Can Andretti Autosport Score Hat Trick?
At one point here, Andretti Autosport wasn’t very good on the 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. From 2014 through 2019 (6 races), they had just two total podium finishes. However, once the Aeroscreen came on these cars beginning in 2020, they’ve had triple the amount of podium finishes in just one more start.
Andretti has 6 podiums in the last 7 races including sweeping both races last year. Colton Herta won in May while Alexander Rossi won in July. In fact, those 6 podiums since 2020 is tied with Team Penske (also with 6) for most in the series since that span started.
No one else has more than two. Andretti combined to lead 61 of the 85 laps last July and 50 of 75 laps May. Can they win another race on Saturday?
The INDYCAR race on the IMS road course is honestly a strategy play. Last year’s race in May was purely a display of strategy among wet tires and slicks. That was an anomaly in a sense that was the first pure rain race here. The others are down to tire choice and when to use them on stints.
If you can make it past the opening lap, the cautions usually are few and far between (11 of last 12 races here have seen 2 or fewer) and the tire strategy in turn becomes the main focus.
In most years, the Firestone alternates are the preferred tire due to the speed of them and the fall off being minimal. Most race weekend’s, the disparity between the two is large meaning the blacks are slower initially but remain consistent over the course of a full fuel run while the reds have a great burst of initial speed but fall off more of the same period.
In Indy however, the reds just don’t fall off very much. So, the strategy comes on which stints do you run the reds vs. the blacks.
We have to go to 2021 as the latest example. Conor Daly brought out the opening lap caution, but the rest of the way went green. From Lap 4 to Lap 85, it was all green flag racing. In turn, that meant this was a three-stop strategy race like we all thought it would be. The difference would come down to tire selections.
The pole sitter that year, Romain Grosjean, started off on the Firestone Alternate tires. They were the quickest and lasted as long as the Firestone primaries, so the guys that started on the Blacks pit early to get on the Reds. Well, Grosjean went with two straight stints on the Reds. The second one on scuffed reds.
Eventual race winner, Rinus VeeKay, started off on the primary tires and pit for the Reds on Lap 12. Grosjean, didn’t pit for his first stop until Lap 25. VeeKay, would pit again on Lap 36 for scuffed reds. Grosjean pit on Lap 43 but had to go to Blacks.
That was the difference.
VeeKay got him and made his move for the lead among their sequence. He’d be able to go with Reds the final time but already hold the lead while Grosjean was too far back before he could do anything about it.
Third place finisher that day, Alex Palou, went on the Reds until Lap 25 then put on Blacks on Lap 40. He’d go Blacks again on Lap 62 as he was one of three guys to finish the race on the primary tires.
That’s just a prime example on how this race played out on strategy and I expect a similar debate again this time around.
This could be the spot that one of the sophomore drivers earns their first career NTT INDYCAR Series win at. Christian Lundgaard made his debut here in 2020 and qualified fourth. He’s since started 8th and 6th respectively too. Also, the second-year driver finished runner-up last July as well and enters on the heels of a Fast Six appearance and Top-10 finish at Barber.
This is as good of a spot as any that we could see his No. 45 Dallara-Honda land in victory lane.
Same for Callum Ilott. The Juncos Hollinger Racing driver qualified very well on natural road courses a year ago including a 7th place effort in this very race last year and on the front row in Laguna Seca.
I’m also watching David Malukas. He was 12th and 13th last year as a rookie. He was 9th in USF2000 in 2017, 7th and 10th in Pro Mazda in 2018, 6th in both Light races in 2019 but 2nd and 1st in both Light Races in 2021 too.
Then there’s Kyle Kirkwood. He may be the favorite of all. He was with Foyt last year, but now driving the car that Alexander Rossi won with just last July here. Rossi had 5 top 7 finishes in his last 6 tries in this ride including 4 of which in the top 4. In the Road to Indy, Kirkwood had 5 top 4 finishes including a pair of runner-up finishes and a win in six tries.
With Arrow McLaren never having a podium here, Ganassi having just three since 2020 and Penske not having won this race since 2019, the gates of victory lane are wide open for the taking.
A race win in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is worth 50 points. You get on additional point for the pole, one for a lap led and two points for most laps led. Basically, the winner gets at the very minimum 51 points. The second place finisher gets 40 points. If they don’t win the pole or lead a lap, there’s an 11 point gap from first to second place.
That’s the exact margin from first to fourth in the standings entering this weekend. Marcus Ericsson has 130 points accumulated (4 top 10 finishes) while Scott McLaughlin has 119 (3 straight top 10’s). Both have bookended wins entering this month with Ericsson winning the season opener on the streets of St. Pete and McLaughlin the last time out in Barber.
