5 burning questions for Sunday’s PPG 375 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Will 2nd Groove Come Back In?

Last year we entered this race weekend wondering if it was going to be the last. However, after a thrilling show with a photo finish, the future of the NTT INDYCAR Series and Texas isn’t as bleak as it once was. The cooler temperatures but run in the daytime conditions plus an outside lane practice on Saturday evening helped allow for a second groove to race on for Sunday’s race.

Heck, the race winning pass came from the outside in 2022. An insanely close finish, 15 lead changes with 12 of the 27 starters leading at least one lap, I’d say Texas delivered.

The thing is, I wish I could say, “as advertised” but that would be a lie. That’s part of the problem but more on that later.

Unfortunately, we didn’t expect much out of last year’s race since the second lane of the Texas Motor Speedway was essentially a “no go zone.” Or was it? Leading into the race, everyone was still skeptical on how racing much above the first lane would go.

However, the race itself actually was actually pretty sporty. While you couldn’t go into that lane very often, you could still make passes.

Saturday’s special 30-minute session was a huge help in making it that way. Also, with the downforce levels where they were and how well the tires played out, you could follow closer and make moves around the outside entering Turn 1. You’d just have to make sure you quickly get down once making your maneuver.

“The track was so much more raceable today compared to a year ago,” said third place finisher Marcus Ericsson. “It was really fun out there because you could actually overtake people, go side by side through 1-2, even 3-4 sometimes. It was really raceable out there. It was really fun to race today. We had the last two years where it’s been difficult to overtake.

“That was a huge improvement. I hope also it was more fun to watch as well.

“Ovals, it’s a lot of fun to race, a lot of tactical and all that. Sometimes when we go racing, it’s very hard to overtake on the ovals, then it gets very static racing, you get frustrated because you cannot really make moves.

“That was not the case today. I think whatever INDYCAR has done, they’ve done a great job. We need to sort of understand what we did right this weekend to get the racing this much better because it was a lot more fun when you knew you could get around people, not easy, but you could get around people. That was making a huge difference for the enjoyment behind the wheel, I would say.”

It allowed passing. We saw a last lap pass on the outside in Turn 4 for which Josef Newgarden credited Saturday’s one-off session for allowing him to make it.

“I think the session they ran yesterday cleaned up a little bit of the second lane,” he said. “It really did. I wouldn’t have been able to do what I did in three and four last year. There’s just no way. I would have hit the fence for sure.”

Second place finisher Scott McLaughlin agreed.

“They almost need to do that not only here but everywhere,” he said. “No one’s going to run the slower lane. People don’t do that. We’re focused. Like Gateway, I’m sure Iowa. I agree with Josef. I think extra downforce was helpful.”

Now, what happens this time around?

Scott Dixon thinks that the racing package itself, well it may actually be even better.

“I think this year the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has done a good job I think of bringing some updated aero pieces which I think will definitely tighten the pack and allow for some side-by-side racing with the addition of a full-field high line practice, which I think will help as well as we sort of did definitely in St. Louis,” Dixon said on Tuesday afternoon via a weekly INDYCAR zoom call.

“I know it’s definitely more downforce in the 200-to-300-pound mark maybe. Then I think I don’t remember if we ran barge boards there last year. You have the full strokes on the underwing. There might be a couple of other things.

“Yeah, I think previously we had trimmed maybe sidewalls, strokes, yeah. It’s definitely I think a pretty big adjustment as far as adding downforce to the car for the race.”

Dixon says the combo of aero, the weather being cooler and that second lane practice being back again, this could very well make Sunday’s race the best we’ve seen at Texas in a while.

“All three of those should make, one, the second lane a little more usable, which will definitely tighten up the pack, and ultimately make it a lot more racy for everybody,” he continued.

“I think for the drivers you just hope it doesn’t become a pack race. I don’t think it’s going to be that extreme.”

If that’s the case, then this weekend is all down to being dependent on that second lane and if the surface is raceable like it was last year.

“Half the time we don’t realize some of the stuff until we actually turn up,” Dixon said. “So I’m not actually sure they have applied some of that texture to the high lane. I think with the addition of the high line practice that will give everybody at least some idea of what that grip level is like.

“You’re right, the traction compound will probably be the biggest defining point I think that you deal with. Just last year when you got yourself out of trouble, you got onto that stuff, it was difficult to keep it all in one spot, keep it off the fence.

“Hopefully they haven’t had any of that recently laid down, and that may make it a much easier situation for ourselves going into the weekend, especially for the race.”

