MADISON, Ill — 2 practice sessions are in the books. So is qualifying to set the field for Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (6 p.m. ET, USA, INDYCAR Radio Network). Now, who wins the 15th race of the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season.
Here are 5 things I’m watching.
Will The 2nd Lane Work?
For years the World Wide Technology Raceway has been a one groove surface. It’s not the fault of anyone but just how this track was constructed. Turns 1-2 and different shaped than Turns 3-4. In the final 2 turns, you’re almost flat out. It’s hard to make a run and pass a car in front entering Turn 3.
Then, these drivers are so good that you rarely see someone bobbling off Turn 4 exit which would shape a pass down the front stretch and into Turn 1.
So, the track and series officials thought that they’d at least try to make a 2nd groove to come in and did a special 30 minute practice among 9 cars prior to final practice on Friday evening.
It’s similar to what they did at Texas back in March and it worked. The winning pass came in the 2nd lane which was considered a no go zone entering that race weekend.
“I hope it helps,” Colton Herta said. “I’m not too sure, to be honest. I don’t think you can go off of Texas because the PJ1 stuff completely ruined that place.
“We don’t necessarily need a full lane. If we can get like half of a lane, get the outside of the car out there, that would make a huge difference passing into three and four.
“When you’re on new tires in the race, you can almost get through three and four flat when you’re behind cars. That’s important for getting a good run. It’s not really necessary there, it’s more in one and two.
“I don’t think we’ll get a full lane in one and two, but if we can get the half lane, that would be good going into three.”
Will Power had a more optimistic approach though.
“I’m hoping that it actually works better than Texas because Texas had that coating where no matter what you did, it wasn’t going to come in,” he says.
“I really feel like here it will come in provided people continue to go there. That’s a tough thing. In the first 20 laps of the race, if people go there, it will be there, you can run the second lane. We’ll really see in the second session.
“I think it will work quite well here.”
How Do You Race Championship Contenders?
Gateway has produced a lot of memorable moments in terms of a championship race. Between teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud in 2017. To Rinus VeeKay taking out both Alex Palou and Scott Dixon in a single incident in Turn 1 last year. This race has produced some intense moments.
With the 1.25-mile track being hard to pass on, it creates some overly aggressive moves to get by the car in front. How much does that play a role when the fact that the entire top 7 in the starting lineup are the top 7 in points?
“Yeah, I think it shows how competitive this series is,” Ericsson said. “Like you said, all the top guys are up there tomorrow. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be tough to battle it out, try and beat the guy next to me here. It’s going to be very tough.
“But we’re going to give it our best shot. I think we have three cars up there so we know we have a good package as well. Just try to do our best, race our race, see what we got.”
“Yeah, it just shows no one’s letting up, no one will until the end.
“Yep, pretty tight battle to the end. It will be very interesting to see how it unfolds. All you can do is just do your best. Do your best. Can’t control some things, so see what happens.”
So, with 7 drivers still have realistic championship thoughts in their mind and they’re all starting together, how do they race when going for spots and how do they expect to be raced?
“It’s probably all individual,” said 4th in points Josef Newgarden. “Everyone has a different approach. We’re racing hard every weekend. People were racing hard at Nashville. Nashville has its own difficulties to it that I think we’re trying to address. It’s a great track. It’s actually a very fun track to drive. Actually really enjoyed it two weekends ago. It’s a great venue. It’s very tight.
“Obviously here a different case. There’s a lot more room. You can see this race go green all the way from start to finish or we could have cautions. It’s INDYCAR, it’s unpredictable these days. As far as the racing approach, it’s different for everybody.
“You got to run hard every weekend. If you’re not running hard, you’re normally getting run over these days. At least that’s what I see.
“I don’t think you can change your approach too much. Even though there’s three races to go, I think you have to run a very tough race. You’ve got to be on it, you’ve got to run hard. If you’re not on the limit, you’re typically getting left behind.”
Pato O’Ward notes that if you stay up front, you’re more than likely racing among other championship contenders anyways. However, he’s also in a position that he has to win too.
“I think I’ve had a little bit of a different experience whenever I’ve fought for the championship,” he says. “But I think now, I mean, if you’re in the area of where you want to be, which is top five every single race, you’re most likely racing the guys that you’re racing in the championship. At that point you know who you’re racing. You’re racing high-caliber guys, people that have been doing it for many years. You just got to race hard.
“At least where I am in the championship, I’m 59 points back, I need to win. I need to win races in order to be able to have a chance getting to Laguna and actually having a shot.
“I guess in that situation it’s a little bit different to what maybe Will and Josef are in. But in reality, I think a lot of the times you’re going to find yourself racing people that you’re actually fighting the championship with.
“I don’t think the approach is going to change much, I guess.”
Palou was one of those victims last year. He says that if he wasn’t in the hunt for the title, he wouldn’t race the guys that are very hard. He wouldn’t want to ruin a potential championship for them.
“With the experience I got last year. I would not race, to be honest, if I was not fighting for the championship, I would not race the championship contenders just because they are risking something and you’re not if you’re not a championship contender,” he notes.
However, he also says that he doesn’t expect to be raced any differently either and says that with the amount of cars still eligible, that everyone will likely race everyone else the same way.
