NASHVILLE, Tenn — We know the big storylines that came out of this past weekend’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix. But what about some of the smaller storylines that aren’t getting the attention?
RLL Picking Up Steam
For the first time all season, things appear to be on the up and up with the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing team. They head to next weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 with some positive momentum within the walls of the organization.
Now, can they keep things up with another solid outing near downtown St. Louis?
They’ve had at least 2 cars finish in the top 10 in 4 of the last 5 races. That’s a feat that only happened once in the first 9 races of the season.
Credit that all to the Sebring test last month to where RLL took their cars down to Sebring for a testing session. They had the track to themselves and it paid off. They found an identity and a new direction?
That’s something that they’ve been missing this year. When they expanded from 2 full time cars to 3, it hurt them in more ways than they expected it to. See, RLL found that by having 2 full time cars, they were falling behind. It’s the same manner in which they needed to put a car out there full time to help Graham Rahal.
All long the philosophy from RLL was they didn’t want to expand to just expand. The 2nd car would be in addition to the 15 car and now hinder it. If they felt like they were maxed out to what they could do on the 15 ride, then a 2nd car was needed. It was to help propel the 15 car further forward and not behind.
So in came Takuma Sato in 2018. This was to help Graham Rahal move forward as he’d been a championship contender for the few years prior but as a single car team, they reached their potential but couldn’t bust through the ceiling for more.
Then as a 4 year run as a 2 car operation full time, it was time to get a 3rd one out. Instead of that 3rd car being part-time, it was an opportunity to make 3 full time teams. That stretched them thin.
RLL had always boasted an All-Star array of engineers. With 3 cars instead of 2, they went from over engineering their rides to under. It was a rough start to the year as a result. They seemed to lack pace almost everywhere and had to scratch and claw just to get a top 10.
Rahal started the year off with 3 top 10’s in the first 4 races but none of them were better than 7th. He then went 4 of his next 5 races with a finish of 12th or worse.
Jack Harvey had no top 10’s at all in that first 9 race stretch to begin the season. Christian Lundgaard only had 2 top 10’s himself in that same span with a best result of 9th.
Then came that test in Sebring between Mid-Ohio and Toronto. That has proven to be the turning point of the entire season.
They’ve been kick started. Rahal has 3 top 10’s in his last 5 races including a season best result of 4th in Toronto. Lundgaard has 4 top 10’s in his last 5 starts including a runner-up in the Gallagher Grand Prix. He’s had 3 top 10 starting spots in the last 4 races run too. He had 1 in the previous 9.
Harvey even scored his 1st top 10 of the season in Nashville too.
They’ve found their identity again.
Andretti Cars Also Getting Stronger After Mid-Ohio Too
The Andretti Autosport organization was the story of the paddock when the calendar shifted to summer. Between their F1 endeavors, Colton Herta’s F1 test for McLaren and the dust up between all 4 drivers in an embarrassing Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio back on July 3, Andretti was looking like amateur hour. Then McLaren, Chip Ganassi and Alex Palou threw them a life line and took away all that content surrounding the Andretti group.
They’ve since responded well.
Rookie Devlin DeFrancesco has finished 18th, 17th, 15th, 18th and 22nd in the 5 races since that breaking point. While that doesn’t seem great, where this is positive is, the Canadian driver had just 3 finishes of 17th or 18th in the 9 races prior. He’s done it 3 times in the last 5 races.
Romain Grosjean had qualified 11th, 10th, 10th, 22nd and 2nd with a pair of top 10 finishes at Iowa and a top 5 going at Nashville before being crashed by Josef Newgarden with 5 laps-to-go.
Colton Herta has 3 top 4 starting spots in that 5 race span including a runner-up finish at Toronto and a bounceback 5th place finish in Nashville. If not for a mechanical failure while leading the week prior at Indy, Herta would have 3 top 5 finishes in this stretch too.
Then there’s Rossi. He won the Gallagher Grand Prix. He too fought back from a lap down like Herta in Nashville to score a top 5 (4th). He’s trending up again and looks to finish the season strong.
Qualifying Hindering Ganassi Cars
Chip Ganassi Racing is getting lucky with their race day pace. Scott Dixon won Sunday’s race from 14th. However, at some point these qualifying days have to get better or their shot at a championship this season could be gone.
This is their Achilles Heel. Can they get it to change over the final 3 races?
Lightning doesn’t often strike the same place more than once very often. Dixon has qualified 13th or worse in each of the last 4 races. Marcus Ericsson has qualified 12th or worse in 5 of his last 6 including starts of 12th, 15th, 25th and 18th in the last 4. That’s not going to cut it when each of the final 3 tracks we’re going to reward qualifying.
All 9 races at the World Wide Technology Raceway have been won by a top 8 starter. 7 of the last 8 were won by a starter from the top 2 Rows.
Then it’s to Portland to where 10 of the last 12 races there were won by a top 4 starter. Finally it’s to Monterey to where 22 of the 24 races there were won by a top 4 starter.
