. Now, you get 40-50k which is a bonus.

I don’t see this race leaving the schedule any time soon.

What about the second date? I don’t see why IMS and INDYCAR would want to leave shared exposure with NASCAR. You get more eyes on your product and have the rare occurrence with the rare INDYCAR-NASCAR shared doubleheader weekend. Why would you want anyone else to host that feat?

However, is two race weekend’s for INDYCAR on the road course diluting the product now?

Can Herta/Ericsson Pick Up 2nd Win in 3 Indy Tries This Year?

Colton Herta and Marcus Ericsson won both of the 2 races here in May. Can either of them win the return trip this weekend?

Herta has 5 top 4 finishes in his last 6 Indy road course starts and was 10th, 1st, 5th and 15th on like tracks this season.

Ericsson never stars well here but was 4th in May and has 5 top 10’s in 6 Indy road course tries in general anyways and has finished 12th, 4th, 2nd and 6th on natural road courses this season.

Also, the duo have scored the most points on natural road courses overall this year with Ericsson totaling 120 and Herta 119. 3rd best is Scott McLaughlin with 118 while Will Power (114 points) and Scott Dixon (102 points) round out the top five.

Dixon at one point had 4 straight top 2 finishes here, now he’s finished 8th or worse in every race since. However, he enters this weekend with 5 top 5’s in his last 6 starts on the season too. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Will Luck Change For Ganassi Drivers?

At one point in time, Scott Dixon was the man on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. He had a span of 4 straight top 2 finishes including a win in the 2020 COVID race that July. Since then? He’s been anything but.

Dixon was 9th and 8th respectively that October of 2020. In May of 2021, he finished 9th. He was 17th last August here and 10th again in May. If you count his 1st 3 starts on this 2.439-mile road course, Dixon has finished 7th or worse in 8 of his 12 starts.

What’s baffling is, he’s no where to be found in qualifying either. In his last 5 starts, he’s qualified 12th, 15th, 16th, 26th and 21st respectively.

For a team as dominating as Ganassi and the resources that they have mixed without much changes to this car, you’d think that they’d find a way to make this No. 9 Dallara-Honda fast for Dixon and one with balance to win.

They’ve found it with Alex Palou as he’s had a ton of speed the last 2 years here. He’s qualified 4th, 6th and 2nd respectively with Ganassi. However, he blew an engine while running in the top 3 last August and got off course in the rain while being in the top 5 in May. When it went right, he was 3rd in May 2021.

If they can combine speed and get better luck, Ganassi can absolutely win on Saturday.

Dixon has 5 top 5 finishes in his last 6 starts on the year and moved from 6th to in a tie for 3rd in points. Ericsson has 19 top 10’s in his last 22 tries. Palou is the one sliding backwards though with only 1 top 5 in his last 8 starts.

Did Test Help Andretti/AMSP Close Gap To Penske?

8 drivers from 4 NTT INDYCAR Series teams took part in a day long test last month on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. It was a makeup from the test that was washed out back in the spring with some feeling now still that it’s valuable to test the 2.439-mile layout in June.

So some may wonder, why with such few test days allotted on a season would you test on a track that you just raced at 6 weeks prior? Well, in this series, any time you can get a leg up on the competition you do so.

“I think this is a great opportunity today,” Felix Rosenqvist told me then. “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.”

See, for whatever reason, despite the races being just a couple of months apart, they’re run entirely different than each other.

Some may automatically think that this weekend’s race would look like May’s. Well, with it raining this past May and for most instances the Month of May being on the cooler side here than it is during the summer months, it completely changes the way that these cars react to this 2.439-mile layout.

“For sure it does,” Rosenqvist continued. “During the race in May we were running up front the whole time. We were quick. But it was with a damp track.”

The GMR Grand Prix race winner in Colton Herta agreed.

“I’d imagine no rain so it’s going to be a very different race,” he said. “Trying to get an understanding of what it’s going to be like. I imagine it’s going to be even hotter than it would be today.

“We’re working through changes because we want to see what things are like in hot conditions because we know what they were like when it was colder.”

Which is why as he says, it was a good thing the test in the spring was postponed.

“I guess it’s a good thing because it was going to be in the wet (in May) so it didn’t matter what it was going to be like in the test,” he says. “This is probably a better representation of what we’ll have race weekend and a better test for that.”

Plus, during the Aeroscreen era (18 races) on natural road courses, both Penske and Ganassi have each won a combined 13 times on them accounting for a 72% win rate.

Penske and Ganassi have combined to win 9 of the last 11 races on this track too. The only 2 they didn’t was the last 2 May’s. They’ve won everything else and 1 of the one this past May was wet and altered the outcome of the race than if it rain in the dry.

However, with both Ganassi and Penske electing to not test last month, could this open the door for Andretti and AMSP now. They took 3 of the top 4 starting spots in Mid-Ohio, a like track and one after the test.

“I think they’re still going to be good right,” O’Ward said. “They’re championship level teams and always fighting for wins and poles everywhere they go. That’s what we strive to be and hope for and hope to make it harder for them this year.”

Alex Palou has had bad luck in each of his last 2 Indy road course starts with a blown engine and getting off course in May. Scott Dixon hasn’t had a top 5 in any of his last 5 Indy road course starts. Jimmie Johnson has no top 15’s while Marcus Ericsson has 1 top 5 in 7 starts.

For Penske, Scott McLaughlin has no top 5’s in 3 starts with 2 finishes of 20th or worse. Josef Newgarden has 1 podium and just 2 top 5’s in 11 tries while Will Power is their best shot with 2 wins and a podium in his last 4 starts.

However, O’Ward has never finished better than 5th on the road course and that’s even with a pole last August. They know this too and spent a lot of time improving in this area of discipline with the door now open.

“I think we’re getting better. Our car is better,” he told me. “We made some changes in the offseason and into making our car just better. Not much faster but definitely easier to drive in a way. We haven’t really hammered it everywhere but we’ve been quick. We’ve been qualifying in the Fast 6 ever since Barber. That’s huge for us. I told the team pole is cool but I don’t really care about the pole I care about Fast 6’s. As long as you’re in the Fast 6, you always have a chance.”

“Testing is so valuable because you don’t get to do very much of it. 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.”

Andretti is there too with Rossi having 4 top 7 finishes in his last 5 Indy road course tries including 3 of which in the top 4. He was 9th, 11th, 3rd and on natural road courses in 2022. Herta has has 5 top 4 finishes in his last 6 Indy road course starts and was 10th, 1st, 5th and on like tracks this season. Even Grosjean was a runner-up in both races in 2020 and 7th back in May.

This could be a great opportunity for Andretti and AMSP this weekend especially with the momentum AMSP has. Felix Rosenqvist was on the podium in Toronto then O’Ward was 2nd and 1st respectively in Iowa.

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