INDYCAR has confirmed that no traction compound has been put down between last year’s race and this one, so there’s a real possibility this could be a good show again.

The only other factor in this is what kind of potential troubles having NASCAR tire rubber (Goodyear) being down on Saturday in comparison to INDYCAR’s tire compound (Firestone). However, Dixon says with the amount of cars here this weekend (28), they could get their rubber down quicker and it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

I mean, what’s the difference between Texas and Indy now? It’s not like you can pass on the outside at Indy either. You have to be strategic and make it happen. That’s exactly what we saw. So, what does this groove look like on Sunday and was last year’s race enough to bring any sort of crowd back?

Did Last Year’s Race Do Enough To Bring The Crowd Back?

The problem from last year’s exciting race was, not that many people actually saw it. The 2022 crowd was a complete embarrassment. Shame on the fans or lack thereof.

Now, I get reasoning on why fans haven’t flocked to Texas much over the last several years. I’m sure fans grew tired of baking in the North Texas early summer heat while watching a high-speed processional. However, last year proved that INDYCAR and Texas can still coexist and put on a good show.

Was it enough to bring the fans back, however?

The second lane is the second lane. We saw INDYCAR do everything that they can do to help make it come in. Luckily, the drivers adapted and did make moves last spring. The problem now is, did last year’s race do enough to play host in front of people or will these drivers risk their lives in front of a bunch of aluminum rows of nothing.

Last year was like that Fontana race a few years ago in being one of the best races that no one saw. Even if the racing is improved again this year, is there enough to bring fans back in 2024 or is this now the best that we’ve got?

If it’s another dismal crowd, then this isn’t a good look for INDYCAR fans base. For INDYCAR races and tracks to work, they need packed houses. Last year should be enough to bring people back.

But will it?

One could say this has been the least attended race on the schedule. For a track that was hosted fans in excess of 100k, the last several years’ worth of attendance has been embarrassing.

If it looks the same this year, it would be a farce.

For a fan base that screams they want more ovals, where have you been? Why do you never show up to them?

While I get this is a problem for all sides, the fans aren’t given a free pass on this either. Yes, I get the racing at Texas has been lackluster over the last decade and yes I get the second lane was the biggest topic of conversation entering last year’s race, but that doesn’t mean you just ignore the race all together. At what point do you make this series appointment viewing whether it be in person or on TV?

You make other things appointment viewing. Why not INDYCAR? There’s always excuses and I’m telling you for those that didn’t show, you’re potentially costing INDYCAR another oval.

In the track and INDYCAR’s defense, no one showed up for the Cup race the last two Fall’s either to which NASCAR and the drivers themselves called out their attendance. Well, here we are again which could lead me to believe that this isn’t necessarily an INDYCAR fan base problem. Maybe it’s a Texas fan base problem.

If that’s the case, is it the track not promoting or attracting fans? That could be it. Honestly it plays a part. I mean it’s clear that in order for ovals to work in INDYCAR you need support events too. That’s what makes road/street courses as well as Gateway work. They have constant action all day.

Texas didn’t provide that.

So I get the build up and entertainment being low which doesn’t bring fans out. So I side with the fans in that aspect. That’s on the track. So is the racing surface. This track was ruined with the repave and reconfiguration. It doesn’t even work for NASCAR either as one could say this is the worst track in both NASCAR and INDYCAR.

They have their faults in this too.

INDYCAR has a hand in it as they can promote too but they’re at the bottom of the blame game. They’ve tried. They’ve done almost everything that they can.

The relationship started in 1997 and unfortunately started having problems in 2012 when the racing went from an exhilarating pack race to a spread out snoozefest. INDYCAR has actively been trying to help the racing ever since over the last decade but it’s a hard one to nail. Too much downforce and too much grip from the tires leads up back to a pack race. Too far the other way gets you four lead changes for an entire race. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle but that’s a hard line to find since a minor change in either direction can lead to an extreme race on one side or the other.

Then, once they’ve found it, the track hasn’t cooperated in the sense of the traction compound ruining a second lane.

Now, maybe they have something to build off…

So, where do we go from here? How many show up?

Tire Rubber?

One thing that sticks out to me this weekend is the fact that you have a doubleheader show on Saturday between the NTT INDYCAR Series and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The odd timing to this all is the fact that they’ll intertwine throughout the day.