If Dixon and Ericsson want a shot at a title, they need to find a way to qualify in the top 4. Dixon has done that just twice all year (Indy, Toronto). Ericsson has done it once (Road America).
Alex Palou has done it 6 times but he’s the further one out in points among the 3 vying for the title right now.
Is Pressure Building Too Much For Ericsson
Marcus Ericsson came into the Gallagher Grand Prix on a points saving weekend at Iowa. He never expected to be great there as he was chasing a solid outing. He did just that. He finished 8th in the Saturday race while starting 12th and came from 15th to finish 6th a day later. Despite Will Power being on the podium both days, Ericsson still left with the points lead in his hands.
Then came the stall in the Indy qualifying session a week later. He’d start 25th. While finishing 11th wasn’t ideal, gaining 14 positions in an 85 laps race was impressive. Unfortunately for him, Power finished on the podium again and knocked Ericsson out of the points lead.
Last weekend in Nashville, he started 18th and finished 14th in an eventful day that saw him climb to the top 10 but slow in the closing laps and even spin which relegated him back to a result outside of the top 10.
He went from 35 points up on Power entering Iowa to 12 points back heading to World Wide Technology Raceway now. That’s a 47 point loss in that 4 race span. Can he stop the backward slide now or is the pressure growing more and more by the race?
Championship teams go through these things. Adversity strikes every one. What separates you from the rest is how you respond. Ericsson isn’t responding in a championship level yet. He had 19 top 10 finishes in a 22 race span heading to Indy with now two straight finishes outside the top 10 since.
Palou Going For West Coast Wins
Alex Palou knows the noise and knows the distractions going on around him. He acknowledges it’s a lot of drama and is having a hard time concentrating on the racing aspect during it. He tries to stay busy but you can’t escape your current team taking you to court.
However, trophies change all problems and by Palou earning Chip Ganassi another one this past weekend in Nashville, it forced the pair to at least have a conversation on Sunday evening after the race. While it wasn’t anything huge, it was nice and a sense of relief for Palou to know that they can still talk because they’ve not done much of it since July 12.
He has Ganassi’s best interest for the 10 car to win a second straight championship. However, in saying that, he also knows that he needs to win some races too and the next one up isn’t the likeliest destinations.
Palou has struggled over the course of his brief career on short ovals. He was 11th, 14th (Iowa) and 15th and 12th (Gateway) respectively on them in his rookie season of 2020. Last year, Gateway was the only short oval on the schedule and he finished 20th. At Iowa this year, he was 6th and 13th respectively scoring his lone top 10 in 7 tries. So he doesn’t magically expect to go out and win next Saturday evening.
That may drop him further back in points though. He’s currently 33 back. With this being a Penske favored track, Palou could in theory fall at least 40 or 50 points behind. That’s why he knows a must win is on the docket for the west coast swing to wrap up the season.
“I think maybe four races to go we were, like, this amount of points back to Pato,” said Palou. “We just need to win, to be honest. It’s okay to finish third and fourth and fifth and stuff like that and be okay, but we need to win.”
He hasn’t won a race since Portland last year and it would be fitting to end that year long drought at the same place he last tasted victory at. Then it’s to Laguna Seca to where he was runner-up as well in 2021.
If he wants a title, he has to win likely both of those races to end 2022.
“Probably not the next race because, yeah, it’s not my best, but I’ll need to win the last two races to get a chance. We’ll do the best. We’ll prepare the best we can.
“Yeah, I think the last two races are probably our best opportunity for the 10 car.”
Pato O’Ward Back Slide Continues Too
Marcus Ericsson has lost some ground in the points but so has Pato O’Ward as well. After a rough start to the season due to sulking over a contract dispute, he got over it and quickly turned things back around to salvage what could have been a ugly situation.
He had 4 top 5 finishes including a Barber win and an Indy 500 runner-up in a 5 race span that took him from 13th in points to 3rd.
That’s where this season got off track again. O’Ward had just 2 top 10’s in the 7 races since which has dropped him back to 7th in points with 3 races remaining. 3 of the 5 outside the top 10 have seen him not finish. 2 straight mechanical failures at Road America and Mid-Ohio started this swing.
He qualified 5th and 1st for those races. He was off at Toronto in qualifying 15th and finishing only 11th. Iowa was a bright spot with a pair of top 2 results including a win. Then Indy Road Course and Nashville took him back again with despite starting 3rd and 5th respectively in each, he finished 12th and 24th.
Road America saw an engine go sour late in the race while being in the top 10. Mid-Ohio saw the engine go sour again while running in the lead. Indy saw an opening lap spin. Nashville was a crash.
Now, with being 59 points out, can he capitalize next week at World Wide Technology Raceway to where he has 2 straight runner-ups on. Gateway runs like Iowa and he had his only 2 top 2’s since June there.
Then it’s back to natural road courses to where he needs help to finish this out.
Newgarden’s Season Frustrations Leads To Grosjean Incident
Josef Newgarden had to charge. He was frustrated with how the last few weeks have gone for him and knew that if he didn’t make an attempt to get by Romain Grosjean on the 2nd to last restart of the day in Nashville, the he could potentially lose out on a 3rd championship next month.
