5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s Music City Grand Prix (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

2nd Place Starter

Alexander Rossi started 2nd in last Saturday’s Gallagher Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He used that front row starting spot to win the race outright. Rossi became the 5th 2nd place starter to win the last 6 NTT INDYCAR Series races on the season.

That’s why I have my eyes on whomever starts 2nd on Sunday.

Scott McLaughlin won from the pole on the streets of St. Pete as the season opener. That’s the last time someone’s won from the top starting spot in fact. Josef Newgarden won from 2nd on the scenic streets of Long Beach. Will Power then won from 16th at Belle Isle before Scott Dixon won from 2nd in Toronto a few weeks ago.

Alexander Rossi chats in pit lane with Brian Barnhart and Roger Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Rossi and his Teammates

Andretti Autosport has to be thanking Alex Palou and the Chip Ganassi Racing vs. Palou vs. McLaren saga. All that Andretti drama stemming from Mid-Ohio has now been hastily brushed aside. I’m still watching them this weekend, but in a different manner.

Speaking of Rossi, he went 1,133 days between victories in the series. Now that he’s won last weekend and snapped a 49 race drought, can he go back-to-back?

He was runner-up on the streets of Belle Isle 2 months ago. He had a fast race car on the streets of Toronto the last time out on a street circuit at that. With entering on the heels of a victory, is it Rossi time to pick up his 9th career win and tying Dan Wheldon for the 3rd most wins in Andretti Autosport history?

There’s no doubt that Rossi wants to end his Andretti tenure thriving and there’s no reason that Andretti doesn’t want to reciprocate. I mean Rossi is leaving Andretti because he felt like he wasn’t getting equipment or strategy calls capable of helping him get back to victory lane. The frustrations were there.

How ironic would it be if he wins multiple times over the final 5 races?

I’ve also got my eye on Rossi’s Andretti Autosport teammates as well. Colton Herta dominated this race last year in being quickest in every practice, earning the pole and having the best car on the Nashville streets. While strategy tried to go against him, he pressed too hard in chasing down Marcus Ericsson and crashed while trying.

Herta enters this weekend reeling though. While he was runner-up on the last street course race at Toronto last month, that’s his only top 10 finish in the last 5 races in general. 4 of those last 5 finishes were 12th or worse including 2 of his last 3 being in 24th.

He had mechanical problems in both of those races. Can they rebound in Nashville? Herta has 3 top 8 finishes in 4 street course starts in 2022.

What about his teammate Romain Grosjean. Just when it looks like he’s starting to turn it around, he falters last weekend in Indy. It makes you wonder if he should have left his last ride to begin with.

Grosjean has now made as many starts this year (13) as he did a year ago (13). He had 3 podiums in 2021 compared to just 1 this season. He also had 4 top 5’s compared to 3 this year. The top 10’s are even but the laps led are the furthest apart. He led 53 laps last year. He’s led just one this one.

Can he turn it around in Nashville? He was runner-up in Long Beach and 5th in St. Pete. In fact, between he and Herta, Andretti has produced the 2nd place finisher in 2 of the last 3 street course races this season.

Dixon and Newgarden do a ceremonial lap on the Nashville street course last year. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Chip Ganassi Racing vs. Team Penske

I wonder though if this is realistically a Chip Ganassi Racing vs. Team Penske fight for the win. Penske started off the street course portion of the schedule 3-for-3 with wins by all 3 drivers. McLaughlin won St. Pete, Newgarden in Long Beach and Power in Belle Isle. However, Scott Dixon stole the show in Toronto in taking the win with 3 of the 4 Ganassi drivers finishing in the top 6 that day north of the border.

Which team wins out on Sunday?

They won 9 of the first 11 races in 2022 but 0-for-2 since.

The thing is, they also have 6 of the top 7 in points entering this weekend and Ganassi very well knows that this may be their opportunity to shine. They had damage control at 2 of their worst tracks the last 2 times out at Iowa and the Indy road course. Iowa was a doubleheader and with Penske thriving at each track, they could be in some trouble.