Sandwiched between them is Pato O’Ward (-3) and Alex Palou (-9). O’Ward has three top four finishes in four tries including a pair of runner-up finishes to start the season off with. Palou has a top eight finish in all four races.
Neither of them have done particularly well on this road course. They’ve been solid, but not great.
In 8 starts, Ericsson has 5 top 10 finishes. However, just 1 of those 5 he’s finished in the top 5 (4th last May).
O’Ward has two 5th placed finishes in his last 5 starts here. What’s baffling is, O’Ward has four top 5 starting spots in his last five starts here, but three of his last four finishes have been 12th or worse.
Palou had a fast car last May before going off course in the rain, was 3rd in May 2021 and had a podium going before his engine blew in the August prior. If luck is on his side, watch out. However, that’s asking a lot for a driver with finishes of 27th, 18th and 10th respectively.
3 of McLaughlin’s 4 career wins have come on natural road courses. He also has two top 10 finishes in 4 tries here too. However, he’s also finished 23rd and 20th as well.
“Look, I think we’ve had really good pace all year,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just a matter of putting things together my end and the team’s end. I felt like Barber, we were very simple all weekend. We had a really fast car, didn’t change too much apart from the front wing. Really strong. Hopefully we roll off the truck just as good.
“Yeah, who knows. You don’t know with INDYCAR. You got to ride the wave, keep working hard. The work you put in behind the scenes, you can’t really rest on your laurels in this paddock, so you just got to keep working hard and see how you go.”
Does that open the door to close this gap even more?
Romain Grosjean (-15) is fifth in points and enters having scored a runner-up finish in each of the last two races. He also has a pair of runner-up finishes here in 2021 and driving for a team, Andretti Autosport, that swept both road course races here last year.
A trio of series champions are sixth (Josef Newgarden), seventh (Will Power) and eighth (Scott Dixon) respectively. All have won on this road course layout.
Power has 2 wins and two 3rd place finishes in his last 5 tries here. In fact, Power is a 5-time winner on this track too including 7 total podiums, 348 laps led and six poles. He enters with a fresh engine and a podium in Barber.
Newgarden qualifies well (3rd, 5th last year) but also has just 1 podium in 12 Indy road course tries too. Out of his last five Indy road course races, he’s led just two laps.
Dixon has 11 top 10 finishes in 13 starts. The bad? none of the last six finishes here have been better than 8th either. Prior to that, he did have four consecutive top two finishes here. It’s qualifying that’s holding him back with his last six qualifying efforts being 12th, 15th, 16th, 26th, 21st and 20th respectively.
“Yeah, I mean, you always try to fight for wins,” Palou told me on Dixon, Power and Newgarden each being outside the Top-5 in points entering this weekend. “If it’s not a win, you want to get as many points as possible. I think the three names you named, they are obviously a big threat for the championship.
“But I think there’s more, especially this year. As you saw, it’s really, really tight. Going back to the points, yeah, you just want to leave as fast and as big of a gap as possible. I think we saw in INDYCAR it’s really tough to do so.
“Yeah, I would say being the season is so long as we have in INDYCAR, at least in my opinion I didn’t start thinking about the 2021 championship until the last three to four races because one win can change a lot. So yeah.”
Behind these three are Kyle Kirkwood (-38) and Colton Herta (-45). These cars won both races last year with Alexander Rossi being victorious in the 27 last July. Kirkwood won two races ago in Long Beach and is solid on this road course in the Road to Indy. Rossi had 5 top 7 finishes in his last 6 tries in this ride including 4 of which in the top 4. In the Road to Indy, Kirkwood had 5 top 4 finishes including a pair of runner-up finishes and a win in six tries.
Herta is the defending race winner of this event and has a pair of top sevens in his last three starts on the season. He actually should have pulled off the road course sweep last year. After leading 50 laps and winning last May’s race, he led 17 more laps and well on his way to victory in July before a gearbox failed him while leading towards the end. Herta has 5 top 4 finishes in his last 7 Indy road course starts. 7 of his 8 qualifying efforts here have seen him start in the top 10 too.
Qualifying is everything here. 12 of the 13 races on this layout were won by a top 8 starter. The only one not was Colton Herta in the rain back in May of last year, who started 14th in the rain.
In fact, 4 of the last 6 races here were won via a front row starter but 3 of those 4 were from the second placed starter though. Just once in the last 8 races here has the pole sitter actually won. They were 4-for-5 (all 4 consecutively) prior.
Also, the last four opening weekend road course races here were won from Row 4 (8th, 7th, 7th) and Row 7 (14th) too respectively. That’s 3 of the last 4 from Row 4. Why is that such an advantage? Is it the benefit of having the extra set of tires by not making the Fast Six?