INDIANAPOLIS — The race once dubbed as the “Penske Grand Prix” has since transitioned to something far from it. Heading into the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES 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 and so far this weekend, that streak looks to extend another year.
In 2021, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay triumphed that day in beating Romain Grosjean 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.
On Friday, while they were solid in practice, they just didn’t have it in qualifying. Will Power (starting 12th) was the only one to make it out of the opening round of qualifying. Josef Newgarden (starting 13th) and Scott McLaughlin (starting 16th) were both bounced in round one.
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That’s surprising in the fact that Penske has won 2 of the last 3 races on the season and took 2 of the 3 podium spots the last time out at Barber.
Another surprise is the fact that the Andretti Autosport camp struggled so much on Friday too. They had won 3 of the 4 poles this season and swept both races on the road course here a year ago. Instead, just one of their drivers too advanced out of the opening round.
Colton Herta starts 14th. Devlin DeFrancesco will roll off 15th. Romain Grosjean lines up a disappointing 18th. That’s six combined Penske and Andretti drivers starting between spots 12th-18th.
When 12 of the previous 13 road course races here were won by a top eight starter, that doesn’t bode well for these six to win Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
It also diminishes their points chances. Points leader Marcus Ericsson starts seventh. Second in points Pato O’Ward will come from fifth. Two spots better than him is third in points, Alex Palou. They could further distance themselves from McLaughlin, Grosjean, Newgarden and Power in points leaving here on Saturday evening.
Does this force Ericsson, O’Ward and Palou to points race on Saturday?
They may have no choice. The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing cars look primed to end a winless skid not only for the team, but for one of their drivers too.
Graham Rahal hasn’t won a race since 2017 (94 races). Jack Harvey (0-for-69) and Christian Lundgaard (0-for-22) have never won. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has won 29 times, but none since Takuma Sato’s win in the 2020 Indy 500 (44 races).
Lundgaard scored his first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES pole on Friday. He was second in both practice sessions. Harvey will start fourth. He was fifth in both practices. Rahal rolls off eighth.
3 of the last 4 GMR Grand Prix’s were won from a driver coming from Row 4 (Rahal). 3 of the 4 races this season were won from the fourth-place starter (Harvey). The other race this season was won from the pole (Lundgaard).
Maybe they can close the deal.
“At this point I think we’ll be pretty disappointed in second tomorrow or just a podium,” Lundgaard admitted. “I think we’re absolutely going for winning the race, and then I guess we’ll see what happens.”
For whatever reason, Lundgaard is just good here. He’s qualified fourth, eighth, sixth and now first in four tries.
“I mean, I can finally call this home, I think,” Lundgaard joked. “Waking up this morning, I knew we were going to have a chance to get into the Fast Six because we’ve done that pretty much every time we’ve been here, at least with me, and I hoped it was going to happen, and now I can sit here and it’s a reality, which is pretty cool.”
This is also the spot that Lundgaard made his INDYCAR debut just 21 months ago. It’s the spot of his first podium (2nd) last July. Now, it’s the spot of his first pole. However, he notes that he didn’t necessarily want all these firsts to come here.
“The one thing I was annoyed about having my podium here last year was I didn’t want to have it here because I did my debut here and I didn’t want people to think this was just the track that I was fast at, and we showed up in Nashville and was P1 in the first session the weekend after,” Lundgaard told me.
“This is what I want to do now. Now we’re starting the race from pole, but we also need to win the race. We need to take it step by step and see what we can do tomorrow and back it up for the proper month of May.”
For Lundgaard, while he’s going for the win and he has three other drivers around him going for points, there’s two more that are hungry to prove themselves too.
It’s no secret, both Harvey and Felix Rosenqvist are both racing for their jobs. Harvey has undelivered in his brief tenure with RLL but Indy is a place that can change his trajectory. He has to have seen RLL bring in a host of drivers to test for them. They’re not doing so to replace the boss’s son or the driver sitting in a multi-year contract and delivering their most consistent success.
For Rosenqvist, he has to know that Alex Palou is coming. Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi each just inked long-term contracts last year for McLaren and Kyle Larson is coming in 2024 to run the Indy 500 one off. Palou is likely coming in Rosenqvist’s expense.
However, a win at Indy, even though not on the oval, but a win in general here could change the course of how these two are not only viewed with their current respective teams, but within the paddock too.
With a potential for rain on Saturday and all this commotion, rain or sun, this could be a memorable 10th year of this race.