Palou leads final INDYCAR practice on Friday at IMS, my 5 thoughts/takeaways

INDIANAPOLIS — Alex Palou is having a pretty good start to his Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion was P3 in the opening practice session from the 2.439-mile road course and backed that up with being quickest in the final practice session before qualifying later this afternoon. Palou went 1:09.9383-seconds in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda to lock himself as the quickest driver of the day thus far.

Does he have anything for pole later?

He’s only qualified on the pole once (Portland 2021) but does have four top seven starting spots in four races this season including being on the front row the last time out in Barber.

Christian Lundgaard is hopeful he will have a say in that though. The RLL driver was second quickest (1:10.2580-seconds) in final practice in his No. 45 Dallara-Honda. He was also second (1:09.4988-seconds) in session 1.

Pato O’Ward (1:10.2604-seconds) was third in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet. He was quickest (1:09.4981-seconds) in the opening session. Marcus Armstrong (1:10.3022-seconds) and Jack Harvey (1:10.3038-seconds) rounded out the top five.

Helio Castroneves’ Dismal Season Continues

Helio Castroneves saw the engine on his No. 06 Dallara-Honda expire midway in the session marking an early end to his practice.

Castroneves confirmed that this was his Indy 500 engine too as he now has some work to do not only this weekend on the road course, but will be playing from behind on the oval activity as well.

So far this season, the four-time Indy 500 champion has qualified 15th, 21st, 16th and 21st respectively. He’s only finished 23rd, 10th, 21st and 21st respectively with two first lap incidents on the pair of street courses.

Colton Herta at IMS – Photo Credit; INDYCAR Media Site

Where’s Andretti Autosport?

They were one of the teams I was watching this weekend. 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 last 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?

So far, it looks like, no.

They were only 12th (Kyle Kirkwood), 16th (Romain Grosjean), 22nd (Devlin DeFrancesco) and 27th (Colton Herta) in the opening practice. In the second one, they went just 13th (Kirkwood), 15th (Herta), 19th (Grosjean) and 22nd (DeFrancesco) respectively.

At this rate, all four may get eliminated in the first round of qualifying later this afternoon. Another problem is, with Castroneves’ engine blowing and Herta’s this morning, mix that with Grosjean’s in Barber and that’s three Andretti engines to expire in the last two race weekends.

Familiar Faces Up Front

The same top three in Session 1 (O’Ward-Lundgaard-Palou) were the same top three in Session 2 (Palou-Lundgaard-O’Ward). They each look like the favorites for the pole and the race. That’s because the first session teams experimented with the Firestone primary tires for most of up and elected to put the reds on late. The second session, every team used the blacks only. The same faces were up front on both compounds.

Similar To Jack Harvey who was fifth in both sessions.

Scott Dixon (8th, 9th), Will Power (9th, 8th), Scott McLaughlin (4th, 7th) and Marcus Ericsson (7th, 10th) join the list of drivers in the top 10 in both sessions. That’s 8-for-10.

The only two not was Marcus Armstrong (11th, 4th) and Felix Rosenqvist (6th, 12th).

Pato O’Ward drives out of pit lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Ganassi, McLaren, RLL Showing Strength

Chip Ganassi Racing and Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing has struggled lately in qualifying here. Graham Rahal has started 10th or worse in 6 of the last 7 road course races here. Jack Harvey was 9th and 13th last year. Christian Lundgaard was an impressive 8th and 6th.

This season, Harvey has qualified 19th, 28th, 15th and 24th respectively. Rahal has been 20th, 24th, 24th and 19th respectively. Lundgaard has started 11th, 27th, 17th and 6th respectively.

They look like they can get all three drivers out of the first round in being 2-5-13 and 2-5-14 in both practices.

For CGR, they’ve not been qualifying well here as of late but finishing better instead. Just like RLL.

They’ve had just 5 total podiums here with only two of which since the Aeroscreen was adopted in 2020. In the case of Scott Dixon, the good? 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.

He enters having scored three top seven finishes in four races run this season and was in the top 10 (8th, 9th) in both practices.

Like Dixon, Marcus Ericsson finishes well, but not always in the top 5 here. In 8 starts, he has 5 top 10 finishes. However, just 1 of those 5 he’s finished in the top 5 (4th last May). Qualifying has been their crux too. He’s started 9th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 15th, 11th, 18th and 25th respectively. He was 7th and 10th in the pair of practices this weekend.

Alex 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 too. On the season, he’s finished eighth, third, fifth and fifth respectively. He was in the top three (3rd, 1st) in practice.

Then you have rookie Marcus Armstrong. He’s never raced here before but does have three top 11 finishes in three attempts this season which includes a 15-spot improvement from 26th to 11th the last time out in Barber. He was fourth in final practice.

Arrow McLaren Racing actually qualifies really well here. They just don’t finish well. They basically meet Ganassi in the middle on race day. Felix Rosenqvist was 6th in May and 9th in July but had more speed in it. Pato 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 too, but three of his last four finishes have been 12th or worse. Rosenqvist has one top 5 in 8 tries and despite a pair of top 10’s a year ago, he also qualified 6th and 1st respectively. Alexander Rossi may be the one to watch among this group. He won the last time out here in July and has 5 top 7 finishes in his last 6 tries here including 4 of which in the top 4.

All three drivers were solidly in the Top-10 the last time out in Barber and O’Ward has three top four finishes in four races run this season.

In practice, O’Ward was first and third, Rosenqvist sixth and 12th and Rossi 17th and 11th.

Will Power on the IMS road course – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Penske Quietly Lurking

A few years ago, this race was actually dubbed the Penske Grand Prix. Heading into the 2020 season, Penske had won this race in 5 of the 6 years that it was around including having every winner of it under their umbrella (Simon Pagenaud won the inaugural race for SPM in 2014). Then, Scott Dixon went out and whooped the field in July 2020 in winning by nearly 20 seconds over second place. That ended the Penske reign. They’ve not won this race since.

In 2021, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay triumphed that day in beating Romain Grosejan and Alex Palou.

Penske went 3-7-20 that July 2020 race. In 2021, they were 4-6-8-11. Last year they went 3-20-25.

However, they’ve been so good in the return trips.

Josef Newgarden led 34 of 85 laps in his win during the first doubleheader race of the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend in 2020. A day later, Will Power led all 75 laps in victory.

In August 2021, Power led 56 of 85 laps in another win. Last year, he finished third in that summer race. The question now is, why are they so good outside of May here and how can they recapture that May magic back?

They took 2 of the top 3 finishers the last time out in Barber including the win by Scott McLaughlin and have won 2 of the last 3 races on the season entering.

“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.”

In practice this weekend, Penske went P4 (Scott McLaughlin), P9 (Will Power) and P15 (Josef Newgarden) respectively. In Practice 2, they went P6 (Newgarden), P7 (McLaughlin) and P8 (Power) respectively.

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