Last year we entered this race weekend at the Texas Motor Speedway 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 last year’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.
How would this year look?
With some more downforce added and similar race conditions, this year’s PPG 375 delivered an even better show than the one of last year. The 26 lead changes were the most here in over two decades. The 2001 race was the last time that we had as many lead changes on the 1.44-mile-high-banked track.
The 482 passes for position was nearly 200 more passes last year. Now, this race that was once left for dead has been revived. In fact, this track was almost left for dead as it wasn’t putting on good racing for any series.
It was so bad in NASCAR that Texas went from two dates, to one of which being the All-Star race to just one race weekend. Fans stopped showing up for those races too.
However, the last two years have shown that maybe Texas and INDYCAR can have a happy marriage after all. This year’s race started chaotic with four lead changes in the first five laps then five more in the final eight. Between pit strategy, a somewhat pack race in the end and some edge of your seat moments, Texas delivered.
It started off dicey but then became a fuel strategy race in order for those up front to hit their fuel number. Takuma Sato bringing out the first caution on Lap 48 helped aid in that strategy. The next few stints spread things out with there being just two cars on the lead lap on Lap 160. The top car led the second car by 7-seconds.
Texas was starting to not deliver. Then Felix Rosenqvist brought out the Lap 179 caution and the rest was history. Thrilling racing and pit strategy in the end helped make this race a memorable one that will be discussed all season.
“We’re going wheel-to-wheel like 226 miles an hour or something. It’s a little wiggle from somebody can be really big,” said Pato O’Ward.
“So hats off to everybody. It’s pretty insane, I have to say. I don’t know how it looks. It must look cool, I’m assuming. It looks insane. But inside of the car, you’re going in, you see two guys there, then you’re just like keep it in. It’s commitment.”
Part of the improvement was that the second lane came in. Last year, you couldn’t fully run there. This year, it was there.
“I think a mix of both, track and pieces,” O’Ward said. “There was a legit second lane, for sure.”
Third place finisher Alex Palou agreed.
“Both. This year you could run the second lane,” said the 2021 series champion. “Last year it was like a 1.5.”
Race winner, Josef Newgarden said both were significant factors.
“There’s a lot more load on the cars,” he said. “The entire last stint, I was flat the whole time, flat for the first half of the stint. It’s a big jump from last year. That’s definitely factor number one.
“I think factor two is just the track seemed better this year. Like, it was not quite as dark on the PJ1 patches. I know the last time they coated was September last year. That’s what I was told at least in our briefing. Maybe that’s incorrect.
“But the track was better. It was less dark in the area where the PJ1 has been applied. It didn’t seem as low-grip initially as times when we’ve been here in the past.
“Even when everyone tried the high line running, it wasn’t like you ventured up there just to start out and it’s really low grip. Pretty much immediately when we went up there, it was okay grip. I think that was much more inviting for people to have more downforce. We were able to more successfully apply rubber to it from our cars.
“I think all of that contributed and led to the type of racing that we had today.”
As far as what drives these gladiators to race like this, O’Ward said it’s simple.
“Win,” he said.
“Yeah, otherwise there was somebody else overtaking you. You had to try,” Palou said chiming in.
O’Ward notes that with the aero creating a strong two and the second lane being open to race on now, you couldn’t afford to back off or you’re going to get freight-trained by somebody.
“It’s like keep your foot in it, keep your position, maybe get a position, or lose one. You kind of have to go,” he says.
Palou said you have no other option not to.
“You just put your right foot there and close a little bit one eye (smiling),” said the Spaniard. “You hold everything tight, that’s it.”
O’Ward did note that it could have been sketchy if everyone had tires midway through a stint.
“I think that would have been, yeah, maybe not very safe. I just think everybody feels like a hero when everybody has fairly fresh tires.”
As far as what led to this being a role, Newgarden credits Jimmie Johnson for how this race looked.
“Man, I think it’s the Jimmie Johnson effect. We were here last year. People were like, This Jimmie guy, look at him, he can do it. I think Jimmie Johnson basically gave everybody confidence this weekend,” he said.
“It’s obviously more than that. We’ve got a lot more downforce on the cars. The lanes were working pretty well. How great was that to see, there was a second lane. This was a real race today, which was fantastic.
“But I think in this sport you definitely can’t think about the potential. It’s just you got to go pretty flat out if you want to drive the cars at a high level.
“It’s impossible to drive these things at the level you need to without blocking everything else out. I think that’s what you get from a lot of drivers here.”
Now, how do you take this and not ruin it for 2024?
“I just want to see Texas race the way it should race,” said Newgarden. “I think most people would look at today and say that’s how Texas should race.
“You look at the past, it’s even been taken up a notch from that. Three-wide the entire time. I wouldn’t want to see that. I think you can go too far nowadays.
“I really like high tire deg. I like when people come and go and you’ve got to work your advantage. You’ve really got to work to try to keep the car underneath you.
“We’re kind of a step above where I like to see the cars at. I know from an entertainment standpoint this had to be significantly better than last year. It just had to be. It felt packed up for most of the race and definitely at the end.
“Where we go from here, it’s hard to say. Old Texas is hard to beat. The configuration was great. The track surface was better for us, we could run all three lanes. I’d like to see that back, then we can start peeling off downforce off the cars. If you go and try and find that again, we might not get it right.
“So I don’t think I have a great answer for you. We’ve had the product we’ve had, at least as far as the track. We’ve just chipped away at it. By this year we’ve gotten it really good. I don’t have a good answer for you.
“It’s a tricky balance. They’ve been doing this. They’ve been putting downforce on every year. You don’t want to go too far.
“I know I don’t want just a straight-up pack race. I really don’t. I think it takes out too much of the skill. I mean, you want the skill of tire degradation where you’ve got to make a good car and you’ve got to learn how to drive it, but you need some element of a packed-up race, certainly in the beginning of stints, to make the show good, to make that also part of the challenge in the race. I just don’t want that the whole way.
“INDYCAR is always walking a fine line. They’ve been adding downforce every single year. So I think it’s been a combination of finding enough downforce on the cars. Unfortunately just sometimes takes this long to get that right combo.
“I think more than the downforce, it’s really been the track. I think two, three years ago, it wouldn’t have mattered how much downforce you put on the car, you still weren’t going to use the second lane. It was unusable.
“It’s not just been the downforce. It’s been a combination of getting the track better and stopping the PJ1 being laid down has greatly improved that.
“I wouldn’t put it just on the downforce or configuration thing. It’s also been the track kind of coming back to where we needed it.”
Thanks Eric terrific reporting as always. I want to give a big Shout Out to Bill Pappas & Tino Belli at IndyCar they got the Texas Package just right, considering the partial re-surfacing, no pre-race testing this year, etc..! Outstanding job Gentlemen..!