5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s PPG 375 (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

2nd Lane/Attendance

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?

The problem from last year’s exciting race was, not 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?

St. Pete’s Podium Finishers

Pato O’Ward feels like he gave a win away. Marcus Ericsson feels he earned his St. Pete win. Scott Dixon was just happy for a podium in INDYCAR’s season opener last month. Nevertheless, all three are coming to Texas this weekend 1-2-3 in points.

3 of the last 4 years has seen the champion podium in St. Pete. Also, out of the last 18 years, the eventual season champion scored a top 10 finish in 17 of those 18 season openers. They’ve accumulated 8 wins and 14 top 5’s in the process including four consecutive podium finishes.

O’Ward says that he feels like a runner-up out of the gates shows that they’ll be a force also.

“I think as a team we’ve arrived with something that’s just so much better than where we were last year,” he says. “Obviously every single track is different. You can be great one weekend, you can get to the next one and be like, where are we.

“But this is a great first step to where we want to be, and we’re in great position to challenge in Texas and so forth.

“It makes me proud of — we arrived here, people knew we were here. We were fighting for the win. That was ours to take, and it was just very — I wouldn’t say heartbreaking, but I would say just very — it was very generic. I was trying to find a more fancy word.”

The only thing missing for O’Ward is the consistency label.  He’s had two wins in each of the last two seasons. The Mexican star also has had 9 podiums in that same two-year span (5 in 2021, 4 in 2022). Out of his 8 Top-5 finishes a year ago, only four of them landed on the podium.

Now, he starts 2023 off with a podium.

For Ericsson, 3 of the last 4 winners of the INDYCAR season opener had gone on to win a championship later in the season. Now is a stretch of races to where he can be really good at.

“I had a chance going into the final, but I also was leading the championship for a long-time last year. I’m still a bit pissed off about the ending of last year because I felt we were having a really strong year, then the last three races or so we just fell off a little bit. That was disappointing,” he said on Tuesday of INDYCAR content day.

“But it’s given me a lot of motivation to work hard in the off-season to try and be better this year. It’s definitely our goal to try and get that championship this year.

“We’ve been focusing on trying to improve our package for this year. We feel like we have some areas where we could improve from last year, so we’ve been focusing on that, trying to, yeah, become better as a team, as a driver. I’ve been focusing a lot on myself trying to improve my performance for this year.

“We were close to winning both the championship and the 500 last year. We need to keep pushing to try to do that this year.”

He’s off to a great start.

Between Dixon and O’Ward, they’ve combined to have won 3 of the last 4 Texas races. Ericsson finished third here last March and won the Indy 500.

In a series to where points are hard to come by, if these three can open up a bigger gap leaving Texas, then watch out.

Afterwards, it’s to Long Beach to where O’Ward was fifth last April. Dixon was 6th. Ericsson has won 3 of his 4 career races on street courses. Two weeks after is a visit to Barber, a race O’Ward won last season. Dixon was 5th. Then a pair of races at IMS ahead in May awaits. O’Ward has 3 straight top six finishes in the Indy 500 including a runner-up a season ago. Dixon has won the pole in each of the last two Indy 500’s, while Ericsson was 4th and 1st respectively in the pair of May races a season ago.

Then returns to the downtown streets of Detroit is a week after.

That’s why I’m curious how well Ericsson, Dixon and O’Ward look in Texas.

“Yeah, I think it’s big,” Dixon said of starting off the season hot. “I think every weekend’s now, just with the competition level, how tough it is, I think for us, as you just said, it kicks off a pretty heavy stretch of a lot of weekends on the road, which is extremely tough for the teams as well.”

Penske and Ganassi swept the top 7 finishing spots last year in Texas – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

“Big 2”

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. They’ve won each of the last 10 INDYCAR titles including 14 of the last 15 overall. They’re the true “Big 2.”

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?

“I don’t know. I think your off-season focus, at least for us, for myself, is always kind of your weakest moments, you try to improve on it,” said Dixon to me on Tuesday afternoon. “So yeah, I guess you maybe do focus in and maybe spend more of your time on some of those things.