Instead, they’re not all that much further off than they were entering. Yes Marcus Ericsson lost the points lead in Indy but he still only trails Will Power by just 9 points. Scott Dixon is 38 points out and Alex Palou 52.

Nashville is a place to where they have to capitalize on points because World Wide Technology Raceway is a short oval and that’s one where Ganassi won’t shine as brightly.

Street course though..

Dixon has a top 8 in all 4 starts including improved in each in going from 8th to 6th to 3rd to 1st. Ericsson has 3 top 10’s in 4 tries but no finish better than 5th. Palou has a top 6 in all 4 including 2 podiums. The thing is, Palou has just 1 top 5 finish in his last 9 starts to the year, which is why he needs this track and this finish.

Penske meanwhile has seen their drivers either feast or famine.

McLaughlin won St. Pete but was 14th, 19th and 9th respectively since. Newgarden won Long Beach but was 4th in Belle Isle, 10th in Toronto and 16th in St. Pete. Power has 3 top 4’s in 4 tries but was 15th in Toronto.

Ganassi has to take advantage of this weekend before going to St. Louis.

Among O’Ward’s 4 career wins, 3 came on the backend of a doubleheader weekend. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Damage Control For Pato O’Ward

AMSP had a great Friday in Indy but a bad Saturday. How do they respond in Nashville? Street courses haven’t been their best tracks this season. Felix Rosenqvist has their lone podium (3rd) as that came in Toronto. His other 3 finishes were 17th (St. Pete), 11th (Long Beach) and 10th (Belle Isle).

Pato O’Ward has just 2 top 10’s but both were 5th’s. Following a 9th place finish by Rosenqvist at Indy and 12th by O’Ward, they fell to -46 (O’Ward) and -132 (Rosenqvist) in points with 4 races remaining.

That’s why Nashville is all about damage control for AMSP. Ganassi and Penske could shine so if that’s the case, then AMSP has to be in the top 10. The problem is, O’Ward said that they need wins not top 5’s. They’ll mix it up and go off strategy to do so. They have to swing for the fences.

I wonder if they get put in a position to do that on Sunday which if it doesn’t work could end their title hopes.

Yes Gatway is next and O’Ward could vie for the win, but the final 2 races after that are on natural road courses and O’Ward has 1 top 10 in 5 starts on them in 2022.

The green sidewall tire will debut this weekend in Nashville

New Firestone Tire

Back in April, the NTT INDYCAR Series announced a new “green” tire that would debut for the Nashville race weekend. That weekend is now. Firestone has been a trailblazer in the charge for alternative and renewable sources of natural rubber and will debut a new and eco-friendly tire on Friday.

The Firestone Firehawk guayule race tire was used for the first-time during Miller Lite Carb Day’s INDYCAR Pit Stop Challenge and will now make its competition debut as the alternate race tire at the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix. It is partially composed of a new sustainable natural rubber derived from the guayule shrub, which requires less reharvesting than traditional sources of rubber.

“It will take partnership and collaboration to combat the impacts of global climate change, and we are proud to partner with Penske, INDYCAR and IMS to advance the future of sustainable mobility,” said Nizar Trigui, chief technology officer and group president, Solutions Businesses, Bridgestone Americas, Inc. “The introduction of guayule natural rubber to America’s preeminent open-wheel racing series speaks to the confidence we have in the technology and its promise as a scalable, sustainable and domestic raw material.”

This comes a week after some drivers were questioning the Firestone tires that they already have.

Firestone is typically lauded for their durability in the NTT INDYCAR Series. You never really hear many of the drivers say anything but positive news from them. However, that wasn’t necessarily the case from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Friday.

Luckily the tires weren’t blowing. They held up in that aspect. The problem was they weren’t consistent.