What some may not realize is that INDYCAR uses Firestone tires while NASCAR uses Goodyear. By having two different compounds on the same track, it can create some problems. We’ve seen it for the shared Road to Indy/INDYCAR weekends last year and prior. The RTI cars used Cooper Tires. INDYCAR on Firestones. It took several laps for the rubber of one compound to wear and make way for the other and vice versa.

That was on road courses. Now we have a potential problem on a high speed oval.

INDYCAR practices for 50 minutes early on Saturday morning. However, just 30 minutes later, the Truck Series takes to the 1.5-mile track for a 30 minute practice session. Then, they’ll qualify. So, it will take some sketchy early laps for the Truck Series drivers to get the Firestone rubber off and their Goodyear tires worked in.

The thing is, the heavier Truck Series machine will really put down some good rubber into the track. Once they’re done, the track surface will be coated with Goodyear rubber.

Here’s where the problem lies. There’s only a 15 minute break between Truck Series qualifying and INDYCAR qualifying. We know with the 2nd lane being a problem, I doubt many drivers touch it in either series early. Which means all the laps will be turned in the lower groove.

Imagine being those early INDYCAR qualifiers with the Goodyear rubber being down on the track and they have to carry speeds over 220 mph into the corners like that?

Then, after qualifying is completed, INDYCAR will have a 30 minute session to work in the second groove that will be split into two groups. After that, there’s a full session for a 60 minute final practice. That’s basically 90 minutes of practice that follows 28 cars making two laps each in qualifying.

The track will be full of Firestone rubber for the start of the Truck Race an hour later. Then, 147 laps of action for the Trucks comes 17 or so hours before 250 laps of an INDYCAR race….

Can Andretti Autosport Rebound?

For Andretti, St. Pete was another race to where they were left leaving with a bad taste in their mouths. Every year we seem to be asking the same question on if Andretti Autosport could turn their qualifying pace into a strong race day. Their practice and qualifying pace isn’t unusual. What has been is the lack of wins. In a series that’s rewarded so much track position, it’s baffling that the organization hasn’t had more wins than they’ve had lately.

Here we go again.

Strategy and carnage ruined a chance of a win in the season opening race weekend. 3 of their 4 cars failed to see the finish.

“For me, I feel a lot more optimistic,” Michael Andretti said after qualifying that weekend. “I think we really studied ourselves and got real honest with ourselves where we needed to improve. I think we’ve done it.

“Obviously the race is going to be another thing. Hopefully we can have all four cars go through the race without making a mistake. If that happens, I think we have a great shot at winning.

“I mean we did have many races where we had very fast cars last year, but we tended to do something wrong, shoot ourselves in the foot one way or another. That’s another thing we’ve really studied and worked on. Hopefully our pit stops will be better and strategies will be better.

“We really worked on trying to be a lot more detail-oriented, things like that.

“I hope it pays off.”

It didn’t. It started at the very beginning when Devlin DeFrancesco was an innocent bystander in the opening lap crash for which Benjamin Pedersen smacked into him and got his No. 29 Dallara-Honda airborne.

In that crash, both alliance cars with Meyer Shank Racing were also badly damaged and ended their races before it truly ever got going too.

Kyle Kirkwood was the second Andretti car to get airborne when he ran over Jack Harvey’s car after a Lap 40 melee with Rinus VeeKay collected as well. Kirkwood would continue on but finish three laps down in 15th. The second-year driver crashed in the Fast Six qualifying session on Saturday.

Herta crashed on Lap 50 with Power while Grosjean crashed in the same turn 22 laps later with McLaughlin.

5 wrecked cars in a two-day span, two of which getting airborne and finishes of 15-18-20-25. Factor in MSR’s finishes of 23-26 and you get 5 of the bottom 10 finishers under the same umbrella.

That’s not the start that Andretti was hoping for. The problem is, strategy was already ruining Herta and Kirkwood before their incidents anyways. They likely weren’t going to be in the top five anymore.

Herta’s tires fell off quickly at the end of his first stint and faded from 2nd to 6th. Kirkwood was down to 14th before he pit for the first time.

Andretti has to go back to the drawing board. Unfortunately, it may not come in Texas.

Andretti is young.

3 of the bottom 4 finishers last year were these cars with Devlin DeFrancesco in 24th, Romain Grosjean in 26th and Alexander Rossi in 27th. The guy between these three? New driver for them in Kyle Kirkwood in 25th.

Grosjean also finished 30th at Indy. DeFrancesco was 20th and Kirkwood 17th. I don’t see them magically getting to the front this time around in Texas either.

Colton Herta is their best play, however he’s finished 12 or worse in two of his last three Texas starts and has 1 top 10 in his last three Indy tries too.