“There are tracks that you’ll go to, you feel like you’ve got a little bit more in your back pocket, but you can’t rely on that. I think that’s the biggest things I’ve noticed probably in the last four or five years, even two or three, is just the depth of the field has changed a lot. There are no small teams any more. All the teams are very competitive. All the driver lineups are very competitive and very successful, as well.

“Yeah, it’s just become, you know, harder I think wherever you go. Doing your homework before you get to the track, trying to understand what you really need to get right on the weekend, I think is rewarded a lot.

“Yeah, I guess time management is always a things. Luckily we’ve had a little bit of time off before this one to kind of soak up what we did at St. Pete. We had a test in Barber, then obviously moving on to this one, three very different circuits.

“But, yeah, looking forward to this one. I think it’s going to be definitely with a lot of the development and off-season work that the team has done, this should be a fantastic weekend for us.”

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.

RLL didn’t qualify well last year and I don’t know how you just magically turn that around this quickly? They started 24th, 26th and 27th at Texas and 21st, 31st and 32nd at Indy. Getting to mid-pack is honestly the next progression.

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.

Which leaves McLaren as the run away third choice here, but still far enough behind to have to make a big splash this winter in catching Penske and Ganassi.

Alexander Rossi

Sometimes a fresh start is all that’s needed for two sides. However, not all the time is the grass greener on the other side either. That’s why it took a while for Alexander Rossi to land as the decision that he made to not reup with Andretti Autosport and instead join Arrow McLaren’s forces for the upcoming 2023 NTT INDYCAR Series season.

So, what went wrong though? Rossi is as talented as they come and Andretti is as well run of an organization as there is.

“Life ebbs and flows,” Rossi said last year from Belle Isle. “I think it was time for a change. Ultimately, I don’t think this has met anyone’s expectations, myself, the team’s, Honda’s. I don’t think it’s necessarily a huge surprise for everyone.

“That being said, I think there have been scenarios that have been outside of our control. But that’s motorsports, life, just the way things go sometimes.”

Imagine me telling you after Rossi’s 2019 win in Long Beach that by 2022, he’d be reconsidering return to Andretti Autosport for the 2023 NTT INDYCAR Series season.

That day, Rossi led 80 of 85 laps en route to a victory of more than 20 seconds. It was his second straight win on the scenic Southern California beach side street circuit. He led 71 of 85 laps a year prior.

The Andretti Autosport driver seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. 

But, here we are.

Over the last 54 races with Andretti, he had 1 win, just 11 podiums and only 16 top fives.

“So, yeah, I mean, this decision was made for me kind of last summer,” said Rossi. “It was clear that I was going to look at different options and explore what was out there.

“I’ve driven for Andretti Autosport for a long time. Sometimes you need to change things, whether that’s on a personal side, a professional side or the both combined. I think it was time for a change.

“Like I said, there were a lot of things that we accomplished that were very special, that I’ll have memories of forever. They essentially gave me a base and established me in INDYCAR to have a future in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. I owe a lot to the organization.

“Ultimately for me it was time to do something different. I don’t think there’s a better pairing out there for who I am as a person and a competitor than Arrow McLaren.”

What a perfect first race weekend that ensued for the California native. Rossi finished fourth in his No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet for his first top 5 finish in the season opener since the 2019 season. He’d finish 3rd in points that year. The only other time he landed a top 5 finish in a season opener?

2018. He was 3rd in St. Pete and 2nd in the final standings. It took until the sixth race of the season last year at the Indy 500 to score a top five. It was the 10th race in for the 2021 season to get a top 5. In Race 1 with McLaren, he’s 1-for-1.

Now, he heads to a track that he’s more than capable of another solid outing. Rossi has always been a great superspeedway racer and was 5th at Indy last year. Now, you’re giving him McLaren equipment…


The Texas Motor Speedway is a daunting place in general. Even the most seasoned of veterans get nervous for this one. Mix in the first high speed oval of the season and you get a tough race weekend for rookies. Most of them have never raced on an oval before let alone a superspeedway. With the Indy NXT Series not racing the Freedom 100 anymore, there’s not much experience to be had for a track like this.