“Last 2 years, these Firestones have been so inconsistent,” Herta said after qualifying 9th. “We’ve had problems with this. Everyone has for the last year and a half. So frustrating. It’s not the car’s fault. Inconsistent tires suck. I’m pretty frustrated about it”

That was bizarre to hear because this is news to those of us not involved inside the race teams. He wasn’t the only one signing that tune though.

“A bit of Red tire inconsistency,” Conor Daly said. “You put on a new set and the balance is totally different. Firestone is a great partner but there’s some odd inconsistencies. I don’t know if it’s the weight of the car. But kind of a victim of that.”

Daly was frustrated in a sense that he made the Fast 6 in May and even here last year too but this year he struggled in the second round.

Alexander Rossi who qualified 2nd touched on it on Friday too and said that this is the norm actually.

“Yeah, I think we all at one point unfortunately will get burned by it at one point in the year,” said Rossi. “Yeah. I mean, it is a thing. It does exist. It’s frustrating for sure when it happens.

“Firestone for the most part does a very good job, but there certainly has been inconsistencies that have popped up, especially on the red tire, I think for the past couple of years.

“They produce thousands of tires and it’s a couple, maybe 20 to 30 a year. Maybe that’s being generous, I don’t know. But it’s pretty hard to pinpoint.”

Pato O’Ward said the differential between the two tire compounds is what also makes this extremely tricky.

“The problem is for us at least in the past it’s always been your balance on blacks has to be pretty tough to drive in order for it to be decent on reds,” he says. “It was extremely difficult to drive.

“Sometimes it works out that way and sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes it feels great in the first run and then you put the other set of tires, and it’s like, what the heck happened.

“It’s tough. It’s extremely tough to nail both types of tire compounds in terms of balance. You’ve got to be a little unhappy with one of them to excel in the other one. You always kind of want to excel on the red one because the black ain’t going to transfer you anywhere unless you’re a second and a half faster than anybody, which doesn’t happen in the series.

“Yeah, it’s tough, and it speaks to how hard it is to qualify in INDYCAR and how competitive it is.”

He too also admitted to feeling the tire problem himself as well though.

“I’ve had this year and last year. You just never know when it’s going to happen, and it’s just obviously unfortunate. When we get it, other guys might not, but then maybe they can get it another time, but you just never really know when it’s going to happen to you, so you have to obviously analyze and see if it’s not an issue that wasn’t that.

“Yeah, I think everybody is on the same boat. Everybody has had it at least once sometime.”

So does this new tire cause a concern?

“I think as long as it’s consistent throughout the field, then it’s not a problem,” Herta said. “It’s hard to say. I think the feeling should be similar because the contact patch is the same. You never know how soft or stiff the sidewall will be with this new stuff compared to what we had before. I don’t think it’ll be a bad tire as far as deg and stuff knowing that now the contact patch is the same. It’s more in the sidewall. But it’ll be interesting to see the loads in the corners and what that might do to spring rates and damping and how that might affect it, if it’s flexing a whole bunch or just a super stiff sidewall. It might completely change what you need from the car.”

Rosenqvist says that it will make things interesting in the first practice since you have the extended session again which allows for use of this tire too.

“I think it becomes a bit more interesting in practice,” he said. “I mean, normally you can get a — in a way, just because it’s a different color, doesn’t really mean that you need to explore much more of the tire. Like if it drops off a lot, like then you know that pretty early and you’re probably going to have to do like 15 laps on it and just deg it like crazy.

“But yeah, obviously we want to find out like what’s new with this tire, and is there any advantage in doing that on Friday, maybe instead of doing one qually run, you do one qually run plus five, six laps just to kind of see where it goes.

“Yeah, it’s like always. Even doing that it’s hard to know where it’s going to go in the race because the track changes and all those kind of things. It’s actually one of the biggest tasks for the team right now to figure out like where do we think the tires are going to go in the race.

“I think it’s interesting. It makes it different, and it’s something new for us to take into consideration going to the weekend.”

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