NASHVILLE, Tenn — Team Penske used a different philosophy here at Nashville. Rookies used their extra set of tires. Combined, they took 4 of the top 5 spots on the speed charts in Friday’s NTT INDYCAR Series practice session around the 2.1-mile Nashville street course. Under gray cloudy skies that luckily never opened up with moisture, 2 of the top 3 times turned in the opening session belonged to rookies.
Christian Lundgaard (1:15.9659-seconds) topped the speed charts overall in his No. 30 Dallara-Honda for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing. The Danish rookie has never been here before but after the 1st practice was left on top by .2391-seconds over the rest of the field.
Lundgaard is coming off of a career weekend at Indy with qualifying 6th and finishing runner-up. He also qualified 10th on the last street course run last month in Toronto and is starting to ascend on the timing charts. He has 5 top 11 finishes over the last 6 races. Compare that to 2 in the 1st 7.
“Quite dramatically, honestly. I must say I wasn’t really expecting to be up here this far up today, never having been here before, show up and the pace was there,” Lundgaard said of his podium boost. “You see Malukas was in P3 as well.
“I think just the rookie field this year is quite strong. For me, Toronto, the car was good, which was the last street circuit. Coming here we were expecting to have a better package. It seems like the package is there.”
Lundgaard said he feels close to winning at times and at others he doesn’t.
“I think looking at it now, looking at the performance, it seems to be there,” he notes.
“Going into Indy last weekend we knew we were going to have a car that was good enough to be in the good end of top 10. But we had to execute, and we did.
“If Colton didn’t have his I would say failure issue, I don’t think it would have been much more than a P3 anyway. We’ve now gotten onto the podium. Looking at the pace we’ve got this weekend, it sure seems an opportunity to get it.”
Another rookie in David Malukas (1:16.2366-seconds) was P3 in his No. 18 Dallara-Honda. He qualified in the Fast 6 in each of the last 2 street courses and enters Sunday’s Music City Grand Prix 27 points behind Lundgaard in the rookie standings.
The DCR/HMD driver also has 3 top 10 starts in his last 5 tries in general.
Sandwiched between them in the first practice was Felix Rosenqvist who turned a lap of 1:16.2050-seconds in his No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet. Rosenqvist had a strong car in Toronto as not only did he qualify well, he also finished on the podium for his first and only time in his two year stint with Arrow McLaren SP.
“Yeah, it’s been a good run since quite long now,” he says. “I think we’ve been lacking a little bit the ability to execute. There’s been a couple of hiccups in the races, some mechanical issues the last three events actually.
“Otherwise, yeah, we’re up there in qualifying. We have good race cars almost everywhere we go now. Yeah, I think it’s kind of like Christian, we know wherever we show up, we’re going to be in the top 10. I think that’s not an easy thing to be in INDYCAR. It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to that point.
“But, yeah, I think today felt good. It was kind of weird. I did my green run very early. I thought everyone was going to beat the time. Only Christian did. Not sure if it was a bunch of, like, traffic issues for the others.
“I think there will be a couple of seconds quicker in qualifying tomorrow, so just have to keep digging on the setup and see what more we can find.”
The Bus Bros rounded out the top five in the session with Scott McLaughlin (1:16.5755-seconds) in 4th and Josef Newgarden (1:16.6957-seconds) in fifth.
Last weeks winner Alexander Rossi (1:16.7041-seconds) was sixth in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda. Inaugural Nashville winner Marcus Ericsson (1:16.9763-seconds) was 11th.
Penske’s Quietly Good
Team Penske wasn’t happy with how their Nashville race weekend went last year. They were off their game in Nashville last season finishing 10th (Josef Newgarden), 14th (Will Power), 21st (Simon Pagenaud) and 22nd (Scott McLaughlin).
They had 3 of the 4 cars in the 2nd round of qualifying but none made it to the Fast 6. Newgarden was going to but he crashed on his final lap of qualifying in the second round which cost him his fastest laps and results in a 12th place starting position for Sunday’s race.
Power was eighth in the first practice while McLaughlin, Pagenaud and Newgarden were ninth, 10th and 12th respectively. On Saturday, they went 10th (McLaughlin), 11th (Pagenaud), 14th (Power) and 18th (Newgarden) respectively.
Qualifying and the race were the same. Now though, they seem vastly improved. While they’ve combined to have won 3 of the 4 street course races this season, they took a different approach to Nashville.
“It was a pretty good session for us,” Newgarden said after turning the days 5th fastest lap. “I thought we started off really strong. I felt like we brought something pretty different here this weekend, very different than what we would typically run. I felt like our starting pace was really good.”
As far as why he’d bring something different, Newgarden says that he felt like this was one of their weakest tracks last year and that they needed to do something drastic in coming back.
“We came here, after the year, if we were going to do something totally different anywhere, I thought it was Nashville,” said the hometown native. “I kind of felt like we needed to.
“I find it doesn’t fully relate to any other street course, I really do. I think it’s a very unique street course relative to the others. Probably from the outside it seems similar, but it’s a very tight track, very low speed, particularly the downtown section, you’re just not going very fast for a long period of time. I think what’s required on the car is different than a Long Beach or a St. Pete.
“When we were on the sim, I was like let’s come up with something different. We were struggling for speed last year. You could tell from the whole weekend we were behind, behind, behind. We tried a very different approach.
“Typically street courses will keep a similar car, change things for the characteristics of each track, but the global setup is different. Here it’s a 180.