“Honestly I came from an era where I think it was six and six,” said Scott Dixon on having oval experience before getting to a place like Texas. “You did six ovals and six road courses, a season of 12 races in Indy Lights. The fields were 30-plus cars.

“Having that feeling I think of both, but it’s got to be meaningful, too. Sometimes when I’ve watched the Freedom 100, IMS, they’d be running four-wide around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I was like, Yes, it’s great racing, great to watch, but it doesn’t really teach you anything for what the bigger category does.

“I think if it’s done in a productive and meaningful way, I think it totally makes sense.

“Some of the circuits like St. Louis or Iowa, those I think are great circuits to understand oval racing on a short track version and how the car moves around. Some of the bigger speedways I think you got to pick the right ones because the budgets can be extremely tough. You don’t want cars just crashing out all the time.

“As long as it’s a car that’s in the low-grip situation, one that’s very difficult to race, I think it’s very, very important for the junior categories to have those races.”

Which is why most rookies just try and survive the Texas race weekend and bring their cars home in one piece. That’s something that’s been harder and harder to do lately with an over 50% crash rate here for rookies.

7 of the last 13 rookies crashed in the race including 4 of the 7 last season. Just six rookies since 2019 have even finished on the lead lap and one of them was Jimmie Johnson who was far from a rookie at Texas. Scott McLaughlin is another but he was with Team Penske in 2021.

“You know, I think for some of them, they’re just hoping for a smooth weekend,” Scott Dixon said of the challenges rookies face at Texas. “I think for all of us, you don’t want to see any kind of crashes or people getting injured or anything like that. You hope everybody keeps it where it should be.

“Yeah, I think all the new guys have got solid heads on their shoulders. I don’t think they’re going to go out there and do anything stupid. I think they’ll have a great race.

“Yeah, no concern from my point of view. We’ve all been there. I was once there. All of us have gone through that. You definitely go into those weekends with your eyes wide open, man. Actually I had Indy Lights oval racing before that. I couldn’t imagine going straight into an INDYCAR race, especially at Texas, for the first time to get your oval experience.”

Since 2020, only Oliver Askew (9th), Scott McLaughlin (2nd) and Jimmie Johnson (6th) have top 10 finishes at Texas as rookies.

How Rookies Have Fared At Texas Lately

2022: 6th (Johnson), 11th (Malukas), 16th (Ilott), 19th (Lundgaard crash), 24th (DeFrancesco, crash) 25th (Kirkwood crash), 26th (Grosjean crash)

2021: McLaughlin (2nd, 8th), Fittipaldi (15th, 21st, crash)

2020: Askew (9th), O’Ward (12th), VeeKay (22nd, crash), Palou (23rd, crash)

2019: Ferrucci (4th), Ericsson (7th), Herta (18th, crash)

2018: Pigot (11th, not rookie in INDYCAR but at Texas), Veach (16th), Claman DeMelo (17th, crash) Wickens (19th, crash), Leist (22nd, fire)

2017: Ed Jones (17th, crash)

2016: Rossi (11th -2), Chilton (15th), Daly (21st, crash)

2015: Chaves (10th, -2), Karam (12th, -3), Coletti (19th, -9)

Which is why I wonder how Agustin Canapino, Sting Ray Robb and Benjamin Pedersen react this weekend to the high banks of Texas.

“I think if you use it wisely, it helps,” Dixon said of being a veteran here. “I don’t know. I always kind of approach it two different ways. I think the first time, for example, like when I went to the 500 the first couple years, you’re kind of blown away by so many different things that you just don’t focus on the specific. Things maybe kind of cycle yourself out of it or you become too obsessed with it, things like that.

“What I’m saying is sometimes it’s better to not know what’s coming than all the times that you’ve been there. Especially for a lot of us, too, some of us veterans, we used to race there twice a year so we have done a lot of races there throughout our careers.

“Yeah, I think as long as you use it in a meaningful way, it’s always good. But, again, I think sometimes if you’re a rookie or somebody that’s coming for the first few races there, it’s sometimes better not knowing the possibilities of what could come or might happen.”

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