Plus, the bigger teams have been so much stronger on this track.

It’s not a shock that Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing swept the entire top 7 of the finishing results of of last year’s XPEL 375. Last March, no one had anything for them all day, but that’s not all that surprising in the sense that both have now combined to have won 7 of the last 9 Texas races too. RLL and AMSP are the only exceptions with Graham Rahal’s win in 2016 and Pato O’Ward’s in Race 2 if 2021.

So for Penske to take 3 of the top 4 finishing spots and have now either won or finished second in each of the last 7 Texas races, there’s no reason to question their pace here.

Ganassi played second fiddle to Penske last year in Texas but in Indy, it was Scott Dixon leading 95 laps, Alex Palou 47, Marcus Ericsson 13, Tony Kanaan 6 and Jimmie Johnson 2. That’s 163 of 200 laps (82%) and the win.

For Texas, Penske led 209 of 248 laps (84%).

So, in the first race back on these tracks, did anyone do enough this offseason to close that gap?

The last seven races on this track (all in Aeroscreen), Penske and Ganassi have dominated.

In those last seven years, Penske and Ganassi have combined to have taken 15 of the 21 podiums spots and have led led 81% (1,341-for-1,652 laps).

Last year, they led 219 of the 248 laps run. A year prior, it was all 212 laps of Race 1 and 188 of 248 in Race 2. In 2020, it was 198 of the 200 laps. In 2018, it was 204 of the 248 and in 2017, it was 233 of the 248. The only exception was in 2019 when they only led 87 of the 248 laps.

That means since 2020, they’ve combined to have led 817 out of the 908 laps turned (90%) and taking 10 of the 12 podium spots. Can anyone truly stop them on Sunday?

McLaren could be tops in the next best list with scoring a pole last year with Felix Rosenqvist and a race win here in 2021 with Pato O’Ward.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing may be next best after them though. Since 2017, RLL has 2 podiums which equals the amount of Andretti and is one more than McLaren. They finished third with Graham Rahal in 2021 Race 2 and have led the second most laps of the teams not named Penske and Ganassi in this span.

RLL has led 88 laps since 2017. Andretti has led 102 laps but 93 of which came in 2019. McLaren has only led 25 laps, all by O’Ward in 2021. Schmidt Peterson led 2 laps in 2019 and 31 in 2018.

Which leaves Andretti as the likely fifth best team in Texas.

Could Someone Dominate But Still Not Win The Race?

One trend starting to stick out lately in Texas is the fact that the drivers that dominate early, don’t necessarily win. Scott Dixon dominated the 2020 race (157 of 200 laps led) and Race 1 of 2021 (206 of 212 laps led) in pursuit of victory. However, a day later in 2021 in the second race of the doubleheader weekend, Dixon led 163 more laps. He didn’t win.

Pato O’Ward did.

Last year, Scott McLaughlin led 186 laps. He also didn’t win. Josef Newgarden did.

O’Ward led 25 laps in May 2021 in his win. Newgarden only led three laps last year. In fact, Newgarden did the same in his 2019 win by leading 54 total laps, but 46 of those 54 came in the end.

That’s 3 of the last five races basically being taken in the end by the driver that didn’t dominate earlier. In 2016, Graham Rahal only led the final lap of his win that year.

In saying that, this track has led to some dominating performances too.

James Hinchcliffe led 188 laps in that 2016 race that he didn’t win.

In 2017, Will Power led 180 laps in a race that he did win. A year later, Scott Dixon led 119 laps in victory. 2020 and 2021 were also Dixon dominated while McLaughlin dominated last year’s event.

2015 was the last time and only since since 2009, that a driver didn’t lead at least 100 laps in a Texas race. Dixon led 97 laps that night in his victory. The year before, 2nd place finisher Will Power led 145 laps. Race winner, Ed Carpenter, led 90. In 2013, Helio Castroneves led 132 laps in his win. In 2012, Scott Dixon led 133 but crashed.

2011 was smaller races, but Dario Franchitti still led 110 of 114 laps in Race 1 and Will Power 68 of 114 the next race that night.

In 2010, Ryan Briscoe led 102 laps in victory. Dario Franchitti led 86. A year prior, Briscoe led 160 laps but finished second. Teammate, Helio Castroneves, led 57 laps in the win.

Texas has provided some dominating performances lately but recent trends have shown that even if that happens again on Sunday, don’t turn the TV off. The race isn’t over and someone can take the win away in the end.

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