See in this series, every point matters and by having that, if Newgarden doesn’t make an overzealous move on Grosjean in Turn 9, he may get passed by someone else instead. So he went from it and unfortunately both cars didn’t come out of the other side unscathed.
“Ultimately we had a big fight back with the PPG car and Team Chevy,” Newgarden said. “That’s all I can say. This has been a really frustrating year in a lot of ways and the way it’s built. We’ve won a lot of races. We’ve had a ton of good luck. All thanks to the team and the effort they’ve put in, but more than not, we’re either winning the race, or things are completely going against us one way or another.
“So it’s built frustration for me because it’s hard to see that happen for this crew when they work so hard. I hate it, too. I’m very competitive, and it happens a couple of times a year where things don’t go your way. It’s part of the luck, but it’s just happened one too many times, and today was another unlucky day with just the way the whole thing played out, and you just can’t predict these races. It’s part of the game, but it can be frustrating at times.”
Newgarden was unlucky with how the cautions fell and didn’t want to sit there and finish outside the top 10 again like he has on 5 separate occasions this season. That’s why despite a series leading 4 wins, he’s 4th in points. A 6th finish outside the top 10 was looming until he made some bold maneuvers on the final few restarts. Unfortunately Grosjean was a byproduct of that.
Another part is Newgarden knows how Grosjean has raced others this season so felt like if anyone had one coming, it was him.
“Welcome to IndyCar; it gets tight,” Newgarden said “He’s been on a worse end of that. I don’t know what to tell him. Good thing I was ahead. That’s the biggest thing. You’re going to want to be ahead of this guy at this type of moment, but yep, it’s tight street course racing.
“Let me tell you what: I about got taken out six times myself. I probably need to have some discussion with some of the younger guys, but they’re aggressive. They’re very aggressive and if you’re not aggressive back, then you get run over. That’s IndyCar racing. You’ve got to learn that pretty quick. I don’t like it, but that’s the game that we’re in.”
Rosenqvist/Pagenaud Quietly Gaining More and More Top 10’s
Felix Rosenqvist is wondering like Alex Palou is, where his future may lead. Is it with Arrow McLaren SP here in INDYCAR? Does it lead him to Formula E? That’s all dependent on the Palou court case.
However, the Swede is quietly having a very good season though. He just finished 7th in Nashville for his 3rd straight top 10 result and 4th in the last 5 races. He’s now had 8 top 10’s this season alone after 14 races. In his 45 starts prior, he had 17 so as you can see, the percentages are ticking up.
He’s improved from 19th in points after the 2nd race this season and even 16th for entering the Month of May to 9th heading to the final 3 races.
His first 4 finishes to 2022 was 17th, 21st, 11th and 16th respectively. Over the last 10 races he has all 8 of his top 10’s. He’s surging with the only thing missing is turning those top 10’s into top 5’s. Only 2 of those 8 top 10’s have landed Rosenqvist in the top 5.
Similar situation for Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman had just 1 top 10 in the first 4 races to 2022. He’s had 6 since. After a dismal weekend in Iowa to which he was 23rd in both races, then his crew running him out of fuel at Indy and seeing him finish last (25th), he rebounded to finish 9th in Nashville. If you take Iowa and Indy out of the equation, he’s been in or near the top 10 in every race prior from May 1 on.
Race For Top 5 In Standings
One of the main things outside of a championship for a series regular is a top 5 finish in points. With so much parity these days and how tough this series truly is, finishing in the top 5 in points is a massive accomplishment.
Right now, Will Power, Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Josef Newgarden and Alex Palou hold those positions. But a lot can change over the next 3 races.
For two straight years now, Pato O’Ward, Newgarden and Dixon each finished in the top four in points. For Newgarden, he’s finished in the top five of the final standings for six straight years, five of which in the top four. Dixon meanwhile, has a top four finish in 15 of the last 16 years at that.
Newgarden is there now and holds an 11 point lead on Palou for 4th. He’s 36 points clear of Scott McLaughlin too.
Dixon is 27 points ahead of his teammate in Palou for a spot in the top 4 and 52 points ahead of McLaughlin to stay in the top 5.
Last year was the first season that Power didn’t have a top five points finish in the last 13 years. He won the 2014 championship. Was runner-up in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2016. He was third twice (2015 and 2018) and fourth once in 2013. He’s been fifth in 3 of the last 4 seasons (2017, 2019, 2020). He’s 58 points out staying in the top 5 right now.
Colton Herta was seventh, third and fifth respectively himself in the final standings and sits 10th right now. He’s 102 points out of 5th place so it may be challenging to get there.
That’s why it really down to Marcus Ericsson, Newgarden, Palou, McLaughlin and O’Ward for 3 of the spots in the top 5 with 2 of them not being in there.
Palou leads McLaughlin by 25 and O’Ward by 26. Alexander Rossi is 87 points arrears.
Another stat to watch is that Graham Rahal has seven straight top 10 points finishes. He’s 34 points back of making it 8 straight.