“With that is probably going to come some development. Like I was talking about, the way we started the weekend when it was super low grip, it was excellent, the car was great. It started to grip up, we started losing some pace.
“I think we have to develop it a little bit but I think it’s got promise relative to where we were last year.”
His teammates agreed.
“I think, yeah, fresh mindset, a year on this track, thinking about it for the team,” McLaughlin said. “We have to use that to our advantage in some ways, like everyone else would.
“Yeah, we’ve come here with a philosophy that we think’s going to work for each of us. From my perspective, I had a really solid car today so it makes me excited for what’s ahead for the weekend.”
Up until everyone elected to run the new green tires, Penske had all 3 cars in the top 6 of the speed charts including the top 2 speeds with McLaughlin being 1st and Newgarden in 2nd. They ended up 4th, 5th and 7th respectively overall meaning they should have good pace when it matters the most as the weekend goes on.
Will Power has been in the top 3 of the speed charts in 4 of the last 6 race weekend in the Saturday morning practice and should be near there once again tomorrow.
“We rolled off pretty close,” Power said. “It’s quite different from last year, so… Feel like we’re in the right direction.”
Andretti Cars Right There
If you take out the rookies and Rosenqvist, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport combined to take 6 of the top 10 spots. Colton Herta was fastest in every practice session as well as taking the pole here last year and 8th on Friday. Alexander Rossi dealt with brake problems for most of the way but when he was on track, he was fast. Rossi was 6th overall. Romain Grosjean was 10th too putting 3 of the 4 Andretti cars in the top 10 at the checkered flag.
Grosjean qualified 5th in St. Pete, 6th in Long Beach and the only reason he was 12th in Belle Isle was because he crashed on his final lap. For Toronto he was 11th. He also has 3 tp 10’s over his last 6 starts on the season.
Rossi qualified 4th in Toronto while Herta has 2 poles on street courses in 2022 and a 3rd and 7th in the other 2.
Ganassi Cars Struggled
FRiday seemed more like the season opener in St. Pete and not the last time out in Toronto for Chip Ganassi Racing in terms of street course performance. The Ganassi cars all struggled a bit in the opening practice with Alex Palou being their quickest driver in 9th. Marcus Ericsson was 11th while Scott Dixon and Jimmie Johnson came in 15th and 24th respectively.
They need more out of Saturday because the Penske’s are quick and as a result could distance themselves on Sunday not only on track, but in the points standings too.
Turn 1 Could Be The Problem Area
The 75 minute session saw several problems in Turn 1. Granted, this isn’t necessarily new to see so many incidents in the opening practice. Hell, a lot of Practice 1’s are messy and while we think it translates over to the race, it typically doesn’t.
The Friday practice in Belle Isle saw 2 incidents in the 45 minute session. The Saturday morning session was even worse. We saw 5 stoppages in 45 minutes. The first occurred just 3 minutes into practice for Kyle Kirkwood finding the Turn 7 tire barriers following contact with David Malukas. Kirkwood took responsibility for the incident. The second red came at 9:03 am local time for Jimmie Johnson’s spin in Turn 2. He luckily didn’t hit anything.
The third red flag came at 9:10 a.m. ET for Dalton Kellett making hard contact in Turn 13. At 9:23 a.m. Will Power spun at the exit of Turn 12. 9 minutes later Simon Pagenaud stopped on track in Turn 6.
Between 90 minutes of practice, we’ve had 7 red flags.
What about Nashville?
A year after 9 cautions for 33 laps in an 80 lap race, we saw 3 stoppages all for incidents in the first corner during the initial session for cars on track for the first time this weekend.
It all started today with Kellett getting into the Turn 1 runoff at 3:38 p.m. locally to bring out the first red flag. Rinus VeeKay found the Turn 3 runoff 8 minutes later. Then we saw Colton Herta get off course in Turn 1 at 4:07 p.m. locally.
Last year, 4 of the 9 cautions occurred between the last turn and the first one. 2 of which on the straightaway which was a direct result of the field stacking up in the tight confines of Turn 1. This year, the restarts are now moved to the bridge just like the starts to help that.
However, Turn 1 was the problem area still in practice.
This was the debut weekend of the new tires. After the first session, it drew rave reviews.
“The Guayule, they felt fine,” Newgarden noted. “They felt like a normal red would in a lot of ways, so I think that’s a very productive thing to find out. We just didn’t go as quick on those.
“I felt like as the track rubbered up, the advantage, the benefit of the way the car was driving in the beginning, didn’t showcase towards the end of the session. We’re going to have to keep up better with the track progression for tomorrow.
“I think it seemed a lot calmer even in the first session. I feel like some of the changes have helped that. I feel really good about the start.”
“Good. I did quite a lot of laps on them. It seemed like they — I definitely had red tires that have degged more than this one. There didn’t seem to be a lot of deg at all, to be honest. It was likes 6/10ths or 7/10ths after five or six laps. I think they did a good job with that. If that’s a more sustainable option, I think we’re in good hands.
“I felt like it was a pretty good tire. It’s probably better than the red was last year. I might be wrong. It’s still very early. The track is changing every lap. I thought my blacks actually degged quite a lot. When I put on the reds, they were surprisingly consistent.
“Yeah, that’s always a question, right? We don’t know going into the race. Maybe it’s one of those you have to not qualify in the top 12 and get the extra set of greens (laughter).”
Other drivers said it felt the same which is a great sign. If you don’t notice a difference, then it means it’s doing it’s job.