“Yeah, I don’t expect people to treat us differently,” Palou continued. “The good thing is there’s so many cars that are still in the fight for this championship that everybody’s going to race the same way.”
Points leader Will Power agreed in a sense but feels like the respect will still be given.
“Yeah, I mean, I feel like when it gets down to the last three races, even more so the last two races, the people that aren’t in the championship are aware that you are, and there’s a bit of respect there,” he says.
“But, yeah, you can’t race conservatively. You just can’t. At this point, as tight as this championship is, you got to race how you race. You got to race to get position. You got to race to try and win. That’s the game now.
“I feel like there’s a bit of respect there. I mean, for me, when I’ve been out of the championship, even if it was last year with Palou, at the beginning of Laguna, first lap, I was really careful not to touch him because I don’t want to ruin someone’s championship. It’s just so difficult to get into that position to be a contender.
“I think people understand that in the field. Yeah, race to try not to wreck you, put it that way.”
However, Alexander Rossi notes that he’s going to actually race these drivers harder because he knows that they have to back out of it with more to lose. As a result, he could get a position easier.
“Yeah, 100%. I think you can take advantage of that,” said the Andretti Autosport driver. “That’s one benefit, I guess, of not really — you don’t have to think about points. For us, it’s about the individual racers, and they have to be a little bit more cognizant of that.
“We definitely know that in the back of our heads and we’ll try to use that to our advantage.
“I mean, yeah. I think it’s interesting. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. I think you’re more aggressive with them because you know they probably have to back out. At the same time certainly you don’t want to be the guy that hits them.
“You’re almost more aggressive and more cautious. It’s hard to explain. But, yeah, I think you’re very aware of who they are and what they’re doing around you.”
Colton Herta actually agrees with that assessment too.
“I guess, yeah, similar,” he noted. “I don’t really change the way that I race them. I like to think I’m not, like, smashing people off all the time so it shouldn’t really matter. I shouldn’t have to change anything.
“But it is always a balance. You definitely don’t want to be the guy that takes out the championship leader with three races to go. You kind of maybe keep that in the back of your mind.
“At the end of the day if you have to go for something, you have to do it.”
Marcus Ericsson isn’t surprised. He says he was raced hard last time out in Nashville.
“Yeah, I think last weekend showed that,” said the driver 2nd in points. “People were very aggressive out there. I think I got hit five times in that race. I think other guys did, as well. It was pretty rough out there.
“But I think as a driver, you know who you’re racing, you sort of take into account who you’re racing, something you have to keep in mind.
“At the end of the day you need to race your race, you have to be as far up as possible. I think that’s the mindset you have to have. I don’t expect anyone to give me advantages out there. You need to be hard and tough out on track.”
6-time series champion Scott Dixon says that you have to put all that aside and focus on your own race and not get too wrapped up in the moment. You have to treat Gateway like you would any other race on the schedule he says.
“Yeah, I think you’ve just got to race your own race, treat it like another race. Don’t think about the championship too much. We still have three to go. Anything can happen.
“It’s very tight at the moment, which is great for the series, great for the championship fight. But, yeah, I don’t think you can overanalyze stuff too much.”
You can’t overlook this, especially when the entire top 7 in points are covered by just 59. 1st to 5th is just a 33 point gap. They’ll all start 1-2-3-4-5-6-7.
2 of the top 3 in points share the front row. 4th in points starts 3rd. 6th in points starts alongside of him. 3 of those top 4 are all teammates. 2nd in points starts 7th. 7th in points needing a must win rolls off 6th. 5th in points rounded out the top 5.
So what will the standings look like leaving here on Saturday night?
Team Penske has won 8 of the last 12 races on short ovals including 6 of the last 8 here. Arrow McLaren SP has 2 of the other 4 wins that Penske didn’t triumph. With them sweeping the podium each day in Iowa last month and taking 4 of the top 6 spots in the 1st practice and 4 of the top 6 in the starting lineup, you have to wonder if this is a Penske vs. Pato O’Ward battle for the win.
The eyes will be to the skies on Saturday afternoon. The race is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. locally. As of now (6 p.m. local on Saturday) there’s a 44% chance of rain at that time the race goes green (5:30 p.m. local). It’s 51% at 6 p.m. locally and over 60% between 7-8.
The race should last a little over 2 hours in length so should wrap up between 7:30-8 p.m. here. Sunset is 7:48.
The race is 260 laps so it would be official once we get to Lap 131. That’s why my eyes are on strategy plays because you could go off strategy early to stay on the lead lap but be in a position to be in or near the lead as you approach the midway point of the race if it looks like it’s going to be raining.
That could completely shape the championship because how aggressive or conservative do you be on the pit stand if you’re 1 of the 7 teams vying for the championship still.
He’s the only one to try out and make the high line work in Iowa. He found a lane before everyone else at Texas. While he says one lane tracks don’t suit him, if the 2nd lane practice adds more grip, does that help someone like Johnson on Saturday.
It’s no secret, these are definitely his best tracks. 82 of his 83 Cup wins came on ovals. Both of his top 10’s in INDYCAR have soon including a top 5 at Iowa last month. He led laps in the first race at Iowa too.
So what can he do in Gateway on Saturday?