Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) race preview

INDIANAPOLIS — On the eve of the opening day of official track activity for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, they held a five-driver press conference in the media center that resides in the shadows of the famous pagoda. Those five are the top five drivers in the current standings after the first four races to the 2023 season.

We’ve seen four races with four different winners and just one of those drivers to reach victory lane this year, was even represented in Thursday’s media session.

Not in attendance?

Six-time series champion, Scott Dixon. He’s currently in eighth (-132). He has three top-seven finishes in the opening four races.

Also not here?

Defending series champion. Will Power. He’s one spot ahead of Dixon in points in seventh (-26). He also has three top-seven finishes in four races.

Another name absent?

Josef Newgarden. He’s in sixth (-25). He has won this year at Texas, but also has finished 17th (St. Pete), ninth (Long Beach) and 15th (Barber) too.

Between Dixon, Power and Newgarden, they have combined to have won eight of the last 10 championships including five of the last six at that. None of them are in the top five at the moment.

So who is?

Marcus Ericsson celebrates his St. Pete win back in March. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Marcus Ericsson has 130 points accumulated (4 top 10 finishes) and sits on top. Scott McLaughlin has 119 points (3 straight top 10’s). Both drivers 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, the 2021 champion, 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. Can they leave the month ahead of the “Big 3” behind?

“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.”

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.

Behind these Newgarden, Power and Dixon 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.

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